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Why isn’t local TV news more partisan?

If you believe the mass media is constantly devolving, here’s something to ponder.
By David Brauer

If you believe the mass media are constantly devolving, here’s something to ponder:

Why hasn’t local TV news become more partisan?

After all, one only need look at cable news to see the success of tendentiousness. Fox News has become Number One with right-wing propaganda; MSNBC’s evening lineup of committed lefties ranks second. Meanwhile, Lou Dobbs-jettisoning CNN regularly finishes third or even fourth behind sibling network Headline News.

You’ll hear complaints that one of our local outlets has a systemic bias — Republicans ripping “DFL Don” Shelby or KSTP criticized as GOP water-carriers for reports like this. However, viewers don’t agree, at least when it comes to what station they watch.

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According to one local researcher (identities protected so they could speak freely to my cockamamie thesis), KARE’s audience swings a tiny bit Republican, WCCO’s a tiny bit DFL and KSTP’s — surprisingly to me at least — balances out. Fox9, despite its corporate parentage, doesn’t share the network’s partisan bias, in my humble opinion.

So despite stylistic differences — KARE’s storytelling, WCCO’s probity, KSTP’s ambulance-chasing, and Fox9’s length — TV remains a monoculture, mostly fighting in the middle of the ideological playing field.

That might make for more objective and responsible newsgathering, but some would say more pack-like and less interesting. As Alan Mutter, who writes “Reflections of a Newsosaur” noted in a recent column about the Wall Street Journal’s alleged rightward turn in its news (not editorial) pages:

While the conventional reaction is to say [Journal owner Rupert] Murdoch is out of line, he may be on to something. Given the wobbly economics of the media today, conscientiously opinionated coverage may be the tonic that many newspapers and other news outlets need to revive reader interest and revenues.

I’m not saying partisan local news wouldn’t hurt America. I floated the concept to a number of current and former TV reporters, and all reacted with varying degrees of horror. Most said they didn’t get into the business to twist coverage for preconceived bias.

Some mentioned a practical consideration: they’d be forever typecast as ideologues, making it harder to get the next gig. I understand their feelings; I once contemplated starting a website to blackball all the hack CNN reporters like Casey Wian who picked up paychecks enthusiastically feeding Dobbs’ misrepresentations.

But this piece is more about bloodless business decisions. TV, more than most media, is about getting paid. So why hasn’t some station exec busted this move?

Practically speaking, KARE (which rules the ad-coveted 25/54-year-old demographic) and WCCO (which leads in total households at 10 p.m.) have little reason to experiment. But also-rans have less excuse … or more precisely, more incentive.

KSTP, though drawing a bit closer to the leaders lately, has long been a perennial third at 10 p.m. Fox9 is fourth in most time slots. There’s also a fifth local player: KSTC, KSTP’s sibling station that started newscasts in July, and is literally an asterisk at ratings time. I guarantee Channel 45 would earn a real number if they found a local Bill O’Reilly.

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So why wouldn’t one of them throw caution to the wind and go the Fox News or MSNBC route? Become the station that substitutes “death tax” for “estate tax”; setting the table for the Tea Party, if you will. You don’t have to go full demagogue; you could model yourself on, say, a well-reported opinion journal.

After all, getting 10-15 percent of the local audience makes a station the ratings champ, but fully 25 percent of the public identifies with second-place Republicans and 33 percent with the Democrats, according to averages. There are lots of viewers at the barbell’s ends.

Here are the reasons it hasn’t happened, according to local pros:

1. Cable is a niche, local is not. People sometimes forget how small cable news audiences really are. O’Reilly is by far the Ratings King, but his oft-celebrated audience is about half of oft-scorned Katie Couric, the lowest-ranked broadcast anchor. At 10 p.m., 40 percent of local viewers are watching the Big Four; cable news is fighting over about 5 percent of the national audience.

2. Cable is old, local is not. Current numbers show 72 percent of O’Reilly’s audience outside the 25/54 demo; it’s safe to assume most are older, since three years ago, his average viewer’s age was pegged at a Medicare-friendly 71. Local news skews much younger: even WCCO, with the highest share of older viewers, has 40-50 percent in the advertiser sweet spot.

3. Cable is consistent, local is not. Like radio, cable has no problem programming an entirely ideological day. But news is only one thing local TV stations run. The last thing they — and more importantly, their advertisers — want is steamed partisans boycotting game shows or prime time. News is a big local moneymaker, but it’s not the only one, and controversy is often taint.

4. Local quirks.  As I noted above, a bit player like KSTC has by far the biggest upside should it wave the bloody shirt. But the Hubbard-owned station mostly exists to repurpose KSTP content, so altering one station would reflect on both.

5. History. The indelibility of the non-ideological dynamic can be seen by how few local stations anywhere have tried blatant partisanship. One that did, the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group — which forced stations to broadcast a 2004 anti-John Kerry documentary and fired a journalist who complained — didn’t see any upside.

One thing not blocking the way: the Federal Communications Commission. There’s no Fairness Doctrine requiring balanced content, pros say.

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So does this mean Frank Vascellaro will never be replaced by Jason Lewis? I’m not so sure. Local news-watching is trending downward, the population is aging, and the Internet’s pull may leave broadcast’s vestige with cable’s dynamic. Maybe an independent player will buy an over-the-air station and try an all-winger day. But for now, programmed bias remains either imaginary, inconsistent, or well-coded.