Ad Attack

Political commercials outnumber political reports on local television.

On the afternoon of October 15, viewers in Colorado's 5th District with their televisions tuned to Channel 4 saw someone plenty of them had probably never eyeballed before -- the Democrat wishing to represent them in Congress.

Why is Curtis Imrie an unknown to so many voters? Even in this state, after all, Democrats usually regard themselves as part of a major party. But the fifth, an area anchored by Colorado Springs, is as solidly Republican as Trent Lott. Consider that current GOP incumbent Joel Hefley, who's held the seat since 1986, was re-elected in 2000 with a mere 83 percent of the ballots cast -- a landslide aided by the Democrats, who didn't even bother fielding a candidate to face him. No use sending a fellow donkey to slaughter.

Despite the certainty of his fate, Imrie is willingly strolling into the Hefley buzz saw this time around -- not that many folks have noticed. But toward the end of its 5 p.m. newscast, Channel 4 -- which is endowing candidates who wish to speak directly to the electorate with two minutes of airtime -- gave him a platform. Sitting in a small space he referred to as a "box" and wearing a garish jacket covered with logos and patches, Imrie said, "You may never have given a nickel to a political campaign, but believe me, they're costing you a fortune. When you have 99.8 percent of all Americans giving less than $200 to political campaigns, where do you think the rest of the billions come from? That .2 percent, which is organized special interests, give the billions of dollars in these campaigns.... Politicians should wear jackets like this on CNN, so they can indicate who's buying them."

At that point, Imrie clumsily removed his jacket in a failed attempt at political theater that may have lost him any votes his opening remarks won. But the moment was refreshing anyway, if only because examples of unfettered political speech seldom turn up on newscasts these days.

At the same time, there's hardly a shortage of political commercials. Denver-area television stations are collecting loads of dough for broadcasting the most noxious array of campaign advertisements in recent memory; Derek Dalton, vice president and general manager for Channel 2, estimates that between $17 million and $20 million will be spent locally on such spots this election season. Profits like these inspired legislation that was put forward last week by a trio of senators led by Arizona Republican John McCain; it would require stations to funnel as much as 1 percent of their annual revenue into a fund candidates and parties could draw upon to buy ads every two years. The National Association of Broadcasters has already come out against the proposal: In an Electronic Media report, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton implied that the bill was unnecessary because outlets are already giving politicians so much free air.

Debates sponsored by local stations such as channels 4 and 9 back up Wharton's contention. But in recent weeks, most Denver outlets have devoted relatively little of their newscasts to covering the candidates and issues that are generating so many ads. Indeed, the signal that's produced more election-oriented programming than any other in Denver -- Channel 12 -- is a public-TV outlet that can't legally cash in on the advertising bonanza.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to Colorado. Last week, the Lear Center Local News Archive, a newly formed project affiliated with the University of Southern California and left-slanted television producer Norman Lear, issued a study that analyzed news programming between September 18 and October 4 in Denver and the other top fifty markets. Of the 2,454 newscasts scrutinized, over half -- 1,311, to be precise -- were entirely free of campaign coverage. Moreover, fewer than 20 percent of the campaign packages that were broadcast incorporated direct quotes from candidates.

Obviously, the Channel 4 newscast co- starring Imrie was a happy exception -- and the same can almost be said of Channel 9's news program at 5 p.m. on October 18. The report featured a lengthy (by TV standards) look at the 4th District showdown between Republican Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Stan Matsunaka during which the station's Roger Wolfe took the time to quote both candidates on several major issues. Too bad he repeatedly mispronounced Matsunaka's name as "Matzo-nooo-kah."

Such gaffes were absent from several Denver news broadcasts screened at random on October 15 and 16. But this achievement was aided immeasurably by a dearth of in-depth campaign coverage that echoed the Lear Center survey's conclusions. For example, Channel 31 aired only one campaign-related story during its hour-long 9 p.m. newscast on October 15, and it had nothing to do with a specific contest or issue. Instead, it briefly noted that Jefferson County had purchased a slew of "touch-screen" voting machines. "There'll be no hanging chads," anchor Ron Zappolo quipped.

On Channel 9 at 10 p.m., campaign reporting was limited to a single story as well. The succinct item dealt with poll results regarding the gubernatorial campaign -- typical of TV's preference for covering the horse-race aspects of politics, as opposed to more substantive matters. To that end, quotes from Governor Bill Owens and his Democratic challenger, Rollie Heath, were eschewed in favor of comments from pollster Floyd Ciruli. From 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning, Channel 2 squeezed in just one similar snippet, comparing the amount of money raised by senatorial opponents Wayne Allard and Tom Strickland; the report was read by co-anchor Natalie Tysdal and wasn't supplemented by quotes from the candidates. And between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Channel 7, the two local-news breaks that followed segments of Good Morning America left politics out of the mix entirely.

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