Local media pundits spend a lot of time decrying Philadelphia's insipid and entrenched political class. They proudly point to investigative reporting exposing corruption and malfeasance, then express frustration that the public elects and re-elects scoundrels and miscreants. But, as anyone who has ever dared to enter the local political fray quickly realizes, despite the clear need for political change, the Philadelphia media game is stacked solidly against challengers.
NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS
Local media loves to pile on the coverage for weather and sports, but local politics get scant coverage. Want one reason why turnout in the presidential election dwarfs the turnout in local elections? The media may cover the presidential race as if it were weather and sports. But, in Philadelphia, local politics gets coverage equivalent to the local zoo -- occasional stories of odd creatures acting cute or misbehaving.
The well-documented decline in local print journalism has severely limited the amount of ink spilled to inform the public on local political matters. Newsrooms are too short-staffed to deeply explore local politics. New-media entrants into the local information marketplace too often serve only as an echo chamber, without adding more substance. Philadelphians have too little talk-radio or broadcast-television programming dedicated solely to local political matters. As a result, important matters of substance just do not engage the public and political insurgency is all the more difficult.
In the middle of my 2009 campaign for City Controller, years before the most-recent Philadelphia Parking Authority scandals, I held a press event calling attention for the need to audit the rogue authority and criticizing the incumbent for his poor oversight efforts. (Check out video of the event here -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HcOErtccSs). A single print reporter attended. When I asked him if my event would generate coverage in the newspaper, he assured me that it would be "part of the story." Despite my campaign's daily efforts to engage the public, raise important issues, and make the case for political change, his publication was only planning to devote a single, election-eve article to the race. My effort to talk about badly-needed oversight at PPA would amount to a phrase in the piece.
No news is definitely bad news for anyone who wants political change.
MEMBERSHIP IN THE POLITICAL CLASS HAS ITS PRIVILEGES
Politicians sometimes complain that after being sworn in to office, they spend their term being sworn at. It’s not all that bad based on the kid-glove treatment they too often receive in the media. Even the least-impressive incumbent is likely to benefit from media coverage for simply doing their jobs in ways that thwart political challenges. The race for Philadelphia District Attorney is a great example of the problem. Despite the fact that Philadelphia's media has done an admirable job uncovering and probing troubling ethical -- and potentially criminal -- matters involving the incumbent, the stories focusing on his office’s work and his political challengers often serve to boost his re-election chances.
Political challengers need media coverage to increase their name recognition and to broadcast their message to voters. But, when one story ran about two challengers entering the race for DA, the headline read, "Two more announce they are running against DA Seth Williams." Another story on the race featured the headline, "For Philly DA Williams, a crowded primary field is good news" next to a pretty picture of the incumbent on the front page of the newspaper. Challengers, desperate for the free publicity, would have loved to have been the focus of that newspaper bold print. Challengers are giving Philadelphia a real choice for new leadership, but the coverage -- especially for the many readers who do little more than glance at the headlines -- often does little more than reinforce the notion that it's the incumbent's office to hold.
As the race for District Attorney attracted new challengers, each eager to reach voters, the media reported on the District Attorney's annual plea to celebrate the New Year without firing guns into the sky. Incumbents get to be part of almost every story about challengers and their campaigns while, in the middle of the campaign, the media dutifully report on even the most routine act of an incumbent. Challengers' actions are cast in the light of the campaign while incumbents earn glowing coverage for the banality of routine activities.
In my race for City Controller in 2013, I created a totally transparent and fully searchable visualization of the Philadelphia city budget, which allowed anyone with Internet access to see -- for the first time ever -- exactly how the city spent every penny of taxpayer money. (Check it out here -- http://brettmandel.com/content/bulldog-budget). The release of my transparent Bulldog Budget was treated as a political story and the incumbent was quoted throwing shade on my groundbreaking work. Yet I was never called to comment when the Controller's Office released a routine audit.
Despite the Philadelphia media's professed interest in political challenge, the media's own efforts -- perhaps inadvertently, but profoundly -- help incumbents and thwart those who run to make change.
TOUGH TALK IS OFTEN ALL TALK
Philadelphia is a long-corrupted, but bafflingly contented town. For all the bluster about our living in a tough town, Philadelphians are conflict-reluctant and have a remarkable tolerance for shenanigans. In a clubby town like Philadelphia, reporters protect their sources and treasure the access they have to the powers that be. Even some of Philadelphia's toughest scribes won't go after certain individuals for fear they'll lose a source.
More than any other experience as a candidate for office, hearing one investigative reporter confess to me that he wouldn't expose wrongdoing that I brought to his attention because it involved an individual who fed him stories demonstrated why change eludes Philadelphia.
If we can't count on journalists to call out waste, fraud, and abuse for fear of alienating a source or challenging the status quo, we certainly cannot count on change for the better coming to Philadelphia politics.
If Philadelphia is ever to get the political change it deserves, we need better political choices. But, challengers would be much more likely to be successful if they could count on local media to better cover their efforts.
To make political change, Philadelphia needs to foment and facilitate political challengers. More coverage and more time devoted to the substance of local races would help, dealing with (perhaps inadvertent) media bias toward incumbents would help, and backing up the "tough talk" by stopping playing soft with the officials who are doing wrong by us would help. In a changed media environment, more worthy individuals would be encouraged to run and maybe more would succeed in ousting entrenched pols.