Money, politics, passion surround local coverage of same sex marriage referendum

WBFF, Fox45, opened its Baltimore studio Thursday night for a sprited town hall meeting on Question 6, the ballot referendum on same sex marriage.
WBFF, Fox45, opened its Baltimore studio Thursday night for a sprited town hall meeting on Question 6, the ballot referendum on same sex marriage.(Courtesy of WBFF/Sinclair Broadcasting)

The money, politics and passions surrounding Question 6, the ballot referendum on Maryland's same-sex marriage law, are big, hardcore and hot. Just the kind of story that can go beyond the promotional slogans and be used to measure a local TV station's real commitment to news and public affairs.

The relationship between advertising money coming in and news coverage going out offers a snapshot of what a station does with its resources -- and, perhaps, how much or how little it cares about balanced coverage and civic life. A look at the reports, analyses and forums on Baltimore TV in connection with Question 6 shows some distinct differences from station to station -- and yields at least one finding likely to challenge what some viewers think they know about the politics of local TV news.

Advertising dollars, which will only increase between now and Election Day, are piling up, based on data from WBAL (Channel 11) and WBFF (Channel 45), the two stations that have shared revenue information with The Baltimore Sun.

WBAL, the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate, has taken in $486,000 in TV ad money in connection with Question 6, while WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, has a tally of $251,927 on the referendum.

Going inside the numbers, one of the most striking figures is that WBFF's revenue is almost perfectly split. Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes same-sex marriage, has spent $127,436; Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which supports it, has bought $124,491 worth of ads.

At WBAL, meanwhile, the difference is huge: $393,000 spent in support of the law, with $93,000 for ads opposing it. With no federal limits on what rate stations can charge for issue ads, the take should grow exponentially during the next week.

For context, it should be noted that the casino initiative on the ballot is the big money maker for local stations, with WBAL reporting $4.5 million in ad revenue on the initiative this year, while WBFF has taken in $1.26 million.

Again, WBFF's take is evenly split: $629,361 on each side. At WBAL, it's $2.1 million for the expansion of gambling, with $2.4 million against.

CBS-owned WJZ and WMAR, the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate, declined Sun requests on ad revenue. But based on traditional advertising patterns in this market, it is safe to estimate that WJZ's take is probably about the same as WBAL's, while WMAR's is less than WBFF's. By any estimate, Question 6 has surely put more than $1 million in the coffers of local TV stations.

So how have the stations been spending their resources in covering the issue?

I asked the stations for links to online versions of reports they have done this year on Question 6.

WMAR offered two links -- one from Sept. 24 and the other from Oct. 24. Both were reported by Christian Schaffer and ran two minutes. One dealt with Jump the Broom for Marriages, a group opposed to the law, and the other dealt with controversial remarks uttered by the Rev. Robert Anderson of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, who said in a town hall meeting that homosexuals were "worthy of death," according to his reading of the Bible.

They were both pretty basic pieces, but the former included a report on a phone bank that the Jump the Broom group had set up, which is helpful in letting viewers know where unsolicited calls might be coming from. And the latter did a solid job of going beyond the controversial remarks to get a range of reactions.

These are not the only two reports done by WMAR. But the station has done fewer than any other in town, and that does not seem like enough on an issue with such deep ramifications for family, lifestyle and identity.

"We do have an in-depth story on Question 6 in the can [shot and edited] that we were set to run this coming Tuesday," one week before Election Day, Kelly Groft, the station's news director wrote in an email response to The Sun last week. "The story includes a full web compliment on both the pros and cons. With the impending storm, I can't promise an air date on those, but it will be sometime next week."

WJZ sent links to 10 reports that confirmed what I saw in my viewing on the station in recent months: It has been following not just the more sensational aspects of the story, like the minister's inflammatory remarks, but also the nuts and bolts. This is especially true when veteran Pat Warren is the correspondent, as she was Aug. 22 when the state released the wording of the same-sex marriage question as it would appear on the ballot.

Understanding the importance of language in framing such culturally volatile issues, Warren went through the words line by line for viewers, while the producers skillfully illustrated certain passages. This is the opposite of the if-it-bleeds-it-leads coverage that local broadcasters are often mindlessly accused of. Warren and WJZ regularly framed the debate as supporters of the law versus supporters of "traditional marriage" -- as opposed to those who have framed it as supporters of the law versus those against gay marriage. There's a difference.

WBAL has aired more than a dozen stories, and it now features a page -- http://www.wbaltv.com/same-sex-marriage-extended-coverage -- where all of its coverage has been compiled.

Typical of the network-quality work WBAL does at its best is the May 29th report from Annapolis by David Collins on opponents of the law filing what they said were 113,505 signatures to bring it to referendum.

Collins reports the facts against a backdrop of spot-on video shot showing the opponents marching into the State House to deliver their boxes of petitions. The facts are accurate, and the pictures are engaging, with lots of energy.

The interviews of supporters and opponents are crisply edited to add clarity to the conflicting points of view. And as leaders on both sides start to make larger cultural and political claims, Collins moves on to explain how same-sex marriage laws and referendums have fared elsewhere.

This is local TV news produced to make politics and governance informative and engaging, if not exciting, for viewers.

Last week, at least, WBFF did that as well as anyone in town with a 90-minute town hall meeting on Question 6. The Thursday-night session streamed live online. It can be seen from 10 to 11 a.m. Sunday on Fox 45. Readers can judge for themselves.

I have been watching WBFF's reporting on this story for months. Readers, colleagues and TV news professionals have guaranteed me that, given Sinclair's history of sometimes over-the-line support of conservative causes, its coverage of this issue would be a journalistic disgrace.

But if you saw Thursday's town hall session, which clearly took a lot of effort and resources, you saw none of that. The panel was balanced, and the two members in support of the law, Baltimore Democratic Del. Mary Washington, and Ezekiel Jackson, of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, were given full rein. Ultimately, they bested Baltimore Democratic Del. Emmett Burns and Derek McCoy, of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, in a lively debate.

WBFF anchor Jennifer Gilbert opened the session and skillfully handled a steady stream of intense social media, while Mark Hyman, host of Sinclair's "Behind the Headlines" show, served as moderator.

Hyman brings considerable right-wing baggage with him for some of his Sinclair commentaries. He will probably never live down having called the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." While he's not the smoothest moderator in the world, he did his job Thursday without unduly leading the discussion one way or the other.

"We have a huge responsibility to help viewers understand Question 6," says Dan Joerres, general manager of WBAL. "It's part of our job to make sure voters have the facts and know what they are voting for."

I intend to keep watching through Nov. 6 to see who does and doesn't meet that obligation as the ad dollars roll in.