PENNSYLVANIA—The battle of big dogs scrapping for presidential votes ahead of the April 24 primary is drawing much of the media attention in the Keystone State. But a tussle between two Blue Dog congressmen in a newly-drawn Western Pennsylvania district is also heating up—driven most recently by a round of campaign ads.

First, some background: Pennsylvania’s census-driven loss of a Congressional seat coupled with Republican control in the state capitol here left Democratic U.S. Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz on the short end. The newly drawn 12th District collapsed much of Critz’s southwestern-region district into Altmire’s north-of-Pittsburgh territory. (Politico has flagged Altmire vs. Critz as likely to be among the five “ugliest member vs. member” Congressional battles this year.)

Both men are relatively new in Congress and unknown to a large proportion of voters. Critz won a 2010 special election to replace longtime U.S. Rep. John Murtha; Altmire was elected in 2006. The pair also have similar voting records, with Altmire and Critz getting comparable ratings from interest groups on a range of issues.

This is the sort of race in which televised campaign ads can play an especially big role. With little else for voters to draw on, TV ads will be a key source of information. This makes it critical that journalists covering this contest be vigilant, check the claims made in these ads themselves (and not just when prompted by outside groups or the opposing campaign) and offer readers more than “he said, she said.”

An early test shows many media outlets here need to do better fulfilling this role.

Last week, Altmire aired an ad attacking Critz for not opposing the budget plan of House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan. (Part of the Altmire vs. Critz battle, naturally, is about who can lay claim to the title of “true Democrat,” and, to that end, the attack ads will likely continue to focus on times when one or the other sided with—or, purportedly sided with—House Republicans.) The claim is “technically right,” as explained at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Early Returns blog, but:

[W]hat Mr. Altmire’s new attack ad doesn’t say is that Mr. Critz didn’t vote for it, either. Rather, Mr. Critz—along with all but 16 Democrats —voted “present,” essentially abstaining from the decision.

Critz’s “present” vote was part of a coordinated effort by House Democratic leaders to obstruct the bill. It is misleading for Altmire to use that vote to suggest Critz rolled over on the Ryan budget. Reporters need to make that point in coverage. And they need to do it even when the target of the ad doesn’t hold a conference call to rebut the ad, as Critz and two fellow House members did, or respond with an ad of his own, called “Not True.” And reporters should make that point even without prompting by insiders, who in this case mounted a public pushback on Critz’s behalf.

The Post-Gazette’s Early Returns blog did a solid job of walking readers through this last week (helped, in part, by politicspa.com) explaining both what Altmire’s ad said and what it didn’t say. (Recall in Michigan, where reporters, in writing up What Santorum Said about Romney and the auto bailout in February, largely failed to also tell readers What Santorum Didn’t Say).

The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat, on the other hand, noted Altmire’s ad threw “fuel on the 12th district fire,” but did little to help readers navigate the flames, focusing on the ad’s claims and Critz’s counter-claims. The Beaver County Times recounted the episode in a weekend column that—despite the headline, “Critz, Democrats fume as Altmire’s pants burn”— is largely he-said, she-said, with the columnist making an “attempt at explaining” last week’s air war by noting “progressive websites started nailing Altmire for his ad” and then quoting from an Altmire press release defending the ad.

Even that was better than local television news, on whose stations these ads are running. From my research, it seems stations in the Pittsburgh area and beyond did no more for viewers than run the Altmire ad and the Critz counter-ad.

TV reporters need to do more. All reporters must do their best covering this battle of incumbents set to test their skills.

Solid coverage of the air wars (Altmire vs. Critz and beyond) requires standard checks of the claims being peddled and, better still—and especially when outside advocacy groups enter the ad fray—an indication, where possible, of
who is paying for them. Journalists will be giving voters what they won’t get anywhere else.


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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.