|No on Prop 56 ads equated a yes vote with higher taxes.|
San Jose Mercury News government reporter Mike Zapler discovered almost comic deceptions when he decided to look into political ads before the March 2 election.
One mailed advertisement for incumbent 13th District Assemblyman Manny Diaz completely misrepresented a Mercury News editorial comparing Mr. Diaz and his opponent Elaine Alquist. The Diaz campaign claimed that the editorial said Ms. Alquist "just meets the minimum" standard of analytical thinking and character. While true, the same editorial charged that Mr. Diaz "does not," a fact the ad omitted.
Mr. Zapler also reported other misstatements in mailers. One pointed out that a candidate for Assembly had been forced to pay the IRS $893,000 in back taxes. In fact, that number was $893. Another ad accused a candidate for the Assembly of using public money to travel to Ireland, a place he had never been.
Because ads are pervasive and persuasive, because they always reduce issues to slogans, represent only one side, and often misrepresent facts or introduce outright falsehoods, you might expect that vetting them would be a primary task of journalists in the weeks before an election.
"If a large part of the discourse is advertising, then it's a large part of the press' job to be a referee," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
But a Grade the News analysis of the Bay Area's eight most popular print and broadcast news outlets during two of the three weeks before Election Day indicates that television stations -- which profited greatly from the ads -- let the ads speak for themselves, doing nothing to protect the public. Except for Mr. Zapler's efforts at the Mercury News and a single story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area newspapers adopted a laissez faire attitude as well.
Were the press to take its role as a guardian of civic debate seriously, not only would misleading claims be punctured, but future campaigns might be cleaner. "If the candidates are aware they're going to be called on stuff, they may be more careful about how they present their arguments or facts," Mr. Zapler said.
Grade the News studied five television stations and three newspapers, one week and three weeks before the election. The analysis focused on prominent stories -- those editors deemed important enough for the front or local news pages -- the most-read pages -- or the prime evening newscast. To compensate for the space advantage of print, researchers examined every story in the longest newscast between 6 and 11 p.m.
TV ads neglected almost entirely
In 110 newscasts and newspaper editions analyzed, only the Chronicle and the Mercury News addressed political advertising. And only a single story, in the Chronicle, examined the content of any campaign advertisement on television. (The Chronicle did run a second article, an "Ad Watch" on Proposition 56, on an inside page the first day of our sample). Neither the Mercury News nor the Contra Costa Times vetted televised ads.
Despite collecting a windfall for airing the ads, no television newsroom took the referee's role in the 68 newscasts that Grade the News examined.
Instead, several stations relied on the ads more than reporting to inform voters. KGO Channel 7 gave more time during its newscast to political ads than to campaign news. When only stories about candidates' or propositions' merits were counted -- as opposed to strategy or "horserace" coverage -- KPIX Channel 5 and KRON Channel 4 also aired more political ads than news. (See the analysis.)
Grade the News counted 317 campaign ads in newscasts over 14 days. Campaign ad buyers distributed their commercials almost evenly. The vast majority of political ads -- 89% -- were for the four propositions on the state ballot, Propositions 55 through 58.
In 2002, the most recent national election year for which results are available, political campaigns spent $34 million on advertising in the Bay Area TV market, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public-interest research organization in Washington, D.C. This year, having cashed in on an average of one political ad nearly every commercial break during prime evening newscasts, broadcasters stand a good chance of exceeding that take. One company, the Campaign Media Analysis Group, predicts 2004 will be a record year for campaign TV ad buys nationwide.
TV ads made controversial claims
Proposition 56 was clearly controversial, judging by the volume of commercials, both pro and con. Some ads claimed the state ballot measure would end the "food fight" over budgets in Sacramento. Others condemned it as "just another blank check for the Legislature." Ads on each side manipulated the issue for political gain.
Chronicle readers got some help on Feb. 19 when Phil Matier and Andrew Ross picked apart pro-Proposition 56 propaganda. The statewide ballot measure promised to reduce the Legislature's margin for passing budget bills to 55% from two-thirds and suspend lawmakers' pay if budgets are late.
The chatty Chronicle column item contained some important information about the $14 million campaign for 56. It described a fight between unions, that supported the pro-56 "food fight" ad, and supporters of the bill in the Legislature. But it also pointed out that the ads had been market-researched and stripped of important information, such as the 55% approval provision. "There's a reason for that silence," Messrs. Matier and Ross wrote. "According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll taken last month, 73 percent of the voters surveyed still favor the two-thirds requirement for raising taxes."
Further analysis would have been helpful. For example, who's really behind the ads? In an anti-Proposition 56 ad, a woman urged viewers to "read the fine print" on the bill, followed -- in fine print -- by a list of the ad's supporters that included large corporations such as Chevron-Texaco. Why couldn't a reporter read that fine print and tell the viewers what interests are spending the money and why? What is the oil conglomerate’s problem with efforts to reform the state Legislature? In our sample, Bay Area news media didn’t address such important public questions.
Not only did local news media generally fail to vet ads, they failed to illuminate any issues involved in the four state propositions. Of the eight newsrooms studied by Grade the News, only half -- the Chronicle, KTVU, KGO and KNTV -- wrote as much as a single story about Proposition 56.
Even the staff at some Bay Area newsrooms that did not look at political ads in our sample said they agreed it was important.
"It's definitely something that we've done both on a local and national level," in past campaigns, said Akilah Monifa, spokeswoman for KPIX, a CBS affiliate. "That's something that's either confusing people or they need more edification or education on. There's certain things like that you can't ignore."
Broadcasters don't vet the hand that feeds them
The lack of ad analysis on television concerns some media activists who stress that stations' access to the limited broadcast spectrum is a privilege that demands social responsibility, not a right.
"Local news organizations have a public-interest obligation to serve their viewers with news and information that helps them participate in the democratic process," said Tim Karr, executive director of Mediachannel.org. Recently, the group launched a "truth in political advertising" campaign of its own called Media for Democracy 2004.
"While they're eager to run these ads because they're a major source of revenue, they're unwilling to vet these ads for fear that they may have to pull them," Mr. Karr said. The misrepresentations in political advertising have gotten so bad nationwide, he said, that activists are taking things into their own hands, and demanding stations be accountable by telling stations to pull political advertising that misrepresents the issues.
While the danger exists that reporting on advertisements can amplify the message if it is not carefully dissected, more and more journalism organizations are calling on reporters and editors to take campaign advertising as a serious challenge that needs to be checked by a "truth squad."
"I think it's good journalism," said Dave Iverson, executive director of Best Practices in Journalism, a national news media reform initiative based in San Francisco. "It takes work and research and person power to do. It's much more demanding than going to a press conference. It's our call. We should be setting the record straight."
But if the lack of a campaign ad-watch during the primary season foreshadows
the news media's approach during the November general election, then parties
and pressure groups may feel immune from journalistic scrutiny in the anticipated
commercial din -- and become more willing to play games with the truth.