A Free Press report released this week says that “perhaps the most important story of the 2012 presidential election is the toxic mix of money, politics and media that is shaping so much of the discourse in the months before the general election. Yet that’s not a story you’ll find on the local news.”
In the report, called “Left In the Dark,” Free Press and volunteers examined the political files of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox News affiliates in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa — all located in key swing states — and found that while many TV stations are covering local and national races, they are ignoring the ever-expanding role money and the media are playing in these contests.
It’s a longstanding problem that has only worsened in 2012. Wealthy donors, corporations, lobbyists and politicians are aligning with powerful media companies against a public seeking to engage more fully in democracy. The scarcity of honest information about the misleading political ads invading our airwaves has knocked viewers and voters for a loss.
Bloomberg reported last month that local television viewers in Tampa saw an average of 232 political ads a day in a 30-day period ending August 20. NPR, meanwhile, reported that viewers in Colorado Springs are seeing three times as many political ads in September 2012 than they did at this same time in 2008. An analysis by the University of Colorado’s CU News Corps found that the four largest Denver TV stations have aired 18,956 ads through September 2012. “If you sat down at noon Sunday and watched each ad airing back-to-back, you wouldn’t emerge until six days and 14 hours later,” the analysis said.
It is questionable whether citizens are any more knowledgeable about political candidates after seeing these ads. Fueled largely by an influx of cash from Super PACS (or Super Political Action Committees), what is not in question is that news organizations (particularly television stations) stand to earn $3.3 billion from political ads by the November 6 Election Day, the report states.
TV stations have a limited amount of minutes in which to air the ads, so people “are seeing more ads per hour and you’re seeing ads in different shows where you didn’t used to, you know, game shows, soap operas, reality TV programming, where you used to really only see the ads in the news programs,” Ari Shapiro said earlier this week on PBS NewsHour.
Because airtime is so valuable, TV stations are also charging higher rates for the ads, Shapiro said, and more money is being spent in smaller geographic areas that may turn the election in favor of one candidate over another.
According to the Free Press report, 70 percent of the ads that aired in the first half of 2012 were negative, which have been shown to be an effective type of political advertising. Moreover, the report states that more than 85 percent of the money spent on presidential ads by outside “independent” groups, or Super PACS, contain deceptive information. But broadcasters in the swing state markets examined in its report “devoted little to no air time to fact-checking claims made in the ads, and the stations spent no time investigating the organizations that paid for the ads.”
“Election- year profiteering may explain broadcasters’ reluctance to cover political ad spending in their markets,” writes Free Press Senior Strategist Timothy Karr, who authored the report. “In exchange for this massive influx of political cash, broadcasters must do a better job of exposing the groups and individuals funding political ads in their markets, and addressing the falsehoods presented in many of these spots.”