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TV stations are campaign’s big winners

By Matt Pommer

The clear winners in this Wisconsin election year are television stations. Candidate and ghost organizations have poured money into TV spots in the races for the governor’s seat and the U.S. Senate.

Wisconsin’s Senate race is leading the nation in the number of TV spots. Television station executives probably believe the recession is over.

But don’t count out the print media as Wisconsin citizens prepare to vote. Consider Republican Ron Johnson’s bid to defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson has provided a bland campaign in TV spots, leaving Feingold to defend Social Security as we know it and criticize free-trade agreements.

Johnson promises to go to Washington, fight deficits and create jobs. The biggest spending challenges in Washington are Medicare, Social Security and faraway wars.

Johnson has not staked out positions on those issues. One Johnson TV spot focus was to complain about the number of lawyers in the U.S. Senate. Johnson said Feingold is one of the 57 lawyers in the chamber, no manufacturers and only one accountant. Johnson, who runs a manufacturing firm, has accountant training.

In mid-October the Wisconsin State Journal, a newspaper with a GOP bent, ran a political cartoon by Phil Hands that showed a likeness of Johnson and said the campaign had 57 misleading ads, one angry electorate and zero new ideas.

That’s a powerful print message — more powerful than a liberal blogger who, when the Johnson lawyer spots started running, noted that 64 percent of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were either lawyers or judges, and 62 percent of those signing the U.S. Constitution were from legal fields.

A newspaper cartoon is far more powerful than bloggers. The newspaper ends up on the living room table while the 30-second spot and bloggers’ notes are gone in a flash of the eye.

Most newspapers also require that letters to the editor be signed. That’s far different from what is happening on television. Many of the ugliest negative ads are paid for by some never-heard-of-before organizations fueled by secret contributions. Their operatives say the wealthy contributors don’t want to be attacked or made the targets or retribution.

Just a few days remain for the television station gravy train. Some TV ad executives may suggest the political flood shows how great their medium is. But the majority of those TV spots aren’t selling something positive. Most regular advertisers are seeking positive responses.

A final word about lawyers. Critics will note that Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman weren’t lawyers. On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln practiced law.

Newspaper editors might be wary on this issue. Readers might remember that Warren Harding started out as a newspaper publisher.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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