Tired of seeing a barrage of political ads? Wondering why there isn't more coverage of the midterm elections on your local station? It's not your imagination.
Television newscasts in the largest 50 media markets have run four times as many political commercials as campaign stories, a study says. Of the 4,850 half-hour local newscasts examined, only 37 percent carried any election coverage.
But the stations were more than happy to ring the cash register by accepting campaign ads to air during the news. Three out of four of the newscasts aired at least one political ad, says the study by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center.
Put another way, the average local newscast carried just 39 seconds of campaign coverage but more than a minute of political ads.
National coverage of the 2002 campaign has been overshadowed by such stories as the Washington sniper shootings and the confrontation with Iraq, but local television didn't fare much better. "Many station managers feel that putting political news on their airwaves would be ratings poison," said Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center.
The local reports were as likely to involve strategy and the political horse race as any discussion of issues. And House races were all but invisible: Although 46 percent of the stories aired focused on governors' races, the study says, 16 percent dealt with Senate races and 7 percent with House contests.
With the stakes so high and the memory of the 2000 election still fresh, Democrats and Republicans are trading charges over Democratic assertions that the GOP is trying to suppress voter turnout on Election Day.
Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has accused Republicans of attempting to intimidate voters and local election officials, to discredit the results in areas where Democrats appear to be doing well and to annoy other voters with anonymous, middle-of-the-night recorded phone calls.
"This is a midterm election, and, obviously, Democrats want to move turnout up to presidential election levels," Backus said. "That's our job. The Republicans know that and have learned some lessons from the Florida recount that they're trying to apply. Their job is to suppress the vote as much as possible."
Jim Dyke, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, dismissed the allegations. "There is a clear pattern by Democrats based on their inability to define a positive message, their lack of funding and, frankly, their desperation to take their fear tactics one step further," he said. "We find it offensive. It's not factually based."
Democrats believe a large voter turnout will help their candidates and hurt the GOP, and the exchange of barbed comments was likely a preview of more charges to come before and during the voting Tuesday.
Backus's charges were based on news reports from around the country and reports of Democratic operatives.
She said a new organization, the Republican National Lawyers Association, included many of the GOP lawyers who were dispatched to Florida in 2000 to battle Democratic lawyers during the bitter recount there. She said a lawyer from the group recently visited election officials in Pennsylvania with the apparent intention of intimidating them. Dyke said the lawyers' organization had no connection with the RNC.
Haitian Immigrants an Issue?
Much washes ashore in South Florida. Sometimes a campaign issue even bobs up on the coastline.
On Tuesday, one week before Florida's gubernatorial election, news cameras caught nifty footage of 200 Haitian immigrants leaping from a rickety boat and making a run for it. U.S. immigration policy allows Cubans to apply for political asylum if they are apprehended after reaching land, but doesn't afford the same option to Haitians.
Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said he doesn't think the Haitians should be allowed to stay without going through normal immigration channels. Democratic challenger Bill McBride wants the immigrants released.
Now the question is, what kind of impact will this have on a tight governor's race? Not much, most analysts say.
"The press has turned it into a Haitian Americans-versus-Cuban Americans issue," said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. She noted that Cuban Americans tend to vote Republican while Haitian Americans tend to lean Democratic. "In South Florida, it may equally stimulate Cuban American and Haitian American turnout."
Staff writers Edward Walsh and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.