From Watchdogs To Lapdogs: How Local TV News Stations Are Selling Out On Election Coverage

Pres Debate 2 Oct 2012 Hofstra
GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama at the second presidential debate Tuesday night. Reuters

With less than three weeks until voters decide the country’s next president, local TV stations around the country have predictably joined the deafening chatter of election-related coverage. Tune in to your local evening newscast on any given night and you’ll find no shortage of segments featuring digestible campaign sound bites and commentary on the latest Internet memes inspired by a Romney gaffe.

But in their efforts to inform the public on “Decision 2012,” many local news affiliates, some critics charge, have omitted a few key details -- 3.3 billion details, in fact. That’s how much money is being spent on political advertising this year, according to analyst estimates from Kantar Media. And judging from a new study by the media-reform organization Free Press, local TV news affiliates may be turning a blind eye to where that money is coming from.

The study, titled “Left in the Dark,” found that TV news stations in the most hotly contested swing states have dedicated virtually zero coverage to the large “nonaligned” political groups that have contributed the lion’s share of political advertising revenue during the election season.

In the landmark 2010 “Citizens United” case, the Supreme Court ruled that government restriction of nonaligned political ads is a violation of the First Amendment. Since then, political ads from large organizations that are not officially affiliated with either candidate have spread like wildfire. The organizations take two forms: political action committees (or super PACs) and tax-exempt nonprofit entities classified by the federal government as “social-welfare organizations.” 

This year, such organizations -- which include groups like Americans for Prosperity, Americans United for Change and Center for Union Facts -- have purchased a record-setting amount of airtime in battleground states, where voters are inundated with melodramatic, knowingly slanted commercial spots whose claims about the opposing candidate are often debunked by independent fact checkers.

But from news affiliates located in those states’ largest metropolitan areas -- cities including Tampa, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Charlotte, N.C. -- you won’t find exposés on mendacious political groups using overt propaganda to sway public opinion. You won’t hear reporters asking who is controlling the purse strings at the nonaligned political organizations that run the ads. In fact, in most cases, the ads are not even fact-checked by the stations.  

Timothy Karr, the senior director of strategy for Free Press and the study’s author, said the silence from local affiliates is “egregious” given the sheer number of ads the stations air from such groups.

“This political ad money has had a corrupting influence, and that seems to be discouraging broadcasters from assuming their traditional role as watchdogs over the electoral process,” he said. “TV station owners are loath to bite the hand that feeds them.”      

News organizations, as executors of the Fourth Estate, are tasked with keeping the public informed. This is particularly true of traditional broadcasters, which rely on public-owned airways and, in turn, are mandated by the FCC to promote the public good. However, Karr said that stations situated in the handful of swing states that will decide the next election are not living up to that end of the bargain.

In Cleveland, for instance, the Free Press study found that affiliate stations for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox provided no coverage on Americans for Prosperity, the controversial nonprofit organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers. (The brothers most recently made news after their company, Koch Industries, reportedly sent a memo to its employees warning of “dire consequences” should they vote for Obama.) Americans for Prosperity has purchased more than $1.5 million worth of airtime in Cleveland to run anti-Obama attack ads, with commercials appearing as many as 500 times on Cleveland-area newscasts.

IBTimes reached out repeatedly to each of Cleveland’s four local affiliates -- ABC’s Channel 5, NBC’s WKYC, CBS’s 19 Action News and Fox’s WJW -- but they have either not responded or declined to speak about the topic. A programming director for WKYC said the only person who could speak about the issue is out of the office until Oct. 30.

Karr theorized that stations are hesitant to disrupt a symbiotic circle of cash that begins and ends with their bosses. “I suspect that stations simply don’t feel comfortable writing themselves into stories about dark money,” he said. “It’s a story in which they play a very large and lucrative role. Much of the money in contemporary American politics ends up lining the pockets of the same broadcast giants that control of local television markets around the country.”

But Mike Cavender, a 25-year television news veteran who now serves as executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), said the lack of coverage is likely less a consequence of willful negligence than a matter of limited resources. The primary directive for local affiliates is to serve their communities, he said, which doesn’t leave them with much time or money to spend on national politics.        

“Everything comes down to resources,” he said in a phone interview. “Local newsrooms are much more likely to fact-check ads when they involve candidates at the local level. That’s where they’re going to focus their efforts.”

Cavender added that the ecosystem of network news is built around a wall of separation between the sales staff and the journalists in the newsroom. “Station management takes these ads,” he said. “Newsrooms don’t have any say in the ads that run. That decision is made independently.”

The Right To Remain Silent

In many cases, exactly who is supporting which organization is a big unknown. While super PACs are required by law to disclose their major donors, nonprofit political groups -- such as Americans for Prosperity and the left-leaning Americans United for Change -- are classified as “social-welfare organizations,” thereby giving them a free pass when it comes to donor disclosure. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics has called for an end to donor secrecy, but the desire for anonymity is a strong one for wealthy donors.

Under FCC regulations, local stations cannot refuse commercial airtime to presidential candidates, but they do have the right to deny airtime to nonaligned political groups. Many stations are unlikley to exercise this right, however -- particularly as nonaligned groups pay upwards of four times the advertising rates that candidates’ campaigns pay.

This is not to say that all local affiliates have remained silent. In the Denver Post earlier this month, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and co-founder of FactCheck.org, commended Denver affiliate stations for fact-checking claims by political groups amid the deluge of attack ads from both sides. “Denver broadcasters deserve praise not only for reality testing political claims, but for also doing it well,” she wrote.

Cavender, whose organization has been working with the Annenberg Center on initiatives to counter deceptive super PACSs, cited the efforts of those Denver affiliates as an example of what can happen when newsrooms focus their resources on fact checking. “If a news department uncovers a false ad and goes to the management and says, ‘Look, this is really bad,' good station management will respond,” he said. “That does happen. Does it happen as much as we would like it to happen? Probably not.”

According to FactCheck.org, almost a third of the money spent on nonaligned political ads goes to advertisements flagged as deceptive by fact-checking organizations. What’s more, local news stations are perhaps better poised to counter such demonstrably erroneous claims than any other news source. A study released this summer by the Pew Research Center showed that, while trust in the American news media continues to drop, local news outlets have largely bucked that trend, receiving a 65 percent approval rating for believability.

Infotainment Tonight

However, even if local news outlets were to step up their coverage of super PACs and other independent political groups, there is another side to the equation: Would people care enough to tune in? According to the Pew Research Center, ratings for local TV news have been in decline for two decades, and viewership has dropped even more dramatically among young people.

That means local news stations are vying for eyeballs like never before, a fact that becomes apparent in the level of sensationalistic reporting local stations often resort to. Nowhere is the old cliché “If it bleeds, it leads” more pervasive than on local evening newscasts, which can sometimes seem like little more than nightly rundowns of local murders dotted with weather forecasts, sports statistics and celebrity gossip.

But Karr isn’t convinced that viewers would tune newscasts out if stations dedicated more resources to providing for the public good.    

“As far as I can tell there’s no evidence that viewers aren’t interested in [public-interest] news,” he said. “It’s more likely that covering stories like Justin Bieber’s concert tour is a lot easier and cheaper for local newsrooms, who simply pull the copy and footage off of wire services.”

Aside from making for great television, the election season this year is putting to the test the landmark “Citizens United” ruling that has fundamentally changed American politics -- for better or for worse. Karr said that in this unprecedented new era of unchecked super PACs and special-interest groups, the relationship between politics and the news media has grown increasingly dependent, with dark money emerging as the biggest influencer of all in our purportedly democratic political process.     

“It’s clear that the election’s biggest winners are the conglomerates that own local TV stations in battleground states,” he wrote in the report. “And the biggest loser? Our democracy.”

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