(And yes, I could have titled it vice too.) The following is a guest post by Abigail Gardner. Abby served as then-Congressman Dan Maffei’s press secretary from 2008 to 2010. Two quick comments on her post. First, as with all posts, the views expressed here are solely the author's, and not those of Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations. Second, I think her observation about useful political information getting squeezed between political ads on the one hand and less substantive coverage by the local networks on the other is critically important, and as she notes, food for thought in light of the debate regarding PBS funding. You can read her blog at http://abigailgardner.tumblr.com/
Record Breaking Profits
This recent story, Cash Clowns, from a Seattle alt-weekly paper describes a disappointing trend of record breaking political ad revenue for local television and the simultaneous decline of local news coverage of political campaigns- a trend I think we’re experiencing in Upstate New York as well.
Cash Clowns uncovered that the four Seattle local network affiliate stations made more money from political ads in the 2010 cycle, $47 million, than any previous election season. Considering this was a midterm election and not a presidential election year, it was an impressive but not shocking haul. The Supreme Court’s Citizen United vs. Federal Election Committee ruling allows for corporations to spend an infinite amount on advertising for or against an issue or candidate. Conservatives said this was a victory for free speech, but it seems it is actually a victory for local television sales departments.
While I don’t know the numbers for Upstate New York stations, I have to imagine they, like Seattle, had a very profitable 2010. U.S. Senators and Representatives, the New York Governor, Attorney General, State Senators and Assemblymen were all on the ballot. Additionally, outside groups with names you can’t argue with, like “Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity” formed overnight. They exist for the sole purpose of raising money to spend on political ads. Hundreds of thousands of those dollars flooded the Syracuse and Rochester markets to attack just one candidate- my former boss, Congressman Dan Maffei.
The story also focused on the hypocrisy of record breaking political ad sales while local coverage of political races is declining. I don’t begrudge media outlets for making money. They are a business that sells a lucrative product to clients trying to reach an audience of likely voters. While they’re raking in the ad revenue, however, stations are simultaneously doing less reporting on the actual campaigns. My first-hand experience varied greatly with Rochester and Syracuse stations. Some were very dedicated to political coverage, some did the best they could with limited resources and some chose to almost entirely ignore the campaigns in the area.
During the campaign for New York’s 25th Congressional seat between Dan Maffei and Ann Marie Buerkle, most stations hosted or aired a debate. At a minimum, every one covered President Clinton’s visit to Syracuse. However, depending on your station of choice for local news, you might not have seen a single other story about the race for Congress. Not that there wasn’t news to cover. The candidates disagreed on nearly every issue: the economy, health care, choice, education, energy, the environment, and on and on. Any station that wanted to produce a story focused on the issues had a myriad to choose from. Instead, some made the editorial decision to focus on Dancing With The Stars, crime, sports, and not on difference between two Congressional candidates on Afghanistan or climate change. Perhaps the lack of attention on the issues is why many people in Syracuse are surprised by the views of their new Representative in Congress.
Ads Cannot Supplant Stories
After the election, I asked a manager at one local TV station why I didn’t see them more often on the campaign trail. The answer was: "Well, our viewers saw so many political campaign ads, we don't want to inundate them with political stories too." I was shocked that a news organization thinks ads supplant stories. Ads are to persuade viewers, news is to present the facts. Ads obviously aren’t going to supply all the information voters need to make an educated decision. With newspapers shrinking in size and staff and the new Republican congress threatening to cut off funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it is more critical now that other media outlets step up, not back, their coverage. If local television news is going to accept record breaking amounts in ad revenue, they also need to accept their responsibility to inform viewers.