Show but don't let 'em tell

Annenberg School, Alliance for Better Campaigns say TV stations provided little candidate-centered discourse

Annenberg released a study last week on TV stations' commitment to candidate-centered discourse during the elections. Their conclusion: Don't blink.

Ironically, the coverage of politics after
the election was pretty good, noted Paul Taylor, the Washington Post
reporter-turned-advocate for greater political coverage on television. "Broadcast television did a good job." Certainly, he acknowledged, the unprecedented post-election battle for the White House was a better story than the battle before the election. "But they were committed; they stayed with it. I wish they had brought some of that to the campaign itself."

Criticism of TV's political coverage resurfaced last week when the survey-in which Taylor's Alliance for Better Campaigns participated-from the USC Annenberg School found less than a minute given to candidate discourse by most of the 74 TV stations studied in 58 markets. This was "barely enough time to clear your throat," said Martin Kaplan, associate dean and director of the school's Lear Center.

Released last week to only moderate coverage, the study may have been overshadowed by another report last week on television and sex. "Sex trumps politics," said one of the report's authors.

According to the report, stations that committed during the month before the election to a five-minute-per-night voluntary standard contributed much more airtime to the political discussion. The standard was pushed by an administration advisory committee, formed by then-Vice President Gore, on public-interest obligations in the digital age.

Yet it found only one station within its top-markets sample-Scripps-owned KNXV-TV Phoenix-that met or exceeded the five-minute average. A handful of others, including Scripps stations WPTV(TV), Palm Beach, Fla.; WCPO(TV), Cincinnati; and KJRH-TV Tulsa, Okla., and Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL-TV Raleigh, N.C., averaged approximately three minutes.

Hearst's KCRA-TV Sacramento, Calif., and WCVB-TV Boston, NBC's WTVJ-TV Miami, and Scripps' WXYZ-TV Detroit did not come close to the five-minute suggested average, but the stations were cited for other quality efforts toward airing political news.

At the other end were Fox's WBRC-TV Birmingham, Ala.; Belo's KTVK-TV Phoenix and WVEC-TV Norfolk, Va.; WSOC-TV Charlotte, N.C.; and KWTW-TV Oklahoma City, which the study found averaged only seconds a night. "The TV industry did a great job of selling ads to candidates for public office," said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "It's too bad TV stations didn't put the same level of effort into airing the views of candidates in local newscasts and specials."

Echoing comments from some of the stations rated low on the survey, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said, "It's hard to take some of this research seriously when they ignore all the political candidates that appear on morning programs and early- afternoon local news. And they also don't count Sunday-morning political programs. They're only counting news programs that air between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m."

That, USC and Taylor said, is by design. "The study was pegged to the recommendation of the Gore commission," said Taylor. "That was quite specific. And between 5 o'clock and 11:30 is when you have the largest viewership."

Matt Hale, research director for the study, said that the study chose stations that had received the most money in political advertising. "The Gore Commission believed that there's a responsibility to cover politics in exchange for spectrum," he said. "You can also make the argument that there's also a responsibility if a station is getting all of these political dollars."

"We feel a deep disappointment," said Taylor, whose alliance includes former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and news icon Walter Cronkite. "While the stations that said they would try to meet the standard did three times better [in providing airtime for politics] than stations that didn't even try, most of them only got halfway to the goal. Campaign 2000 saw the development of a world that was all ads and little news."

The Alliance for Better Campaigns is expected to release a survey soon that finds that the heavy ad spending for political candidates and issue advertising has negated the practice of stations' providing candidates with the lowest unit rate it offers to volume commercial advertisers.

With nearly three years before a national campaign heats up again, the Alliance will likely focus on legislative solutions to what it perceives as the campaign-coverage dilemma. On March 15, the Alliance will hold a conference in Washington keynoted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the campaign-finance-reform champion.