If you’re looking for information about local candidates for office, you’d better not waste your time with local TV news. But one watchdog group thinks programmers can do better. The Media Access Project is asking the FCC not to renew the licenses of stations in Milwaukee and Chicago, pointing to new data showing paltry local election coverage by those stations. Bob talks to Robert Lichter, president of the group that compiled that data
BOB GARFIELD: The Virginia gubernatorial vote on Tuesday was hailed as a bellwether for next year's crucial Congressional elections, so you'd think that the local TV news would be all over the story. Think again. According to an analysis by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the four major stations serving Virginia's biggest population center in their 5 o'clock news hour collectively broadcast a grand total of 11 stories on the Governor's race in the four weeks before election day. And the dearth of local campaign coverage is hardly specific to the Old Dominion. Armed with research documenting similar local non-coverage, the Media Access Project public interest group is filing petitions with the FCC to block the license renewal of all the major commercial TV stations in Chicago and Milwaukee. The group says that by offering so little in the way of local politics last November, those stations, quote, "failed to meet the needs of their community of license." The petitions were based on research carried out by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and that group's president, Dr. Robert Lichter, joins us once again. Bob, welcome back to the show.
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So your group looked at the election coverage on five affiliates in both Milwaukee and in Chicago. Tell me what you found.
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Well, the Chicago study isn't out yet, but in Milwaukee, we looked at almost 500 hours of news programming in the month coming up to the 2004 elections and we found that only about five percent of the coverage dealt with the elections overall, including the Presidential election. And of the election coverage, only four percent dealt with local races, ballot initiatives. So it comes down to five stations in a month, in their morning and afternoon and evening newscasts, ran a grand total of 46 stories on all local election races.
BOB GARFIELD: That's pretty remarkable. And I'm just going to gather that of those 46 stories, not a whole lot of them were devoted, say, to the underlying policy issues in the election.
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Well, as a matter of fact, because we're kind of insane in what we do, [LAUGHS] I can tell you that [LAUGHS] exactly 22 percent [LAUGHS] of those dealt with the underlying policy issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, on the face of it, these data are simply [LAUGHS] horrifying. But there has been some reaction from these local markets to the Media Access Project's license challenge, and they say that first of all there is other coverage that the local stations do that doesn't happen during the evening news; that they have debate coverage and so forth. And they also say that particularly in Wisconsin, which was a major swing state in the 2004 election, a national story is also a local story, that the Presidential election affected all communities in their broadcast area.
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Well, of course, the Presidential election is extremely important, but it is covered very heavily on the national network news. So one would think that the local news would see its franchise as the elections that are not covered on the national news, and that's clearly not so. About three-quarters of all the local news election coverage was on the Presidential race. As regards public affairs programming, only two stations had any public affairs programming apart from the regular newscasts, and one of those broadcast a documentary that was on a controversy over Sinclair Broadcasting's attempts to air a documentary on John Kerry's service in Vietnam that raised great controversy for being so critical. And that accounted for an hour out of two and a half hours of public affairs programming.
BOB GARFIELD: A couple of years ago, another public interest group called The Alliance for Better Campaigns produced similar data which documented not only the near absence of coverage of local elections but they suggested that the reason is that the stations are getting a windfall during the same periods of paid advertising and that to the extent that they don't run news stories, the advertising becomes all the more valuable because it's the only way the public learns about the races. Have you tried to figure out what the "whys" are behind this stunning radio silence during election periods?
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Well, I'm not sure I'd agree with that, that it's quite that Machiavellian. I mean, my guess is that it's simply a matter of what they think is going to attract audiences. We did a study of dozens of radio stations around the country a couple of years ago for the Kaiser Family Foundation and found that, on the average, in the 30 minutes that was highest-rated, after you take away the promos, the commercials, the sports, the weather and the crime news, you had six minutes left for all other news. Crime really sells. "If it bleeds, it leads," you know, started in local news. And election news, I think, especially local election news, they've decided just doesn't sell well enough. That's my guess, that it's very straightforward.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there really any chance that the FCC is going to decide not to renew these licenses? I mean, is this much more than a publicity stunt by the Media Access Project?
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: I certainly wouldn't call it a publicity stunt and I don't know what the FCC will actually do. These findings are grounds to tell the stations this is wrong, tell the government this is wrong, tell the regulators it's wrong. These people are curators of a scarce resource, part of the broadcast spectrum that they hold partly to serve the public interest. And if this is the way they use it, I think the public should make its voice heard.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Bob, thank you very much.
DR. ROBERT LICHTER: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Robert Lichter is a professor of communications at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC.