McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations… but Not Journalism

McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations… but Not Journalism

McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations… but Not Journalism

Eric with the latest reviews and Reed on the McCutcheon ruling.



I’ve been travelling, to Jerusalem and back, to Wayne State University in Detroit (and back) and am about to leave for Barcelona and Valencia and so I’ve not seen any music or anything but so dedicated am I to your musical education/edification that I managed to load into my IPod and DVD player, the following:

Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne (two CDs) and A MusiCares Tribute To Bruce Springsteen (DVD)

So the Jackson tribute is sure a long time coming. It’s got too many highlights for me to list. Most are pretty much in sync with Jackson Browne-ness without too much tampering. You were not expecting surprises from the likes of longtime Brownites like Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, Don Henley, J.D. Southerner, etc. Bruce and Patti do “Linda Paloma,” which is kind of crazy, but it works. Lucinda Williams’s “Pretender” is the standout on the CD, but I can’t make up my mind if it’s in a good way or not. Still, there is not enough Jackson Browne music in the world, so this is really nice to have. The Bruce tribute DVD is pretty wide-ranging and your favorites will depend on your tastes. It’s hosted by Jon Stewart and has a pretty amazing tracklist including:

"Atlantic City" Performed by Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

"My City of Ruins" Performed by Mavis Staples and Zac Brown

"American Skin (41 Shots)" Performed by Jackson and Tom Morello

"My Hometown" Performed by Emmylou Harris

"Streets of Philadelphia" Performed by Elton John

"Born in the USA" Performed by Neil Young with Crazy Horse

and five songs by Bruce and the band, but no surprises. Excellent quality recording, though.

Any moderate fan will want it, I should think. Also it’s a good organization, so check them out here.

I’ve also been listening to the Legacy edition of the album No Depression, originally released in 1990 and perhaps the founding document of a movement that continues today nearly as vibrant as ever. With this release you get the original album remastered plus twenty-two extraordinary extras, including for the first time on CD, the “Not Forever, Just For Now” demo tape. 

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was listening to the audio version of “Benjamin Black’s (really John Banville’s) new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. It’s pretty good actually, not Chandler, but not crap either. You can read a long review of the novel here from The Guardian. This fellow thinks it’s “an entertaining, note-perfect piece of literary ventriloquism.” Well, ok, I just thought it was pretty good. (But I do agree that it is certainly not “a Robert B Parkeresque fiasco.”)

That’s all. Now here’s Reed:

McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations…But Not Journalism
by Reed Richardson

Since last week’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, legal scholars and political pundits have spent untold hours examining the Roberts Court’s latest broadside into the already sinking ship of our nation’s campaign finance laws. But half the story has been missing. For all the number crunching of how many extra millions could pour into our elections and for all the strategic predictions of what political groups would enjoy more bequests from billionaires, the discourse failed to look beyond the sources of campaign money to ponder its impact at the destination. If it had, we would have been reminded that the newly attractive "super” joint fundraising committees soon to be coming to a House race near you are but the latest middleman in a political system that is increasingly converting our democracy into a cash-based transaction. What McCutcheon didn’t change, however, is the ultimate benefactor of this SCOTUS-enabled largesse: media companies.

Call it a dirty little secret or an inconvenient truth of journalism. But the fact is, whenever more money is introduced into politics, the last check written with that extra cash usually goes to a corporation that is also in the news business. Before McCutcheon effectively broadened the potential impact of large-scale donations last week, its 2010 forerunner, Citizens United, had deepened it, unleashing a colossal wave of political spending on campaign ads in its aftermath. In 2012, nowhere was this windfall more noticeable (or miserable, if you lived in a swing state) than on local TV stations. All told, $3.1 billion was spent on local TV political ads during the last election cycle, a figure nearly 50 percent higher than in 2010 and more than double the last presidential election in 2008. After having struggled for years, many regional media companies and broadcast TV conglomerates were suddenly flush with cash and enjoying healthy revenues again.

The bottom-line lesson was clearly taken to heart by the big media companies. After such a banner election year, a wave of acquisition and consolidation cascaded through the local TV market in 2013, with major corporations scooping up small and independent stations at a furious clip. According to Pew’s 2014 State of the Media report, an incredible 290 TV stations changed hands last year, in deals worth nearly $9 billion, and what might be called the Citizens United effect was clearly driving these media buying strategies, as Pew explains:

[B]roadcasters are looking to buy stations in politically competitive states. Nexstar cited ‘political advertising activity’ as a major reason it bought two Citadel stations in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa—a crucial caucus state where presidential campaigns spend millions on TV ads. It picked up two more Iowa stations in a separate deal.

Thanks to McCutcheon, big-spending billionaires can now widen the spectrum of their individual candidate donations far beyond just early primary and battleground states. House and Senate campaigns that might have previously flown under the radar could very well experience their own political arms races now. Raising the stakes in this way means local TV stations across the country may soon enjoy some of the same profit-taking attention from big media companies.

But what’s good for local TV’s bottom line and its parent corporation’s stock price doesn’t necessarily translate into good news for the news audience it purports to serve. Indeed, as more local stations are owned or operated by a few, far-flung major corporations, news is increasingly being rebranded, homogenized, and regionalized. While sharing news resources undoubtedly has benefits, it can also devolve into a parody of news channel independence. As of last year, nearly one-quarter of local TV stations across the country no longer produced any original news content.

To be fair, the past few years have witnessed an across-the-board resurgence in local TV news staffing. Likewise, the local TV market’s newshole now stands at near record highs (thanks mostly to an outbreak of pre-dawn morning news shows). Last year, local stations broadcast 46 percent more hours of weekday news than just a decade ago. No doubt, the flood of campaign ads coursing into local TV station coffers lately has been bankrolling a lot this larger investment in news coverage.

Upon closer inspection, however, these positive developments in TV news are merely the silver lining to a much bleaker reality. That’s because the kind of journalism these media conglomerates are tapping their campaign ad bonanza to pay for isn’t worth very much to our democracy in the long run. As Pew noted in its 2013 annual report:

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. Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50%.

By the end of 2012, local TV news was devoting a mere 7 percent of its newshole, on average, to covering politics and government, foreign affairs, science, and healthcare combined. For a twenty-two minute evening news broadcast that amounts to barely ninety seconds of airtime, hardly enough time to do all these issues justice. By contrast, coverage of commodified, ephemeral news topics like weather, traffic, and sports jumped to forty percent of local TV broadcasts. Though it might be tempting to dismiss these editorial decisions or to minimize local TV’s impact overall, this coverage imbalance matters, for several reasons.

For one, local TV news still reaches more Americans—71 percent—than any other platform. So, the whittling down of political coverage to a tiny nub—particularly for local and state races—sends a powerfully corrosive signal to a very large audience. The message: campaigns and elections don’t matter to our news organization, so they shouldn’t matter to you either.

This apathy toward covering the public commons is shameful enough, but it becomes outright negligence in a post-Citizens United and McCutcheon world. By ceding their own airwaves to an onslaught of political messages from dark-money 501(c)(4) groups and supercharged party fundraising committees, local TV stations effectively abandon their own viewers, leaving them to guess what’s true and what’s not in a campaign ad as well as who’s really paying for it. Without transparency and accuracy, though, honest governance becomes practically impossible.

But the greatest danger to journalism lies in the corrosive conflicts of interest that rulings like McCutcheon create for media companies. Fearful of killing the golden goose, these large corporations—and, by extension, their affiliates—have every financial incentive to avoid fact-checking the outlandish claims and investigating the secret funders of the campaign ads their stations are being paid handsomely to run. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2012 Free Press study, "Left in the Dark," found local TV stations reaping millions in ad revenues in five swing-state media markets were guilty of this very behavior. And the report’s conclusion, as sobering as it is prescient, speaks to the fundamental dilemma that still confronts both broadcast journalism and our country after the McCutcheon ruling:

Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren’t getting the news they need. Instead, we have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars—a system gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.

Contact me directly at [email protected]. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

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


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