Closer look at a cash cow

Denver's KUSA says newsroom's "Truth Tests" set high bar for campaign-ad vetting

COLORADO — Barack Obama wasn’t the only winner in the 2012 campaign here. The state’s TV stations—especially those in Denver, the dominant media market—did pretty well, too.

Political groups spent roughly $86 million on election ads in this battleground state, Denver Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow reported earlier this month. According to Ostrow’s source—an anonymous “knowledgeable local TV source”—perhaps $68 million of that money went to Denver stations, and about $50 million of that was focused on the presidential race. A Washington Post analysis, based on slightly different numbers, found that the Romney and Obama campaigns and their allies spent $73 million on race for the White House in Colorado, making the state No. 5 in political ad receipts. And the same Washington Post feature tallied more than 55,000 presidential campaign ads in the Denver market alone!

Not nearly as numerous as those ads or the dollars behind them, but a growing contingent nonetheless, are the critics who see TV stations as opportunists—raking in the windfall of the post-Citizens United, post-Speechnow era but doing too little independent reporting or vetting of the claims they air. Reformers have called for stations to “tithe” a portion of their windfall profits to pay for campaign coverage, or even for a ban on paid political advertising. And the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison told Rolling Stone that TV news divisions have a “huge conflict of interest” that stifles aggressive campaign finance coverage. (CJR, too, has faulted TV stations that accept big ad dollars and then fail to cover campaigns.)

But what do broadcasters here think?

I asked representatives of four Denver televisions stations to talk about those criticisms, as well as how they might be spending their political-year proceeds. The only one to respond was Gannett-owned KUSA 9News, an NBC affiliate.

Patti Dennis, KUSA’s longtime news director, was in fact eager to talk about her station’s efforts to examine election ads, and its broader campaign coverage.

“We factchecked more than 50 ads in this election cycle,” Dennis said. “We dissected them and then put them on TV or the web, and in most cases both.”

The effort required a large and dedicated news staff, and some reallocation of duties, she said. KUSA’s “Truth Test” series was produced by a four-person team of researchers, in addition to three experienced reporters: full-time political reporter Brandon Rittiman, as well as Chris Vanderveen and Matt Flener. The factchecking segments drew praise on two separate occasions from the Annenberg Center’s project.

KUSA also brought on two former office holders in Colorado to provide partisan commentary and analysis, as well as a pollster. The station sent news personnel to the Iowa caucuses and the party conventions. And on election night, two KUSA reporters covered the scene at NBC’s “Democracy Plaza” in New York City.

Dennis said KUSA’s expanded effort to cover the campaign and scrutinize the ads’ claims was part professional responsibility, part common sense.

“From a news perspective, it was our feeling that so many voters are hearing the messages in commercials and making election decisions [based on them]. And we really felt like it was our obligation, plus [viewers] like it, so why wouldn’t we do it?’

KUSA is Denver’s broadcast news leader, with a 46 percent share of the 25- to 54-year-old market in the 10 p.m. news period. The station’s website had more then 40 million page views last month, Dennis said.

According to Mark Cornetta, the station’s president and general manager, KUSA took in about 40 percent of the total political ad buy in Denver in 2012, amounting to roughly $27 million.

But Cornetta insisted the idea that there’s any conflict of interest is “absolutely wrong, at least in our organization.

“Our news organization maintains separate editorial control over what they do and say, including the decision to conduct Truth Tests on many of the ads that we airing,” he said. “The news organization and sales organization are never in conflict because they don’t communicate with one another. We maintain a strict separation between them.”

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.”

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at 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.