In 2009 the CBS, NBC and MyNetwork affiliates in Honolulu announced that they consolidating to form one of the “largest television news operations” in Hawaii. The three news stations now share the same address, share the same staff (70 people lost their jobs), and the same content – but they broadcast from separate channels, appearing as distinct entities to viewers. Around the same time one of Hawaii’s two daily papers also closed its doors.
This consolidation – including two of the top rated local news stations – is one of the worst in a series of local newsroom deals around the country. However, this election season it got a lot worse. The new combined broadcast newsroom announced it would partner with the one remaining newspaper for election coverage. While partnership and collaborations hold the potential of deepening and expanding the local journalism ecosystem, this deal seems as though it’ll result in one company setting the election news agenda for the entire state.
In West Virginia the most important political talk show in the state happens to be aired on a station owned by John Raese who is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, running against current Democratic Governor Joe Manchin. The host of the talk show, Hoppy Kercheval, also happens to be a close friend of John Raese and a big donor to his campaign. Here is how Politico explained it:
“It’s one of the most curious aspects of one of the most competitive Senate races in the country: The Republican candidate happens to be one of the largest media owners in the state.
As the chief executive of Greer Industries, Raese oversees business interests including not only steel and limestone businesses, but also The Dominion Post newspaper in his hometown of Morgantown; the West Virginia Radio Corp., which owns 25 stations; and the MetroNews radio network, which serves 61 stations and counts as one of its star talents Hoppy Kercheval.
In a campaign season where the question of whether media owners’ wield an outsized influence over the political debate has been an issue — think Fox News’ parent company’s $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association — the situation has proved tricky for Raese as both a candidate and a businessman.”
Speaking of News Corp’s $1 million donation – it was just a few weeks after writing that big check that Rupert Murdoch turned around and asked the GOP for help in keeping the FCC at bay in Fox’s spat with Cablevision. Again, Politico reports, “News Corp. is hoping to enlist the help of House Republicans to keep the federal government away from a fight with Cablevision that’s left about 3 million viewers in the New York area without Fox programming since Friday. The company began to canvass GOP members of the Energy and Commerce Committee this week, according to sources, urging them to sign a letter that encourages the Federal Communications Commission not to intervene.” And guess what, besides a few snarky tweets, the FCC did almost nothing.
And in California, the New York Times catches News Corp mixing editorial choices and political contributions this election year. “The Fox Business Network focused on what it called “The War on Business” all last week, but on Tuesday its coverage was decidedly more focused — with a series of reports about a California ballot initiative that its parent company, the News Corporation, had spent $1.3 million to defeat” writes Brian Stetler.
What makes all of this even harder to swallow is that even as these media companies are throwing their weight around before the election, they are also raking it in through campaign ads. Bill Mann of MarketWatch puts it in perspective:
“The people who are making most — over 90%, by most estimates — of the money from all the obnoxious and ubiquitous ads this fall have names unfamiliar to most people: Belo, Young Broadcasting, Cox, Fisher Broadcasting, Media General. And big names, of course, like ABC, Tribune, Gannett, NBC Universal. Why don’t we see any stories about the broadcasters feasting at the trough each election year? Simple: They own the stations that would air those stories.”
Usually, when I write about media in an election cycle I am bemoaning the cut-rate coverage, and horse race mentality of what passes for journalism on so much cable and broadcast news. Americans aren’t getting the whole story in part because consolidation has decimated local newsrooms. But this year, that’s only part of the story. With the Citizens’ United court decision the lines between big media, big politics, and big business are blurring. It has never been more important for journalism to help us sort fact from fiction, issues from influence, stories from spin.
*All opinions here are my own and do not represent my employer, Free Press, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and doesn’t endorse or oppose any candidate for public office.