Why the Media Circus is Good for Democracy

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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
, 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
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. 

Sources: On
the Media
, Mother
, Pew
Research Center
, Ad
, Huffington
, Columbia
Journalism Review

Image by Dave Maass, licensed under Creative Commons.

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