A new study by a Philadelphia media watchdog group has found that, in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections, more time during broadcast newscasts was devoted to paid advertisements by political campaigns and third-party groups than actual information or discourse on policy issues. Researchers found that ad time outpaced news on political issues at a ratio of nine to one.
“ … By the numbers, it was no contest. Political ads vastly outnumbered political stories of any kind and that difference was monumental when it came to political stories that addressed any of the public issues that were raised in the ads.”
While we don’t yet have solid research regarding the amount of time Iowa newscasters spent discussing policy issues in comparison to the amount of time spent airing political advertising during newscasts, the 2014 elections were prime political ad time in the Hawkeye State.
Media markets such as radio, television and the Internet were so oversaturated with paid political content that many Iowans, sick of the spin and ugliness, sought out alternative entertainment sources and purposefully limited information intake. If my social media feeds are indicative, it would be interesting to take a look at book sales during that time.
And the political spending sprees are expected to increase in future elections.
Justin Fox, writing for Bloomberg, noted that the Koch brothers alone are planning on spending $889 million during the 2016 campaign season, and that amount is expected to be drop in the larger bucket.
Political ad spend in 2012 doubled spending in 2008, according to trade association TVB.
While the 2014 midterms did not rise to the spending level of a presidential contest, the next big spending year is just around the corner and is largely focused on Iowa and the other three states that begin the nominating process.
Local stations — and it’s worth noting here that The Gazette and KCRG-TV9 are part of the same company — have benefitted monetarily from the deluge, but few would argue that the public has received any benefit whatsoever.
Political ads are notoriously one-sided, offering grainy black-and-white photos of candidates they oppose, employing darkly timbered narrators and misleading with nuanced views of policy statements and voting records.
Even with stepped-up fact-checking services offered by many media outlets, the public is being pulled under in a current of disingenuous misinformation and unqualified theatrics.
Marketing gurus continue to push political advertising, including negative and misleading advertising, for the simple reason that it’s been proven to work.
Even if a news outlet finds “liar, liar, pants on fire” statements in a political ad that began airing the day before, it is unlikely the truth will reach (or be believed by) all consumers who already have been exposed to the advertising — or those who have yet to encounter it again and again and again.
Political ads aren’t policy reality. Regardless of which political party or third party group developed and aired them, the ads speak from a specific viewpoint and for a specific goal that has nothing to do with educating and preparing the public to select a leader or decide a ballot issue. And, it isn’t only cherry picking the information most likely to resonate with specific voters, but also warping opposing information or opposing candidates.
The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon largely are responsible for the wide-open flood gates of political advertising and, unsurprisingly, benefactors of these new murky waters have shown little political will to address the onslaught.
And, in 2014, as the political rhetoric ramped up, voters checked out. That is, the 2014 midterms were the most expensive on record but were decided with the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 22, 2015.