No news is bad news for local politics

Posted: Feb 18, 2005 12:00 AM

"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.

Believers in small-r republicanism, or what many call federalism, believe that local communities are capable of attending to their own affairs better than bureaucrats in Washington. Essential to that vision is the expectation that a local free press will cover issues better and more thoroughly than the national press can or will. Local newspapers will always do the heavy lifting on this score because newspapers are simply better than television at reporting the news. But, unfortunately, there's less and less competition among local papers. This makes local TV stations more important. And local TV news has simply dropped the ball. In Washington State, the closest governor's race ever was mentioned in only 5 percent of local news broadcasts in the month prior to the election. In Colorado, the Senate race appeared in only 12 percent of Denver-area broadcasts.

Interestingly, while coverage of local races was almost non-existent in the month prior to the election, coverage of the presidential election was considerable. More than 50 percent of broadcasts dealt with the presidential campaign. That's nice. But I can't shake the feeling that this had as much to do with the vanity of local reporters and news directors (as well as the ease of using pre-packaged segments distributed to affiliates). Citizens in Kansas City don't need their local news station to tell them what John Kerry said about George W. Bush nearly so much as they need it to explain what the race for the Senate is about. CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC and the national newspapers have the presidential beat pretty well covered. None of those guys will tell local voters about a judge's record.

Again, I hate this sort of gitchy-goo finger-wagging. I feel like I should be on a panel at the Kennedy School stroking my chin and waxing nostalgic for Edward R. Murrow or something. But one has to assume that there are real consequences for these failures. If a free press is important, it's important at the local level, too. (Heck, California and New York alone have bigger economies than most European nations.) And that means local politicians are less accountable and government more irresponsible. That, in turn is an invitation for more federal interference. I don't necessarily agree with John McCain's remedy, but for the first time in a long time, I share his sense of outrage.