Big media plans to feast on next year’s PA governor’s election

Media executives hope to see more than $60 million spent on next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial election

by Bill Keisling

You might imagine there are only two groups with big stakes in next year’s Pennsylvania governor’s election: the electorate, and candidates seeking election.

You’d be wrong.

There’s a third party with its hand out in next year’s gubernatorial election: the corporate media.

Pennsylvania’s media executives are already planning to score big financially from what’s expected to be a hotly contested governor’s election in 2014.

That’s not just because incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett is unpopular, with low poll numbers.

It’s because Pennsylvania is a swing-state that can go to candidates of either party.

The business opportunities presented by swing-states like Pennsylvania have been a hot topic in the national media for the last year or so.

CBS Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves caused a stir when he said in 2012, “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re good for CBS.” Political ads on CBS stood to increase network profits by $180 in 2012, Moonves told an entertainment law conference last year.

This startling pronouncement was followed by a Moody’s investment service forecast in May of this year stating the benefits of buying television stations in a time of diseased American politics.

Titled, “US Broadcast Buyers and Sellers Benefit as New Wave of Arbitrageurs Stake Their Claims,” the Moody’s study relates, “The broadcasters’ financial sponsors and private equity investors are seizing the moment to take profits on their television holdings. The 2012 political-ad cash windfall gave potential acquirers cash for spending or repaying debt balances, while making targets more attractive.”

Moody’s continues: “Television’s political advertising revenue reached record levels of just under $3 billion in 2012, giving broadcasters an additional profit windfall and providing additional fuel for (merger and acquisition) activity, despite some broadcasters’ funding of special dividends in December 2012. Political spending has increased consistently in even-numbered years, when almost all US elections take place. Among the various media formats, local television continues to attract most of the political advertising money, since local broadcasters can deliver a branding or campaign message to broad audiences.”

In plain English, this means that giant media companies are buying everything in sight to cash in on political ads.

In Harrisburg alone, for example, both CBS and ABC affiliates changed hands in the past few months alone.

“Political ad windfall drives local TV consolidation,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported this May.

“As campaign ads saturated the airwaves during the 2012 campaign, and piles of campaign cash buoyed stations’ balance sheets, media watchers wondered: how would the windfall revenues affect the local TV industry, and the news coverage it produces?” Sasha Chavkin wrote for CJR.

“The question (is) how the unprecedented flood of political dollars unleashed in the 2012 campaign is affecting local television news? … We found that although many stations were producing valuable fact check segments that scrutinized the ads themselves, there was scant evidence that they were using any of the ad revenues to pay for additional political or investigative reporting.”

And the news just gets worse.

In July, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Campaign Ad Cash Lures Buyers to Swing-State TV Stations.”

The article explains, for example, that Washington DC TV station WJLA “took in $33 million in election-related and issue advocacy advertising last year. Only three stations in the United States earned more for political ads, and two of those were also in Washington. That’s because the stations’ signals reach citizens in a crucial battleground state, Virginia, as well as the political power brokers in the nation’s capital….

“That math helps explain why Gannett paid $1.5 billion for 20 stations last month, why the Tribune Company agreed last week to pay $2.7 billion for 19 stations — and why more consolidation in the marketplace is forecast for later this year….

“Anyone hoping for a commensurate increase in the size of local newsrooms would be sorely disappointed; staffing levels have risen only slightly. Salaries stayed stagnant last year, according to a Hofstra University professor, Bob Papper, who called the results of his annual survey ‘lousy.'”

In Pennsylvania, for example, longtime broadcast weatherman Jim Buchanan recalls on Facebook, “Anchors salaries were inflated in the 80s and 90s…but deflating rapidly since 2000. If you were a main TV anchor for example making 75k in 2000, expect to make 45k today.”

All this has serves to distort political realities on the ground in Pennsylvania.

Two state legislators I know from Philadelphia tell me they would like to run for higher office — Congress or perhaps even the governor’s office — but say they are prevented by their campaign fundraising limitations.

“The media won’t take you seriously in these races unless you raise a lot of cash,” one tells me.

In other words, big media sees itself as a gatekeeper to higher public office.

This is particularly strange in Philadelphia, where the Inquirer has been in and out of bankruptcy court for the last decade.

What’s particularly galling to these candidates is that the money they’re told they must raise to placate the media goes, of course, to the media.

Gov. Tom Corbett expects to have a war chest next year of $30 million. (Lancaster General Health PAC, incidentally is listed as one of Corbett’s top contributors by votesmart.org, with a donation in 2012 of $2,500.)

Big media execs hope Corbett’s eventual Democratic challenger will match this $30 million amount — after an expensive and bruising primary fight involving a half dozen or so primary candidates.

This means media executives hope to see more than $60 million spent on next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial election alone.

This of course is part of our problem — if not our biggest problem.

Pennsylvania has no limits on campaign contributions. But no one in corporate media, for obvious reasons, is pushing for any limits.

If political campaigns are reduced to raising money from big business interests to fund vacuous campaign attack ads, where does that leave kids or communities with little or no money?

As we see in Gov. Corbett’s Harrisburg bailout plan, Dauphin County Commissioners and bond insurers who hire a lobbyist to donate to Corbett get bailed out, while those who have long-standing concerns for environmental damage at the incinerator, but donate no money, are ignored.

What’s wrong with Pennsylvania? Among other indisputable signs of our decline:

• Kids for years were raped in school shower rooms by Jerry Sandusky, while children and youth agencies and state attorney general office did nothing to stop the trusted coach.

• Thousands of other kids in the same time frame were sold down the river by corrupt Pennsylvania judges to private detention facilities.

• Two state Supreme Court judges in the last twenty years have been prosecuted for corrupt acts, while a third is currently under federal investigation.

• Many former top legislative leaders have been jailed for corruption.

• Schools and entire communities in Pennsylvania are in decline, and tottering on the brink of bankruptcy.

• The judicial, legislative, and executive branches of Pennsylvania state government are broken, with no ideas being floated by candidates or big media on how to address these structural problems, or fix them.

Why isn’t the corporate media covering these issues?

Why instead is the corporate media focusing intently on how much cash is being raised by early candidates for Pennsylvania’s governor’s office?

It’s because raped and abused children and broken communities do nothing for the media companies’ bottom line.

Whether the public wakes up to this reality anytime soon is a $60 million + question.

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Updated: September 6, 2013 — 12:11 pm
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