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Study: Political Ads Dwarfed News Stories About Actual Political Issues In 2014

By David Knowles, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Politics has become all about the ads.

A new study by Philly Political Media Watch finds that during evening newscasts leading up to the 2014 midterm elections the airtime given to political ads dwarfed stories about political issues by a ratio of 45:1.

The study — paid for, in part, by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation, and with analysis provided by the Sunlight Foundation — examined newscasts in the Philadelphia viewing area for the last two months of the 2014 campaign and found that the vast majority of political advertising aired during local nightly news programs. But while those broadcasts may have been packed with political ads, the news segments were largely devoid of political issues.

“In the final eight weeks before Election Day 2014, six broadcast television stations that serve the Philadelphia metro area benefited from a $14.4 million bonanza in political ads. Over that same period those stations aired fewer than 19 minutes of substantive political stories — those devoted to actual campaign issues as opposed to news of candidate appearances,” the study’s authors wrote in their executive summary.

The Philadelphia market dominates three regions: Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey, and the study found that even in non-competitive races in that area, candidates continued to spend heavily throughout the course of the last few weeks of the campaign. The big winner of this trend? The companies that own the television stations.

“The Gannett Company controls 46 stations and its political advertising revenue was over $92 million in the fourth quarter of 2014, part of an 117 percent increase in broadcast revenue (Fox, 2015),” the authors said in their conclusion. “Sinclair is the largest local television station group. It owns, or controls through service agreements, 167 stations in 79 different media markets. In the fourth quarter of 2014 its political ad revenue reached over $80 million as part of its $130 million political ad revenue in 2014. To put that into perspective, its political ad revenue in 2006 was $30 million. The 2014 revenue represented a 433 percent increase (Fox, 2015).”

While reaping the financial benefit from a flood of advertising dollars, however, the stations did not feel the need to substantially increase the political content of their news programs.

“This study reveals that when people watch local news broadcasts prior to an election, they are being exposed to far more political advertising during the commercial breaks than political journalism during the news programs themselves,” Travis N. Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, said in a press release. “And little of the news about political campaigns is focused on policy issues. These findings should make us rethink the role of local news in today’s campaigns.”

Screenshot: YouTube

Despite Huge Victories, Republicans Face Some Obstacles

By Jeffrey Stinson, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republicans now dominate statehouses to an extent not seen since the 1920s. But in even the reddest states, that won’t automatically mean lower taxes, spending cuts and a hard line against Medicaid expansion.

In November, the GOP won control of the governor’s office in 31 states and the legislature in 30. That’s up from 29 governorships and 27 legislatures in 2014. In 23 states, Republicans now control both the governor’s office and the legislature.

But the GOP’s election inroads also resulted in more states where one party holds the governor’s office and the other controls the legislature. Before the election, only 11 states had split government; now 20 do. In those states, divided government will prevent either party from enacting its wish list.

Even in states that elected Republican governors and larger GOP legislative majorities, revenue shortfalls may put a damper on the fervor for tax cuts, particularly in states that have already made deep cuts in the last three or four years.

Nearly every state is grappling with how to pay for road and bridge repairs, which might mean hikes in gasoline, sales or other taxes. Many states face greater demands to fund education, with some having court orders to do so. And most states still have big public pension liabilities.

Disputes among various GOP factions — Tea Partiers, libertarians, social-issue activists, and pro-business conservatives — will further complicate matters.

Despite those obstacles, Republicans undoubtedly will use their increased power to advance core GOP interests. In addition to building on legislative majorities in many already-red states, Republicans in the election also flipped control of 11 chambers that had been Democratic, leaving just 11 states where Democrats have legislative control.

The red tide will usher in “a lot more conservative public policy” in the short run, said Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, incoming chairman of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, which was instrumental in the GOP election wave.

Gary Moncrief of Boise State University, co-author of the book Why States Matter, agreed that issues central to the conservative agenda, such as abortion, guns, “right-to-work” laws, welfare limits and school vouchers, will emerge or re-emerge in states where Republicans feel emboldened by big majorities.

Dollars and cents

In deep-red Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP lawmakers slashed income taxes in 2012, arguing that it would spark economic growth and increase tax revenues. Now the state is staring at a $279 million budget hole.

Kansas’ budget shortfall is so large Brownback is proposing diverting $41 million in public employee pension contributions and $100 million from highway funds to close it. And the situation could worsen: A three-judge panel last month said the state isn’t spending enough on public schools.

In Ohio, newly re-elected Republican Gov. John Kasich would like to phase out the state’s income tax after he and the Republican legislature approved a 10 percent reduction in rates over three years. But to cut more, Kasich will have to convince an even bigger GOP legislative majority to approve a new oil and gas severance tax. So far, legislators have balked.

Even in the Republican stronghold of Texas, where the GOP bolstered its legislative majority and Greg Abbott won election as the state’s new governor, talk of property tax and business franchise tax cuts is starting to wane despite a $2.6 billion budget surplus and as much as $8 billion in its rainy day fund this year. Oil prices are plunging, and oil underpins much of the state’s economy and revenue.

Instead of tax cuts, Texas might spend its surplus on transportation or schools, especially if the Texas Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling that the state’s school finance system isn’t sufficiently funding poorer school districts.

In Georgia, a joint legislative committee told newly re-elected Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and majority GOP lawmakers last month that they must consider a penny sales tax or an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax to cover a transportation funding gap of up to $1.5 billion a year. One group, Georgia Taxpayers United, already has begun campaigning against a gas tax increase, warning of “consequences at the ballot box” for lawmakers who support one.

In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is proposing the biggest increase in per-pupil spending in 25 years and telling GOP majority lawmakers that they have to discuss raising gasoline or sales taxes to pay for $7 billion in needed highway work over the next 30 years.

Kinder and gentler?

At least one political scientist who studies state government, Thad Kousser at the University of California, San Diego, sees a kinder, gentler GOP face in many states where Republican governors and lawmakers have enjoyed majorities since 2010 and the economy has improved sufficiently to tackle issues other than tax cuts, such as health, education and welfare.

Ohio’s Gov. Kasich, who easily won re-election, is a case in point.

“Let me tell you what conservatism is,” Kasich told The Wall Street Journal. “First and foremost, it is focusing on the economy.” But as Ohio’s economy improves, he said, “we need to make sure we reach out to people in the shadows” with expanded health care, mental health insurance and job training.

Despite widespread GOP opposition to Obamacare in the 2014 election campaign, at least three Republican governors — Herbert, Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Matt Mead of Wyoming — have said they’ll seek to expand Medicaid to obtain the millions of federal dollars available through the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama have said they are exploring it.

Charter schools and Common Core

In some states, Republican majorities are likely to extend charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Texas Gov.-elect Abbott made charter schools and vouchers a cornerstone of his election campaign. And in West Virginia, one of only eight states without charter schools, there may be a move to introduce them now that Republicans have taken over the legislature for the first time since before the Great Depression.

Although public charter schools often receive bipartisan support, they are a key element of nearly all GOP campaigns. Tax-funded vouchers for students to go to private schools also are backed by many GOP gubernatorial and legislative candidates. However, in some Republican-dominated states, such as Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin, many rural GOP lawmakers have joined with Democrats to oppose taking dollars that could go to public schools to pay for vouchers.

A grassroots movement, often backed by GOP Tea Party groups, to repeal Common Core education standards remains strong in several states that have adopted them, and the standards could face trouble in the Tennessee and West Virginia GOP legislatures.

Newly re-elected Republican governors Paul LePage in Maine and Scott Walker in Wisconsin have come out against them. But other GOP governors who won re-election — Ohio’s Kasich, Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada — still stand by them.

Momentum for “right-to-work”

In several states, new Republican majorities are expected to push “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit requiring workers to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.

In New Mexico, for instance, previously moribund legislation has new life after Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 60 years. Similar legislation is expected in Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Ohio. And in Missouri, a bolstered GOP legislative majority is expected to again try to make it more difficult for public employee unions to collect dues from members.

In West Virginia, the new GOP majority in both legislative chambers gives Republican foes of the state’s prevailing wage law hope they can repeal it this year. Republicans can override any veto by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin because it takes only a simple legislative majority to do so.

West Virginia’s law, which has been on the books since the 1930s, requires the state to set a wage for all levels of workers on public construction projects to ensure they all receive uniform pay for the work they do. Wages are set after the state surveys union and nonunion contractors. But foes say the surveys are costly. A similar move to repeal prevailing wage laws may emerge in Michigan and Nevada.

Gun fights

Since 2010, many GOP-majority states have loosened gun restrictions, such as limits on carrying concealed weapons in public. Similar legislation, such as a proposal in Florida to have a designated staff member carry a concealed weapon on school grounds, is expected in 2015.

But in other states, pro-gun Republicans will have to use their new clout to block gun control measures. In Washington state, for example, voters approved expanding background checks to include private gun sales and the transfer of weapons. Washington gun-control advocates now want lawmakers to go further with legislation to keep guns away from children, the mentally ill and domestic abusers. But Republicans now have firm control of the Senate, which makes passage more difficult.

In Nevada, initiative petitions have been filed to require nearly universal background checks, which may force the GOP legislature’s hand. Lawmakers have 40 days to act on the measure. If lawmakers pass it and Sandoval signs it, it becomes law. If not, the initiative goes before voters on the November 2016 ballot.

Restricting abortion

Although abortion wasn’t a big campaign issue and many GOP candidates spoke little about it, pro-choice groups expect it to appear again as it did following big GOP wins in 2010. Most governors oppose abortion rights.

Voters in Colorado and North Dakota defeated ballot measures to give embryos legal rights. But Tennessee voters approved an amendment that says the state’s constitutional privacy provision doesn’t secure or protect a right to abortion. A bill that would impose mandatory ultrasounds before a woman could have an abortion already has been filed in the GOP legislature for the upcoming session.

In Republican-dominated Texas, which has some of the most restrictive abortion policies, legislation has been pre-filed to ban abortions on the basis of fetus gender. And in Missouri, which has a veto-proof GOP legislative majority, a bill will be introduced this month to require regular inspections of abortion clinics in a state that had only one clinic last year.

Welfare and voter ID

At least 18 states saw bills last year to require drug screening or testing of people to receive public assistance, and Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi passed legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More bills can be expected in Texas and other states this year. Twelve states have passed legislation in the last three years. But some have run into resistance. Florida’s law was halted by a district court judge who said it violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

Legislation requiring voters to prove citizenship and display identification to vote has increased in recent years with more GOP control in statehouses. Seventeen states have enacted laws since 2011, and most have strict identification requirements. Although courts have thrown out laws in states such as Arkansas and Pennsylvania, legislation is expected to emerge again in New Mexico and other states, where GOP gains give voter ID bills a better chance of passing.

Photo: The Texas Tribune via Flickr

Populist Proposals Win In 2014

There’s no denying that Democrats took a drubbing at the polls in 2014. Running cautious campaigns and shying away from Obamacare, Wall Street regulation, the anti-fracking movement, immigration reform and Obama himself — was not a winning strategy.

While the Democrats had a poor showing, populist and progressive ideas surged. Even in red states, pollsters find support for big progressive policy changes (such as living-wage laws, Medicare for all, a national infrastructure jobs program, expanded Social Security benefits and free higher education) that would re-establish a vibrant middle-class America. While voters were tossing Democrats aside in this past election, bigger majorities of the same electorate leapt at the chance to say “YES” to an array of unabashedly populist ballot initiatives:

Minimum wage. Even though the crimson-red states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota elected GOP Senate candidates, voters rejected the low-wage policies of the Republicans and their corporate backers by approving minimum-wage increases. San Francisco voters also raised their wage floor to $15 an hour, and Oakland went to $12.25. In addition, non-binding referenda calling for raises to $10 or more were approved by 65 percent of the voters in Illinois and by 13 Wisconsin cities and counties, where a whopping 70 to 83 percent of voters OK’d the increases.

Fracking. While ExxonMobil, Halliburton and dozens of huge energy corporations are in a nationwide fracking frenzy — running roughshod over local citizens in the furious rush for fast profits — locals have begun pushing back against the gross pollution, health problems, infrastructure damage and even earthquakes caused by the inherently destructive and intrusive fracking process. Asserting their human and civic rights, local coalitions have, in the last few years, won several referendum fights to ban fracking in their communities.

This year’s election saw four more victories added to the list. Bans were passed in Athens, Ohio (with 78 percent of the vote), California’s Mendocino County (67 percent) and San Benito County (57 percent) and even in Denton, Texas (59 percent).

Corporate money. In dozens of communities in five states, people went to the election polls and confirmed what opinion polls consistently report: The overwhelming majority of Americans want corporate money out of our elections. In the midst of the most money-soaked midterm election in global history, multipartisan majorities said “enough!” They voted for initiatives that said (1) only humans have constitutional rights; (2) money is not speech; and (3) “We the People” want to pass a 28th Amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s corrosive Citizens United edict.

Ironically, even as the Koch-financed governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, pulled off a re-election victory, 12 local communities (including his home county of Milwaukee) voted between 70 and 80 percent for local initiatives that call for an amendment to overturn the Court’s terrible decision. Similar majorities were amassed in statewide in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio. As the national director of the Move to Amend Campaign put it: “The leaders of both parties need to realize that their voters are clamoring for this amendment, and we are only going to get louder.”

Paid sick leave. Poverty is sickening enough, but millions of people trying to live on poverty-level wages face a truly sickening choice when they fall ill: Stay at home and lose a few days’ pay, or go to work sick, possibly spreading the illness to co-workers and customers. This year, there were four big victories for paid sick leave: Massachusetts (59 to 41 percent), Oakland, California (81 to 19 percent), Montclair, New Jersey (74 to 26 percent) and Trenton, New Jersey (86 to 14 percent).

Conservation. Three major conservation initiatives passed this year: Alaskans voted to prohibit future mining projects that would endanger wild salmon habitats; 75 percent of Florida voters approved a measure to dedicate $1 billion a year in real estate taxes to the protection of water in the endangered Everglades and other areas; and New Jerseyans OK’d an initiative that requires $2 billion in corporate tax revenue be spent on land conservation.

Marijuana. This year both Alaskans and Oregonians voted for full legalization, while Washington DC voted to decriminalize marijuana. And the U.S. territory of Guam approved marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

The day after the election, President Obama said: “To the two-thirds of voters that chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you.” Fine. But will he and the other Democratic leaders make the giant leap from “hearing” to doing? Taking bold, populist actions makes working stiffs and average Americans excited about voting. We need more leaders to champion the populist cause.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: pbarcas via Flickr

A Year That Took The Awe Out Of ‘Awesome’

It was an “awesome” year. In my annual search for a word that pretty much describes the past year, I have found that almost everything, everywhere, was “awesome.”

I am using the A-word in the sense that I have heard my son’s generation use it since he was in grade school in the 1990s.

To the new generation, I detected, the world boils down to two extremes: everything is either “awesome” or it “sucks.” No longer is “awesome” is reserved for those people or things that actually inspire awe. “Awesome” has grown like a grade-B movie monster into a universal sign of praise (“That’s an awesome necktie”), delight (“You live near here? Awesome!”), and gratitude (“You brought me a cup of coffee? Awesome!”)

But nothing marked 2014 as The Year of Awesome as profoundly as an early December tirade by Fox News co-host Andrea Tantaros against a Senate committee’s report on CIA torture. “The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome,” she insisted. “We’ve closed the book on [torture], and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.”

My comment: Fear not, Ms. Tantaros. America is still awesome. In fact, I think we look even more awesome for arguing our torture policy openly and honestly, instead of sweeping the issue aside — which would be the opposite of awesome.

But failure could be as awesome as success in 2014. For example:

Awesome Fails, Political Division: This will be remembered as the year when President Barack Obama’s approval ratings slipped so low that, as one friend of mine quipped, even the Thanksgiving turkey wouldn’t take his pardon. Nervous Democrats in red-state midterm re-election contests tried to behave as though they’d never heard of him. Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes memorably refused repeatedly to say for whom she voted for president in 2008 and 2012, citing her right to privacy as “matter of principle.” Right. After a strong start, she lost handily to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. An awesome fail. As the late Molly Ivins memorably advised, “You got to dance with them what brung you.”

Most Awesome Fail, Entertainment Division: Bill Cosby faced and survived public allegations a decade ago that he had drugged and raped women. But this was the year when cellphone video of a monologue in which rising comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby as “a rapist” went viral in ways that devastated Cosby’s reputation as he refused to discuss the matter. What changed? The new “awesome” generation. Post-boomers like Buress, 31, are too young to have witnessed Cosby’s heyday as a breakthrough multimedia entertainer. Knowing him better as a preacher over the past decade for pull-up-your-pants conservative moral values, they hold him to a different standard. As Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che, also 31, put it in one of the year’s most awesome quotes, “Hey, Bill Cosby, pull your damn pants up.”

Awesome Banking: Lenders have become so tight-fisted since Wall Street’s 2008 crash that even former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was turned down for a loan. “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage,” he said during an October conference in Chicago, “and I was unsuccessful in doing so.” When the audience reacted with laughter to that awesome revelation, Bernanke added, “I’m not making that up.” Maybe lenders “have gone a little bit too far on mortgage credit conditions,” he observed. Gee, d’ya think?

A Retreat from Awesome: Remember when military operations in the Middle East rolled out under such awe-inspiring, take-charge names as Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn? Half the battle seemed to be won by attaching a snazzy name to it.

Yet in labeling the October intervention against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, military brass chose the awesomely underwhelming “Operation Inherent Resolve.” As a seasoned broadcaster advised me when I was learning to write for television: “Never use a $100 word if a $5 word will do.”

Will 2014 be the year that buries the overuse of “awesome?” I hope. For now, have an awesome New Year.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)