What can TV reporters do instead? Stokols cites a series of stories he did over the summer about the contortions of prominent Republicans who supported a wind energy tax credit—including then-VP hopefuls Rob Portman and John Thune—until Mitt Romney called for its elimination. More than 1,000 Colorado jobs were at stake with the credit, but Stokols said he was the only TV reporter who showed up at Portman and Thune’s campaign stops to ask about it.

Boyd, who did the “Reality Check” at KCNC and is the station’s sole political reporter, acknowledges that her popular factchecks often made it difficult to cover state and local races. But her news director, Tim Wieland, notes that “Reality Check easily generates more viewer response that anything else we do,” and that the brand had come to permeate the station’s political coverage. Boyd estimated that 90 percent of KCNC’s political coverage was Reality Checks, mostly aimed at political ads, but also at debates and speeches.

In addition to local races, another area that appeared to get short shrift in Denver was investigations of outside spending groups. Reporters at each of Denver’s stations said that their factcheck segments included a discussion of who paid for the ad. But none of the stations could point to specific reports that delved into the financing, or the political connections of outside spending organizations, the often shadowy groups working to influence the viewers and voters.

Bill Wheatley, a former vice president of NBC News, has called on stations to hire additional staff during election years to beef up their political coverage. What could be done with such resources? He suggested in-depth profiles of candidates, including congressional and statewide races, and segments examining candidates’ positions on local issues that the editorial staff judges to be important, rather than just focusing on ads or stump speeches.

“To do a good job on a campaign requires manpower,” Wheatley said. “Most stations could use some extra people in election years.”

The bottom line
Where does all the ad money end up, anyway? Local broadcast stations are usually owned by large media companies, or, in some cases, by the networks themselves. So the flood of new ad revenue is rarely under local control. “Just like any revenue that comes into the company, it gets accounted for,” said Dana McClintock, a spokesman for CBS, about earnings from political ads on local stations that CBS owns and operates. “There’s nothing special about it.”

None of the stations we spoke to in Denver discussed plans for these revenues, which ultimately flow to their parent companies. At press time, the earnings reports for leading broadcast ownership companies included early estimates for the fourth quarter of 2012, and thus the heavy crush of ads before election day. Carl Salas, a senior analyst at Moody’s who rates companies that own TV stations, said the majority of them were using 2012’s unprecedented political windfall to pay down debts, pay dividends to shareholders, and conduct mergers and acquisitions.

In other words: The rising tide of political advertising does not appear to be floating any groundbreaking TV journalism. That’s unfortunate, for now and the future. The avalanche of ads that hit Denver this year, nearly half of them produced by super pacs and nonprofits, will likely be a regular occurrence for many election cycles to come. Salas estimated that political ads will increase their share of broadcast companies’ earnings from a historical average of 6 to 7 percent over the two-year political cycle to 9 percent in the future. “This is a new baseline, and it will continue to grow,” he said.

The rise of factcheck segments is encouraging; factchecking is a crucial tool. And Denver newsrooms demonstrated the capacity and the integrity to effectively truth test ads with teams as small as a single reporter.

But some TV journalists think much more could be done on politics and policy with just a few more resources. Raising the bar costs money. But, hey, the money is there.


Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.