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Media Again Fails Our Democracy

Iraq coverage makes the difference in congressional elections, not election coverage or political ads.

Republicans were booted out of power in the midterm elections last week because of widespread anger over their party’s tragic incompetence conducting the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Despite the distractions the news media provided regarding Madonna and Britney and the horse race of who was ahead in the latest political poll, it was, in the end, impossible for the self-appointed watchdogs of our democracy to ignore the grisly reality of an expensive story that is actually important to the voter.

Democrats giddy over their newfound control over one branch of government, however, should not take their victory as a sign that our national conversation is worthy of a modern republic. It is not.

Consider two post-election news events where White House reporters continued to report on the executive branch with an emphasis on the president as celebrity-in-chief rather than the one elected official most responsible for sending poorly equipped teenagers off to Iraq. MSNBC reporter Norah O’Donnell was bubbling with praise for Bush as “decisive” even as he reversed his steadfast assertion that he would not accept the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. Then came the fawning devotion of nearly all networks to the pro-forma lunches between the president and the soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)—as if a photo op might be sufficient to bind a nation torn by war and a divisive political contest.

Nor has paid political advertising helped to raise the level of political discourse. According to Annenberg’s FactCheck.org, political advertising is actually getting worse. “The mid-term elections of 2006 brought an unprecedented barrage of advertising containing much that is false or misleading,” according to the website. The political parties alone exposed voters to nearly $160 million in negative ads.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, due to a 2002 campaign finance law meant to improve campaign discourse. Under the new rules, ads by organizations cannot be coordinated with the candidates they are seeking to help. Yet the much-discussed ad in the Tennessee Senate race featuring a blonde urging single, African American Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. to call her was sponsored by the national Republican Party, oddly allowing Ford’s opponent Bob Corker to distance himself from charges of racism even while taking advantage of the fear of “race mixing” this image stirred among Tennessee’s voters. This type of independent ad spending by the political parties is 54 percent higher than it was for the same period in the 2004 campaign.

Unfortunately, vapid reporting from the White House and rabid political attacks cannot be fixed by Katie Couric’s charm or Jon Stewart’s humor, not even by Al Franken’s duels with Rush Limbaugh. Nor do blogs, podcasts, or YouTube seem to remedy the problem. Even the normally technology giddy Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the rosy future predicted over a decade ago by wired “netizens” is still mixed at best, if not as downright disappointing as the sales of DVRs.

The research firm PQ Media estimates that the 2006 election campaign will generate the highest political media spending ever. Yet in the Age of the Internet, only one percent of all political media spending this year went to online campaign advertising, totaling about $40 million in 2006 compared with $29 million in 2004.

A recent Radio and Television News Directors Association study confirmed what most political experts already know: The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t rely on either Katie or Jon or blogs or YouTube. They still rely on local television news. Sixty-five percent of us cited local television news as our main source of information, compared with 28.4 percent who cited local newspapers, 28.3 percent who cited national network television news, and only 11.2 percent who cited the Internet.

Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates that campaign television spots alone might hit $2 billion this year. That’s why (four years after their disastrous smear campaign against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry) the stock value of the Sinclair Broadcast Group has rebounded. Political campaigns are good for the bank accounts of local broadcasters—even when the local broadcasters fail to cover the problems candidates are elected to solve.

If neither the National Association of Broadcasters nor the Federal Communications Commission will tell us whether local broadcasters are acting in the public interest, the University of Wisconsin NewsLab, supported by the Joyce Foundation, is attempting to fill the void. According to the NewsLab, TV stations in Detroit and Lansing devoted on average less than 30 seconds to Michigan’s campaigns and elections per 30 minutes of the news broadcast between September 7 and October 6.

Compare that 30 seconds to an average of two minutes devoted to crime stories, more than seven minutes of sports and weather, and more than 10 minutes of advertising. What’s even worse is this: Seventy-six of the 30 seconds per newscast related to campaigns focused on candidate campaign strategy and “horserace” statistics, such as polling and fundraising. In Detroit, only 10 percent of the stories focused on issues.

Says Anne Magoun, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan:

“Political advertising is overwhelming campaign news analysis, but it doesn’t have to be this way. For the sake of our democracy, the broadcasters need to work harder to provide meaningful campaign coverage and the candidates need to be more transparent and more accessible to journalists and the citizens. If we don’t have informed citizens, we don’t really have a democracy.”

When Jimmy Carter was in Nicaragua recently observing their election, National Public Radio asked the former president about the election process in the United States. Carter said that the U.S. “would not qualify” for observance by the Carter Center. Among other reasons, Carter noted:

“We require that every candidate in a country in which we monitor the elections have equal access to the major news media, regardless of how much money they have. In the United States, as you know, it’s how much advertising you can buy on television and radio. And so the richest candidates prevail, and unless a candidate can raise sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, they can’t even hope to mount a campaign, so the United States has a very inadequate election procedure.

Last week, the majority of American voters succeeded in booting one political party from power in Congress, but because of our media and the rules that govern them, we remain a long way from a government worthy of calling itself a republic.

Mark Lloyd, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is an expert on telecommunications policy

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