I think it's been pretty well established that PittGirl may be Pittsburgh's greatest self-promotional genius since Andy Warhol. Here's a woman who has reporters eating out of the palm of her hand -- to the extent that when her blog shuts down, it ends up on the front page of the Post-Gazette.
Which means UPMC might want to hire her as an image consultant.
As one of the state's largest employers, and a provider of life-saving services, UPMC is accustomed to getting good PR .. so much so that it can afford to run ads that don't actually say anything. But lately things have been turning sour.
A few days ago, the Post-Gazette's editorial page faulted the healthcare giant for closing a program to benefit poor mothers in Braddock. Now there's this story -- about the hospital's controverisal former transplant chief, Amadeo Marcos -- from today's Wall Street Journal. The story alleges that Marcos was symptomatic of a culture which put profit considerations above patients' health.
You should read it at your earliest opportunity, but until then, a few highlights ...
Many of these concerns were outlined earlier this year by a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigation, "Transplanting Too Soon." Marcos suddenly left UPMC even as that series was heading to press. The Post-Gazette did a number of stories on Marcos' departure too. And while the P-G mentioned doubts about his approach to liver transplants, they played up concerns about Marcos' personal behavior even more.
Throughout the controversy, the hospital has defended its transplant program, and maintained that Marcos' departure did not reflect on the quality of care provided to patients, or with the issues discussed by the Trib.
UPMC attorneys, please take note: I make no representation as to whether the claims made by the Journal or anyone else are true. I'm merely flagging them as worthy of discussion. Please don't sue me, or put somebody else's brain in my head, or anything like that.
I will say this, though: I wouldn't be surprised if UPMC has to contend with increasing skepticsm in the weeks and months ahead.
In the past year, we've already seen harsh questions about UPMC's role in the "Pittsburgh Promise" scholarship program. We've seen the Marcos kerfluffle blow up twice now. We've seen the non-profit slap its name across the tallest building in Pittsburgh ... only to announce layoffs a few months later. Meanwhile, wages everywhere are shrinking as healthcare costs soar. That's the sort of trend that tends to stoke a bit more curiousity about, say, the salary and perks that Romoff and other execs get.
UPMC paid to have its name put on top of the US Steel Tower because it wanted more visibility. In the months ahead, it may come to regret that decision.
I'm sorry to see Burgh Blog go too. But I take some consolation in thinking this outcome was inevitable. In fact, I tend to believe PittGirl killed the blog for some of the same reasons that helped make it popular in the first place. And if this saga does say anything about Pittsburgh, it shows how far people here will go to protect "one of our own."
I don't think there's any big mystery about what happened here. Judging from today's Post-Gazette article, somebody out there was able to piece together PittGirl's identity. Even though that person swore to keep the secret, PittGirl apparently realized the next person who did so might not be so accommodating.
Why was anonymity so important? You can find a clue in this interview PittGirl gave to Pittsburgh magazine:
Pittsburgh Magazine: Just to get this out of the way, I have no interest in finding out who you really are. It's too much fun this way, love the mystique. But let's deal with the elephant in the room. What's with the anonymity?
PittGirl: I guess it is twofold. One, I have a job and that job puts me in contact with lots of people in the city. Including some of the people I write about. Secondly, I love being able to truly speak my mind and I couldn't do that if I put my name and face out there.
I'll be honest: That's not the most ennobling defense of internet anonymity I've ever heard. And a few haters out there have criticized PittGirl for taking the piss out of people -- including those she apparently works with and around -- behind their backs. Then again, at least one of those critics stayed anonymous too. And the point is: Rightly or wrongly, PittGirl got to enjoy the best of both worlds. So did her readers.
In fact, when you think about it, the surprising part isn't that PittGirl was close to being outed. The surprising part is that it took so long. But then, there were people willing to play along, including many professional journalists.
That Pittsburgh magazine interview, for example, essentially begins with the interviewer agreeing not to dig too deeply or ask uncomfortable questions, because they're having so much fun together. Probably more interviews begin that way than many journos would want to admit. But what's strange here is that the whole post-the-IM-chat conversation gambit essentially publicizes the fact. The whole interview screams, "See? I get it!"
That pretty much sums up PittGirl's treatment by local media, even as they added to her celebrity. I can't think of too many cases in which the Post-Gazette has done a 600-word Q&A -- plus prominent mention in multiple follow-up pieces -- with someone whose identity it refused to disclose. And it's not because nobody over there knows who she is. I know of at least one reasonably high-ranking Post-Gazette editor who has met PittGirl for lunch.
In fact, this may be PittGirl's most impressive accomplishment: Her popularity was such that she got some of the city's most prominent media outlets to play by the blogosphere's rules.
I'm not trying to raise some big ethical stink here. We're talking about pigeons, not the Pentagon Papers. (And I'm not above keeping that sort of secret myself, as at least one or two other local bloggers can attest.) But not everyone is as willing to sacrifice their curiosity -- or to keep secrets -- as some local journalists were. The "mystique" as Pittsburgh magazine put it, was part of the PittGirl appeal, and her persona. Her blog played on it all the time. But for some people, inevitably, the "mystique" is going to be accompanied by a desire to have the mystery revealed.
Sooner or later this was going to happen, and it speaks to a small-town neighborliness -- on the part of media too -- that it took so long. But as PittGirl herself seems to have realized, even in Pittsburgh there's a point at which you can no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And by the time you're giving interviews to a city's leading daily newspaper and its leading monthly magazine, that point is already in your rearview mirror.
Every public figure realizes that you don't get to choose the extent of your celebrity. Once you put your name -- or even a pseudonym -- out there, it no longer belongs to you alone. For example, I know of at least one local journalist who, because he made a flippant reference to PittGirl's blog, had his sexual orientation became a subject of derision in its comments section.
No doubt the commenter who did so thought the journalist's private life was fair game, because journalists live "in the public eye." Maybe so. But given those rules, it's hard to see how anyone thought The Burgh Blog itself could last forever.
To be honest, I haven't given too much thought to the federal government's efforts to bail American corporations out of the economic crisis. No one's going to help newspapers, it seems, so my main concern was that Jim Rohr of PNC Bank comes out all right. Once that outcome seemed assured, I mostly stopped paying attention. But Jason Togyer's post, about bailing the auto industry out of its problems, got me thinking about the subject again.
Jason's a smart guy, and the proof is that he got out of mainstream journalism a few years back. Not surprisingly, he makes the case for a bailout about as well as it can be made. You should read his post in its entirety, but I'll briefly excerpt a couple key points here:
The main problem faced by GM, Ford and Chrysler is that they're saddled with health care and pension benefit costs that foreign companies don't pay.
... The Japanese and German governments pay for those benefits. That knocks an easy $1,500 off of the price of each car made overseas.
But just mention socialized medicine or government-funded pension plans in the United States, and you're labeled a communist or worse.
... Plenty of people on the left and right are saying "Let Detroit go down the tubes. I don't live in Michigan. Things are tough in the Mon Valley, too."
In other words, "Hooray for me, and to hell with you. I got mine."
I can't object to any of this, as far as it goes. But I will say that the "To hell with you/I got mine" argument cuts both ways.
I mean, what about the selfishness of the automakers? For years, 45 million Americans who don't make cars have been making do without insurance. I don't get the sense Detroit saw that as a crisis. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently charged, auto execs sat on their hands instead of participating in efforts to provide a workable national healthcare system. They stayed out of the public arena entirely, until they wanted us to pay their freight.
At this point, I probably sound like a conservative jagoff -- of a genus slightly different from, but every bit as pernicious as, the jagoffs Jason is addressing. Instead of saying "I got mine, screw you," my message probably sounds like "I'm not getting mine, so screw you twice just for asking."
But actually what I'm saying is this: If any of us are going to get ours, we all have to get ours. If we decide it's fair to shoulder the cost of healthcare for our automaking brothers, then they owe us the same consideration.
My only real objection to Jason's argument is that he's framed this issue as a response to a particular crisis, in a particular industry. I don't blame him for that, because he's merely responding to the arguments out there, and this is how everybody is framing the debate. All that changes is who has their hand out. Last month it was banks, today it's the car companies. Tomorrow it will be the banks again, and next week it will be someone else. These patchwork bailouts will eventually deplete the Treasury (assuming it hasn't already happened) and the rest of us will be no better off than we were before, and probably much worse.
As Naomi Klein has written, in recent years we've seen the rise of "disaster capitalism" -- the use of traumatic events (like wars, for example) to expand corporate power and profits (by providing Blackwater-style mercenaries, say). It's time to return the favor: We could start by demanding the auto industry line up behind a national healthcare plan -- one that its workers would participate in, and that its lobbyists would support.
The auto industry is crippled, sure, but it still carries SUV-caliber weight in Washington. This is our chance to use it. Because if we don't, the rest of us will be left to shift for ourselves once the lobbyists get what they want. All we'll have accomplished is propping up a system that was unfair to begin with, and probably won't survive in the long run anyway.
A couple years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating piece about how corporate America got into its pension/benefits mess. Not coincidentally, the seeds for the current disaster were planted by the auto industry. As Gladwell spells out, the visionary head of the Autoworkers union, Walter Reuther, wanted to set up a system whereby competing automakers would operate industry-wide pension funds. His theory, Gladwell writes, was that "the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible."
That is, of course, the basic business model of the insurance industry. But Detroit carmakers opposed the plan because they thought it smacked of -- take a wild guess -- socialism. Eventually, Reuther gave in. But he did so because he thought he would be proven right in the end. As Gladwell puts it, Reuther was certain that when the automakers "got tens of billions behind in their health-care obligations, when the cost of carrying thou-sands of retirees forced them to stare bankruptcy in the face, they would come around to the idea that the markets work best when the burdens of benefits are broadly shared."
I'll favor a bailout for the automakers when they, and their workers, show they have learned this lesson. Until that happens, well ... to hell with you.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl presented next year's $438 million operating and $45 million capital budgets to city council Monday morning. And while many will spend the next several weeks analyzing what the budget will mean to the city, I thought it would be more interesting to look simply at the words the mayor used to get his message across. Sometimes that's the best way to understand what an official thinks is important.
In his 2008 State of the Union Address, for example, President George W. Bush used the words "terror" or "terrorists" 23 times and the words "Iraq" or "Iraqis" 38 times. In contrast, he used the word "health" seven times, and the words "jobs" and "economy" just six times each.
So taking a gander at the most-used words in Ravenstahl's speech, it's obvious that he was trying to spread a positive message, but did it really get to the heart of the challenges (used four times in the speech) facing the city.
Here's an image cloud of the top 50 words in Ravenstahl's speech, followed by a closer look at some of its key ideas
Family — Outside of the word "Pittsburgh" (27 times) and "city" (24 times), this word was used more than any other, clocking in 19 appearances.
Example of usage: "We have an obligation to the residents of our City, to solve the problems we face together — as a family."
How effective was the word: Arguably, city officials have been acting like a family in the past year. They've engaged with name calling, back biting and the occasional punch in the nuts when you really get steamed. Instead of acting like a family, maybe they need to act like professionals (a word used zero times in address).
Together — Used 13 times; the word "unity" was used four times.
Example of usage: "Together, we are one Pittsburgh family. … Like a Pittsburgh family, we will work together in the spirit of this historic election, to resist the urge to say 'no we can't' and instead say 'yes we can.'"
How effective was the word: Is this a real sentiment or merely a buzzword? President Bush, remember, was a uniter, not a divider. As for Ravenstahl, he used the word "together" eight times in his December 2007 inaugural address. But since then, he's gone out of his way to take shots at councilors Doug Shields and Bill Peduto.
Neighborhoods — Used 10 times.
Example of Usage: "Through our pay-as-you-go capital budget, we promised to invest in neighborhoods without mortgaging our children's future. And, we've succeeded. We made the largest public safety fleet investment in our City's history, purchasing more than 100 police vehicles, 9 fire trucks, and 8 ambulances."
Effectiveness of the word: It's surprising the mayor didn't use this word more often. He has spent much of the last year trying to bring change and investment to neighborhoods through efforts to fight blight and work to preserve small businesses. As a side note, the mayor also used the phrase BBI (Bureau of Building Inspection) four times. He has recently hired a new head of that department and inspectors will begin reporting to the local police zones and not a downtown office. On the other hand, the city did recently demolish a garage my mistake, clearing away one man's heirlooms, but if you're going to make an omelet (used zero times in address) ...
Cooper — The name of the mayor's new son was used four times (one reference shy of the number of photos sent to the press the day after he was born).
Example of Usage: "How lucky is Cooper, and the hundreds of babies born here every day, to live in a place where generations live in the same neighborhood, and sometimes even on the same street."
Effectiveness of the word: The mayor is obviously proud of his son, and that's great. At some point, though, it's going to start looking a little calculated, like Aerosmith asking Pittsburgh if it is, indeed, ready to rock.
Also, it can't be coincidental that the word COOPERation was also used four times.
I guess now that the election is over, we can look at that notorious Post-Gazette bag wrapper with a bit more detachment.
I'm talking, of course, about the "Defend Freedom/Defeat Obama" message the National Rifle Association paid to have plastered on the P-G's Nov. 3 delivery bags.
As we all know, City Paper is in no position to second-guess the ads other people accept. I mean, we once ran an ad of a squirrel with a scrotum Photoshopped on it. Anyway, other folks have already denounced the Post-Gazette's decision, and I know some inside the P-G newsroom were bummed out by it as well. As a handful of letters in today's edition point out, this advertisement comes on the heels of two other controversial ads: a copy of the New Testament and an over-the-top DVD warning of the dangers of Islamic terrorism.
So, yeah, the trend is disturbing. But here are some things to consider.
First, the P-G had few good options here. Had it not accepted the ad, it would arguably have advanced the NRA's message even more. Suddenly the air would be filled with complaints about how the "liberal media" refused to accept a pro-gun message. And we're not talking about some disgruntled bloggers or subscribers: We're talking crazy right-wing talk show hosts from coast to coast. The NRA message would have gone a lot further then it did, and it would have been amplified with a bunch of other conservative complaints.
Second, since the GOP insists we're all headed toward a socialist utopia now that Obama has won, a quote from Lenin seems appropriate: "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." The Post-Gazette's critics contend the paper sold out its credibility for the sake of an ad -- forgoing the moral clarity of its Obama endorsement for the sake of a few bucks. That is one way to look at it. But another way would be to say the P-G got the NRA to help to bankroll its mostly pro-gun-control editorials and columnists.
Of course, both things are true. The NRA and the Post-Gazette used each other. But that's the genius of capitalism, my friends. And that is the real issue here.
The most important point in this debate was raised by a chance remark made over at a Burgh Report post linked to above: "Fortunately fewer and fewer people are reading your print edition these days." I've heard similar statements expressed by a lot of lefties around town: "Oh, I just look at the paper online, so I didn't even SEE that bag," and so on.
I'm going to submit that this is precisely the problem. It may even help to explain why the P-G accepted the ad in the first place.
Newspaper revenues are in decline because, while readers are flocking to the internet, advertising revenue isn't following. That's the most important thing to understand about the newspaper business right now. There are a ton of implications for that, but only one need concern us here: If you're reading a paper online only, your reading habits are being subsidized by those who advertise in, and subscribe to, the print edition.
Which means you aren't innocent in all this. Your ability to read the P-G depends to some extent on its ability to sell access to deranged right-wingers.
Thanks to the Internet, we have the luxury of being able to consider canceling our subscriptions without giving up access to the information. Thanks to the Internet, we're enjoying the best of both worlds -- information provided by professionals whose services we don't have to pay for. But the only reason we can do that is because of old geezers (and throwbacks like me) who do continue to subscribe. It's no accident that right-wing fearmongers are using the print edition as a vehicle for their message. Fears about terrorism and gun control play especially welll with older folks: The NRA slaps its ads on newspaper bags for the same reason Viagra advertises on the evening news.
The larger question -- for Pittsburgh and the rest of the world, really -- is this: How are we going to pay for information in the brave new world? The internet has essentially severed the connection between those who pay for information and those who consume it. A new model will be necessary, and I have no idea what that will be. Setting up public-radio-style subscriber campaigns? Dramatically hiking subscription rates, and going for an upscale-only market? Simply giving up and turning over the keys to an army of online citizen-journalists?
But I think a good start is to have some sympathy for the plight newspapers find themselves in. If we're going to denounce the P-G for taking the NRA's money, fine. The ad was as brainless as it was ineffective, and like I say -- P-G folks hated it too. But if you feel like you feel that its reporters and editors are a valuable part of our community, maybe give some thought to how they should be getting paid. In any case, canceling your subscription, as some have threatened, seems like exactly the wrong way to go.
But MSNBC notes that despite "Obama’s impressive 11-point win in Pennsylvania ... McCain’s Western PA strategy worked. The problem? There weren’t enough votes out there."
The site notes that McCain managed to win some southwestern Pennsylvania counties -- Beaver, Washington and Fayette -- which John Kerry won in 2004. But all told, there were only 227,000 votes cast in those areas -- less than Obama got all by himself in some eastern parts of the state.
Meanwhile, how are Republicans taking this? Just as you'd hope: They are concluding that the problem is that THEY WEREN'T CONSERVATIVE ENOUGH. Here, for example, are the blast e-mailed thoughts of Lowman Henry, a former state GOP official who works for a conservative think tank, the Lincoln Institute:
"[Republican] party moderates have opined time and again that a more middle-of-the-road Presidential candidate could win Pennsylvania. McCain was touted as that candidate. He lost by 11% – far worse than the George W. Bush losses in either 2000 (5%) or 2004 (3%).
This election provides conclusive proof of what happens to a party when it abandons its core values...
The fact of the matter is the GOP has become an unprincipled, undisciplined, ineffective shell of its former self. It has a party structure controlled by lobbyists and special interests, unable to excite even its own base ...
The good news is this vindicates conservatism. When the Republican Party both talked and walked the conservative line -- think Ronald Reagan -- it enjoyed an unparalleled period of success and prosperity both nationally and within Pennsylvania. But, as Specter-style moderation took hold the GOP moved away from those principles with the resulting electoral carnage." (Emphasis mine.)
We progressives can scoff at the idea that an electoral ass-whooping is somehow a "vindication" for conservatives. And having faced this sort of quandary ourselves not long ago ("did we walk away from our values, or did everyone else?") it's obviously a lot more fun to watch the other side wade through it. There's also an argument that in some ways, Reagan was more moderate than either side gives him credit for. Consider his willingness to -- gasp -- raise taxes for purposes of saving Social Security, for example.
But you can see where Henry and his ilk are coming from. As Paul Krugman predicted prior to the election, some of the few remaining moderate Republicans went down in flames yesterday. New England moderates -- once a bulwark of the GOP -- are all but a memory, as the party's reach has headed southward. There's a similar trend taking place on the state level: Philly's suburbs were once Republican, and had a history of elecing more pragmatic, less cretinous conservatives. But those areas have trended increasingly Democratic ... which means the GOP will have to shift westward if it is to survive.
For those of us in the western part of the state, this may prove exceedingly irritating. After all, it means that the face of the GOP may end up resembling the doughy features of Daryl Metcalfe, the anti-choice, anti-immigrant state Rep. from Cranberry. (Metcalfe, by the way, cruised to a re-election victory last night.) Pennsylvania as a whole may be turning a deeper shade of blue, but in the west, we're likely to see more slack-jawed pols in paler shades of white.
In the bigger picture, though, I couldn't be happier to see the GOP decide that it has to be more conservative. In fact, here are some issues I fully recommend the party adopt for future policy platforms:
-- A renewed push to privatize Social Security, so that we can put our money in the stock market.
-- More anti-choice provisions of the kind that just got defeated IN SOUTH DAKOTA. For the SECOND TIME.
-- More Metcalfe-style immigrant bashing. If the GOP wants to cater to whites in rural Pennsylvania, I can think of no better way for them to do so than antagonizing Latino voters everywhere else. Including most of the states where the population is actually growing.
Good luck with all that, fellas.
A thought on turnout: Based on the admittedly unofficial numbers turned in so far, I'm not sure we lived up to the hype.
We heard a lot of talk about how large turnout was going to be, the long lines at polling stations, etc. But overall, the number of votes cast in the Presidential race appears to be roughly the same as it was last time around. In 2004, some 5,765,764 votes were cast in the presidential race. Last night, the number of votes tallied was 5,744,879.
Of course, last night's numbers aren't official. We're not done counting all the precincts yet -- there are a couple stragglers out there. And doubtless there are provisional ballots to be tabulated and so on. But even factoring those in, it's hard to see how this election amounts to some game-changing shift in turnout.
How to square that with the fact that we really DID have very long lines in some places yesterday? (At my polling station, there was more than a half-hour wait.) I'm guessing a lot of people crashed early on, anxious to finally be heard and fearful of chaos later on. With a couple notable exceptions (like the precincts serving the University of Pittsburgh), I heard very few complaints about long lines as the day went on.
Also, it seems enthusiasm for this election was uneven. Looking at some of the rural counties that went for the GOP in both elections, it seems that Republican enthusiasm dropped about 10 percentage points. Take Somerset County: In 2004 George W. Bush receieved 23,800 votes ... so far, McCain has logged only 21,650. Obama, meanwhile, has posted almost exactly the same number of votes as Kerry did -- 12,850 as opposed to 12,842. I'm seeing similar patterns in other counties too: The GOP total down about 10 percent, with Democratic numbers holding steady.
The esteemed Chris Briem at Null Space is likely to blast me for mixing official numbers with unofficial numbers. But he too has noticed some anecdotal evidence that the turnout hype may be overblown.
For now, I'm going to say that the early evidence confirms what we've suspected all along: Democrats were a lot more excited about this election than Republicans were.
Some early thoughts on this election ...
-- That was the easy part. But if Obama runs this country with the same amount of competence that he ran his campaign, we are headed for 1,000 years of peace and prosperity.
-- Like everyone else's, my jaw like near to fell off my face when Pennsylvania was called so early last night. I don't think ANYBODY could forsee Obama by 11 points here. A juvenile part of me is tempted to copy-and-paste some of the more absurd comments I've seen in the blogosphere and elsewhere ... comments insisting, for example, that an online poll at the Post-Gazette Web site was somehow more accurate than the polls the "mainstream media" was feeding you. But this is a Historic Moment, and I guess we should rise above that.
Besides, in many ways the outcome wasn't that surprising. As this space predicted shortly before the election, this race was decided in the east. Philadelphia County alone gave Obama a lead of more than 450,000 votes, and he did well in the surrounding suburbs too. Here in the western part of the state, Obama either equalled John Kerry's performance in 2004, or slightly trailed his Democratic predecessor. In Allegheny County, for example, Kerry got 57 percent of the vote, and so did Obama. Obama lost in Beaver, where Kerry got 51 percent of the vote.
-- In Congress, I'm relieved to see that the odious Lou Barletta has lost his immigrant-bashing bid to emigrate to Washington. Early this year, I worried that immigration could become a successful wedge issue for Republicans. I've never been happier to be wrong.
-- John Murtha could go on a killing spree -- could act like he accused the Marines of Haditha of acting -- and still be re-elected.
-- The fly in the ointment is Congressional District 18. My coverage of this race suggested strongly that Democratic challenger Steve O'Donnell was going to fail to topple incumbent Tim Murphy. Some insisted I was wrong about that, and I wish I had been. In fact, with all the fervor surrounding Obama, the 2006 Democratic candidate -- the distinctly unelectrifying Chad Kluko -- outperfomed O'Donnell. Kluko lost to Murphy by a nearly 16-point margin. O'Donnell lost by nearly 30 points.
Some of that is a tribute to Murphy's ability to triangulate the district, landing union backing and getting some distance from Bush on a few key issues while still hewing to a conservative line. But some of it reflects poorly on the Democratic Party apparatus out here. Last night Dems in the northwest part of the state toppled the grizzled Phil English. But down here, we can't find a Democrat who seems able to win anything more than the Democratic Primary itself.
-- Which brings me to a final thought (for now). There were a lot of hopes in some quarters that Democrats would not just win the White House, but take on a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, swamp the House of Representatives, and so on. While Dems obviously made gains, that doesn't seem to have happened. And while I expect a (very welcome) drop in the kind of deranged e-mails I've been getting for the past few weeks, some kinds of craziness never go away. The other side isn't going to roll over, and the expectations are as high as the hopes Obama inspired. Like I said, this was the easy part.
But the nice thing is, I think we just elected a president who gets that.