Political Hush Money

The Miami Herald's Edward Wasserman cites two Free Press reports on political ad spending in a cutting commentary on the state of local television news.

“The funders of political advertising appear to have purchased not just airtime, but immunity from media scrutiny,” writes Wasserman, who was recently named dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “Some of the same media that should referee political discourse and oversee the process by which a sovereign electorate selects its leaders are in thrall to the backroom players whose mission it is to manipulate and game that discourse.”

Wasserman is referring to the findings in Left in the Dark and Money, News and Deception in Denver, two Free Press studies that ask whether the TV stations pocketing billions in political ad money are also reporting on the entities that bankroll those ads.

The Pew’s September survey on the state of the news media found that, despite the growth of the Internet, television remains the primary source of news and information for people in the U.S. But, Wasserman asks, are TV news outlets analyzing the political ads airing on their stations?

Not according to our investigation. Writes Wasserman:

The Free Press findings were dispiriting. Network TV affiliates did no fact-checking on any of the political ads placed by the entities spending the most money in Las Vegas, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Tampa.

In … Denver, site of the first presidential debate, Karr found that stations were getting a total of $6.5 million to air 4,954 ads from the five top-spending political action committees, while devoting less than 11 minutes to examining their truthfulness: a ratio, he concluded, of 162 minutes of campaign ads to every minute of related news. 

Indeed, with few exceptions, stations in battleground markets are not checking the claims in political ads. This is a problem — especially since viewers in these markets are facing the biggest onslaught in political ad spending, particularly from Super PACs and other third-party groups that can spend unlimited amounts of money.

“It’s too much to expect media to turn down top-dollar ads that fail an elemental smell test,” Wasserman writes. “But they can at least make it clear that what the politicos are paying for is a right to speak for themselves, not a right to silence others.”

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