TV Viewers 'Left in the Dark' About Flood of Political Ads

Free Press report finds TV news stations in key battleground markets fail to cover political advertising
Contact Info: 

Jenn Ettinger, 202-265-1490 ext. 35

WASHINGTON – On Monday, Free Press released Left in the Dark, an analysis of political advertising and local news coverage in five cities — Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa — where ad spending has skyrocketed this year.

With fewer than 45 days left until Election Day, Americans across the country are facing an unprecedented increase in political advertising on local stations. Media analysts project that $3.3 billion — money that pads the bank accounts of station owners — will be spent on television ads by Nov. 6. Left in the Dark investigates whether stations airing political ads are balancing out their often deceptive messages with local coverage of the role this money is playing in the 2012 elections.

Free Press examined the political files of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa to determine the Super PACs and other political groups that were most actively purchasing ad time. We then analyzed hundreds of hours of local news coverage to see whether these stations were reporting on the groups or fact-checking their ads.

In all five of these markets, Free Press found that local newscasts ignored the deluge of political ads broadcast on their stations.

“Election-year profiteering may explain broadcasters’ reluctance to cover political ad spending in their markets,” said Timothy Karr, Free Press senior director of strategy and author of Left in the Dark. “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.”

According to Left in the Dark:

  • The hundreds of hours of local news that aired in the two weeks prior to Wisconsin’s June 5 recall election included no stories on the 17 groups most actively buying time on Milwaukee’s ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates. While these stations were ignoring the impact of political ads,they found time to air 53 local news segments on Justin Bieber.
     
  • Affiliate broadcasters in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas and Milwaukee did not fact-check the claims made in political ads placed locally by the top four Super PACs and independent groups spending tens of millions of dollars on ads in those markets.
     
  • Cleveland’s four affiliate stations provided no coverage of the Koch brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity, despite airing the group’s anti-Obama attack ads more than 500 times. Americans for Prosperity has reportedly spent more than $1.5 million to place ads on Cleveland television stations.
     
  • Charlotte’s four affiliate stations provided no local reporting on the three top-spending political groups, the anti-Obama American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity and Restore Our Future. From Jan. 1–Aug. 31, 2012, these three groups cumulatively spent more than $4 million to place ads on Charlotte stations.
     
  • Affiliate stations in Tampa were airing on average more than 200 political ads a day throughout August. Yet only one station, WTSP, devoted news time to fact-checking any of the most prominent groups buying these ads. In a single segment running less than 3 minutes they rated an Americans for Prosperity ad as false, a finding that didn’t stop WTSP from running the group’s anti-Obama ads more than 150 times that month.

“Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren’t getting the political news they need from local TV,” said Karr. “The lack of reporting on the ads or the groups behind this spending spree is egregious given the thousands of paid spots that stations are airing.”

To read Left in the Dark, go to: http://www.freepress.net/left-in-the-dark.

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