WDC Joins National Campaign to Challenge TV Stations
to Air Nightly Candidate Forums During 2000 Elections

Research & Advocacy Project to Monitor Stations’ Ad Revenue, News Coverage

January 24, 2000

Madison - The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign announced today it is joining forces with the national Alliance for Better Campaigns to press the television industry to open the airwaves to brief nightly issue forums in the 2000 election season.

The WDC has assembled a coalition of 16 organizations to spearhead the effort here in Wisconsin. The research and advocacy project aims to shed light on how the television industry profits from big money politics as well as challenge television stations to meet their public interest obligations by voluntarily airing five minutes a night of "candidate-centered discourse" in the 30 days before the 2000 primary and general elections. The voluntary "5/30" standard has its origins in a 1998 recommendation by a White House advisory panel that included broadcasters and was co-chaired by CBS President Leslie Moonves.

The research component of the initiative involves monitoring the number of political ads that television stations run and comparing it to the amount of candidate-centered coverage they provide.

"Thirty-second TV ads are the junk food of politics, and if voters are fed a steady diet of ads and get little of the more healthy fare of issue forums and candidate debates, they will be badly malnourished and our democracy will suffer the consequences," said Bill Kraus, an honorary co-chair of the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin and a member of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Kraus is a former gubernatorial aide and longtime Republican operative.

"More than one million political ads are expected to run on television across the country this year at a cost that could exceed $600 million. Candidates in 2000 will spend six times more on television ads than candidates did in 1972. Citizens are turned off by these ads and by the money chase that pays for them, and are turning away from the electoral process," said Jack DeWitt, another honorary co-chair of the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin and WDC member. DeWitt is a prominent Madison attorney and longtime Democratic Party activist.

"Both the television industry and candidates need to accept their share of responsibility for the damage they are doing to the democratic process, and they both need to be part of the solution," DeWitt said. (For more, see the guest column.)

The initiative does not call on broadcasters to give air time to candidates to use as they see fit. Broadcasters will control how the nightly candidate discourse is structured. The segments could take a variety of forms, including interviews, mini-debates and issue statements.

"We are not asking for free air time for candidates. We want high quality political journalism," said Mike McCabe, state project director for the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin and the WDC’s communications director. "We’re not interested in letting candidates do for free what they do now in paid ads. We want more substance. We want those seeking office to answer tough questions and talk about issues people care about."

More than a dozen stations in other states already have committed to providing coverage that meets or exceeds the 5/30 standard, McCabe said. They include WCVB in Boston, WMAR in Baltimore, WCPO in Cincinnati, WEWS in Cleveland, WXYZ in Detroit, KSHB in Kansas City, KNXV in Phoenix, WFTS in Tampa, KJRH in Tulsa, WPTV in West Palm Beach, WRAL in Raleigh, WRAZ in Durham, WTAE in Pittsburgh and KCRA in Sacramento.

The Washington-based Alliance for Better Campaigns is headed by former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor and boasts former television anchorman Walter Cronkite and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford as honorary national co-chairs.

The organizations that make up the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin include: the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Common Cause in Wisconsin, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, NAACP-Madison Branch, AARP, Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, Wisconsin Citizen Action, Lutheran Office for Public Policy, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, Citizens’ Utility Board, John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice.

The Sorry State of TV Election Coverage
The Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin
  • From Labor Day through Election Day, the main ABC, CBS and NBC network newscasts aired 74% fewer election stories in 1998 than they did during the same stretch of the previous mid-term general election in 1994, according to a Center for Media and Public Affairs study.
  • Viewers of local evening newscasts in 25 states saw four times as many campaign ads as campaign stories, according to a 1998 election analysis by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch. Over a third of the newscasts analyzed did not carry a single political story.
  • TV stations in California’s top five media markets devoted just 0.5% of their total news coverage to the 1998 governor’s race, according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.
The 36 stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego and Bakersfield averaged about 30 seconds a day of news coverage on the gubernatorial race in the 12 weeks studied.

Only 32% of stories on Philadelphia newscasts dealt with the substance of the election, while 62% of stories during the general elections focused on campaign strategy. In San Francisco, only 19% of stories dealt with substantive issues while 67% were strategy-oriented.

During the final week of the campaigns, 88% of broadcast stories in Philadelphia and 72% of the stories in San Francisco focused on the horse race aspects of the election.

  • Viewers in Philadelphia and San Francisco were much more likely to see news stories that focused on the horse race aspects of the 1999 mayoral races than on the issues at stake in the elections, a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication showed.

Guest Column