Former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps spoke Thursday about whether the media are strengthening our democracy -- or destroying it.
His assessment -- after serving for more than a decade overseeing the industry -- is disturbing.
Copps has long argued that the media in general, and TV broadcasters in particular, need to do a lot more to nourish civic discourse.
Unfortunately, the owners of the nation's television stations don't see it that way.
"The public airwaves," Copps said in a speech at the University of Delaware, "have been hijacked by those whose primary objective is to serve the special interests rather than the public interest."
We can see this in 2012 in the relentless barrage of toxic political ads. It's also apparent in the dearth of serious local news to correct the misinformation and expose the money behind the ads.
"Isn't it curious," asks Copps, "that we have an election system where candidates and their surrogates go around asking for money from us so they can turn around and give our dollars to broadcasters to spew all this campaign disinformation over airwaves that you and I actually own?"
Curious, yes, but also revolting.
In an ideal world, TV stations would provide the kind of news coverage that would serve as an antidote to the misleading messages in most political ads. But broadcasters have largely gone AWOL on this front.
Pattern of Neglect
Free Press recently surveyed local political coverage in the battleground markets of Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa.
During the period we studied, Free Press found a consistent pattern of neglect in these cities: Viewers faced a blitz of political ads, with no local news coverage identifying the money behind the messages.
In other words, these stations provided no local stories explaining who sponsored the thousands of ads they aired, no local stories about the special interests the ads represented, and, with only one exception, no local stories about whether the ads told viewers the truth.
In Denver, we found that newscasters are doing some fact-checking -- but these efforts do not go far enough. Our report on Denver revealed that in August and September, Denver's four affiliate stations devoted only 10 minutes and 45 seconds to local reporting on ads from the five top-spending outside groups. Meanwhile, they aired 29 hours of ads from these groups. That's a ratio of one minute of news to every 162 minutes of ads.
Copps blames decades of media consolidation for stations' failure to put political reporters on the trail:
For 30 years and more, private sector media consolidation has seen broadcast outlets bought up by the hundreds as a few mega-media companies gobbled up small, local, independent outlets and created huge empires where they could realize so-called "economies" and "efficiencies." To make themselves ever more attractive to the captains of Wall Street, they cut costs wherever they could. And often the first place to go under the knife was the newsroom. Hundreds of newsrooms were dramatically downsized, thousands of reporters were laid off, news feeds were brought in from distant realms and the bottom line became the only line.
Now, with Election Day just around the corner, shadowy Super PACs and "social welfare" groups are dominating local airwaves. And rather than reinvest their ad revenues in better political coverage, TV stations are shaving time from local news programming to make more room for more political ads.
One light in this political darkness is disclosure. In April, the FCC ruled that stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in the nation's 50 largest broadcast markets must post their political files online. These files include some data about the organizations that purchase political ads.
Stations began posting their files to the FCC"s database on Aug. 2. All stations, including those in smaller markets, will be required to comply with the FCC order by 2014.
To Copps this seems like an obvious move for the agency. "Transparency is a necessary condition for good government," he said. Yet nothing in Washington is so easy. The FCC order has considerable loopholes -- giving stations too much leeway in how they chose to report on ad spending.
And no sooner had the rule been implemented than stations began abusing it. A Sunlight Foundation report released earlier this week found a "disturbing pattern of disappearing documents" in the FCC's new database. According to the report, more than half of the stations have removed data from their online political files. Altogether 2,100 entries are now missing from the database. With the files now gone, it's hard to determine what the stations are hiding.
It's clear to Copps that more will need to be done to force transparency on broadcasters. "When so few wield so much outrageous power, sponsorship disclosure strikes me as a rather modest requirement," he said. "So I hope my friends in Congress and on the Commission will, in the wake of this campaign's woeful distortion of the democratic process, put things aright so we don't have to endure this ever again."
Democracy requires an informed public. But it's not possible to have an informed public when you have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars.
The system is gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.
The least we can do is force these donors into the light. Television stations are a crucial means to that end.