There are things broadcasters could do to counter the sludge of campaign ads.
If Minnesotans flip on their TVs right now, they're likely to see at least one -- a political ad slinging mud at a presidential candidate.
As Tuesday's statewide caucuses approach, they're more likely to see many more. Viewers in Florida reported seeing as many as 12 political ads an hour in the runup to that state's Jan. 31 primary. The campaigns and super PACs that bought these ads have now turned their attention from Florida -- where they spent tens of millions of dollars on local media buys -- to Minnesota.
These attack ads by their very nature are negative. But they can also be misleading. FactCheck.org, which tracks accuracy in political messaging, found that the "avalanche of negativity" in recent Florida ads also contained a fair share of distortions and outright lies.
The problem is that viewers are not receiving enough of the antidote: the kind of hard-hitting reporting and election coverage that would help Minnesotans separate political fact from fiction before they attend caucuses on Tuesday.
A 2011 Federal Communications Commission staff report found that 33 percent of commercial TV stations nationwide air little to no local news coverage. For those that do air news, the picture remains dim. Nearly two-thirds of local stations reported staff cuts in 2009 as bosses slashed reporting budgets. This translates into fewer reporters on the political beat and less objective reporting about electoral issues.
A 2010 report by USC's Annenberg School of Communications shows that in the average 30-minute local news broadcast, less than 30 seconds is devoted to hard local government news, including reporting on political campaigns. Meanwhile, it's estimated that political ads will air up to 200,000 times nationwide before viewers become voters in November.
Even after the rise of the Internet, local broadcast television has remained our most influential communications medium. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 78 percent of American viewers report getting their news from their hometown stations on a typical day -- more than the number that rely on newspapers, radio or the Internet.
Where viewers go, so goes the money to influence their votes. The broadcast industry analysts at SNL Kagan report that local television station advertising revenue started "going gangbusters in 2010" thanks to a new influx of political dollars. And 2012 promises to be even more lucrative for broadcasters as campaigns, wealthy individuals and corporations pony up an estimated $3.3 billion for political ad buys across the country.
And while there's been some reporting on where the money to influence elections originates, far fewer people have followed the billions of dollars spent by campaigns and super PACs to the trail's end: the bank accounts of a handful of large media corporations that control local broadcast television across America with a daily viewing audience that numbers in the hundreds of millions.
The media industry even has a term for this, "the Quadrennial Effect," which accounts for the surge in broadcast revenues every four years as national elections take center stage. Among the biggest beneficiaries of this effect are CBS Corp. (which owns WCCO-TV, Ch. 4), News Corp. (which owns KMSP-TV, Ch. 9) and Gannett (which owns KARE-TV, Ch. 11).
These and other local station owners owe it to the communities in which they broadcast to invest some of their election-year gains in the sort of transparency and reporting that is most helpful to voters.
The FCC has asked broadcasters to consider making the political advertising information in their "public files" available online. That's a start. By doing this, broadcasters can help viewers understand the powerful financial interests that dominate the political landscape in 2012.
But voters would also benefit from more television news stories on election-year issues and campaigns. By investing some of their election-year profits in comprehensive coverage, stations can return to the community the information many need to better engage with democracy.
Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press, the nation's largest media reform organization, and is the author of "Citizens Inundated," a recent report on political advertising and broadcast media.