Air Time for Candidates

Dear Norm,

       For someone who has worked closely over the years with broadcast and cable journalists covering politics, you seem to take a rather dim view of their efforts. As this dialogue has continued, your attacks on broadcast journalism have become more overt. You leave me wondering about your commitment to the First Amendment for electronic-media journalists. I’m sure you don’t want to substitute unfiltered propaganda for objective reporting, but I’m afraid that would be the result of your plan.
       In your critique of television-news coverage of politics, you continue to use selective data from flawed surveys. Citing more data from the Rocky Mountain Media Watch doesn’t make it any more credible. The survey covered 90 stations in 44 cities. Of those stations, 52 percent had no Senate race to cover, 70 percent had no competitive Senate race and 76 percent had no competitive House race. So the finding that there were not many stories about politics is hardly surprising. You also say that “news coverage of congressional elections has declined,” but the Rocky Mountain Media Watch offers no such evidence. Indeed, because the news differs so much from election to election, comparisons don’t mean much.
       You also cite a Pew Research Center study to show that the public feels it is not being well served by the news media’s political coverage. Again, you pull numbers out selectively, quoting how the public rates media overall on accuracy. But since you are criticizing the performance of local television stations, I think in fairness you should have revealed how the public rates that part of the media, according to that very same Pew Research Center study. It turns out that the public depends on local television for news much more than on other forms, such as network news and local newspapers. Among Americans, 72 percent watch local news regularly, compared to 56 percent who read a daily newspaper and 41 percent who watch network news regularly. The researchers also report that local news is viewed more favorably than other forms of news, with 81 percent having a favorable view of local news. As the Pew researchers said in their report, “Ratings for local TV news have remained steady in recent years, suggesting that the public’s increased criticism of the media is directed more at national news organizations than at local news establishments.”
       Why does the public find local news the most credible? One reason is that local station managers must stay in close touch with their audience to ensure the success of their stations. If they are not meeting the needs of the local community, the results show up fast in lower ratings. And the one form of programming that local stations consistently produce is news, so it stands to reason that local news editorial decisions are based on how the station can best serve the community.
       When it comes to political coverage, these stations are in the best position to judge how to serve their communities. Some ask political candidates to debate on television. Some invite candidates to be interviewed on public-affairs programs. Some have offered free air time to candidates. But whatever form this public service takes, I would argue these decisions are best made in the local communities, not through a one-size-fits-all government mandate.
       You refer to survey data to show the public likes the idea of free air time. But as any experienced reporter knows, in assessing polling data, you need to look not just at the result but at how the question was asked. The Media Studies Center study you cite merely asked respondents if free air time would be useful. But the poll that asked the question that most closely resembles your proposal is the Opinion Research Survey we have discussed previously in this dialogue.
       That national survey, which was conducted for Promax International last April, asked this question of 1,009 adults:
       “Some groups in Washington are proposing that broadcast television channels be required to give free air time to political candidates in addition to what the candidates might spend on paid advertising. Do you support this proposal?”
       The results: 61 percent said no, they were opposed; 35 percent said yes; and 4 percent were not sure. This is the key point. The public does not want free air time if it comes on top of paid political commercials, and that is exactly what your plan calls for. Moreover, the amount of political advertising on the air is determined not by the broadcasters, but by the politicians and their campaign advisers, who decide when to start advertising, how many ads to run, and what those ads should say.
       Since this is our last exchange, I want to share with you my own experience with free air time for candidates, as it may shed some light on this theoretical discussion. In 1996, CBS, where I was executive producer for political coverage, offered President Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole air time during the CBS Evening News two weeks before the election. Each candidate was given up to two and a half minutes to respond to a question on each of four issues the public most wanted addressed. The taped responses were also shown on CBS This Morning and the overnight newscast, were heard on CBS Radio, and were distributed to affiliates for their own use.
       If this time was meant to help the public, the results were disappointing. Both candidates used material that had been repeated hundreds of times in their stump speeches and paid advertising. They each made misstated or exaggerated claims that could not be countered in that format. The inclusion of these segments in regular newscasts reduced the amount of time available that week to report on crucial developments in the campaign, including the burgeoning soft-money scandal. In the end, in my own opinion, the only thing the viewer at home learned about the two candidates was which one could read a TelePrompTer better.
       Other networks offered time to the presidential candidates along the same lines as CBS. But ABC News offered the candidates an hour of prime time the week before the election for a debate. Guess which free-time offer both candidates refused?
       The issue of free air time has taken on greater urgency as this dialogue has proceeded. With the appointment of the full Gore commission two weeks ago, it is clear who will be making recommendations to the president on how digital-television broadcasters should fulfill their public-service obligations. Given the misunderstanding of the role of broadcast journalists displayed in this dialogue, I am quite concerned that not one member of the commission has ever held a news-management position in broadcasting. I hope that the views of broadcast journalists will be sought by the commission, so that the commission can fairly assess whether free air time will give political candidates an excuse to avoid the kinds of questioning and scrutiny that come in debates and interviews. As I have said throughout this exchange, I fear that government-mandated free air time could seriously compromise the ability of broadcast journalists to provide the public with the kind of information on politics and campaigns that the public has found most useful. I’m sure that’s an outcome neither of us wishes.