What happened to all the money television stations got for airing the nonstop spew of political ads right up until Election Day?
You'd think television stations, whose news departments at least try to lay claim to an aura of public responsibility, would take a bit of their campaign windfall and give back.
The most obvious way to do this would be to beef up their political reporting on the news, as an excellent article in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review points out.
After all, local television stations rake in millions of dollars in swing states across the country with poisonous ads that are at best horribly deceptive and at worst outright false. TV reporters themselves acknowledge how sick-and-tired they are of the ads, and some stations actually fact-check some of them and document the deception.
So how about taking a little bit of the money from the ads and spending it on more local journalism, year-round, to help equip citizens with information needed to sort through political fact and fiction?
Democracy would certainly benefit, but more importantly from a TV station's perspective, hiring a reporter with money from the political could be a PR bonanza, directing public attention at one brave station that recognized its own greed and decided to give back an itsy bitsy bit.
What would this look like?
Denver stations earned a total of $67 million from election-related ads last year, according to an analysis by The Denver Post. Meanwhile, the national average yearly salary of a TV news reporter is now about $40,000.
Let's assume you could hire a decent reporter in Denver for about $50,000.
If you do the math, $67 million buys you 1,340 well-paid reporters to inform the public about politics.
As it is, Shaun Boyd, the political reporter at one of Denver's CBS4, has stated that she is essentially the only staffer who covered the 2012 campaign at her station, KCNC. And she alone covers the majority of political stories for the outlet.
What if the top news executives at Boyd's station told their audience, and the community, that, hey, as journalists, we're as sick as you are of gross political ads manipulating our elections?
Just imagine them announcing that to give back to the community we're going to add one new reporter with the mission of helping people be less vulnerable to manipulation by political ads.
They could afford this. If you assume Boyd's station's share of the election-year ad spending spree to be about $15 million (there are four stations in the market and hers is No. 3), then we're talking about giving back just one-three-hundredth of KCNC's gross political-ad revenue, leaving plenty of money to pay for other company priorities.
If they view it through their usual profit-driven lens, which is how local TV news operates, they could easily justify the decision based on bottom-line PR value alone.
It would almost certainly be a local and national story, separating the station a bit from the bottom-feeding (and weather-hyping) TV news pack.
At a press conference, station executives could emphasize the public-interest aspects: As a very small gesture toward healing our political culture, they could say, we're taking a small portion of our obscenely huge election haul and hiring an extra political reporter to hold public officials accountable and to help you sort through the political spin.
How great would that be? Who knows, it might also boost their ratings.
A version of this article was originally distributed by the OtherWords syndicate. Follow Jason Salzman on Twitter @bigmediablog.