Shrinking News Coverage Leaves Voters Susceptible to Attack Ads (Broadcasting & Cable)


Attack ads will once again be a primary source for public information in the 2012 election. Just as the new media conglomerates are putting their pieces in place for their election teams, a new report commissioned by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission concludes that the media scene is increasingly bereft of real investigative journalism, especially at the local level.

The study, “The Information Needs of Communities,” by Stephen Waldman, surveyed the media landscape, with a focus on broadcast television, and found that while the number of media distribution outlets has indeed exploded, the number of sources for original reporting has not. Indeed, it is shrinking. The number of newspaper bureaus in Washington has been decimated, and those that have survived have been drastically reduced. The team at the San Diego Union Tribunethat unearthed the cash for earmarks scandal that sent Rep. “Duke” Cunningham to jail was dissolved. In short, there are a lot fewer folks out there turning over rocks, and as a result, a lot more scandal will never be brought to light.

Instead, many of the new outlets are just repackaging what has been investigated and reported by the surviving traditional outlets like The New York Times andWashington Post. which have seen their newsroom staffs slashed dramatically. And many of the well-trafficked blog sites report “new” information that comes with a strong point of view on the usual liberal-to-conservative paradigm. The result in the Web sphere is too often “gotcha journalism” masquerading as investigative journalism.

Sadly, the situation in broadcast journalism is even worse. The Waldman FCC report, while weak when it comes to recommendations, hones in on the particularly worrisome state of broadcast television. While cable programming continues to make inroads into viewership levels, local television remains the main source of news and information for most Americans and, as an industry, broadcasters are increasingly falling well short of the mark. This is particularly problematic for the industry since free licenses awarded to companies giving them exclusive, federally protected use of the publicly owned airwaves are based on the notion of serving the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Many local television stations, just like local newspapers, are owned by chains or corporations like Gannett or Hearst Argyle. In both cases, corporate executives, residing far from the city or town the TV station serves, are judged primarily by the corporate bottom-line — profit margin. Stations not showing sufficient profits get new general managers, who are measured by the stations’ ratings and, thus, advertising revenues. The race for ratings gold has resulted in a broadcast television industry that focuses too much on the three c’s — climate, celebrity and, of course, crime (”if it bleeds, it leads”).

The Waldman report calls for a 21st century disclosure system that will allow both the FCC and the public access to a less fuzzy picture of what is actually airing on the publicly owned airwaves.

Not surprisingly, broadcasters have spent years fighting off any attempt to increase disclosure requirements. It is a strange stance given that one would think they would be proud of what they put on the air. Instead, the industry makes noises about burdensome reporting requirements — noises that ring hollow given the new technology that they use to report to their advertisers the time to the minute when an advertisement runs — some as short as 15 or 30 seconds.

How the agency that is charged with monitoring and administering the broadcast licensing system can make good policy decisions when it does not have the basic information about what is actually airing remains a mystery.

On the heels of the Waldman report, FCC chair Julius Genachowski now has an opportunity to redeem the beleaguered agency, which over the last two decades has too often become an example of a “captive agency,” more responsive to the industry it regulates than to the public it supposedly serves. But redemption can only come with new policies that recognize that a valuable public resource — the airwaves — is not being well managed. Broadcasters are being allowed to define for themselves what their “payment” is for their use of their broadcast licenses.

The first step is to enact updated, reasonable rules for what licensees need to publicly disclose about their use of a public resource. A compromise proposal is now before the FCC that would have broadcasters make public basic information about their programming, using a composite week for a quarter. Also, during the periods right before federal elections (when the lowest unit rate is in effect, 30 days before a primary, 45 before a general), broadcasters would disclose the programming they aired dealing with local electoral affairs. Local in this case means the races in a broadcaster’s viewing area.

This common sense approach is long overdue and should be both enacted expeditiously by the FCC and embraced by the broadcasting industry, which should be proud to share information about their programming on the public airwaves.

Just as in politics, sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant for television. For too long, broadcasters have been able to make obtaining a clear picture of how they are using the publicly owned airwaves very difficult. Now, as the 2012 elections loom and shadowy special interest groups and Super PACs are poised to fill the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars worth of political ads, it is more important than ever to have in place a disclosure system that matches the times and the technology.

The FCC now has that opportunity and should delay no longer in adopting the new system. Our legislative branch should not be selected by a public whose primary source of information on the candidates are attack ads aired by groups with big bank accounts and little accountability.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business. In this guest blog she weighs campaigns for more local coverage.This opinion piece originally appeared in Broadcasting & Cable on September 20, 2011.