Do Television and Politics Mix?

commentary by John McManus


To be fair, stations under economic pressures to maximize profit can make more money doing stories other than politics, even at this time of year. Despite the hoopla of a presidential election, roughly half of eligible Americans don’t bother to vote and presumably aren’t interested in political stories. Because you can’t ignore a long political story in favor of something you find more interesting—as you can in a newspaper—those bored by politics switch channels, thus penalizing the station.


Stories the stations emphasized—the flaming crash of an airliner in Taiwan, the cute little feature about the Lawrence Livermore Labs doing research on something so prosaic as grilling burgers, Channel 7’s “x-ray” camera looking through the skirts of young women—all have a powerful human interest appeal, through life and death drama, oddity, or titillation. In other words, they “sell” well.


Also, TV can’t zone its signal the way newspapers can deliver different stories to different areas. So there’s an economic penalty for covering a ballot initiative or race among candidates for public office that’s important in San Francisco, but irrelevant in San Jose, Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek.


Television clearly pays a greater price in profits than newspapers for coverage that doesn’t turn the heads of as many as possible. But the role of news isn’t to rubber neck for as big an audience as possible. It’s to help as many as possible understand the world around them.


Just before an election the public need is greatest for intense, independent reporting on how billions of dollars of our money shall be spent and who shall lead our nation, our state, county, city, even police departments and schools. Political coverage is a litmus test of the civic responsibility of our news media. Given the extraordinary profits local stations earn—the industry average for large market affiliate stations is about four times that of the average U.S. firm—and the bonanza that political advertising represents, one might expect at least a tie between journalism ethics and the demands of Wall Street.


So what happened in the only news medium required by law to serve the public interest  (in exchange for free use of the public’s airwaves)? We don’t know. Grade the News received no response from any station—each of which was provided a pre-posting copy of our analysis. It’s possible that we caught each of the stations on the only two down nights for political reporting in the week before the vote. But absent that, we’re left with the obvious answer that banking the extra cash counted more than informing citizens.

-- John McManus

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