King Coal rises in PA

A last-minute crush of ads—including Romney’s first here—challenges reporters to keep up

PENNSYLVANIA — Add the Keystone State to the list of places where King Coal is a leading issue in candidate ads.

In terms of presidential campaign ad spending (if not down-ballot), local television stations here have been mostly passed over this fall. But in a late push last Tuesday, the Romney campaign made its first ad buy this state, making a play for votes in western Pennsylvania in particular by casting the Obama administration’s energy policies as “crush[ing]” Pennsylvanians and touting Romney’s “different” energy plan (quoting Romney’s “I like coal” line from the first presidential debate)—familiar themes to voters in Ohio and Virginia, where coal-fueled campaign rhetoric has run hot for weeks now. The Republican National Committee and pro-Romney super PACs Restore our Future and Americans for Job Security have also poured several million dollars into ad buys here over the past week, totaling nearly $12 million from Romney and supporting super PACs and $1.6 million from the Obama camp.

The ad push comes as some polls show Obama’s lead narrowing, and as theories on the Republican push in this state become themselves political footballs.

News outlets including the The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the Allentown Morning Call have done well to quickly detail the final week ad spending. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, too, did a solid job on Thursday and Saturday adding context to the late ad buys.

But in a cluttered week-before-the-election environment that also brought Hurricane Sandy, it has been harder to find coverage in Pennsylvania news outlets of the substance of Romney’s coal-themed ad, or reporting that places it in the larger context of coal-related rhetoric in this campaign and fills readers in on key things to know when evaluating what’s happened in the coal industry in recent years and why.

On October 30, the Allentown Morning Call explained that Romney’s new ad “was tailor-made for Pennsylvania, blaming the Obama administration’s coal regulations for the closure of Pennsylvania coal plants,” but didn’t provide readers deeper context for these claims. A November 1 analysis by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, heavy on strategic implications and quotes from both campaigns, determined “it’s hard to believe either side in latest presidential campaign ads.” But it focused largely on Romney’s Jeep ads that ran last week in Ohio rather than on the content of and claims in the coal-related ads.

On television, WJET (ABC) in Erie told viewers on October 30th about the coming ad barrage, running most of Romney’s ad on-screen while the news anchor explained that it “focuses on the coal industry and energy policies.” In other words, the station exposed viewers to the ad but offered no help sorting out the specific claims or placing the messages in context.

On the plus side, West Virginia-based Associated Press writer Vicki Smith took a long, close look at the coal industry, its history, and the coal-related rhetoric coming from both campaigns—and her piece ran in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, though well before the recent ad buys.

Coal-focused ads have for weeks played a role in Pennsylvania’s race between Tom Smith, the Republican candidate for US Senate (and a former coal industry worker and coal company owner) and first-term Democrat Sen. Bob Casey. In late October, Smith ran an ad attacking Casey’s support of “Obama’s war on coal,” and Casey returned fire with a spot attacking Smith’s safety record running mines.

On November 1, KDKA (CBS) in Pittsburgh took a close look at the coal-fueled ad war in the Casey v. Smith contest. “As with most campaign ads,” noted KDKA’s Jon Delano, “there’s usually a healthy mix of truth and exaggeration.” Delano helped readers fill in some of the missing context—like details of Casey’s voting record and Smith’s mining safety record, both cited in the ads—though he didn’t, as little of this reporting seems to, discuss coal industry employment numbers over the course of Obama’s term (in a nutshell, up from 2009-2011 and down in 2012) or the role natural gas has played in putting market pressure on coal—two key points to understanding what’s happened in the industry and why.

This October 23rd NPR piece does some of these things well while filling in what Smith’s coal-themed TV ad “doesn’t mention,” including that

while new federal regulations certainly have made things harder for the coal industry, the real threat is the cheap, abundant natural gas created by the ongoing domestic shale boom. Natural gas is easier to obtain and cheaper to purchase, so more and more power plants are relying on gas instead of coal.
Alpha Resources shut down eight mines, including one in Pennsylvania, last month, and PBS Coals laid off a quarter of its workforce in July.

And on October 28th, the Associated Press’s Marc Levy took a detailed look at the “high-profile place” Smith has given coal in his campaign, an account that ran in southeastern Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Daily News, among other outlets.

Pennsylvanians have heard a lot about coal from campaign ads, particularly in the past week. Reporters, though, haven’t fully met the challenge of filling voters in on what the ads leave out.

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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.