If Nevada is a battleground, then the warring parties dig their trenches on local television. That’s where political action and candidate committees go at it with both barrels, slinging factually questionable content across local airwaves and national networks, weighing in on every contest from Congress to the presidency. This year, they’ve dug in deep.
You’d have to be blind and deaf to miss the ads. Political campaigns, with heavy assists from special interests, have purchased almost all the prime advertising spots. On Aug. 8, 2012, Americans for Prosperity spent more than $300,000 to buy television time in Nevada for the ad “Tick Tock,” which juxtaposed clips of President Obama vowing to cut the deficit with the growing debt clock.
If he doesn’t get it done, Obama said, “It’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Only Obama never said that about the debt. And throughout the clip, the editor mixes up the deficit — which is the gap between government revenues and expenditures — with the debt, which is the cumulative amount of money owed.
It’s not the worst of the Americans for Prosperity ads. The Koch-affiliated super-PAC has poured millions of dollars into the presidential campaign, much of it here in swinging Nevada. They also produced the ad “Dying on a Wait List,” which featured a Canadian citizen who said national health care almost killed her. An investigation by FactCheck.org revealed her deadly brain tumor to be a benign cyst.
Americans for Prosperity isn’t the only outfit stretching the truth. The Annenberg Center for Public Policy, which operates FactCheck.org, found misleading claims in 85 percent of ads produced by super-PACs. This campaign season could see an all-time high of $3.3 billion in advertising spending, and much of that is funding deceptive television spots.
“If you follow that money trail, it ends up in the bank account of local broadcast companies,” said Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, an organization that promotes public media and media reform, and author of its report Left in the Dark.
Karr studied the coverage of all this advertising on local stations in five battleground markets, including Las Vegas. He looked for news stories in August about four super-PACs, those secretive political funds that operate outside the parties and campaigns and aren’t required to disclose their contributors. He also looked for fact-check segments about the ads that were funded by Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads/GPS, Priorities USA and Restore our Future. Across four stations, he found six segments in all of August about ads funded by super-PACs, and four of those were national segments.
That sounds pretty bad, considering the amount of advertising and the number of newscasts. But local news directors and general managers dispute the results.
“[The report] is not accurate,” said Lisa Howfield, general manager at KSNV Channel 3. “We have two hours a day of political programming, and I would find that hard to be true. I know Ralston Reports does what they call reality checks on a regular basis.”
At Channel 3, the reporting on political advertising takes place on the political programs. The local news shows handle the rest of the daily news.
Ron Comings, the news director at KLAS Channel 8, said the station has aired 20 fact-check segments so far this year. The station also has more than 40 stories about political ads on its website. Not every ad gets a segment on the news, he said.
“We will usually pick the ads that are most obviously stretching the truth,” Comings said. “When it is obvious things are taken out of context, those are the ones we do.”
Of course, not all stations are as dedicated to political coverage. KVVU Channel 5 has not run any segments on political advertising, but the news director said they plan to do one before the election.
“With the deadline pressures we have, we cover stories that are happening that day,” said News Director Adam Bradshaw. “And those kinds of stories tend to take a little bit more time to do.”
Political advertising has been a windfall for local broadcasters in battleground markets. Federal regulations limit how much stations can charge candidates, but not super-PACs. Stations can’t reject advertising based on content. They can only reject ads that are patently false, defamatory or dangerous.
“We don’t have any authority or power to reject these ads,” Bradshaw said.
Howfield said she will ask for extra substantiation for any ad that treads the line between fact and fiction, and put it in the station’s public file. But as long as the advertiser can provide some proof for their claim, the ad will run.
“The First Amendment right is alive and well,” she said.
Motivated media consumers can always check facts on the Internet. FactCheck.org and other sites dig deep into claims made by groups like Americans for Prosperity. Karr fears too many voters won’t do that, and will rely on local television to guide them through election season. If all they watch is local news, they might not get the facts they need, he said.
“Broadcast television is the primary source of news and information for the majority of people,” he said. “I think they should certainly make the time to cover political ads.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the scope of the Free Press study. Timothy Karr studied all the programming on the four broadcast stations and looked for coverage of the four super-PACs in the story.