If one recent evening newscast is any indication, Philadelphia voters may be longing for used car ads and payday loan pitches — and maybe for some unbiased political reportage.
In the course of one 30-minute newscast on CBS3 KYW-TV last week, viewers were bombarded with no fewer than 11 political ads, most of them negative. The news program, which aired at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16, featured no political news coverage, although in three weeks voters in the region will be heading to the polls to decide on the contests that were the subject of the political ads: for governor and state Senate in Pennsylvania; for U.S. Senate in Delaware; and for the U.S. House in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
This vivid example of the way relentless spin can trump objective political news in the late stages of a political campaign comes from research undertaken for the Philly Political Media Watch, a joint project of the Internet Archive, the Sunlight Foundation, Philadelphia's Committee of Seventy and the University of Delaware's Center for Community Research and Service. The project, which is being funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation, aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the political media in one of the country's largest television markets — and the money behind it.
Using Federal Communications Commission data compiled by Political Ad Sleuth, the Media Watch project is already able to quantify the biggest winners of campaign 2014: The local TV stations that are now struggling to find enough minutes of air time to accommodate the candidates and outside interest groups trying to reach voters. The 30-second spots that aired on KYW's evening newscast on Oct. 16 cost between $700 and $765 apiece and were part of larger ad buys that netted the station a total of more than $517,000.
A spokeswoman for KYW declined to comment.
While perhaps unusual in frequency, the political spots that aired during KYW's Oct. 16 broadcast are representative of the content and tone of ads the research team is seeing in Philadelphia, a TV market that covers three states and, therefore, an unusually wide span of races.
The station is not without political coverage. KYW played host to the Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate and broadcast it several times.
Here's a minute-by-minute look at how that half-hour went for viewers who were not driven out of their living rooms by the political propaganda:
No. 1 — 6:11 p.m. A satirical spot accusing Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, of planning to raise taxes. The spot, purchased by current GOP Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election campaign for $765, was part of a larger one-week, $77,445 buy for 56 spots on KYW.
No. 2 — 6:12 p.m. Tom MacArthur, a Republican congressional candidate for a South Jersey congressional seat, is depicted as anti-women's rights in an ad purchased by his Democratic opponent, Aimee Belgard. The Belgard-MacArthur race for the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., is arguably the most competitive in the Philadelphia market. Sunlight's Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker shows a late influx of money from big outside spenders, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the conservative dark money group Crossroads GPS. The DCCC cosponsored another airing of Belgard's anti-MacArthur ad later in the same KYW newscast. The spots cost $765 each. Belgard had two concurrent contracts with KYW that week, a $3,600 buy for six spots and a $7,625 buy for 12 spots.
No. 3 — 6:13 p.m. On the heels of the Belgard ad, viewers were greeted by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., touting his record on behalf of veterans. Fitzpatrick, who is running for a fourth term, paid $700 for the spot, part of a four-week, $102,285 buy for 93 spots on KYW.
After a 10-minute break for news, weather and traffic, the onslaught resumed.
No. 4 — 6:21 p.m. Belgard's anti-MacArthur ad runs again. It's identical to the earlier spot, except that the name of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appears alongside that of her campaign committee as a co-sponsor.
No. 5 — 6:22 p.m. A negative ad purchased by Mark Aurand, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's state Senate, blasts GOP state Rep. Mario Scavello for his positions against abortion rights. The ad, which cost Aurand's campaign $700, is part of a one-week, $14,500 buy for 32 spots.
No. 6 — 6:23 p.m. Donald Norcross, a New Jersey state senator running for an open U.S. House seat,airs a positive ad about his record as a lawmaker. Norcross paid $765 for the spot, part of a two-week, $100,040 contract for 94 spots on KYW.
No. 7 — 6:24 p.m. John Kane, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania state Senate, sponsors an ad showing a figure running down darkened corridors to attack his Republican opponent Tom McGarrigle. The voice over uses the word "lying" several times. Kane's campaign committee paid $700 for the spot, part of one-week, $44,825 contract for 85 spots.
No. 8 — 6:26 p.m. Veteran Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., makes a 30-second pitch for his re-election based on his environmental record. The spot cost $765 and was part of a one-week $48,650 buy for 66 spots.
No. 9 — 6:27 p.m. In that New Jersey House race, the McArthur campaign fires back with an ad that minces no words about Democrat Belgard, calling her a "dishonest politician." The spot, which cost the GOP candidate, $765, was part of a one-week, $45,775 contract for 58 spots.
No. 10 — 6:28p.m. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, touts his bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Coons' ad, a positive spot which presents his work on behalf of children, cost $765 and is part of a one-week, $43,380 contract for 66 spots.
No. 11 — 6:29 p.m. Ryan Costello, a Republican hoping to replace retiring Rep. Jim Gerlach, in a suburban Philadelphia congressional seat, has a few good words to say about himself, but adds a few digs about his Democratic opponent, Iraq war vet Manan Trivedi. Costello's campaign paid $700 for the ad, part of a two-week, $29,650 contract for 40 spots.
(Contributing: Sandy Yelnick of the Internet Archive and Danilo Yanich of the University of Delaware)
The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike. A list of Sunlight's funders can be found here.