Guilty of … Enterprise

Next week, there will be a special election to decide whether Republican Larry Diedrich or Democrat Stephanie Herseth will replace former Republican Rep. Bill Janklow as South Dakota’s sole U.S. House representative. KELO of Sioux Falls, one of the most popular television stations in the state, recently reported that it had “found some inaccuracies” in one of Diedrich’s ads; Herseth’s campaign saw the KELO story and quickly incorporated it into its own ad campaign.

KELO’s management is dismayed about Herseth’s spot, which uses images from the original KELO segment, including a shot of a KELO political reporter. Mark Antonitis, the station’s general manager, is unhappy that his newscast is being “used in a partisan ad to garner votes to one candidate or another.” It’s standard practice, of course, for campaigns to use newspaper headlines in their ads. But, one Campaign Desk reader asks, “Should there be a different standard when it comes to TV material?”

We can sympathize with KELO’s dilemma; by tradition, after all, local news stations, unlike newspapers, are not expected to have an editorial voice. A KELO reporter’s appearance in a Herseth ad may look to many viewers like a de facto Herseth endorsement — particularly when the ad appears on KELO itself. (Federal law will not allow the station to pull the ad.) And that perception could turn off a number of viewers, particularly Diedrich partisans, who may well conclude that their favorite “objective” news station isn’t so objective after all.

In an ideal world, the station would have nothing to worry about — viewers would recognize that its coverage is based on objective analysis, not partisan preference. But in an environment in which charges of media bias have become integral to the political discourse — and are often used to deflect attention from the real issues — it becomes nearly impossible for any media outlet, except those that avoid controversy at all costs, to simply report what it has found without suffering some consequences.

But we don’t sympathize too much. In fact, we think KELO should buck up and pat itself on the back. There are plenty of local TV stations that lack the enterprise to even monitor campaign ads. If KELO’s item on inaccuracies in Diedrich’s ads was correct, the station stands accused of … what, exactly? Of doing exactly what Antonitis says he wants it to do: “Finding the truth.” How others use that truth is, in the end, out of its hands.

In a world in which all too many local TV stations don’t even bother to monitor campaign ads, KELO’s coverage is producing echoes. There are worse things to be found guilty of.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.