Back in December, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PolitiFact co-founder and Annenberg analyst, had some strange advice for On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone: the GOP debates were doing a lot of good, and they were worth watching. The debates, she said, were refocusing candidates and voters away from political advertising, and onto something much more substantive. Choreographed, narrow, overly rehearsed—the debates weren’t exactly an open, democratic forum—but even so, they were a heckuva lot better than attack ads and super PAC commercials.
And that difference was actually having an impact. GOP contenders in the final months of 2011 spent much less than in 2007. Now, for the likes of Mitt Romney, this imbalance was easily offset by super PACs and other groups unleashed by Citizens United. But for less well-endowed candidates like Newt Gingrich, whose own super PAC wasn’t fabulously well-to-do until January, the debates provided a valuable forum to get an alternative viewpoint across—free of charge. Without that kind of cheap exposure, Gingrich probably would have been finished a lot earlier.
Flawed as they were, for a little while the debates may actually have been more important to voters than political ads and campaign spending. But since then, the balance has shifted back. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center found that campaign coverage from major media outlets has dropped by about a third since 2008. Since January, when coverage was more or less equal to four years ago, news media have become steadily less interested in the current cycle. Pew points to a few reasons for this: more than one major party picked a nominee in 2008, Obama’s candidacy was seen as historically significant—not to mention how inevitable Romney seemed to everyone as early as February of this year.
But whatever the cause, the real issue is what effect it will have. There’s no question that overall spending will top 2008 levels. Super PACs supporting both Obama and Romney just announced new multimedia ad campaigns totaling $25 million—each (thanks, Huffington Post). As of March, each of the most-aired TV campaign ads was shown more than 4,000 times during the current cycle. The danger in all this is that, as mainstream coverage drops, PR and advertising become the dominant voices in these campaigns. News media’s function of contextualizing and challenging what’s said by advertisers and candidates is an important one, but it’s getting harder to find.
And increasingly, this is true whether or not the race is actually getting covered. A recent Annenberg study found that many TV stations regularly neglect to fact-check political ads that run on their networks, says the Columbia Journalism Review. Local stations have every right—and some would say, duty—to screen campaign ads that come from third-party sources like super PACs (as opposed to official campaigns). But with the massive increase in private spending, a lot of small stations are struggling to keep up, the study said. Others are not interested. Still others choose to air ads they know are wrong, so they can correct them later in “fact-check” segments on local news. Needless to say, this practice drew a lot of criticism when the Annenberg study was discussed last week at a National Press Club conference.
Limited resources can be a difficult problem for small outlets, but larger stations can be no better at challenging candidates directly. According to a FAIR study in April, during the GOP primaries, Sunday morning talk shows were unusually welcoming to the contenders, compared to earlier cycles. Shows like Face the Nation, Meet the Press, This Week, and Fox News Sunday stacked panels with friendly faces, and guest lists skewed heavily to the right. This is actually a fairly new trend: during the Democratic primary contest in 2003-2004, Sunday talk shows did not measurably skew to the left, says FAIR.
Which brings us back to the GOP debates. In contrast to Sunday talk shows—which CJR is in no hurry to defend—the debates occasionally demanded much more of candidates, says CJR’s Greg Marx. This was certainly true of the November 9 event, which besides Rick Perry’s dramatic crash-and-burn, had some surprisingly rich discussion about issues like the housing crisis and U.S. relations with China. The November 9 debate didn’t say anything conclusive about larger issues like these, says Marx. But it provided a valuable starting place to explore and challenge the candidates and their worldviews.
It’s that starting place that Sunday talk shows lack and campaign ads never had. As political advertising continues to assume a larger place in this year’s election, voters may have much less of a clear idea of the candidates and what they stand for. Ideally, the solution is better coverage, not more coverage. But in the year of the super PAC, more coverage may be a blessing in itself.