Sales pitches overwhelm democratic debate

Advertising about California propositions eclipses local TV reporting

By Michael Stoll
Posted Jan. 6, 2005

If you relied on local TV news in the Bay Area to make up your mind about state ballot measures in November, then you saw almost twice as much partisan, oversimplified and often misleading advertising during the newscast as impartial reporting about them.

It was an election season packed with controversy: stem cells and slot machines, health insurance and hospitals for children, elections and emergency services. Sixteen ballot questions in all, with a daunting 165-page voter guide -- and that doesn't count the hundreds of local measures and candidates throughout the region. No doubt, Californians had their hands full on Nov. 2.

On average each station, in its self-identified best hour of news, spent just 1 minute 24 seconds a night reporting on any state proposition during the four weeks before Election Day. Compare that with 2 minutes 41 seconds a night during the same newscasts for ads that were sold to advertisers on both sides of the ballot measures. If we had counted advertising at other times in the day, no doubt the imbalance would have been greater.

In the medium Californians most depend on for news, advertising on political propositions overwhelmed journalism. As a result, critics argue, the public debate on some of the most important issues of the day was framed by the partisans with the deepest pockets unfettered by journalism's regard for facts or objectivity.

"For most Americans, the experience of a campaign consists of paid advertisements, far more than of so-called 'free' or 'earned' media -- that's what campaign professionals call news coverage," said Prof. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

It's not just the time advantage of advertisements over news that creates problems for voters, said former advertising executive Jerry Mander, who now directs the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco. It's also the techniques available to image-crafters, but not to journalists.

"The visual techniques, editing, dramatic presentation, use of celebrities -- there are so many technical ways they can enhance the message, and they don't make any effort to present the other side, or at least present it objectively," he explained.

Whatever point of view Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes when he appears in a TV ad, he wins, Mander said. "When you see him you just think of all the roles he's ever played. It's not a conscious thing."

Cashing in on politics

Over airwaves they are provided free in return for public service, television stations made a small fortune hosting the political advertising food fight. The Alliance for Better Campaigns, a non-partisan civic group in Washington, D.C., estimates that nationwide, TV stations collected $1.6 billion in paid political ads in 2004 -- a record -- and double the amount spent in the 2000 presidential election year. In the Bay Area, the top five news stations earned an estimated $43 million for the year -- enough to hire plenty of top-flight political reporters.

Top 5 Bay Area TV stations' estimated
political advertising revenues in 2004
Estimated revenues
Source: Alliance for Better Campaigns. Based on research by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group of Arlington, Va. Expenditures are estimates based on ad time measured and industry standards of airtime cost.

News directors at all five stations were provided Grade the News' analysis. Kevin Keeshan, who supervises KGO Channel 7's newsroom, disputed the amount his station earned from political ads. "It's way high," he said. He refused to disclose the true figure, however, calling it proprietary information.

Some stations did better than others

Overall, KGO Channel 7, the ABC station in San Francisco, devoted the most time to propositions -- an average of 2 minutes 17 seconds per night. KPIX Channel 5, the CBS station in San Francisco, broadcast the least, 46 seconds.

Coverage of propositions per newscast
Minutes:seconds per hour devoted to state propositions in premier evening newscast for last 28 days of campaign. Includes any election-related specials during evening viewing hours.

Some propositions did better than others

Two propositions -- 59, which opened government to greater public scrutiny, and 60A involving the sale of surplus state property -- got no coverage at all from any TV station in our study. Neither measure was the subject of political advertising either, at least during newscasts we surveyed.

The set of propositions attracting the most money -- 68 and 70, two complicated initiatives sponsored by Indian and non-Indian gambling interests angling for favorable treatment -- had the biggest disparity between ads and coverage. In the study, the five stations ran 88 minutes of ads for and against the two propositions, compared with just 25 minutes of reporting.

Mr. Schwarzenegger was the star of the ads that attacked both propositions, pointing threateningly at the camera while warning that the backers of both initiatives were merely "special interests looking for special favors." The pro-70 ads promised "a fair share" of Indian gambling profits for the state. The pro-68 ads suggested breaking what they called the Indians' unfair lock on gambling.

If there were any propositions about which voters needed help from journalists to sort out competing claims, they were 68 and 70. Yet none of the stations came close to matching advertising time with objective reporting. KGO came the closest that month, with just over seven minutes of reporting and about 17 minutes of ads about the gambling measures.

Only two propositions whose campaigns bothered to buy ads got more journalistic treatment than commercial: Proposition 66, which, had it passed, would have repealed some aspects of California's "three strikes" criminal sentencing law; and Proposition 71, which was approved and will authorize $3 billion in state bonds for research into stem cells.

Framing the debate

Communication theorists and political scientists long ago realized the persuasive power of advertising and the "framing" of issues with audience-tested, repetitive, emotion-laden messages. But the strongest evidence that ads influence voters may be the price the campaigns pay broadcasters for the chance to be seen and heard.

"You can have all sorts of philosophical arguments about advertising versus news," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. "The candidates and political operatives for a proposition or candidate for public office believe that the advertisements that air on television are the most influential. They vote with their money."

Bay area not unique

One national study of the 2004 race shows that the Bay Area's experience is not unusual. The Local News Archive, a joint project of the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin, found in a preliminary study of 44 TV stations in 11 news markets around the country that viewers in early October saw fewer than three minutes of campaign news during an average half hour newscast, compared with more than four minutes of paid political ads.

The Local News Archive expects to release its final report this month. The study indicates that strident TV advertising has become the dominant force in campaigns, especially juxtaposed against anemic TV journalism, said Mr. Kaplan of the University of Southern California, one of the study's lead investigators.

"There's no incentive for candidates or issue partisans actually to get out there and campaign, because it's highly unlikely that what they do will be covered on the news," he said. "Instead their focus is on dialing for dollars so they can put up paid media. As a result, voters who say they rely on local news end up bewildered or indifferent about many of the choices on the ballot."

No limits, no parity

Unlike candidates, campaigns for California propositions face no legal limits on raising or spending funds. Political groups that want to put a statewide initiative before voters say their main consideration is the cost of TV spots.

Money wasn't a problem for the supporters of Proposition 64. Night after night just before the election last November, TV viewers were barraged with ads supporting the measure, which promised to do away with so-called "shakedown" lawsuits against companies by lawyers who had no client directly harmed. In the month before the election, those ads took up about three times as much time during newscasts as anti-64 ads, and twice as much as reporting on the proposition by television journalists.

Opponents of the legislation, including Consumers Union, the California League of Conservation Voters and the California Nurses Association, were massively outspent by a coalition of businesses including Blue Cross of California, Bank of America, Microsoft, Kaiser Health and State Farm Insurance.

Also ubiquitous before the election was Gov. Schwarzenegger, who swaggered across millions of Bay Area television screens with the same ominous warning: "Murderers, rapists and child molesters -- 26,000 dangerous criminals will be released under Prop. 66," he said, "Keep them off the streets and out of your neighborhood."

The TV reporting on the subject was largely uncritical. The San Francisco Chronicle, on the other hand, pointed out that the judge who reviewed ballot arguments for the proposition called the anti-66 campaign's 26,000-released-criminals claim "patently false."

Scrutinizing advertising claims

Few stations ran any stories dissecting the content of advertising. "Ad watch" reporting is especially necessary when the amount of advertising that opposing sides can afford is greatly skewed. But on average each station spent 13 seconds per newscast on ad watch, compared with 2 minutes 41 seconds of ads on propositions alone.

Channel 7 news director Keeshan pointed out that his station did do "fact check" reports on claims made about the Indian gambling propositions.

The near absence of ad vetting by stations might be seen as a reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them. But Mr. Keeshan vehemently rejected any linkage.

"What we do in our newscasts has no connection to advertising," Mr. Keeshan said. "There is a virtual firewall between the news department and the sales department. We treat all advertisers as we would any other viewer or newsmaker. No better, no worse. We are very fortunate and proud to work in an organization that believes viewers and advertisers benefit in the long run from real journalism that doesn't cave under commercial pressure."

Harry Fuller, an editor with CNBC in London and a former news director at both KGO Channel 7 and KPIX Channel 5 also rejected the idea that stations avoid criticism of ads to please sponsors. Rather, he said, the lack of ad-check stories is part of a wider pattern of giving short shrift to politics.

"Most local news departments now treat politics and political reporting as a part-time specialty when viewer interest is apparently high," Mr. Fuller explained.

"The local news departments do not have the expertise or focus on politics that get lavished on sports, or weather, or often even medical news. Politics does not research well among regular TV news viewers so it gets ignored as much as possible.

"Even when politics does get covered, the approach is generally, here they come, there they go -- he said, she said. Analysis or comparison of claims with reality requires more resources and focus than politics is given in a vast majority of local TV news rooms. A quarterback's stats or the monthly rainfall will get more close scrutiny than the claims of a U.S. senator of governor in most newsrooms. The politicians and their media handlers know this and are thus freed to repeat whatever lie helps their cause, knowing the lie can be repeated without questioning by most broadcasters."