30 Seconds Over Toledo: How Political Ads Spell Trouble for TV News and Democracy

30 Seconds Over Toledo: How Political Ads Spell Trouble for TV News and Democracy

30 Seconds Over Toledo: How Political Ads Spell Trouble for TV News and Democracy

In the wake of Citizens United, big campaign donors are buying off not only politicians, but also the local news networks that cover them.



My new Think Again column is called “Are Journalists Any Less Gullible Today than They Were 10 Years Ago?” It’s mostly about Iraq but also the 2013 State of the News media and it’s here.

I also did a long piece about Andrew Cuomo, his hopes for 2016, his governance of New York state and what all this means for liberalism and that’s here.

Over the past week or so there's been a lot of discussion of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq madness of 2013.

Here is a video of a debate over Iraq that Christopher Hitchens and I did on Charlie Rose around the time of the invasion.

Here is a debate that Slate conducted about the war in February 2003. My (edited) contribution went as follows:

Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and authors a Weblog for MSNBC.com. 
I admit that the beefed-up containment policy vis-à-vis Iraq, driven exclusively by the Bush administration's obsession with the issue, has been a smashing success. But rather than declare victory and stay in Iraq—with inspectors and the threat of force if they are resisted—the administration insists on embarking on an unnecessary and potentially ruinous war. While I will support it once it begins, as a patriot, and in the belief that a quick victory will result in the most minimal loss of life, I continue to oppose its commencement for the following reasons. Any one of them strikes me as sufficient, but the combination strikes me as overwhelming:

1. The war against al-Qaida is not yet won, and this war will shift resources away from it.

2. We remain enormously vulnerable to another terrorist attack, and this war will shift resources away from securing the "homeland."

3. The war will cause the very problem it is alleged to address: anti-American terrorism.

4. Pakistan is far more likely to give a nuclear weapon to terrorists; North Korea is a greater danger to world peace. We should address those problems immediately, rather than hope they will solve themselves while we are preoccupied with Iraq.

5. The war will place Israel in mortal danger of a gas attack and rally both sides in the Palestinian conflict in ways that can only be counterproductive to peace.

6. George Bush was right in the first place: "The United States must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." We should not be in the business of "nation building," something at which, as evidenced by Afghanistan, we suck.

7. George Bush and the men surrounding him—Colin Powell excepted—are not honest men any more than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan were. The nation is still paying the price for its misplaced trust in those leaders in matters of war and peace.

8. Much of the uniformed military, including Maj. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as the head of the US Central Command as well as George W. Bush's representative to the Middle East peace negotiations, remain unconvinced that this war is necessary at this time. Read a talk he gave on the topic recently here. If Gen. Zinni is unconvinced, I'm unconvinced.

Here’s one I found from Media Matters:

Joe Scarborough In April 2003: Now I want to read you what The Nation's Eric Alterman—and I must say, he's an MSNBC analyst—this is what he said one week ago: "Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe that the Iraqis would welcome" US troops "as their hoped-for liberators"? Now, first of all, let's talk about poor Wolfowitz. I mean, how long can this guy be kicked around? Are people going to line up and apologize to Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Pearle and Mr. Rumsfeld and all of these other guys that called it right? [MSNBC, MSNBC Reports, 4/10/03, via Nexis]

Here is Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

As 2003 began, Eric Alterman wrote on his MSNBC.com blog that "The New York Times continues down the path laid down personally by crazed war-hawk Howell Raines to agitate for a war against Iraq," adding "in this over-hyped story, it offers the top-right column of page one to the administration's phony prediction that the war Bush has decided to launch, without provocation or legal justification, will cost only $60 billion or less in constant dollars than the 1991 Gulf War." Glenn Reynolds took note at Instapundit. "ALTERMAN CLAIMS that the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has taken over The New York Times," he quipped. "I tried to reach Ann Coulter for comment, but all I got was a recording of what seemed to be her voice, saying 'Buwhahaha!'"

The small exchange captures something bigger about the blogosphere that hasn't been reckoned with by its fans, myself included. In those days, bloggers on the left and especially on the right eagerly attacked "the mainstream media" for its flawed coverage, often with good reason. Self-congratulation peaked after bloggers proved that CBS News inadvertently aired faked documents in pre-election story about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.  

But when it came to the War in Iraq, skeptics like Alterman were the exception that proved getting it right was possible, while Reynolds's reaction hints at the norm: as "the MSM" got Iraq wrong, the blogosphere didn't just fail to pick apart its weakest stories. Pro-war bloggers center-left and right used an ideological heuristic, assuming that the MSM would err on the side of dovishness, so that the most common media criticism exacerbated rather than corrected the actual errors being made, making the MSM even more pro-war. "I remember spending a week in the offices of The New York Times Outlook section in January" 2003, Matt Steinglass writes. "The anxiety to self-police against anything that could be perceived as liberal bias was palpable, Smart, serious people convinced themselves to accept the most spurious claims." 

Here are some (extremely conservative) facts and figures from a chart from Matt Duss, Peter Juul and the Center for American Progress:


—Total deaths: Between 110,663 and 119,380

—Coalition deaths: 4,803

—US deaths: 4,484

—US wounded: 32,200

—US deaths as a percentage of coalition deaths: 93.37 percent

—Iraqi Security Force, or ISF, deaths: At least 10,125

—Total coalition and ISF deaths: At least 14,926

—Iraqi civilian deaths: Between 103,674 and 113,265

—Non-Iraqi contractor deaths: At least 463

—Internally displaced persons: 1.24 million

—Refugees: More than 1.6 million

Financial costs

—Cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom: $806 billion

—Projected total cost of veterans’ health care and disability: $422 billion to $717 billion

Iraq reconstruction (as of September 30, 2011)

—Total funding: $220.21 billion

—Iraqi government funds (including Coalition Provisional Authority spending): $145.81 billion

—International funds: $13.75 billion

—US funds (2003-2011): $60.64 billion

—Total US unexpended obligations: $1.62 billion

—Average US daily expenditure: $15 million per day


—Total U.S. service members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan: More than 2 million

—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans eligible for VA health care: 1.6 million

—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who have used VA health care since FY 2002: 896,000 (56 percent of eligible veterans)

—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans with PTSD: At least 260,000 (29 percent of those veterans who have used VA health care; does not include Vet Center or non-VA health care data)

—Suicide rate of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans using VA health care in FY 2008: 38 suicides per 100,000 veterans

—National suicide rate, 2007: 11.26 per 100,000 Americans

Alter-reviews: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway

I saw the play over the weekend, and sadly, cannot disagree too much with Ben Brantley’s Times review. I assigned the novella to my class this week, as it happens, and (I did not know this before) it’s a small masterpiece, much darker than fans of the (wonderful) film would have any idea of. The play, by Richard Greenberg, is darker than the film and longer—or so it feels—than the novel. The script has some charm and the acting is fine, Emilia Clark is lovely, George Wendt is comforting and Cory Michael Smith is pretty okay as “Fred,” but it never fully coheres and it ends up rather depressing in a way that feels unearned. I admire its ambition, but not so much its execution.  And by the way, Truman, the store is called “Tiffany,” no possessive.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

30 Seconds Over Toledo: How Political Ad Bombardment Spells Trouble for Local TV News and Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

If you counted yourself among the residents of a battleground state like Ohio or Florida or Nevada or North Carolina last year, yours was a sorry fate if you dared tune into your local TV news. Unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United ruling, third-party political groups and SuperPACs had blanketed the airwaves with a gluttonous smorgasbord of overwhelmingly negative political attacks for every elected office from president right down to dog catcher. And while viewers in Toledo and Tampa, Carson City and Charlotte probably couldn’t have been happier for November to finally arrive, those local TV station owners were no doubt sorry to see the gravy train of campaign advertising pull out of town.

In a profession that suffers from a steady diet of bad news these days, the $2.9 billion political advertising windfall that local TV stations enjoyed in 2012 might serve as a welcome respite from the doom and gloom. Particularly since the trends here are so singularly positive as well. That $2.9 billion figure was a 38 percent increase from the $2.1 billion spent during the 2010 midterm elections and an 87 percent increase from the 2008 campaign advertising total. In an era where other traditional revenues streams are drying up for news organizations and digital ads aren’t able to fill the void, the prospect of these regular cash infusions might appear like just the thing to keep local news and good journalism afloat.

If only it were so.

To dig into Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 study, released this week, is to find that local TV news stations, rather than leveraging this political ad money into more expansive, civic-minded journalism, are squandering it on the creation of choppier, easily replaceable coverage. At the center of this disturbing trend is the continued shrinkage of the length of time devoted to each individual news story. Pew found that less than one in five local TV news stories now last more than a minute and fully half run for less than 30 seconds, or roughly the time it takes to read this paragraph.

But perhaps more disturbing than how little time is devoted to each story is what the stories are increasingly focusing on. From Pew:

When data from 2012 is compared with stations studied in 2005 and earlier, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—seems to be making up an ever-larger component of the local news menu, according to the stations studied in 2005 and 2012.

According to Pew, a majority—54 percent—of local TV news coverage is now comprised of stories on traffic, weather, sports and “accidents/bizarre events” (what might be called the “YouTube” effect). Even the old “If it bleeds, it leads” axiom is faltering, as local news coverage of crime has dropped precipitously—from 29 percent to 17 percent of the overall newshole—in the past seven years. And if you’re looking for news on elections or the government, good luck, as both topics dropped by more than 50 percent during this same period, with local TV news political reporting having dwindled to a mere 3 percent of all coverage. During a 22-minute evening news broadcast, that translates into less than 40 seconds of political reporting on average, hardly the time necessary to act as the public’s watchdog.

The irony here is the local TV news hole—now 4.5 hours each day, on average—has never been larger, thanks in large part to a trend of network affiliates launching ridiculously early-morning news shows. But this give-more-of-less strategy is a long-term prescription for failure. It’s fighting an increasingly wider battle on the increasingly crowded terrain of news commodification, chasing competitors who do the same thing better, smarter and faster. After all, ESPN.com will serve up more highlights from last night’s Knicks game at anytime, the weather app on your smartphone will provide more localized forecasts for wherever you are, hell, even the GPS in your car’s dashboard can now offer faster, real-time traffic updates. Sticking with a commodity-news editorial approach in a world of customized niche channels simply doesn’t make sense.

So, who cares? Local TV news, one might argue, has always possessed limited potential and long enjoyed a dubious reputation for hidebound, pack mentality thinking. (Sometimes hilariously so.) Earlier this week, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias certainly didn’t seem bothered by Pew’s ominous findings when he heralded the American news media as having “never been healthier” and basking in its "glory days." And he’s right to extol the Internet’s flattening of journalism’s production and distribution hierarchy and its upending of the press’s rigid, arrogant model of authority, which has, in turn, let a billion Tweeters, blogs, and Tumblrs bloom. But let’s be honest, very few people will avail themselves, as Yglesias does, of the chance to read a pseudonymous British blog to learn more details of the Cypriot debt crisis. That he can now satisfy his eclectic news appetite thanks to a nearly limitless variety of global sources doesn’t necessarily redound to the benefit of those with a more pedestrian media diet. So, to overlook things like the troubling commodification of local TV news is to suffer from a narrow, elitist viewpoint on how the rest of the public consumes information.

In fact, in a direct rebuttal of Yglesias’s rosy diagnosis, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points out the critical role a vibrant local news environment can and should have upon our civic life. He writes:

Were I living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a veteran city-hall reporter who improved my understanding of local affairs by just 10 percent would increase my civic utility far more than if I completely mastered the intricacies of events in Cyprus over which I have no influence. […]

If you measure the quality of the news media by focusing on consumer utility, as Yglesias does, the civic value of publishing that material is totally missed. So is the value of having local-government officials who engage in less graft precisely because they know that a sophisticated observer is constantly watching them, ready to expose them if they break the law. 

The fate of local TV journalism still matters—a lot—because it remains the number-one way most Americans get their news. This has never been truer than now, when smaller, daily newspapers, once the bulwark of local political accountability and campaign coverage, are in broad retreat across the country. Indeed, some larger cities have been abandoned altogether, often leaving the local TV news stations as the only daily source of coverage in a community. So, the problems of local TV news aren’t just endemic to journalism but to our democracy.   

Make no mistake, local TV news sits at the intersection of the troubles unleashed by the Citizens United decision. The political ads that now swamp local TV programming every other year increasingly get little pushback from the local TV news that they appear adjacent to. SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) “dark money” groups are no longer counterprogramming local TV news political coverage; they are effectively supplanting it. A voter who sees a scurrilous claim about a candidate in a campaign ad during the five o’clock news, in other words, stands very little chance of learning whether the charge is true or not from the journalists who precede and follow that ad on the air.

As noted by this recent Free Press study "Left in the Dark," the astronomical growth in campaign ads and the continued diminution of campaign coverage is not unrelated: “It’s no surprise,” the study notes, “that the same media companies that profit the most from political ad money are not reporting on it.”

Nowhere, perhaps, are the consequences of this imbalance more apparent than in North Carolina. Last August, the Free Press took a snapshot of the 2012 campaign coverage in Charlotte, finding the four local stations ran not one story about the millions of dollars of political ads currently airing on their networks. This is important because while the two presidential campaigns battled to near advertising parity in North Carolina, a well-known conservative benefactor and Koch Brothers protégé—Art Pope—was outspending all opponents, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV attack ads in Charlotte and all across the state. 

His strikingly successful 2010 electoral exploits were profiled in a scathing New Yorker article two years ago. In 2012, Pope expanded upon those victories. By again leveraging his family’s vast personal wealth and that of  his SuperPAC, RealJobsNC, Pope’s largesse helped Republicans go 12-for-15 in state level races and retake the governor’s office, marking the first time since Reconstruction the GOP has controlled the state’s General Assembly and executive branch. In January, new Governor Pat McCrory obligingly installed Pope, a virulent opponent of government spending, as director of the state’s budget. Criticized for appointing Pope as political payback for the large majority he now presided over, McCrory defended the move by saying Pope had spent a lot of time studying the state budget. This is the same kind of logic that would excuse putting a fox in charge of the henhouse because it’s spent an awful lot of time thinking about killing chickens.  

In a way, Art Pope is the unfortunate natural byproduct of the corrosive effect Citizens United has had on local news and the political process. As Tim Dickinson noted in a Rolling Stone exposé last August:

[B]roadcasters are now profiteering from a vicious circle of corruption: Politicians are beholden to big donors because campaigns are so expensive, and campaigns are so expensive because they're fought through television ads. The more cash that chases limited airtime, the more the ads will cost, and the more politicians must lean on deep-pocketed patrons. In short, the dirtier the system, the better for the bottom line at TV stations and cable systems.

In the end, what's been created is a perverse inversion of journalism’s interests and duties—Citizens United has fostered an environment where local TV news broadcasters now find their business’s long-term fiscal health in conflict with their news organization’s editorial responsibilities. But running a barrage of the same old unengaging stories and bombarding viewers with the same old misleading political ads as every other channel isn’t just a recipe for the downfall of local TV news, it’s a recipe for disaster for our democracy.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Reed Richardson last wrote about the epidemic of secrecy plaguing our government.

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