In PA Primary, Television News is Late to the Game

An ad barrage, but little context, depth to local on-air reporting

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.

WBRE did hop on the coverage train Thursday, prompted by a Cartwright press conference. And a WFMZ report that aired Tuesday looked into campaign finance records to detail what each side had raised and had left as of the last filing; it did not note much of the money behind Cartwright’s campaign is his own.

Meanwhile, the ads have been flying, with Holden criticizing Cartwright’s contribution to judges who years later were convicted of taking bribes to send juveniles to a private detention facility in which they had a financial interest. Cartwright responded with his own ad. Holden has also taken shots at Cartwright for his relative wealth and his courtroom record, while Cartwright in turn has gone after Holden’s record in Congress. A good look at the final rounds is on the PoliticsPA site here.

After throwing plenty of punches—some of them below the belt—Holden has just announced he will call off his negative ads, and called on Cartwright to do the same. But plenty of the paid messaging isn’t coming from the campaigns. The League of Conservation Voters has run sets of ads against Holden, as has the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability. And the liberal Blue America PAC has even taken out—yes, they’re still in style—billboards. The collective investment of these outside players—in the range of $500,000, according to statements by the groups and reports—approaches that of the campaigns themselves.

Some useful context on this outside spending has come from other sources—for example, this public radio report by WITF’s Mary Wilson, this Times-Tribune article by Borys Krawczeniuk, and this op-ed by The Morning Call’s Paul Carpenter, which offers a glimpse at who’s behind the CPA. There have also been worthwhile looks at the candidates’ platforms, like this write-up of a Cartwright interview by Josh Moyer of The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre.

On TV, though, there’s been little besides the ad war. In fact, perhaps the most substantive (if not the most journalistic) on-air piece was also the most unusual: an April 13 show on WFMZ called Business Matters. This half-hour broadcast featured Holden before an audience of Chamber of Commerce types. “The region’s only local business show on commercial television” features Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce President Tony Iannelli, according to the station’s website. Broadcast on 46 cable companies, the site says it reaches 2.2 million households.

While the program probed more deeply into the issues than any broadcast news segment, the issues under discussion were clearly driven by the show’s focus on business interests. And there was little campaign-challenging dialogue. The most pointed the show got was a question about Holden’s vote to support the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would have made it easier for workers to join unions.

And on Holden’s initial co-sponsorship of and later opposition to the Stop Internet Piracy Act, the congressman threw his staff under the bus. “I gave my legislative director heck on that,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Cartwright will have his half-hour in the Business Matters sun. The next program is scheduled for April 23 at 8 p.m., the night before the primary, according to the website; an email with questions to the show was not returned. And Holden has has declined to debate Cartwright (he’s claimed he’s too busy), so there won’t be any made-for-TV Kennedy-Nixon cuts there.

With some voters likely making their minds up late—and a last blast of ads sure to come—there’s still time for local news programs to improve on their performance to date. Let’s hope they take it.

We’ll find out on Tuesday what effect the campaign, and the coverage, has had. For those who are interested, the Election Night results—no doubt from hotel ballrooms—will be on television.

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.