- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

NEW YORK — Savannah Guthrie recently filed a hard-hitting report on NBC’s “Nightly News” questioning the truth of some McCain-Palin campaign statements on the “bridge to nowhere” and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s foreign travel. Miss Guthrie’s story challenged the claims in one of Sen. John McCain’s TV commercials.

A few minutes later, “Nightly News” ran one of Mr. McCain’s campaign spots during a commercial break.

It made for an odd juxtaposition, one not unique to NBC. Evening newscasts on ABC and CBS also ran McCain commercials during the past few weeks. Ads supporting a candidate for office are nothing new to local news viewers but once were frowned upon - if not banned - from the networks’ flagship newscasts.

The worry was they could get in the way of the journalism. Though the practice may have changed, some experts feel the concerns haven’t.

“It can be confusing and, more importantly, distracting to the news coverage,” says Bob Steele, a DePauw University professor and scholar for journalism values at the Poynter Institute.

The networks don’t consider it much of an issue because ads frequently flood local news programs.

The more than 20 million people who watch Brian Williams, Katie Couric or Charles Gibson in the evening are prime targets for political candidates. The viewers primarily are older, the kind of people most likely to vote and, because they’re watching the news, obviously engaged in what’s going on in the world.

This is the first presidential campaign since Bob Dole’s in 1996 that candidates have broadcast TV commercials seen across the country at the same time, says Evan Tracey, head of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a firm that tracks ads. The preference is for local ads, which are cheaper and enable campaigns to reach specific communities in battleground states with messages that resound there.

Networks are mindful of how certain local stations hit the jackpot every four years when they have the good fortune of being in battleground states. In a tough economy, it’s hard to turn down potential revenue; the price of a 30-second spot during the evening newscasts fluctuated between $40,000 and $55,000 earlier this year, according to Horizon Media.

Small national ad buys are back in vogue this year because they’re attention-getting; Sen. Barack Obama advertised on NBC during the Olympics. More states also are considered up for grabs, tipping the balance in making the national ad buys cost-effective, Mr. Tracey says.

Mr. McCain has bought national advertising time during game shows and soap operas, targeting older women who are home during the day, he says.

Representatives from ABC, CBS and NBC say it wasn’t a change in policy to accept such ads for the evening news. To a certain extent, there wasn’t a need for a policy because the issue didn’t come up.

That may be true, but some veteran news executives, including former “World News Tonight” executive producer Tom Bettag, say they thought there was an understanding - either spoken or unspoken - that the ads weren’t considered appropriate for the evening news.

Joseph Abruzzese, former CBS ad sales chief, who worked there for more than 20 years through 2002, says candidate commercials weren’t taken for news programs to avoid confusion with editorial content. He says he was “very surprised” to see a McCain commercial pop up on the “CBS Evening News.”

Although ABC permits the spots during “World News,” the network makes a special effort to place them in commercial breaks several minutes away from political stories, says spokeswoman Cathie Levine. The candidate pitches also are placed in the middle of commercial breaks, with ads both before and after them, to further differentiate them from editorial product, she says.

NBC’s “Nightly News” ran McCain ads on four of five nights the week of Sept. 15. The commercials essentially showed the Republican candidate commenting on things fresh in the news, such as the bubbling economic crisis. The Obama campaign advertised on the NBC newscast in the spring.

“We’re completely confident that our viewers can tell the difference between our news coverage and a campaign ad,” network spokeswoman Lauren Kapp says.

Ken Goldstein, director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, which follows ad spending, says he doubts these evening news commercials would have any influence on news coverage or be confusing to viewers.

“I am so used to the world where political ads are on during newscasts,” Mr. Goldstein says. “It is so obvious on local programs, I see no reason not to do it on a national level.’

Evening newscasts are flooded with prescription drug advertising yet still do a lot of health coverage. Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies news content, says he thinks the situations are similar.

Mr. Steele says he can see situations in which advertising could get in the way of the journalism. He wonders whether a newscast would take on an unwanted whiff of partisanship if one candidate were advertising heavily and that person’s opponent wasn’t. “I’m old-fashioned enough to say my preference is to have candidate ads outside of the newscast,” the journalism ethics expert says.

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