Shortly before last month’s mayoral primary in Pittsburgh an attack ad began airing criticizing one of the mayoral candidates. The ad was paid for by an anonymous third party and ordinarily the search into its provenance would have stopped there. But last year the FCC changed disclosure rules for anonymous attack ads. Brooke talks to Tim McNulty, political reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, about who paid for the ad and why.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shortly before last month’s mayoral primary in Pittsburgh, there was an attack ad against City Council member Bill Peduto, a Democratic candidate for Mayor.
NARRATOR: Bill Peduto wants to be Mayor of Pittsburgh. But Peduto only seems to care about his own district. Peduto was the only Council member to vote against helping homeless seniors but has diverted money to corporate expansion in his district.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, attack ads are par for the course during political campaigns but Tim McNulty, who reports on politics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noticed something unprecedented about this one. What was it?
TIM McNULTY: We had never had an outside attack ad in a mayor’s race before. In this case, we had a anonymous ad, just like, you know, a Super PAC ad, going after a – just a regular old Democratic candidate for Mayor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ad was paid for by a group called Committee for a Better Pittsburgh.
TIM McNULTY: Yeah, that sounds good.
Yeah, I think everyone wants that. But we didn’t know where it was coming from. We suspected, however, that it was from this guy Peduto’s main rival, the incumbent Mayor, a guy named Luke Ravenstahl. But we couldn't prove that he was behind these ads until we did a little digging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's talk about that. Last year, the FCC made a decision to require TV stations to post information about political ads online, and that was your way in.
TIM McNULTY: That’s right, you know, and we were watching that decision very closely last fall because we had a lot of these same kind of ads in our congressional races around Pittsburgh. We were very familiar with that website, and we used it all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The information about ad buys was already available to the public, but you had to be there in person.
TIM McNULTY: It's very difficult to go into a television station, get past security, go to the general manager's office, find some kind of rusty old filing cabinet and, and rifle through these papers, especially when you know you're probably not going to find out anything all that interesting. It's sort of a, you know, 1 in 100 shot when you do. So to be able to do that from the office is a whole lot easier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were able to find this information in the online version of the public files, but those files weren't perfect, right? They were incomplete?
TIM McNULTY: Yeah, they don't tell you everything. It's like reading Sanskrit to figure it out. They give you just the slightest glimpse into who these groups are and how much money they're spending. I mean, it’s a big help. It doesn’t get all the way there. It’s only the top 50 markets in the country, where the TV stations have to provide this info. It's only network television. A lot of political advertising is moving to cable now. You still have to go to cable, you know, stations to see the stuff there. So it’s, it's taking us a bit of the way. I’d like to see it go a little bit further.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what did you see?
TIM McNULTY: Well, we just kept going through them and through ‘em, until finally we found a document where the billing to the conservative media firm in Virginia was listed, and who pops up as the chairman of Committee for a Better Pittsburgh but the outgoing Mayor and the rival of this guy who was being attacked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Luke Ravenstahl, the outgoing Mayor, is also a Democrat, right?
TIM McNULTY: That's right, but everybody in Pittsburgh's a Democrat.
So you don’t break down by Republican or – you know, or Democrat like you usually do. You break down in other ways that are very complicated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is Luke Ravenstahl a really rich guy? Where did he get the money for these ads?
TIM McNULTY: [LAUGHS] As you said, our primary was May 21st, and he didn’t drop out until March. And so, being an incumbent, he had a – the biggest war chest in the whole city. He had about a million dollars in cash. So he had money to burn, and burn it he did.
And he put [LAUGHS] 150,000 dollars into about a month of attack ads on his rival, even though he wasn’t in the race.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how important is this information anyway, to the citizens of Pittsburgh? Does it really matter who paid for the attack ad?
TIM McNULTY: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s on, you know, 24/7 on every single local news broadcast, everything. And they’re really harsh attacks and, strangely enough, they’re by the same firm that did the Swift Boat ads on John Kerry. It offended a lot of Democrats in a Democratic city that the Mayor used this firm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the ads had an impact?
TIM McNULTY: [LAUGHS] Well, Peduto, the guy that the Mayor was attacking, actually won over his two main rivals for the Democratic nomination. And there's some anecdotal information that these ads might have boosted Peduto because the current Mayor is so incredibly unpopular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you think that if everybody knew who paid for these ads all the time, it would actually have the effect of educating the electorate?
TIM McNULTY: You certainly have to go beyond just these names of who the people paying for the ads are. You need some people, you know, like us to help explain who these people are and, and what they're trying to accomplish. But yeah, it helps out a lot. There’s a nonprofit out there that I’ll give a plug to called the Sunlight Foundation. You can put in the, the name of your TV market and it’ll send you an update every single time a new ad is filed in your city, so you don’t have to go and check it by yourself every time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the voters knew who was behind every ad, do you think that would reduce the impact of political advertising?
TIM McNULTY: It might. It’s a real uphill battle. I mean, the, the laws are against the public finding out about most of this stuff, and even this FCC rule only provides just a, a small bit of information to build upon. But it's really all we have.
And the other thing that’s kind of sad about it is that the actual campaigns and the committees themselves have media buyers who track all of this stuff for them. It’s the public, it’s reporters who have to go out and do all of this, you know, digging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
TIM McNULTY: No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim McNulty is a political reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.