He added, “In 25 years, I’ve never had a political agency call up here and say, ‘We’re not going to do business with you’ as a result of anything our news organization has done.”

Dennis, the news director, could not recall any KUSA reports that specifically looked at money being spent on Denver ads by so-called “dark money” groups, nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose donors’ names.

But she said KUSA’s factcheck segments routinely gave viewers a sense of the unseen influences in the election. “Each time we did a Truth Test, we were revealing the back end—in other words, where the money was coming from.”

There were a few subjects Cornetta and Dennis declined to discuss. Neither would give the broadcast industry an overall grade in reporting on political ads, saying they were just not familiar enough with the national scene.

Nor would either say how KUSA plans to use its campaign ad proceeds, saying that decision is made at the corporate level. Efforts to reach Greg Lougee, head of Gannett’s broadcast division, were unsuccessful.

Managers at other stations have told CJR that quadrennial campaign ad revenue provides a financial “cushion” against leaner years in between, enabling them to make basic upgrades to station equipment and staff benefits. KUSA’s Dennis did point out that new technology is a constant drain on station budgets, and that TV ad revenue in general has been eroded by the Internet and other digital media.

And Dennis also made one other point, pushing back against the sense that it’s improper for stations to benefit from the partisan mudslinging on their airwaves.

“It’s unfair … to label anyone who uses an opportunity to grow their business as somehow being greedy,” she said, “especially when we spent as much time and as many resources as we did to educate the audience on those messages. From an editorial standpoint, we really went after anything that was misleading [or about which we received] complaints.”

 

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.