Jan
01
1999

No News Is Bad News

Political ads overwhelm election news on local TV

Another election cycle is completed, and once again the local television news industry has let the voting public down, offering newscasts Filled with political advertising but little meaningful election news.

Rocky Mountain Media Watch`s national network of volunteers taped their local evening newscasts on three consecutive nights (10/20-22/98) two weeks before election day and examined the taped programs for all news stories and advertisements dealing with the mid-term elections. With an infusion of volunteers recruited from FAlR’s e-mail list, more than 100 activists, academics, journalists and ordinary citizens participated in the project.

To date we have received the analyses of 222 local TV newscasts from 79 stations in 31 states. covering 50 different metropolitan areas. A broad representation of large, medium and small markets in all parts of the country was included.

A total of 347 election news stories were identified, an average of 1.5 per show Of these, 24 percent concerned

the presidential sex scandal, not exactly substantive "election news,” but clearly having election overtones. Fifty-eight newscasts (26 percent of the total) had

zero election news.

In contrast, 1,085 political ads were noted on the same programs, an average of about 5 per show. One hour-long

newscast in LA. contained 20 political ads. But middle-sized markets generally had the most advertising, large markets the least.

Looking at U.S. Senate races, there were a total of 30 news stories and 167 advertisements for senatorial candidates, a ratio of 5.5 ads to each news item.

Every metropolitan area had one or more contests for the U.S. House of Representatives. Here the disparity between advertising and news was even more dramatic, with only 17 news stories about congressional candidates in the entire sample vs. 185 election ads, a ratio of 10 to 1.

Gubernatorial contests, occurring in a third of the states this year, generated 74 news stories compared to 199 ads for candidates, a ratio of 3 to 1.

Ballot initiatives, referenda, amendments and propositions have proliferated on ballots all across the country. This year; for example, Colorado voters faced a dozen such issues; Oregon citizens wrestled with 15 statewide referenda and California ballots contained 24. We noted 274 commercials for and against ballot issues. This was the election category with the most paid ads, although there were only 34 stories.

Campaign reform = media reform

The old cliche. “if it ain`t broke, don't fix it," has been subverted by the politicians and media moguls to read: "If it’s broke, but works to our advantage, don’t fix it."

Paid political advertising is at the core of what is wrong with the election process and the media`s coverage of it.

Massive amounts of money funneled into propagandistic advertising messages overwhelm journalism, even good journalism.

A downward cycle of cynicism results among both journalists and citizens. When the public turns off. election reporting is anathema to news departments. Consequently TV broadcasters, captive to the values of the profit-driven entertainment industry, downplay the elections in Favor of the usual nightly mayhem and fluff.

Then, at the last minute, stations are relegated to reporting on horse race issues. polls, inadequate “ad watches” and the surging of so-called debates. With a few exceptions, TV journalists have abandoned their responsibility to inform us about the candidates in a fair, balanced and substantive way.

Incumbents and special interests are able to manipulate the election dialogue with their superior funds, controlling the debate and ramming issues and candidates down our collective throat. In California, for example, $100

million was spent this year on a single

gambling initiative.

So-called “third parties,"lacking the resources for paid political ads, are relegated to the fringe of public opinion

and legitimacy-a vicious cycle that preserves the status quo. They are almost never mentioned in the news, except as a lumped-together “other.” Citizens may be totally surprised when they enter the voting booth to see other

candidates on the ballot, representing the Greens, New Party, Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law and a host of other

political parties.

Now that the 1998 results are in, it seems that some of the public finally gagged on the Monica media frenzy and the avalanche of negative political ads. But while big money doesn‘t always work to buy victory, almost all well-heeled incumbents still handily won reelection. Voter turnout averaged an anemic 37 percent.

In statewide races, t.he overwhelming majority of funds raised by politicians and parties is funneled into TV

advertising, making campaign finance reform inseparable from media reform. Free TV time for politicians,

including "third party" candidates, is

one suggested approach.

Paul Klite is executive director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a national activist group seeking better news for a stronger democracy. You can join their colunteer network at www.bigmedia.org.