Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Alternative Reality: Check!

In the toxic stew of negativity that political advertising has become, it’s easy to pay attention only to the ads that make your candidate look good (or, far more likely, that make the candidate you don’t like look evil) than it is to actually listen to what is being said and attempt to analyze it.  Many folks are content to mute the sound, change the channel, or simply ignore political ads they don’t like.

To most of us, the ads are a nuisance.  For the TV stations in the so-called battleground states of Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, the political advertising is a gold mine, a cash windfall that’s kept them going through tough economic times.

A nonpartisan watchdog group called “Free Press” recently analyzed political advertising and local news coverage in Milwaukee, Tampa, Cleveland, Las Vegas, and Charlotte – markets where political ad spending has been the heaviest.

The not-surprising conclusion is that none of the TV stations in those markets, which raked in millions upon millions in political advertising, provided any local news stories investigating or even naming the special interests behind the ads, and did no investigation as to whether the ads were truthful in any way.

In the two weeks prior to the June 5th recall election in Wisconsin, no Milwaukee TV station spent ANY time doing analysis of the political ads they took money to run.  Yet the folks at Free Press say the Milwaukee stations found time to air 53 local news segments on Justin Bieber.

It’s a shame they didn’t check the Madison TV market.  You don’t need me to tell you how many political ads have run on the airwaves here since the recall elections last summer, the gubernatorial recall this past June, and now the Tammy/Tommy race and all the Obama/Romney ads that clutter the Madison TV airwaves.

If they did, they would have found one station – and only one – doing any sort of fact-checking on the barrage of political ads.  Despite the millions of political ad dollars that have flowed into the coffers of the local CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox TV stations (for those who aren’t aware, WISC-TV 3 has a contract to do the local news for WMSN Fox 47 – and please don’t confuse Fox TV with Fox News) only one news organization – WISC-TV’s news team – does any fact-checking.

The photo at the top of this post, which I stole from the WISC-TV website and am using here without permission, is a picture of WISC-TV’s Jessica Arp doing one of her many “Reality Check” segments.  She’s been doing frequent Reality Checks as part of the Channel 3 local news segments for years, and she’s damn good at it.  She’s meticulously fair and analyzes ads from both candidates in a race, or both sides of an issue.

The other local TV news operations don’t do this.  They should.  And all three of them should do reality checks not only on the political ads, but also on the special interests spending untold millions to create and buy the air-time for these ads.

Full disclosure: Jessica has been a friend for years, and my wife was a colleague during her days at Channel 3.  Right now, Jess is on a well-deserved vacation with her husband, crawling around ancient pyramids in Chichen Itza, Mexico, and soaking up some sun.  So she may not see this post.  I hope her friends will tell her about it when she gets back home, because she deserves credit for doing what no other reporter in Madison TV is doing.

Kudos also to the ownership and management of Channel 3, for underwriting the cost of doing these reality checks and supporting the effort to inform the electorate.