TV news programs ignore false claims in the thousands of political ads that pay their bills

Josh Levy from Free Press sez, "My colleague Tim Karr just released a report exposing the billions spent on political ads around the country -- and how that money is pocketed by local TV stations. Are these stations offering any local news coverage to debunk the lies in these ads? Are they exposing the deep-pocketed interests behind the groups buying ad time? The short answer is: No. The local stations we looked at in the report provided no local stories exposing the special interests behind these ads, and only one station among the 20 surveyed devoted even a few minutes to investigating whether these ads told viewers the truth."

Here are some details from our new report, Left in the Dark: Local Coverage in the Age of Big-Money Politics:

* The Super PACs vs. Justin Bieber: The hundreds of hours of local news that aired in the two weeks prior to Wisconsin's June 5 recall election included no stories on the 17 groups most actively buying time on Milwaukee's ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates. While these stations were ignoring the impact of political ads, they found time to air 53 local news segments on Justin Bieber.

* Fact-Check Fail: The ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas and Milwaukee did not once fact-check the claims made in political ads placed locally by the nation's top-spending Super PACs and independent groups, even though these groups had spent tens of millions of dollars on frequently deceptive ads in those markets.

* Hush Money: Cleveland's four affiliate stations provided no coverage of the Koch brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity, despite airing the group's anti-Obama attack ads more than 500 times. Americans for Prosperity has reportedly spent more than $1.5 million to place ads on Cleveland television stations.

* News Out of Balance: Affiliate stations in Tampa aired on average more than 200 political ads a day throughout August. Yet only one station, WTSP, devoted news time to fact-checking any of the most prominent groups buying these ads. In a single segment running less than three minutes, WTSP rated an Americans for Prosperity ad as false, a finding that didn't stop the station from running the group's anti-Obama ads more than 150 times that month.

TV Stations Accept Political Ad Cash -- and Leave Viewers in the Dark (Thanks, Josh!)


  1. All advertising, political and commercial, should be heavily bonded or insured for veracity. Should an advertisement prove false the bond would be revoked with the money going either to victims of shady products or to public broadcasting.

    This takes the onus of vetting off the broadcaster and places it on the party wishing to air the commercial.

    No exception should be made for theological advertising.

    1. You know, that just might work. (Even theological advertisments can work in your system, as long as they keep their content to the whens and wheres of worship, and avoid the whys.)

      1. Even the whys are fine as long as they do it in the same ways other products are allowed to. (i.e. “Come to McJesus because 4 out of 5 Christians chose us in a blind Pray test!” is fine; “Their religion is a lie, ours is true!” is not.)

  2. Where do you draw the line? Political ads aren’t the only ones that stretch the truth, or even the most prolific (except maybe during election season). Nearly every ad out there contains some element of untruth, even if implied.

    1. Exactly. Since when did local TV stations become responsible for the viewer’s ability to think critically? You mean if I buy that little RC car for my son there’s a possibility that he won’t become the absolute coolest kid on the block and grow up to become a successful businessman???

      1. Critical thinking requires information, justaddh30.  If your entire life is spent in a bubble of lies, promoted loudly and endlessly without contradiction, you don’t have a stable platform to start thinking critically with – your starting assumptions are all false.

        (Sure, it’s possible to examine the entire structure and deduce from scratch that there are inconsistencies.  But that won’t tell you which bits are the lies. And it’s an enormous load of time and effort – which most people simply can’t afford to spend on the problem.)

        1. You do understand advertising and how it works, right?
          If you are learning critical thinking from watching tv you have a whole other set of problems ..especially if you get your information from tv commercials!

          1.  But the reason that we have nightly newscasts is to give information, and we do rely on that information everyday. We need to know about the labour situation of the teachers of our children for example, or the controversial decisions being made by the municipal government. These are the things that we rely on local news to tell us. We make decisions based on this information. One of the most important decisions we make is who to vote for. Just because you’re convinced that the system is too corrupt to use doesn’t mean we all feel that way. A station that runs a political ad does have a journalistic moral responsibility to make sure the claims in that ad are true (or at least not false).

        2. For all of my assumptions to be false we’d have to be working under the assumption that people ONLY get information from television, specifically commercials. While this may be true for some, I see little increase in objectivity by having a broadcaster evaluate the “truth” of it’s commercials. I have no agenda but you have to ask where it stops and what good this does. Who will verify the objectivity of those verifying the messages of the commercials? I guess that’d be a separate segment.

    2. There is an important difference between “some element of untruth, even if implied,” and actual, you know, LYING. When some guy on TV spritzes himself with body spray and is instantly buried in a pile of Hawt Chicks, that’s pretty obviously a dramatization. When Paul Ryan on the TV claims that Barack Obama is trying to destroy Medicare, that’s… not as obviously a dramatization.

    3.  I think the line has got to be the obvious consequences of lying. Saying that a vitamin supplement will cure cancer is far more harmful than claiming that toilet paper feels like a cloud. Political ads, since the results critically affect virtually every aspect of our lives, should be right up there with medical claims and financial offerings.

  3. FOX19 out of the swing state of Ohio in Cincinnati does (amazing for a FOX affiliate) hard fact checking. Ben Swann, the reporter with this continuing assignment, most recently grilled President Obama about NDAA Section 1021 and was handed a string of emptiness. Romney’s BS has also come under the microscope as well.

  4. Umm while I’m sure this is true, I also don’t see local stations investigating much of anything.   Hard hitting journalism on local news seems to have been reduced to following around the local health inspectors and harassing restaurant owners. 

  5. I used the wrong link for the wiki entry. Tried to remediate. Managed to put the right link in but can’t seem to make the vid go away.


    Damn, now I know someone is going to show up at the door in the morning and demand to see my browsing license, so they can confiscate it and then take my intrawebs away. Because we just can’t have nice things.

  6. Cory,

    Are you proposing that companies (which include local television stations) should attack and discredit the people who buy their product (advertising)?  Even in the heyday of broadcast journalism, they rarely attacked their sponsors.  Have you ever called your readers “idiots” for buying your books?  I too have a serious hate for lying in political campaigns, but I know “against self-interest” when I see it.

    I personally believe that this problem falls to the political system in the US to solve ala the intent of “truth in advertising.”  Perhaps it is better in Canada or the UK, but expecting local TV stations to bankrupt themselves by not sucking at the teat of Presidential campaign advertising is unrealistic and pointing the finger at the wrong solution.

    But, props to you for sharing this info with the community!

    1. Are you proposing that companies (which include local television stations) should attack and discredit the people who buy their product (advertising)?

      If you consider doing some investigative journalism and reporting the facts as best they can be discovered to be attacking and discrediting, I really don’t want to live in your reality. Or any contiguous dimensions.

      1. You already live in this reality (cue REM’s “Stand”).  Proposing that TV stations discredit their sponsors is an idealistic but totally unrealistic solution.

        In this day and age, it may be idealistic for me to mention a political solution, but I believe it to be the best shot at real and lasting change.  At least we get a shot every two years to work toward political solutions.

        Beyond that, we can circumvent the cozy relationship between local TV and political advertising in other ways: public radio, online fact checking sites, ex-US news sources, etc.

    2.  The whole concept behind the 4th estate was to counterbalance the ambition of politicians with a watchful eye, limiting the atrocities that could be perpetrated on the public, by exposing the schemes to shameful scrutiny. The current mainstream media has for the most part abandoned that duty and seems to be willing to do anything to sell eyeballs. The more they sell out, the less they are worth, as their only worth was their integrity.

      1. You make a good point.  The courts also evolved to do more to protect journalists in that day and age.  Our system has devolved quite a bit since then.  Journalists are less able to protect sources now and harrasing lawsuits can be filed with ease and frequency.  Claims of media bias are also used to silence journalists today.

        While all that may be true, I really wish we had more journalists and fewer newscasters!

      2. Only when the people paying the bills actually value integrity.  Public radio and television are funded to a great extent by listeners and viewers who value integrity, but that’s a whole different business model than commercial radio, television and newspapers.

        It is the job of businesses, ALL businesses, to keep happy the people who pay the bills.

        A case could be made for this being a reason for government to be run like a business, but that a whole ‘nother story.

      3. It’s not a free press. It’s a bought-and-paid-for press. The people who own the press also own the people who run the government.

  7. Local TV news doesn’t do analysis or coverage of anything, full stop, end of story. They don’t investigate the people who pay their bills, and they don’t investigate the people who don’t pay their bills, either. 

    Once in a while you might get one of these smarmy “Action Five NewsTeam On Your Side Consumer Protection Squad Alert!!1!” things, where they berate the manager of the local Subway for skimping on black olives. That’s about it.

    I’m not even sure there’s a real financial motivation, even if they had a journalism product to be corrupted. By law, candidates get the lowest available ad rate. Now maybe that law allows for the massive demand to raise ALL rates–I don’t know. But it’s probably not a slam dunk, especially since watching ten consecutive dueling Obama and Romney ads every eight minutes is probably a great way to drive down your ratings.

  8. There is a very basic mis-understanding at work here; the function of TV “news” is not to entertain, educate, or inform, but to sell advertising.

    The audience is not the CUSTOMER; it is the PRODUCT.

  9. In the UK the Advertising Standards Authority can prevent an ad from being shown if the advertiser can’t substantiate the claims made in it. An advertiser can imply stuff (like one squirt of this perfume will get you surrounded by willing partners), but can’t actually say it without evidence to support it.

    Which means that the TV stations, who have an obvious vested interest in showing every ad they can, don’t get involved in judging which ads are acceptable.

  10. Unfortunately, I don’t think you have any TV stations willing to commit suicide.  Not only would you lose a major source of revenue, but quite frankly you’d be immediately up on charges of bias the first time you refused to air a political ad because of inaccuracies.

    It’s wise to remember that probably 20% of the electorate do consider Romney evil incarnate and another 20% consider Obama the same way.  Given that, the ads *do* represent a true version of reality for a substantial proportion of the populace with another section of the population accepting the inaccuracies as necessary and acceptable to counter-act the other guy’s inaccuracies.

    It’s a bit sad, but I don’t see any way out of the hole that’s been dug.  America’s innovation has indeed pretty much proven that the low road is your best chance to win.  At least before you could pretend that you weren’t betraying your party by taking the high road.  Now, you *know* you are sacrificing your party and the people who would benefit from your rule simply because your egotistical enough to want to see yourself as the “good, high minded guy”. 

    No such refuge now…

  11. I was webmaster for a NBC independent affiliate station back around Y2K.  I had to work very closely with the sales manager.  While we were working at setting ad rates for the website, he shared the tidbit that ad revenues during non-election years kept the station running and that the station generated significant profit only during election cycles. 

    It would be wonderful if the stations would call “Bullshiat” on these ads but due to the economics they’d only be shooting themselves in the foot and losing the revenue to competing stations.  Call me cynical.  I don’t see this situation changing anytime soon.

  12. I see a lot of people expressing cynicism here over the current situation within revenue-dependent news providers.  Being cynical is fine but throwing up your hands and seeing ‘no real solution’ is passive.  I’m a realist, not a passive-ist, so here are some things a passive-ist can do about this issue:

    1) Don’t watch it: The fewer viewers a TV station has, the lower the ad revenue they can demand. [Fill in any activist activity anybody might want, the baseline principle still stands]

    2) See it as an issue: Campaign finance reform is an issue with a national audience.  Why shouldn’t campaign honesty be a boxcar attached to that issue? [Vote for those in favor of campaign finance reform.  If they aren’t running in your district, vote again in two years.]

    3) Don’t spout ideology: Learn the actual facts for BOTH sides of this issue so that you can discuss it well with anyone who doesn’t agree with you.  If you feel the need to preach or spout, shut up.  [Don’t be an a**hole online or in person about this issue.  It isn’t about you.  Talk and listen.]

    There.  Three things you can do without getting up out of your chair to facilitate this issue.

    Cory shared a point of view that criticizes TV stations for taking ad money and not criticizing the ad content.  To me that conveys the position that TV stations should refuse or backbite funds from political ads.  That is suicidal for the TV station – as many other commentors have pointed out as well.

    I prefer actionable solutions.

    1. I prefer actionable solutions.

      Your comment history strongly suggests that you prefer taking no action whatsoever except for criticizing people who do take action.

  13. Your comment history about my comment history suggests that you don’t want me to comment.

    Let us just get this out of the way, because I think Antinous and I have more in common than in conflict. I have criticized alt med folks who might kill people with their suggestions. Antinous found that unacceptable across many comment threads that can be searched. I have criticized his attacks on the Boy Scouts as being counter productive to the solution of accepting gays into the organization. I tried to make peace with him about that offline, which did not work for him (to be fair, maybe I am unaware that I am the ar*ehole in that discussion too – maybe all of us should take that into account).

    And, to expose the bad things I did, I wanted to compliment an eloquent speaker here who had a cleft palate surgery. I worked on a study with cleft palate folks, and the speaker would be a serious role model to my patients. This one got me banned, and I agreed with Antinous that I was terribly of topic.

    How can we resolve this without sniping at each other, Antinous?

    1. Your comment history about my comment history suggests that you don’t want me to comment.

      No. But when you comment, you take the risk of having your comments in particular and your commentary in general dissected and criticized.

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