Campaign Finance Reform Means Media Reform

All across the globe, free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy. Peasants trek for miles and stand in line for hours, even days, to exercise their precious right to vote. Turnouts of 80 and 90 percent are reported. But in the U.S., democracy's birthplace, the 1996 electoral progress degenerated into a cynical and bloated auction. Although record amounts of campaign contributions were spent to influence the outcome, voter turnout (turnoff) was the lowest since Warren G. Harding was elected president and Bob Dole was born.And so, from all sides of the political spectrum, comes a cry for campaign finance reform. Since much of the election money goes directly to TV networks and stations for political advertising, campaign finance reform is inseparable from media reform. And media reform must include local TV news.Each evening in America, up to 80 million citizens tune in to one of over 700 stations that present a local television newscast. Since TV has become the primary source of information for the majority of citizens, what's in the local news, and what's not, is critical to public debate, concern and action. People rely on these newscasts as their main connection to the community and the world.Rocky Mountain Media Watch designed a series of surveys across the country to see how election issues were covered on local TV news.A volunteer network of concerned citizens taped their evening (10 p.m. or 11 p.m.) newscasts on three Wednesdays, eight, five and two weeks before the Nov. 5 ballot. The volunteers each taped newscast and noted each election news story and political commercial using a standardized form and instruction sheet. A total of 90 different stations from 46 cities were included in at least one survey and 200 newscasts were viewed in all. ELECTION NEWSIn the first survey, eight weeks before the November 5 ballot, 16 of 59 newscasts (27 percent), had zero election news and 43 stations (73 percent) broadcast had no local election news. A full 70 percent of election stories in the sample were about the presidential contest. Local, state and municipal races were almost totally ignored in local TV newscasts. A candidate for state office in Florida did make the news in New York by claiming to have been abducted by aliens who cured her cancer.For survey II, five weeks before the election, a similar pattern was noted. Fifty-five of 80 local television newscasts (69 percent) monitored in 43 U.S. cities contained no news of state, municipal and local election contests. If the aliens were watching local news on this date, they could barely have known that an election campaign was in progress.Only 72 election news stories were noted on the 80 newscasts that evening. Of these, 57 percent concerned the U.S. presidency, 14 percent were about the U.S. congressional contests, 14 percent were about state and municipal races, 7 percent about ballot initiatives and 8 percent about the general election.In Survey III, 13 days before the November ballot, election coverage began to increase. Yet, almost half (45 percent) of 71 local TV newscasts across the U.S. contained no news of local, state and municipal election contests. Sixty-two percent of election stories were about the national presidential race. Here we were in the election stretch, with literally thousands of issues and candidates begging for exposure, an, in almost a lock-step, the local TV news departments said no. As reported in the Independent, one candidate in Colorado Springs was told by his local station that even if he walked naked and backwards down main street, he would not get into the news.In San Francisco that week, analysis of all the TV stations revealed five times more coverage of some dramatic fires than all the election candidates and issues.When the data from all three surveys was analyzed by market size, area of the U.S. or network affiliation, the same patterns were noted. The amount of election news was minimal and mostly concerned with the presidential contest, not local, state or municipal candidates and issues.POLITCAL ADSA very different pattern was noted in our analysis of election advertising contained within these same local newscasts. While the local TV news departments were ignoring the local elections, political advertisers were not.In the first survey, 50 percent of ads were for U.S. Congress races, 21 percent were for governor and other state races, 20 percent were for presidential candidates and 9 percent were for ballot issues.Survey II contained more election commercials than election news. Forty-five percent of the ads were for congress races, 31 percent for the presidential races, 8 percent for ballot propositions and the remaining 4 percent were general election information.This pattern continued in Survey III. Political advertising within newscasts concentrated on congressional and statewide contests and there were more political ads than election news. Thirty-nine percent of ads were for congressional candidates, 26 percent for governor and state legislature races, 19 percent concerned ballot propositions, 5 percent for municipal and miscellaneous contests and only 10 percent were for president. Six stations had no political ads.CONCLUSIONTo an industry addicted to carnage, commercials and caca, you would think that the biennial ballot would be a dream. Billions in advertising revenue, important issues to illuminate, strong personalities and celebrities among the candidates, scandal, sex, waste, fraud, abuse, power, money, winners, losers. Yes!And the stations know exactly when and where the events are happening. They can be idealistic and patriotic. The public's interest being served. Channel Six is your best friend. Seven wants you to be a good citizen. Eight listens. Nine cares. Right?Wrong. Local TV news departments made a different call in 1996: Rule One: Bleep the local elections; stay with the usual mayhem. Rule Two: Take the advertising bucks. Rule Three: If we have to cover the elections, stick with celebrity candidates, like Bill and Bob and Hillary. Local news has deteriorated across the country into what Max Frankel calls "30 minutes of Hell and blather." A constellation of excess dominates newscasts -- mayhem, fluff, commercials, lack of diversity and exclusion of a range of vital issues, such as elections, education, the environment, science, arts, children, poverty and others.The concept of "the public airwaves" has become an anachroism since broadcast deregulation in the 1980s. The original idea was that in exchange for the lucrative, scarce and powerful franchises that broadcasters are given, totally free of charge, they have a responsibility to citizens to provide the fair, balanced and accurate information that is the life blood of a democracy. Especially, you would think, when its election time.It has been decades since a station lost its license for any reason. Too much exploitive violence on TV? Well, that's OK. No rules about that. Too many commercials? Sorry. Stations can broadcast as many commercials as they want.Our surveys revealed that local elections were not deemed newsworthy this election season. Left to their own greedy devices, broadcasters abandoned the responsibility of giving the public what it needs to know to make informed decisions about political candidates and election issues.Broadcasters wink and nod at the idea of "the public's airwaves." The reality is that a small group of very rich people and corporations own the airwaves, not the public, and they've got the bank balances to prove it. The latest round of deregulation will make it possible for one mega-corp in any community to own several TV stations, all the newspapers, all the radio stations, the phone company and the cable franchise.MEDIA REFORMElections shouldn't be about who has the most money for TV advertising. If we all know about local issues and candidates comes from 30-second television ads, what kind of election is that?The ad money buys TV's special brand of powerful manipulation and influence; image, not information; spin, not substance; entertainment, not education. And only for those who can afford it. Negative media advertisements promote cynicism and disempowerment; keep voter turnout down and preserve, protect and defend the status quo.Modest proposals this year in Minnesota to curb negativity in political advertising were nixed by politicians. The election process is firmly controlled by a two party duopoly that Ralph Nader calls Dem-Reps and Rep-Dems. Tweedledum and tweedledee. Equally in need of reform is television's exclusion of candidates and issues who are not Rep-Dems. Minor parties are relegated to the junk heap of credibility by their marginal status on television. It's another example of the public's interest being subsumed buy the media's financial interest.The major obstacles to meaningful media election reform will be Dem-Reps and the media. Back in the seventies, broadcasters fought loud and hard to keep cigarette ads on TV. This was years after the surgeon general had publicized the cancer link to smoking. A full 8 percent of TV advertising revenues at the time was from tobacco products.Under the current system, the TV owners get to win the lottery every election cycle with a billion dollar windfall just in time for Christmas. They will, most likely, oppose anything that interferes with these revenues and profits.Citizen attempts in Los Angeles to get free air-time for local candidates were rejected by broadcasters. Token offers of free time to major presidential candidates were made by the TV networks but it announced too little, too late, too bland, a drop in the bucket. Importantly, however, the seed for the idea of free TV time for candidates has been planted. Campaign finance reform and media reform will require major cultivation and expansions of this area.Local TV stations and newscasts must be part of this reform. Good election information should have priority over profit. That is what the public interest is about. What we witnessed in 1996 was an industry out of touch, in major denial. Consequently, the country missed a wonderful opportunity to really consider what kind of world is coming to and how we'd like to prepare.Wouldn't it be refreshing to get to know your local candidates better with a five minute video resume, complete with vital stats, education and work history. Turn it into an American art form. And a serious discussion of core values and influences with a skilled interviewer. A psychiatrist or a counselor could do the honors in addition to a journalist.These would be free to candidates and broadcast one hour every day in prime time, starting a month before the ballot. TV stations would heavily promote this feature -- "Coming up, tonight at ten, exclusive interview with the people who will lead this community into the next century. Don't mis it!"Another suggestion. Get our candidates talking directly to each other like real people do. Artificial debate formats are often tedious and uneven.Just as doctors can loose sight of what healing is all about and lawyers ca disconnect from justice, the local TV news has become UnNews. Thousands of stories of earthquakes and homicides a year routinely pollute the public's airwaves. But one election cycle every few years? Too much trouble.The bottom line for television news is to let the people know, not to make a killing. How refreshing. How democratic, even revolutionary, that would be.--Chart detailing local TV newscasts included in the election surveys available--


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