When this overlong rigmarole they call “election season” is finally put out to pasture, there will be plenty on my to-do list.
Weeping cathartically, blocking FiveThirtyEight from my browser forever, toasting a shotglass of tequila to the gods of blunderous campaigns for their manifold blessings to the GOP this year—it’ll be a busy day.
There’s one item on the list, however, that trumps the rest hands-down: watching TV without that offal called Super PAC advertising glutting the airwaves.
I can’t wait to bid adieu to the churlish mud-slinging, the grainy filters, decontextualized quotes, talking-head everymen, cold footage of wheat threshers, dubious statistics, demagoguery ad nauseam, and rapidfire Super PAC approval messages wrapping everything up in a gaudy little bow.
And lest I forget: the lies. According to the Annenberg Foundation, one in four advertisements funded by Super PACs includes at least one untruth—a record beyond the pale, especially when compared with the relatively honest ads sponsored directly by campaigns. Given the unprecedented volume of Super PAC ads (Ohioans have seen almost three times more than they did in 2008) it’s clear that we’re being exposed to oodles of whoppers.
What if I told you that it didn’t have to be this way?
TV networks are legally obligated to grant political candidates commercial airtime, so the Obamas and Romneys and Tammys and Tommys (wow, does it get more Suessian?) will always get to dish dirt about opponents on the tube. But while they must oblige candidates, networks have every legal right to simply say no to Super PACs.
They have not exercised that right, as is evident from the malodorous tripe on our TV screens. And to be fair, they have strong rationale: Election cycles mean big revenue streams for regional networks, something to the tune of 2.8 billion dollars in 2012 alone. The income argument is not justifiable, but understandable: TV ad revenue on the whole is on the decline, and a groundswell of political spending is just what networks need to buttress their budget.
But even if they allow Super PACs airtime, stations could still exercise their legal right to fact-check and provide context for viewers. It’s an inelegant solution (read: we’d still have to watch those insufferable ads), but a win-win in the sense that stations keep their revenue while shining a light on the chicanery of Super PAC ads.
Of course, this is based on an assumption that local TV journalism is not abysmal. For those who are naïve enough to assume as much, consider my favorite case in point: During the Wisconsin recall elections, stations in Milwaukee reported on Super PACs whose ads they were airing zero times, vis-à-vis the fifty-three times they reported on the life and times of Justin Bieber. That’s the industry standard.
It’s too bad, because these ads represent more than annoying, manipulative, and deceitful television. They also reflect a tarnished, post-Citizens United dollar-ocracy, where the voice of the rich and powerful drowns out all others. Worse, the plutocrats responsible are shielded from public accountability, thanks to Super PAC non-disclosure of donors. Never before has there existed a right to anonymous free speech, but now we are witnessing one being engineered before our very eyes.
You may think it silly to get pissy about this now, what with elections nearly over. But the season’s trends evince a problem that will get worse before it gets better.
The respite after Election Day is the calm before the storm of 2014, and years beyond.
Write to your local TV station.
Tap into that torrent of rage that’s been growing every time you’ve had to endure another thirty seconds of detritus sponsored by Crossroad GPS.
Let them know that revenue is well and good, but remind them that the public has an interest in truth and fairness.
In addition, check out Annenberg’s “Stand by Your Ad” campaign, which I hope continues to thrive well after November 6.
Its aim is to pressure networks to carry out due diligence, and either say no to ads or at least fact-check. The campaign’s website,
Flackcheck.org, abounds with resources and information on other actions that you, the aggravated TV-junkie citizen, can take.
If not for democracy, then for the sake of those who just want to preserve the sanctity of their 30 Rock viewing experience. It’s what Liz Lemon would want, people.
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