"If you want to get on local news, it's easier to be in a freak accident than to run for local office." So says Professor Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California, co-author of a recent study of political coverage by local TV news outfits.
According to the study, local stations stink at covering local politics. And when I say stink, I am being kind.
In the top 11 markets in the month preceding Election Day, a mere 8 percent of local evening news broadcasts devoted any time to local races and issues. That means, according to the researchers, that 92 percent of the 4,333 regular half-hour news broadcasts contained zero stories about local races for city hall, city council, judgeships or even the U.S. House. Fewer than 5 percent of the stories focused on local and statewide ballot initiatives.
Eight times more airtime went to covering accidental injuries than to local politics, and sports and weather received 12 times more coverage. There is nothing wrong with sports and weather coverage, but I think it's scandalous that crack Eyewitness News ninjas across the country are 800 percent more likely to break the story about a kid who stuck his tongue to a frozen flag pole than they are to cover a congressional campaign.
Now, I hate using words like "scandalous" when talking about the media not doing its job. I loathe the eat-your-spinach, goody-goody pieties of American journalism. But this really is terrible. And, alas, I cannot fall back on the usual culprit of liberal media bias, which is the stick I usually use to beat the press like a pinata.
The real culprit, sigh, is free enterprise. One of the inconvenient facts we conservatives don't like to mention is that the free market isn't very conservative. Capitalism tends to erode established traditions and community values. Competition forces firms - including local news stations - to fight for customers by giving them what they want. And - again, alas - sometimes what the customer wants is crap. There are good reasons why we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on this fact. (Chief among them is that the cure is usually far worse than the disease.)
Speaking of which, Sen. John McCain used the study - jointly conducted by USC's Annenberg School and the University of Wisconsin - as an excuse to introduce legislation to clamp down on "media consolidation." The bill would also increase pressure on local stations to cover local elections more.
I'm squeamish about the federal government imposing rules on local media about how they cover politics. But let's be honest here. It is outrageous that local stations aren't covering politics.