For people like me who still miss the Rocky Mountain News, I decided to ask two former Rocky media critics why local TV news in Colorado hasn't covered U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck's position that abortion should be banned, even in the case of rape or incest.
It seems to me that it's the kind of political tidbit that's understandable to a wide audience, and so it might make good TV, especially because there's a video of Buck saying it.
Former Rocky media critic Greg Dobbs first doubted that I could assert that there was no coverage of Buck's stance. He emailed me:
First, if you're certain that local TV news hasn't reported Buck's statement on abortion, so be it. But I'm not. Unless every local newscast is monitored for every single story, whether a video package or a simple "tell" by the anchors-- and unless every bullet point in every story is catalogued-- I can't automatically accept your premise. Again, you might know for a fact that no one has told this story about Buck, let alone shown the video, but I don't.
Dobbs is smart to be skeptical.
There's a huge amount of local TV news pulsating across Colorado in three TV markets: Denver, Colorado Springs/Pueblo, and Grand Junction/Montrose. As you may know if you've ever looked at the number of shows aired each day, the number of hours is staggering. The total varies by station but, for stations like CBS4, 9News, and 7News, the news programming starts at about 5 a.m. for a couple hours, picks up again around noon for a half hour or hour, pops up again in the late afternoon for an hour or two, and then concludes with the 10 p.m. broadcast. Plus weekends. In case you're ever star-struck by a TV journalist, just remember how much work it takes to fill those broadcasts, even if much, but certainly not all, of the content is simplistic.
I told Dobbs that I engaged a service, NewsPowerOnline (and there are others), that monitors all of it, from the 5 a.m. newscast to the late-night broadcasts. It does this by searching for key words in the closed captioning. It's not 100 percent accurate, because the computer-generated transcriptions sometimes garble words, but it's pretty amazing.
My comprehensive search covered all local TV news programs and found no mention of Buck's abortion stance in the past year. (For my initial blog post on this topic Wednesday, pointing out that major media had essentially ignored Buck's abortion stance, I did a simple web search of Denver TV stations' websites. The NewsPowerOnline search was much better.)
Dobbs wrote that he is "put off by the general emphasis in TV news on the candidates' horserace rather than the issues with which the winning candidate will struggle." And this "might help explain why Buck's views on abortion haven't gotten the attention you think they should."
A key issue for you (or anyone else) isn't necessarily a key issue for the electorate. If the shoe were on the other foot and newscasts focused ceaselessly on abortion at the expense of the economy, it would raise even bigger questions.
I'm not saying that any candidate's position on abortion should be covered at the expense of the economy. I want both covered, and I agree that given the wide public concern, the economy should get more coverage than abortion.
I mean, a recent Rasmussen poll shows that while abortion isn't a top-tier interest of voters, they consider the issue of abortion in voting decisions:
Sixty-one percent (61%) of voters say abortion is at least somewhat important as an issue in terms of how they will vote in November, with 33% who say it is Very Important. Thirty-seven percent (37%) say it's not very or not at all important to them as a voting issue.
Anyway, if mainstream Republicans have said anything this year about what matters, it is that they want to focus on the economy and jobs; they themselves are trying to put 'social' issues on the back burner.
Dobbs is right that GOP candidates have said this, but if you're a reporter, you have to look at what Buck, specifically, has said about how seriously he'd take social issues, if he's elected to office. He says he thinks Senate Republicans have shown weakness in not dealing with them.
In a recent radio interview, Buck agreed with host Jim Pfaff when Pfaff asserted that "one of the great weaknesses of the Republican Party" is not dealing with social issues. Buck added that this was a weakness of the U.S. Senate in particular.
Addressing another point, Dobbs wrote, "Third, it's my guess that to date, TV news hasn't told much or anything at all about Bennet's positions on abortion. If my guess is right, should it be skewered for that?"
No, I would not skewer TV for not covering Bennet's views, because they are not as far out of the norm as Buck's. But Bennet's views should also be covered, to allow voters to contrast the two candidates.
Dobbs concluded his email to me with something I agree with. "Finally," he wrote, "as a lifelong TV news journalist, I think it's fair to say that newscasts are limited by a number of things: the restrictive length of stories, the fact that things must stay simple because people can't go back and reread what they've heard, and the number of topics they must cover in a single political race.
In a subsequent telephone call, Dobbs added:
Buck's stand is clearly outrageous to people on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue. But to people on the pro-life side, the most outrageous position is one that supports virtually any kind of abortion at all, because they consider that murder. Unless we're talking about something universally outrageous, like suggesting the execution of everyone who's gay, although in some parts of the world even that is not considered outrageous, I don't want my news providers to make news decisions based on what they think is politically outrageous or not.
As Sarah Palin might say, this sounds all objective-y, but tell me, how is a journalists supposed to decide what's news without at least considering the "outrageous" factor? It's part of what makes news.
And in this case, polls show between 70 and 80 percent of adults think abortion should be legal in the case of rape and incest. A journalist has to try to connect to the mainstream sensibility and respond to it. Sometimes this means giving voice to marginalized views, like Buck's on abortion, that later become mainstream, precisely because the media has spotlighted them.
For another view on this issue, I emailed another former Rocky media critic, Dave Kopel.
Asked if he thought local TV news should cover the issue, Kopel wrote, "Well, I almost never watch local TV news, so it's hard for me to have an opinion on whether they're covering that issue sufficiently compared to other issues."
I asked Kopel if he thought the existence of video of Buck articulating his position on the issue should have made it easier for local outlets to cover it.
"I don't think that the video makes any difference," Kopel responded. "It's not a position he has been hiding or changing his mind on. According to his website: 'opposed to abortion except to protect the life of the mother. '"
I agree. The video of Buck stating his position is irrelevant. Reporters should just talk to him about it.