Commercial TV Cashing in on Political Ads Make the Case for Public Media

Toles TV zombie 5.22.15


Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.  . . . The 2016 presidential election is right around the corner and, thank God, the rancor has already begun.

                                           –  Les Moonves, CBS President and CEO


A recent report by investigative journalist Lee Fang makes clear how the tsunami of dark money that will be spent on negative political ads in the 2016 presidential election cycle has commercial TV moguls in a state of euphoria. To view this windfall as something positive for the bottom line of their business is a loud wake up call for greatly strengthening non-profit public media in America.

For starters, commercial TV news is not about to produce stories, much less in depth documentaries, about the toxic effect dark money is having on our political process which Senator Bernie Sanders has pointed out, just as they have failed to report on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations. Research shows public media entities do cover these important issues, but reach relatively few citizens because of the significant lack of funding in the U.S.

An even stronger reason to strengthen our public media system is informing citizens about the intended effect of negative political TV ads – to induce a sense of apathy, withdrawal and even antipathy towards our democratic political process. As Robert McChesney and John Nichols have long articulated, the sharp rise in spending on negative political ads since the Citzen’s United Supreme Court decision in 2010 has enriched commercial TV stations while undermining our democracy.

Since 1934, commercial radio and TV stations have been required by law to serve the public interest. Until the 1970s, they did so under the regulatory oversight of the Federal Communications Commission. Since then, however, the FCC has increasingly allowed commercial media to do as they please in terms of serving the public interest. Though non-profit public media entities do cover such critical issues, they are too marginal in their reach and impact to generate the level of public discourse difficult policy issues require in a democracy.

Bill Moyers cogently describes the challenges facing non-profit journalism in the current  “pressure cooker of plutocracy”, calling to mind the trenchant prediction in the 1940s of American essayist E. B. White:

I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television — of that I am quite sure.


It is time for citizens to provide much greater support for public media and to challenge their local TV stations about their easy acceptance of negative political ads. It is also time for citizens to demand greater disclosure of where the dark money is coming from as Nicholas Kristoff suggests in his recent column,“Polluted Political Games.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States. [Robert Reich of Common Cause] told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.