PENNSYLVANIA — The battle between 10-term U.S. Rep. Tim Holden and his Democratic primary opponent, attorney Matt Cartwright, is dominating the local television landscape in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Pointed ads from the campaigns have mixed with outside PAC spots gunning for the Blue Dog incumbent.
The heavy airing has provided lots of fodder for print and public media reporters covering area races. But the beneficiaries of the significant ad buys—local television stations—have offered scant news coverage to cut through the clutter.
The few reports that have made it on air have come just a few days before the April 24 primary. They generally follow candidate pressers or point viewers to what each side says is true, rather than scout out the full story themselves. They also offer up voters who say—you guessed it—they don’t like negative ads and political analysts who say the race is close.
Some background: the new 17th District has a decided registration edge to Democrats. Majority Republican state lawmakers drew safer districts for U.S. Reps. Tom Marino (10th) and Lou Barletta (11th), stretching the latter—in that great tradition of redrawing—all the way past Harrisburg in Central Pennsylvania to Carlisle and beyond.
The result was a more Democratic 17th that’s dominated by the cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Easton—places Holden has never represented. In a sense, it’s a reverse of his battle a decade ago, when he prevailed in an incumbent-vs.-incumbent battle with U.S. Rep. George Gekas despite being drawn into a district that leaned to the GOP.
This time, Holden lined up most major party and labor endorsements early and came out with strong negative ads. His opponent is a trial lawyer, who has done lawyerly TV ads over the years, and also those outside PACs—first a general anti-incumbent one largely backed by wealthy Texas businessmen, and then the League of Conservation Voters.
The closeness of the race has been missed by some national outlets, including an otherwise well-done Wall Street Journal story on Congressional redistricting. But it’s no longer a surprise. Roll Call, for example, has called the incumbent Holden the underdog.
Overall, this is just the sort of race—unfamiliar candidates, an intra-party contest—where political ads stand a good chance at shaping voters’ choices. (And even as voters say they’re turned off by attack ads, there’s reason to believe “going negative” works.) This means journalists have a special responsibility to keep campaigns honest and provide independent reporting to voters. Coverage on area TV, where most of that ad spending is going, hasn’t kept up.
The first report aired by WNEP, the area’s dominant station, came this week. It noted the negative ads “on both sides” but gave no indication of PAC involvement. The two voters featured in the piece offered little value; little substance was discussed.
In an interview, WNEP News Director Carl Abraham said the local race has “started to get a little heated,” prompting the coverage.
“The tone of the whole campaign has gotten negative,” said Abraham, who has served in the newsroom since 1983 and become news chief last November. “We don’t follow campaigns religiously. We look for interesting stories involving campaigns in our area.”
WNEP’s “area” is big, no doubt presenting it with challenges. The station is based near Scranton and covers a 17-county region that includes parts of at least five congressional districts. In-depth analysis of each race, in the midst of everything else, is asking too much. But a greater adherence to the journalism of verification, rather than assertion, would serve viewers better.
“We cover news in our area; that’s what we do,” he said. “We do cover some politics. We have a ton of races going on. We try to cover as much as we can. Everyday we come in and we take everything we do very seriously. We’re dedicated to it. We try very hard.”
Abraham said more stories—and more context—could be in future reports.
It’s not clear whether that will be the case elsewhere. Calls to reach newsroom leaders at WBRE in Wilkes-Barre and WFMZ in the Allentown-Easton area were not returned.