BILL MOYERS: Despite all the economic woes, you have surely noticed by now that we are in the middle of the most expensive political campaign in American history. And we still have nine months to go. At the outset last year the former chair of the Federal Election Commission called it a high-stakes poker game. To get in, he said, a really promising presidential candidate needed an ante of at least one hundred million dollars. More than half of that - more than 50 cents on the dollar -- goes to buy ad time on television. That would be a big windfall for your local television station. Except that in most cases, it's not your local station, or even your local economy, that keeps the money. The profits from selling the public airwaves for private gain are sucked up the food chain to the folks at the top -- those mega-media conglomerates that now control most of the airwaves. No matter who wins in November, big media can't lose -- just like the house in a Las Vegas poker game. Here's our report by producer Peter Meryash and correspondent Rick Karr
RICK KARR: Political advertising is about to set a new record: two and a half billion dollars. That's how much analysts predict will be spent on political TV ads before November's election by candidates, from the White House to the state house by the groups that support them and by groups that oppose them.
That's two thirds more than they spent in two thousand four - which set the previous record.
The Presidential race will account for at least a third of the total - some eight hundred million dollars. And that can buy a lot of ads. Before the Iowa caucuses, for example if you'd watched every single ad that the candidates ran - all 50,000 or so of them, back-to-back - it would've taken more than 15 days. In New Hampshire on the night before the primary the state's biggest TV station - WMUR in Manchester - aired 34 political ads in just ninety minutes. In the run-up to the primary, the station reportedly earned $11,000,000... from political ads.
BROOKS JACKSON: The 30-second ad definitely is the dominant form of political communication in the United States today as it has been for many years. And as I expect it will continue to be for some time to come.
RICK KARR: Brooks Jackson is a veteran journalist who runs a web site called factcheck.org. which evaluates the claims that politicians make as they campaign.
As a voter-- if I see nothing but 30-second spots for the presidential candidates, what kind of picture do I get? How accurate is that picture of what these candidates stand for?
BROOKS JACKSON: If all you know about candidates in an election is what you see in your ads, you are going to cast a very poorly informed vote. Because those ads quite frequently are-- based on information that's selective, or twisted and, sometimes just downright false and made up.
RICK KARR: Political consultants will tell you that TV ads are essential because a candidate can't run an old-fashioned door-to-door campaign from coast-to-coast. And given this year's compressed primary schedule and the twenty-four states voting together on Super Tuesday the only way for candidates to reach the masses and keep control of their messages is with TV ads.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: After Iowa and New Hampshire, I think we're kind of in a ready, set, go. We are going to see, because of the way the primaries are set up, huge amounts of money spent on advertising, because, there's just no way. There's no way physically or otherwise that these candidates can be in all these states. They're gonna have to run in these states on television.
RICK KARR: So who really profits from the two and a half billion dollars that they'll bring in through this campaign? The biggest beneficiaries will be media conglomerates which have been buying up more and more local TV stations. Take New Hampshire as an example: More than half of the stations that serve the state are owned by conglomerates - media giants such as News Corp., which owns 35 stations nationwide CBS, which owns 39 Sinclair, with forty-six and one you may never have heard of: Ion Media, which owns 57 television stations coast to coast.
Even though those conglomerates broadcast to New Hampshire, not one has its headquarters there. The state's biggest TV presence - the conglomerate Hearst-Argyle, which owns three stations that broadcast there - is run from corporate headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
Campaign reform advocate Meredith McGehee says that's a big change from the days when most stations were owned by local businesspeople.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: When you talk to station managers off the record, not on the record, they'll say the way the system works now is, a number comes down from the suits in New York or wherever, to say, "Here is your number for the fourth quarter of 2008. Meet it. Either get it with ads, get it through the politicians. I don't care how you get it. Make it, or we'll find somebody who will."
RICK KARR: And they do 'make it' thanks to political ads and the cash bonanza they bring in. So much so . that corporate bosses at media conglomerates are bragging about how good campaign spots are for the bottom line: In its 2006 annual report, Hearst-Argyle, for example, wrote "We expect that our stations will benefit significantly from the 2008 election cycle." "Political revenue" got its own line in that report. And other media conglomerates have made similar claims. CBS President Les Moonves reportedly told investors last December, "We like the fact that there are a number of candidates with a lot of money behind them".
Now, you might wonder, "What's the big deal? These are corporations, after all - aren't they supposed to maximize profits?" The answer is yes, but - because broadcasters aren't like other businesses. The airwaves that we use are owned by the public.
Think of it this way: when a company drills for oil on public land it owes the public a royalty - a percentage of whatever it earns. Broadcasters don't have to pay for the licenses that give them the right to use the public airwaves but in exchange for those licenses, they ARE supposed to give something back to the public.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: What they're supposed to do is fulfill these public interest obligations. Insure that the public gets information it needs to be an informed and engaged electorate.
RICK KARR: But local TV stations have been doing a lousy job of that. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they get most of their news from local TV. Yet when scholars studied how local TV news covered the 2004 campaign they found that the average political story was just 86 seconds long that stations spent more time reporting on weather, sports, and crime than they did on politics and that when they did report on campaigns, nearly half of all stories covered the "horse-race" - who was ahead and who was behind. That kind of reporting dominated the conglomerates' newscasts in the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire votes this year.
BROOKS JACKSON: We saw the-- you know, the futility of-- horse race coverage in the period between-- the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire. When all the polls indicated it was going to be this-- cakewalk for Obama.
I mean, the first amendment gives the press in this country, and that includes-- broadcast outlets, terrific freedom, which is used to make a lot of money. But it's there because-- the voters need information to base a sound decision on. And I think in-- too many cases broadcasters and cable outlets-- are making-- huge amounts of money from running these political ads. Which in many cases are false and misleading. And they're putting very little of that money back into some reporting that would inform their viewers-- about when they're being scammed.
RICK KARR: Broadcasters can get away with reaping huge profits from the public airwaves without giving back to the public because Washington has abandoned its obligation to hold stations accountable to the public interest.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: The failure is a failure public policy. It's a failure at that Federal Communications Commission, and a failure in Congress. They are not getting for the American people a fair compensation for the value of these airwaves that are being used by the broadcasters. The American people are the ones that get robbed here.
RICK KARR: So in the end, what the public gets is a political campaign dominated by thirty-second sales pitches.
BROOKS JACKSON: What it does that is pernicious is it forces the candidates and their handlers and their media experts to compress-- their message into a very small space, basically a bumper strip. And to try to make it as dramatic as possible so it'll punch through all the competing advertising and all that noise and clutter on 100 cable channels out there, and grab people's attention. And frequently-- truth goes by the wayside. If you think commercial advertising is misleading, you gotta realize it's the wild, wild West when it comes to political advertising.
BILL MOYERS: Those big conglomerates may be laughing all the way to bank with their loot, but clearly many of you are unhappy about what this means for democracy. Several studies have measured your frustration. Two-thirds of you simply do not trust the media's campaign coverage. Eighty-eight percent say we focus too much on trivial issues. 77 percent of you want us to get more serious about just where the candidates stand on the issues. There is something to be done about this. Congress and the FCC could require the big media companies, on a rotating basis, to provide candidates free air time each week to debate face to face, no journalist playing middle man. These companies are fined for obscenities; why shouldn't we ask them to give back some of the airwaves we've let them use for profit? Public broadcasting too - we've used our primetime to little to enable the candidates to speak freely, and hold each accountable. That would be a far better use of these airwaves than another series on the British monarchy. By the way, CBS, the network Murrow built, recently advertised a job opening for an internet reporter to cover the environment. The posting called for applicants who are 'wicked smart, funny, irreverent and hip ....knowledge of the enviro beat is a big plus, but not a requirement.' By now CBS has no doubt found out that anyone with those qualifications has already been snapped up by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central.