Beyond TV sound bites in the Silver State

There is a plethora of public affairs programming on Jim Rogers's three Nevada TV stations

During the somewhat less frantic months of the presidential campaign season—between the primaries and the nominating conventions—the Swing States Project will feature occasional profiles of people we’re calling, for lack of a better phrase, discourse leaders. These are people in the press—TV or radio hosts, newspaper columnists, people with important online presences—in battleground states who in one way or another help to lead substantive and civil political conversation.

Below, Jay Jones, the Swing State Project’s Nevada correspondent, profiles Jim Rogers, the owner of Intermountain West Communications Company.

NEVADA — Journalists—especially those who are a bit older, or who work in the print medium—have been known to bemoan the fact that most people get their news from television. What they—or rather what we, as I am one of them—find discouraging is that on air, a major political issue is often distilled into a one-minute-long story featuring a couple of brief sound bites.

Jim Rogers shares that frustration. “I really fell out of love with the 30-second sound bite,” Rogers said in a recent interview. “And I thought that television wasted a lot of people’s time by making people believe that if they listened to a 30-second sound bite about any particular subject, that made them an expert.”

The difference is that Rogers is in a position to do something about it. Rogers is the owner of Intermountain West Communications Company, which operates NBC affiliates across five western states. He purchased his first station—Las Vegas’s Channel 3—in 1979. His media empire now includes three Nevada stations (the other two are in Reno and Elko), and he’s recognized—by friend and foe alike—as a champion of public discourse here in the Silver State.

No stranger to controversy—he was threatened with expulsion from Las Vegas High School for his editorials in the school paper damning the “lousy” teachers—Rogers, at age 73, still enjoys a feisty debate. And his television stations provide the forum.

In an era when TV news consists of those 30-second (or often shorter) clips, Rogers is an anachronism. The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t required TV stations to carry specific public affairs programming since the mid-80s, yet Rogers’s Nevada stations carry a wealth of such shows.

The king of political commentary in Nevada, Jon Ralston, anchors “Face-to-Face,” a half-hour program that airs Monday through Friday statewide from its Las Vegas base. Then there’s “Nevada Newsmakers,” a similar show based in Reno, which churns out four programs a week. The weekly “To the Point” is hosted by the Las Vegas Sun’s political editor, Anjeanette Damon. All three are carried statewide.

And there’s still more. The newest public affairs program from the Rogers stable, “The Agenda,” began airing each weekday in Las Vegas earlier this year. It combines interviews and analysis of political issues with sparring between the co-hosts, liberal Hugh Jackson and conservative/libertarian Elizabeth Crum.

“We don’t agree on much, but we pick our own topics [and] we’re really given an amazing amount of creative control,” said Crum. “We’re attempting to get past the talking points from both sides that voters tend to get inundated with, especially the non-partisans because they are the crucial swing of voters and really just trying to get down to the facts.”

“Sometimes we do disagree on what the facts are, but Hugh and I do our best to bring data, good-sourced information, to the show,” she added. “We are trying to provide a public service, to help people in their decision-making process.” (CJR has previously written about the scrutiny “The Agenda” and “Face to Face” applied to one local congressional campaign.)

Crum added that Rogers never meddles. That’s something he feels is important.

“When we hired Elizabeth Crum, I told her, ‘Elizabeth, I’m a flaming liberal and I always have been. But I don’t want to do anything to ever cut off your views as a libertarian or conservative,’” he explained.

Rogers says he gives the same free rein to his other commentators.

“I have never had one discussion since Jon [Ralston] has been there [at Channel 3] about content, that he should or shouldn’t ask these questions, that he should or shouldn’t have these people on, because I think it’s very, very important that ownership not try to interfere with content at all,” he continued.

What makes this programming plethora notable is the fact that, here in Las Vegas, the trend at other local TV stations is to provide less, not more, public affairs coverage to viewers. Neither the CBS nor ABC affiliates in Las Vegas produce any public affairs broadcasts.

The television landscape is a bit fuller in Reno, Nevada’s other metropolitan area. In addition to the daily mix on Rogers’s NBC affiliate, both the CBS and ABC stations carry weekly 30-minute programs—a larger commitment than many stations around the country.

“In the public affairs programs, you get more than just a sound bite,” noted Ray Hagar, political reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal. “You can listen to a detailed explanation or answers to some complex questions about politics or the economy. You can really get a sense about the person.”

Hagar, who co-hosts “Nevada Newsmakers” about once a week, said that TV can offer him a better opportunity to nail down a politician who wants to waffle.

“You can ask a follow-up and keep grilling them until they answer the question,” he pointed out. “When you interview someone for the newspaper, they can quickly pivot away from the question and they can even say, ‘That’s it. The interview’s over.’ On TV, they can’t say that.”

The various shows are all ad-supported, like the rest of the commercial programming on Intermountain’s stations. But Rogers insists that, at least when it comes to public affairs programming, it isn’t about the ratings or the dollars.

“I’ve told our people we’re not going to start changing the content of our programming based on whether you do a 2, a 2ΒΌ , a 3 (share) or whatever,” he said. “I want them to stop looking at the ratings and stop adjusting what we do based upon the ratings.”

“I don’t think he does it to make money,” said Hagar. “I think he does it because he believes in the old 1930s design. It goes back to radio [when you had] to do something for the public good.”

In a phone interview from his Montana ranch, where he escapes Las Vegas’s sweltering summers, Rogers agreed with that analysis.

“When television and radio started out, the objective was that the stations would be locally owned and would respond to the local needs of the community and could do so because ownership was local and could understand what the local needs were,” he said. “I wish that all of the stations across the country were owned by people in the communities where they broadcast. I think if that were so, you’d see a lot more participation by ownership.”

In practice, of course, that would force Rogers to sell off his stations that aren’t in Nevada, his primary home for the past 60 years. And his views put Rogers at odds with critics of the FCC’s latest push for localism.

Rogers said, in practicality, it’s impossible for CEOs at corporate owners to understand the political scenes in Poughkeepsie, Peoria, and Portland—and that connection is key to helping to foster public debate.

“I believe very strongly in open discussion about any and all issues. I think that’s my obligation as a broadcaster,” he says. “I’ve always done that and I intend to continue until the day they put me in the ground.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.