DETROIT, MI — About three weeks before the May 21 mayoral primary in Pittsburgh, an attack ad against a leading Democratic candidate, city councilmember Bill Peduto, hit the air. “We need a mayor for all of Pittsburgh. Not just Bill Peduto’s neighborhood,” the ad’s narrator intones.
Negative ads are nothing new, of course, but this one was unusual. It was paid for by an outside group known as the Committee for a Better Pittsburgh, rather than a rival campaign—something that had “never been done before” in a mayoral race in the city, says Tim McNulty, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The “Better Pittsburgh” group’s funding sources were murky, but speculation immediately focused on the outgoing mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who had announced March 1 that he would not run for re-election. By the time Ravenstahl bowed out, his campaign account had far more funds than anyone else’s—and, as McNulty put it in an interview, “he really doesn’t like Bill Peduto,” who, as a council member, frequently challenged the mayor. An April 29 story from the alt-weekly Pittsburgh City Paper noted ties between Better Pittsburgh and Ravenstahl’s campaign, and blog posts later that day from McNulty and the niche site PoliticsPA picked up the thread.
One of those ties was that Better Pittsburgh’s treasurer, a sewer authority employee and veteran of local Democratic campaigns named John Morgan, had links to Ravenstahl’s circle. But Morgan “wasn’t responding to queries,” McNulty says, and the mayor’s office wasn’t saying anything either.
Then, two days after the attack ads launched, McNulty nailed the connection: the chairman of the Better Pittsburgh group was Ravenstahl himself.
That information came from the “public file” connected to Better Pittsburgh’s ad buy at the local CBS station, KDKA-TV, which McNulty had reviewed. The file was actually incomplete, as he wrote in his May 1 story: “A note by KDKA’s political advertising director added, ‘Despite several requests, the agency has declined to designate on behalf of the committee a contact person, address and phone number.’” But it did identify Ravenstahl as chairman and Morgan as treasurer.
Shortly after the Post-Gazette published McNulty’s story online, Ravenstahl offered confirmation, of a sort. In a long, withering comment on the article—also posted to his Facebook page—the mayor attacked the paper for pursuing what he deemed a non-story. It reads, in part:
“Breaking news: One of America’s (self-proclaimed) greatest newspapers actually takes the time to pull the records of an account that’s been in existence for years! … Truth is no one is hiding anything, nor has attempted to. I have personally been the Chairman of this committee since its inception. In fact, its Chairman and intentions are much more transparent than your rag of a newspaper…. It doesn’t take that much to see who the P-G supports and who it doesn’t…. [The ad is] 100% factual and begins to expose the real Bill Peduto. Future ads will do the same.”
McNulty went right back to the office to write Ravenstahl’s comment into an updated version of the article. (Just a month earlier, the Post-Gazette’s social media team had verified the authenticity of another angry comment from the mayor’s Facebook account, so they could quickly confirm this one was legitimate.) The mayor’s testy reply, McNulty said, turned “a pretty good story into a great one”—and also got the piece linked on Romenesko and picked up by The Associated Press.
That story wouldn’t have come to pass in the first place if McNulty hadn’t taken advantage of access to TV stations’ public files on political ad buys, which have been posted online in major markets since an FCC ruling last year. (The broadcasting industry opposed the rule, which CJR supported.) Online access proved essential to the Post-Gazette’s effort to reveal a key influencer on the campaign, and made it easier for the paper to bring transparency to the city’s political dynamic weeks before the Democratic primary—which, because of Pittsburgh’s partisan tilt, is the de facto mayoral election.
“It was huge, huge!” McNulty said about being able to access public inspection files online. “It’s great to make [political reporting] a little easier.”
Previously, the files were kept only in cabinets at television stations, and while they were open to the public, “you had to deal with security guards, waiting around, you’re driving all over creation, you’re seeing misfiled papers…” McNulty said. Now, with the files searchable on the FCC website by call sign, network affiliation, station identification number, and channel number, the information is “at your fingertips,” he says—albeit sometimes incomplete and difficult to interpret. (The reports from Pittsburgh City Paper and PoliticsPA suggest journalists there had inspected files from other stations where Better Pittsburgh made ad buys, without seeing that Ravenstahl was the group’s chairman.)
And with the data on ad buys now in digital form, watchdog groups are slicing and organizing it, making it easier for reporters and citizens to use. McNulty is a fan of the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth feature, which allows users to sort information on ad purchases by state, television market, and air date. He also praised Sunlight’s Scout tool, a free service that delivers emails or texts every time a political issue or keyword—say, “campaign finance” or “transparency”—shows ups in a bill or regulation or speech in both state and federal government.
Of Ravenstahl’s aggressive online comment, McNulty says, it’s “natural for the city’s paper and mayor to get into fights.” The mayor may be particularly unhappy about the Post-Gazette’s recent reporting on a federal probe into police corruption that has seen the indictment of a former chief, and which has reached the mayor’s office, though Ravenstahl has not been personally implicated.
But as for Ravenstahl’s suggestion that the Post-Gazette was committed to an agenda of opposing him (and, in this case, supporting Peduto)—the paper’s editorial board on Sunday endorsed Jack Wagner, Peduto’s top rival and the presumed beneficiary of the Better Pittsburgh ads. In the end, the endorsement—and the outside group’s advertising campaign—did not carry the day: voters in Tuesday’s election delivered a convincing win for Peduto.