‘Pittsburgh is getting pounded’ by ads

Top priority race for parties is disturbingly low on local TV news radar

PENNSYLVANIA — Don’t cry for Pennsylvania.

“Save the tears for Pennsylvania’s TV stations passed over by the presidential race,” advised the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tim McNulty on the paper’s Early Returns blog last week. “Pittsburgh is getting pounded” with political ads, McNulty wrote, citing data from the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth project showing that between October 10 and 17, “the Pittsburgh market has received the third-most political ad reservations in the nation”—time reserved for future ads, meaning the “pounding” in Pittsburgh isn’t likely to let up between now and election day.

A major factor in the ad pounding is the race between one-term Democratic US Rep. Mark Critz and his Republican challenger, Keith Rothfus, in the redrawn 12 District which wraps Pittsburgh to the north and stretches east to Altoona and west to the Ohio border. (The 2010 census resulted in the loss of one congressional seat in Pennsylvania, and the GOP-controlled legislature crunched Critz’s southwestern-area district into that of fellow Democratic US Rep. Jason Altmire’s around Pittsburgh. The result was a mess of a primary and a roughly eight-point win for Critz.).

Last month, Politico ranked Critz v. Rothfus the third most-expensive House race in the country based on outside group and national party committee spending through the end of September, which Politico put at $3.5 million. Labor, Politico reported, is “coming to Critz’s rescue…in the Pittsburgh media market, airing a battery of commercials hammering Critz’s Republican opponent” and the National Republican Congressional Committee and the super PAC YG Action Fund are “plowing in cash as well.” Other big outside spenders include, for Rothfus, the conservative nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform, and, for Critz, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

For TV-watching Pennsylvanians, then, tears may be in order—Pittsburgh-area residents in particular.

And a review of the news coverage of Critz v. Rothfus by the TV stations raking in the ad dollars confirms that TV viewers in PA-12 have little to smile about. There has been staggeringly slight coverage of the race, including scrutiny of the omnipresent ads. From many of these stations, viewers have received little help examining these candidates, their positions, or the messages they and their supporters wield.

A search of KDKA’s website (KDKA is Pittsburgh’s ratings-leading CBS affiliate) and a second search on tveyes.com turned up just one story from late September, hooked to a candidate’s forum, that ended with the observation that “this race is expected to be the hardest-fought and most expensive in the area.” Why, then, the dearth of news coverage? I hoped to put that question to Anne Linaberger, KDKA’s news director, but a call and an email to Linaberger were not returned.

WTAE, an ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh, did one on-air “Ad Check” in the Critz v. Altmire primary race. But WTAE’s post-primary news coverage of the PA-12 contest, according to my search of the station’s site (and a second search on tveyes.com), consists of a single, brief story on October 2 about former President Bill Clinton campaigning in the area for Critz. A phone call and email to Justin Antoniotti, the new news director who just arrived from Greenville, SC, were not returned.

On October 11, Cox-owned NBC affiliate WPXI aired a “truth test” of a handful of Critz and Rothfus ads. It was a solid effort by reporter Gordon Loesch that, unfortunately, is not easy to find on WPXI’s website. Loesch’s work stands out in the Pittsburgh market, and kudos to the station for making this effort (and Loesch’s co-anchor mentioned it is something they will do for other candidates’ ads “over the next few weeks”), but it is a single segment that aired once, untangling ads that are running daily on every WPXI news cast (and episodes of Judge Judy and Days of our Lives). A phone call and email to Mike Goldrick, the news director who is leaving soon to go to WRC in Washington D.C., were not returned.

WPXI’s “truth test” also aired October 12 on WJAC in Johnstown (but is tough to find on the station’s web site). WJAC is also currently owned by Cox Media Group. News Director James Platzer, a former journalism instructor at Penn State, said the WPXI work is a help to them. WJAC has done some political coverage and co-sponsored a Critz-Rothfus debate earlier this month but the station is too small, he said, to devote many resources to factchecking political ads.

“[WPXI has] staff that can do that, and the common ownership and larger staff help,” Platzer said. “In the primary, we coordinated election night coverage and [a WJAC] anchor participated in a debate.”

“I’m not sure if any more [factchecking stories] are coming. It’s one of those where we wish we could do more. When they offered to help, it was a blessing to us.”

How long WJAC’s relationship with the larger WPXI will continue is an open question. WJAC is reportedly one station Cox is looking to sell.

Overall, the imbalance in political ads aired and political news offered by these TV stations is staggering. It’s a disparity not unique to PA-12 and one I’ve written about before—in a piece focused on a primary race in northeastern Pennsylvania and headlined, “28 hours of political ads (and a few minutes of news)”.

There is still a bit of time for Pittsburgh-area stations to move their Dopplers over and put the expensive, hard-fought Critz-Rothfus race at the center of their news radars.

Related stories:

“28 hours of political ads (and a few minutes of news)”

“Awash in ads in Roanoke”

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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.