[Updated Friday at 7:00 p.m.]
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s new column on the Philly.com website debuted this week.
The website is owned by Interstate General Media, the same company as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News. Company officials responded to criticism of the move by saying Philly.com is not a news website, and isn’t governed by the same journalistic standards as a newspaper.
After Corbett’s first piece, a Q&A, appeared on the website, Democrat U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s gubernatorial campaign said Schwartz had accepted Philly.com’s invitation to write a column as well.
The columns raise questions, said Ellen Kaplan, vice president of government watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “I think it’s a legitimate inquiry whether it is an in-kind contribution to their gubernatorial campaigns,” she said.
Interstate General Media responded to that question.
“Gov. Corbett appears on ‘The New Voices’ platform of Philly.com in his capacity as governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said company spokesman Mark Block. “The content that Gov. Corbett is contributing to ‘The New Voices’ platform is representative of his official role serving in that public service position.”
Kaplan said the columns raise other questions, including whether Philly.com is anointing Corbett and Schwartz as the front-runners in the gubernatorial race by giving them a digital platform. The election is next year.
“It certainly gives them more exposure to the voters than other candidates, without their campaigns having to pay for that exposure,” Kaplan said. “As we know, often in elections, people go into the voting booth and they may see a name they’re familiar with, and that could impact their voting, irrespective of the actual platforms of any of the candidates.”
Kaplan said the columns could discourage other potential candidates from entering the governor’s race.
Philadelphia Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer said there isn’t an “easy answer” to the question of whether the Philly.com columns would qualify as in-kind campaign contributions. He believes the situation is not clearly addressed in state law.
“It does raise a question,” Creamer said.