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Electoral Advertising is a Women’s Media Policy Nightmare

| March 1, 2012

title
Jennifer L. Pozner (center) at "Billionaires for More Media Mergers," a 2002 mock action at the FCC.

The author, who directs Media Equity Collaborative, demonstrates why super PACs and the corporate media controlling the airways pose a threat to fair media treatment for women.

What do super PACs swimming in money have to do with a gendered view on media policy? EVERYTHING.

“Donations to women-friendly PACs represent a mere fraction of the millions and millions of dollars being spent by ideology driven PACs,” explains Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president and CEO of Women’s Campaign Fund and She Should Run. “I experienced horrific sexism and misogyny from the media when I ran for office.”
 
Those ideology driven super PACs that Bennett describes are spending the lions’ share of their budgets flooding the airwaves with runaway political advertising.

The Wesleyan Media Project, a watchdog group on political broadcast advertisements, released data on January 30 that showed “a more than 1600 percent increase in interest-group sponsored ads aired as compared to 2008.” Candidate ads have dropped down to 56 percent.

During the Florida primary alone, Romney and his super PACs ran almost 13,000 advertisements across the state. Gingrich and his interest groups ran a very poor second, with barely 200 ads. It is not too hard to see how Romney took away the winnings. The Florida ads were just under half the almost 28,000 advertisements that had run by that time since start of the campaign over three months ago. Through the Florida primary the political ads cost about $15,000,000. 

With Super Tuesday around the corner this will only escalate. The New York Times explained in a lengthy article, "Fine Line Between ‘Super PACs’ and Campaigns," last Sunday that the firewall between the Super PAC and campaigns barely exist and the Federal Elections Committee is ignoring its own rules on coordination among these supposedly separate entities.

The GOP primaries are just the start of the national presidential campaign. Congressional races will glut the airwaves later in the year. They are expected to attract even more PAC support. And lots of that will clog local feeds of cable programs, a sphere not under the purview of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Now with birth control a hot button issue women will see further misconstrued views and loose “facts” in campaign ads about a basic concern in their lives for which they will have no recourse, and severely limited space to set the record straight. For women and girls the lack of serious presentation of gendered stories or women experts on broadcast continues to have dire consequences. Women are only 13.5 percent of guests on Sunday talk shows. That doesn’t even match the 17 percent representation of women in Congress

“Sunday talk show bookers tell me that it's not their fault that women aren't in relevant positions in the fields of politics and business that would make them desired guests on these influential programs, but that's a lie—maybe a lie producers are telling themselves, but a lie nonetheless,” says Jennifer Pozner, the founder and executive director of Women In Media & News, which since 2001 has connected journalists with a national network of female news experts through WIMN's POWER Sources Project. Bookers also have access to the Women's Media Center sponsored SheSource directory of national experts.

All this unbalanced political media advertising results in a vast windfall for television and radio broadcasters. The broadcasters are the primary beneficiaries of these influence peddling PAC funds. Even though they use the public airwaves, it’s the broadcaster’s coffers that swell during election cycles. These are the very same broadcasters who can’t get the story straight on Sistersong or fling misogyny at woman candidates.

“Our organization experienced great media failure; serious media failure,” exclaims Serena Garcia, communications director for SisterSong, a national network of indigenous women and women of color organizations that work for reproductive justice. She describes how right to life groups installed 87 billboards around Atlanta, largely in African American neighborhoods, and asks, “How is that the mainstream media, including the New York Times, ABC, CNN--that all interviewed SisterSong--managed to sideline Loretta Ross [SisterSong founder] on a topic for which she is the leading national expert?” The Times, for example, interviewed her for two days and still left her perspective out of the story.

The flood of super PAC money has many disastrous consequences to the democratic process. Truth, for one. One candidate's ability to outspend another 65 to 1, as Romney did winning over Gingrich in Florida, is another obvious example. But for women and people of color the fact that broadcasters’ power is increased by these dollars is especially detrimental. The largesse for the broadcasters becomes a kind of defacto policy overarching the Federal Communications Commission and its persistent failure to address its diversity mandates from Congress.

Women own only 5 percent of television broadcast stations. Combined with the 3 percent ownership by people of color (both men and women), this means less than 8 percent television stations represent 77.5 percent of the U.S. population. Looked at another way 92 percent of TV broadcasting is in the hands of white males who only represent 22.5 percent of the population. That is not diversity in ownership. When the FCC was first formed in 1934 and most recently in 1996 legislation, the FCC has been called upon to address this adversity.

In December a large coalition of women’s organizations lead by the National Council of Women’s Organizations urged the FCC to address women’s media ownership issues. Two legal cases have remanded proposed rule changes back to the FCC specifically because the agency has failed to address diversity in ownership.

Repeatedly hundreds of organizations and almost a million individuals have urged the FCC to pay attention to community needs especially those of minorities and women. The FCC used its December meeting to once again submit rules to loosen media cross ownership without doing the homework on women’s and minority media ownership that the Third Circuit Court, most recently last July, underscored in its decisions. The court has found the FCC rule change “arbitrary and capricious” because by the FCC’s own admission its data collection on women and minority is sorely inadequate. The court has ordered the FCC to correct its data collection processes. New data is still not available for public review, yet they have proposed more rules changes.

Referring to another regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, told OnEarth blog: “Again and again, we’re seeing the corporations that are supposed to be regulated take over the regulatory agency through money and politics.” Is this why the FCC skirts around any head-on addressing of women’s and minority ownership?  With broadcasters’ bank accounts burgeoning during the 2012 election cycle, they hold an especially large green cloud over the heads of the commissioners. 

New public comments are due March 5th at the FCC on the new proposed rule changes.  

The author, Ariel Dougherty, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of her founding of Women Make Movies with a talk at the New School in New York City, Monday, March 5, 7:30.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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