As ads flood Ohio House race, will coverage keep up?

A review finds some solid work, but there's room for more enterprising journalism

OHIO — The donnybrook in northeast Ohio between two Congressional incumbents grappling to keep their jobs has become a leading electoral battleground and one of the most expensive House races in the nation.

The contest is between Democrat Betty Sutton and Republican Jim Renacci, who were pitted against each other after redistricting. But there are many other players involved, too. An Oct. 2 Politico article pegged spending by outside groups and national party committees at $4.2 million. A week later, when The Plain Dealer’s Sabrina Eaton took a look at the money in the race—in a post that smartly linked directly to the Sunlight Foundation’s excellent Follow the Unlimited Money page—that figure had risen to $4.4 million. And that was not counting a $1.4 million ad buy announced that day on Renacci’s behalf, or a separate buy of more than $400,000 supporting Sutton. (Sutton’s support comes primarily from public- and private-sector unions, while Renacci’s major backing comes from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to House Speaker John Boehner, and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The vast majority of the outside money has gone to negative ads.)

It’s a situation that could be a poster child for a concern The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein raised back in April, and that CJR cited at the time—which is that outside cash could have its greatest influence in House races, where voters tend to have less information about the candidates. In Ohio’s 16th, both sides actually have ample cash coming in to help spread their message. (Sutton has an edge in the money race to date, while the new district’s lines slightly favor Renacci.) But voters need independent news coverage, not just a dueling ad war.

Fortunately, the district spans the territory of three local newspapers: The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Akron Beacon Journal, and The Repository of Canton. A review of coverage from these three outlets shows they have, to varying extents, offered close surveillance of the role of money, the rhetorical sparring, and the substantive differences on display in the campaign. But there is also room for additional substance and enterprise in the reporting.

One coverage opportunity occurred on Wednesday, when Sutton and Renacci met at the City Club of Cleveland for the only debate of the campaign. (The venue was actually outside the boundaries of the new district.) But readers of The Repository didn’t learn much from the event. In an email, City Editor David Sereno wrote Thursday that the paper “did not cover the debate.”

Asked to explain why, Sereno added: “No one reason. Covering a similar event days earlier, distance, and having Robert [Wang] focus on another story about how the presidential candidates haven’t yet stumped in our county, which was an A1 hit.” Sereno added that the paper might run The Plain Dealer’s debate story in Friday’s edition, though a search for debate coverage on the paper’s site Friday morning didn’t turn up anything.

The paper’s thinking is understandable. The 16th district includes only some areas in the northwest and a slim finger of territory projecting into Stark County, where Canton is the county seat; the paper also has two other House races in its area. The “similar event” Sereno referred to was an Oct. 6 voter symposium in nearby Akron, organized by a nonprofit group that strives to promote civil, substantive political discussion. Reporter Robert Wang wrote a clear, easy-to-read story about the event with bullet points that highlighted each candidates’ position on various issues, though it would have been better not to relegate a good bit of analysis on how Sutton and Renacci dodged various questions to the bottom of the article. Wang and The Repository also followed up several days later with a look at how participants in the symposium viewed the candidates. (Renacci had the edge across the board.)

A few weeks earlier, meanwhile, The Repository ran in-depth profiles of both Renacci and Sutton. Both stories were long and detailed, if a bit difficult to wade through at times, especially the Renacci piece.

So The Repository has hardly neglected the Sutton-Renacci campaign, and the race does have to share space with other political stories on the paper’s agenda. Still, it was surprising, and a little disappointing, to see the paper skip the debate.

The strongest debate coverage came from the area’s biggest paper, The Plain Dealer.
Reporter Henry J. Gomez dryly noted in his lede that Renacci’s closing statement—“This race is about two polar opposites”—was at least one comment that reflected truth.

The rest of Gomez’s account captured the candidates’ broad-strokes portrayal of themselves, with enough details to flesh out the pictures. On the newspaper’s web site, the story carried video links to each candidate’s opening statements, a nice touch. Gomez also did well by attempting to bore into a claim made by each candidate: Sutton’s assertion that Renacci supports tax loopholes for companies that outsource jobs, and Renacci’s contention that the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program failed to save jobs or boost sales. Unfortunately, his on-the-spot digging did more to raise questions than offer conclusions; The Plain Dealer should keep at it and follow up.

The Plain Dealer’s earlier coverage includes plenty on polling and the back-and-forth bickering between the candidates, but also a long August article by Eaton about Sutton and Renacci introducing themselves to voters in their new district. That story focused on the horse race, but it contained some solid factchecking and offered a clear sense of where the candidates stand (basically, in the mainstreams of their parties). The PD took a softer, more feature-style look at the voter symposium, but did link to a PDF summarizing the candidates’ views and grading their performance in that process. And the newspaper’s fact-checking operation, Politifact Ohio, has been building up files about Renacci and Sutton. On the whole it’s solid coverage, and a good foundation for the remainder of the campaign.

The House district’s other paper, the Akron Beacon Journal, doesn’t have the resources of The Plain Dealer, but even so it has made some choices that leave its coverage weaker than it could have been. Reporter Stephanie Warsmith dedicated the first five paragraphs of her debate story to an argument between the candidates on redistricting, a source of partisan bickering that is unlikely to affect many votes in this campaign.

Further down, the article notes the role of outside money and identifies eight “weighty topics,” giving readers a quick but helpful look at the differences between the candidates. But the bottom of the piece recounts “poignant stories” told by Sutton and Renacci, quotes from supporters, and the candidates’ reviews on how well they did, all information of relatively little value. (The story did provide a useful link allowing readers to view the debate.)

The ABJ’s earlier coverage stands out for being especially focused on the voter symposium, a months-long process organized by the Minnesota-based group Jefferson Action. It’s an interesting initiative, with ABJ’s accounts along the way often offering some detail on the candidates’ views. And in his account of the culminating event, editorial writer Steve Hoffman smartly noted that “many of the candidates’ assertions went unchallenged,” while offering one or two challenges of his own.

But the ABJ’s emphasis on the process behind the citizen’s forum—along with a variety of shorter stories on the campaigns’ bickering, ads, and poll results—have left it doing little, if any, of its own digging into the role of money, the facts beneath the candidate’s rhetoric, or other underexplored stories. Readers would be better-served by more enterprising coverage in the weeks to come.

This is a volatile race, one that is not likely to grow any quieter in the next few weeks. Given the substantial amount of money being thrown in from both sides, voters will continue to be inundated by attack ads, some of them misleading or worse. It’s essential that local reporters bear down, wade through the mud, and rise above the clamor of interest group ads to inform their audiences about what these candidates stand for and what’s at stake on Election Day.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.