For the most part, our analyses at Media Impact Funders are focused on gauging the positive impact of media. But it’s also worthwhile to take a moment and acknowledge that media practices that put profits over purpose can undermine society.
There’s a growing concern that America’s major media companies, far from serving as the watchdog of a healthy democracy, are actively engaged in practices that pollute and corrupt our political discourse.
Across a wide political spectrum, from right-leaning supporters of Donald Trump to left-leaning advocates of Sen. Bernie Sanders, there’s a rising consensus that unaccountable money from wealthy donors and companies—unleashed by the controversial Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that essentially opened the campaign spending floodgates—is polluting our political system. And far from providing vigorous scrutiny of this corrupting influence, commercial media companies are the principal beneficiaries of this flood of money in politics, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising.
On top of the glut of political advertising, a new phenomenon has emerged in this year’s election, as commercial television has devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the antics of the Trump campaign in an effort to drive up ratings, thereby increasing overall advertising revenue. One analysis of television coverage of the presidential campaign reveals that Trump has received nearly $2 billion worth of free airtime, far more than any of the other candidates.
Moreover, all of the mindless coverage of the horse race, tabloid rumors and coarse accusations among candidates is crowding out any serious attention to the critical issues facing the nation.
Even top media executives concede that the tone of this year’s presidential campaign is having a negative impact on our nation’s political culture, but they are not going to do anything about it.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said Les Moonves, Executive Chairman and CEO of CBS. Speaking to an investor conference, Moonves said, “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep going.”
Michael Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, has led a call for stronger regulation of political advertising, forcing commercial media companies to at least provide full disclosure on who is responsible for the flood of increasingly negative advertising on our airwaves. But so far to no avail.
And while everyone complains about the torrent of political advertising, the Internet Archive is actually doing something to help make sense of the field. With grant support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Political TV Ad Archive is tracking political advertising across the country, in 20 markets in nine key states. Here in Philadelphia alone, the project reveals, television viewers were inundated with nearly 4,500 airings of political ads in advance of the primary election. Fueled by a tight Senate race, this amounts to roughly nine airings per hour.
Many of these were paid for by outside spending groups and not the candidates themselves. That’s certainly not contributing anything positive to our political culture.