EDITORIAL: Public loses as candidates buy coverage

   We haven’t been hearing much lately about the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Bob Franks. This is not a complaint, mind you – just an observation. A couple of months from now, we will no doubt look back on these dog days of summer as a blessed interlude in an otherwise raucous political season.
   What concerns us at this point, however, is not when we are going to start hearing again from Mr. Corzine and Rep. Franks, but how we will hear from them once the campaign heats up again. After Labor Day, we fully expect New Jerseyans will be bombarded with information about the Senate candidates. But it is not likely to be delivered in the form of news stories written and aired about them; it will come in the form of television commercials produced and purchased by them.
   Today, candidates for high office are relying almost entirely on what they call "paid media" – principally television advertising – to deliver their message to voters. This has replaced "free media" – stories about the candidates appearing in the morning newspaper or on the evening news – as the dominant form of communication with voters.
   It would be easy to blame the candidates alone for this development; it is, after all, they who choose to spend the bulk of their time making phone calls to raise money to buy television advertising time, rather than participating in campaign events that lend themselves to news coverage. But the media share the culpability, as recent reports by the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania make clear.
   In the first four months of 2000, broadcasters in the top 75 media markets in the country took in more than $114 million from more than 151,000 political ads, according to the alliance. Yet, the typical local TV station aired less than one minute each night on the news of candidates discussing issues.
   The Annenberg Center, which monitored 19 local TV stations in 11 cities for 30 days before primary elections, found that 16 of the stations, on average, aired 39 seconds a night of candidates talking about the issues. (The other three stations, in Boston, Cleveland and Manchester, N.H., were involved in special election projects launched by their owners, and averaged nearly four minutes per night of substantive campaign coverage.) The Annenberg study found network coverage even more paltry; an average of just 36 seconds a night of candidates discussing issues. To add insult to injury, the networks spent considerably more time airing stories on campaign strategy. On CBS, 77 percent of the political stories aired in the spring were horse-race stories on who was wining and who was losing; on NBC, it was 66 percent; on ABC, 68 percent.
   But all of these findings pale in comparison to coverage of the New Jersey Senate primaries. According to the Annenberg Center, TV stations in New York and Philadelphia collected $21 million from candidates (nearly all of it from Mr. Corzine), while the top-rated stations serving the state featured just 13 seconds a night of candidates discussing issues.
   It isn’t the increase in paid, partisan advertising by candidates that bothers us so much. It is the decline in unpaid, objective coverage of the candidates and the issues by the very same media that profit so mightily from the advertising. With the notable exception of a few local station owners who’ve gone out of their way to provide special coverage of election campaigns, the media have effectively ceased covering substantive discussion of campaign issues. And the less "free media" the candidates get, the stronger their argument that the only way they can get any kind of message to voters is through "paid media."
   That may be good for the bottom line of Viacom, General Electric, Disney, and Fox – the corporate giants that control the television news industry. But it is bad for democracy.