Monday, October 08, 2012

Political Hush Money

The Miami Herald's Edward Wasserman cites my reporting on political ad spending in a cutting  commentary on the state of local television news in 2012.

"The funders of political advertising appear to have purchased not just air time, but immunity from media scrutiny," writes Wasserman, who was recently named dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

"Some of the same media that should referee political discourse and oversee the process by which a sovereign electorate selects its leaders are in thrall to the backroom players whose mission it is to manipulate and game that discourse."

Wasserman refers to the findings in Left in the Dark and Money, News and Deception in Denver, two Free Press studies that ask whether the TV stations that are pocketing billions in political ad money are also reporting on the entities that bankroll those ads.

Illustration: Bill Brown
The Pew's September survey on the state of the news media bolsters its earlier finding that television is the primary source of news and information for people in the U.S. But, Wasserman asks, are TV news outlets checking the accuracy of the political spots aired over their stations?

Not according to our investigation, writes Wasserman:
The Free Press findings were dispiriting. Network TV affiliates did no fact-checking on any of the political ads placed by the entities spending the most money in Las Vegas, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Tampa...
In a later look at Denver, site of the first presidential debate, Karr found that stations were getting a total of $6.5 million to air 4,954 ads from the five top-spending political action committees, while devoting less than 11 minutes to examining their truthfulness: a ratio, he concluded, of 162 minutes of campaign ads to every minute of related news. 
In other words, the funders of political advertising appear to have purchased not just air time, but immunity from media scrutiny. [my emphasis]
With few exceptions, fact-checking of political ads hasn't caught on in battleground markets. Wasserman writes that this absence is hardest felt by viewers of local stations where the crush of misleading political ads is most frenzied.

"It’s too much to expect media to turn down top-dollar ads that fail an elemental smell test," he writes. "But they can at least make it clear that what the politicos are paying for is a right to speak for themselves, not a right to silence others."

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