BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you felt like you were being pummeled with political attack ads and starved for campaign coverage this election year you may be relieved or disturbed to know that these feelings were not merely symptoms of having an above average interest in American politics. The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California recently issued a study that said local news viewers in major markets were seeing four paid spots for every one election news story this time around. And of course all that purchased air time didn't come cheap. This week the Alliance for Better Campaigns came out with their stats on political ad dollars spent this season. Paul Taylor, president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns joins me now. Paul, welcome back.
PAUL TAYLOR: Good to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So midterm elections 2002. A disaster from your point of view?
PAUL TAYLOR: A pretty unpleasant experience I think for most Americans and I think you put your finger on the problem. What most Americans got who get their news from radio and television, particularly television, is the nightly rat a tat tat of ads and very little else; a mere trickle of substantive news coverage. This has been a pattern that's been going on for years. We keep on digging ourselves deeper and deeper into this rut, and you end up these election campaigns as we did last week with viewers and citizens basically wanting to take a shower rather than going to the polls. There was actually a small uptick in, in turnout but it was very small; from a historically low base we still had fewer than 40 percent of eligible adults going out to vote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you know that viewers wanted to take a shower?
PAUL TAYLOR:Well, I, I think the boycott is, is the best evidence of that. One thing that I think most people knew about this election was the stakes were pretty big; goodness knows we got a lot of things to think about and vote about from the war on terrorism to the collapse of the stock market to the recession etc, and yet we have more boycott than, than vote on election day!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boycott suggests an action. This is really inaction. They were too indifferent to go to the polls.
PAUL TAYLOR:Well I think it's a little bit of both, frankly. I, I, I think some of it is apathy. I think some of it is frustration and anger with the political process and I think although it's somewhat simplistic I think the leading symbol of what people don't like about the political process are the barrage of ads and the incredible money chase that the political system puts itself through to be able to fund all those ads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how much money exactly was spent on campaign ads this year?
PAUL TAYLOR:Exactly one billion dollars was spent to air 1.5 million political spots on television stations in the nation's top 100 media markets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how does that compare to the amount spent during the 1998 midterm election?
PAUL TAYLOR:Exactly double. Exactly double from the last midterm election four years ago and a 25 percent increase over what was spent in 2000, a presidential year. So even though this wasn't a presidential year, we still spent 25 percent more. And this is only the top 100 media markets. There are 211 media markets in the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So which markets aired the most ads?
PAUL TAYLOR:Well in our survey, Boston aired, aired the most ads in the top 100 media markets. If you lived in Boston and you set yourself out to watch every single political spot, you would have had to watch 41,154 of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. With all that political advertising going on, how much air time then did broadcasters leave for actual political coverage?
PAUL TAYLOR:Very little. There have been a couple of studies that were done this fall, one by a watchdog group here in Washington which found at least through the last week of the campaign comparing it to a comparable time period 8 years ago found that the national networks coverage was down by 72 percent this year against the midterm election of '94. And then as you mentioned the Lear Center, they looked at a period from mid-September through the end of October; they looked at a sample of over a hundred local television stations around the country, and they found that in their highest-rated local newscast, just one third of those newscasts in that key period -- right in the heart of the election campaign -- had any election story at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Hm! So if the frequency of ads is going up and the actual coverage is going down, does this mean that people are getting most of their political information from the advertising?
PAUL TAYLOR: What in effect it means is that in the, in the greatest democracy in the world, where we prize the notion of free speech, what we are doing with this incredibly important speech which is candidate speech prior to elections, we are auctioning off the right to free speech on the closest thing we have to a public square, which is our broadcast airways, 30 seconds at a time to the highest political bidder! Candidates are spending more money than ever before; these ads cost more than ever before -- in part because the demand for them is greater because there is no news coverage so candidates feel they have no choice but to run a barrage of ads, and that -- in a classic supply and demand situation -- then forces up the price of these advertising. So this is a classic vicious cycle with all the worst instincts of the system perpetuating themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now your organization says the way out of the rut is to pass a law requiring broadcasters to give political candidates more access to the air, not necessarily for advertising but for fora and debate in places where they can actually discuss the issues instead of the horse race.
PAUL TAYLOR: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But with the public so apathetic and politicians looking to cover their own rear ends and the broadcast lobby unwilling to hand over that amount of time -- it seems to me that this is a Sisyphusean enterprise.
PAUL TAYLOR: There's no doubt that it's uphill, but it seems to me it's a winnable fight. The, the hope frankly is that over time good talk starts to drive out bad talk -- that you feed people more nourishing information about politics, it draws them into the process --then ultimately it leaves less room for these negative ads to do their worst. Negative advertising, one of the reasons it's so popular among candidates is it works best in a low-information environment. If that's the only thing you know about a candidate is the lousy stuff you hear his opponent saying about him or her, you know, in a slash and burn attack ad, it's much more likely to be effective than if you have a fuller body of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Paul, thanks for flashing a little light at the end of that tunnel.
PAUL TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] A pleasure to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Taylor is the president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, tomes for the troops and German publishers exhume old Nazi ties.