NAB spars with Free Press over TV campaign coverage

A report released last week by Free Press contending television broadcasters will reap nearly $3 billion in revenue from political advertising this year without fully disclosing to the public where that money comes from has drawn a sharp rebuke from the NAB.

The 12-page report, "Citizens Inundated," contends the public is awash in misleading political information stemming from the rise of Super Political Action Committees (PACs) that sprouted up in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. That ruling did away with long-standing restrictions on corporate political donations and is responsible for a tsunami of media spending, particularly on local TV, the report says. Among the biggest winners will be Belo, CBS, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Media General, News Corp. and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, it says.

According to the report, while local stations — particularly those in battleground states with a hotly contested Senate race — will hit the jackpot of political spending, they don't make information about who's buying these ads easily accessible to the public.

NAB executive VP of communications Dennis Wharton released a statement Jan. 26, the same day as the report was published, criticizing Free Press for using "discredited research" upon which to base a call for new broadcast regulations.

According to Wharton's statement, choosing to use old studies that overlook the totality of broadcast campaign coverage, "Free Press demonstrates a disturbing intellectual dishonesty reminiscent of their previous attacks on broadcasting."

The NAB says the report overlooks campaign coverage on morning news shows, noon news, weekend public affairs telecasts, televised debates, State of the Union speeches as well as coverage on TV websites, and simply relies on research counting political coverage during weekday evening newscasts.

In response to Wharton, Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, released a statement Jan. 27, calling the NAB's accusations of intellectual dishonesty "laughable" and saying the association is trying "to distract from the fact that broadcasters are doing virtually nothing to improve election-year coverage while raking in billions from political ads."

On Jan. 3, Hearst Television announced its Commitment 2012 program, which includes a pledge to air 12 minutes daily on weekdays of political and candidate discourse daily in the 30 days leading up to the election on its news producing stations. Post-Newsweek has announced its own program, offering free airtime to candidates in the 30-day run up to the general elections.

The Free Press report calls for several reforms, including making political ad spending information available online, exposing the money behind front groups in the body of ads and strengthening the limits on consolidated broadcast ownership.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.