Thursday, July 30, 2009

Police Mis-state

Posted By on Thu, Jul 30, 2009 at 2:04 PM

About a month ago, CP's own Marty Levine wrote about what local activists could expect prior to the September G-20 summit. Among other things, one protest veteran warned:

Pittsburghers will soon hear wildly inflated estimates about the number of protesters expected. That, he says, will increase public perceptions of a threat. And, he predicts, so will efforts to demonize protesters by both the police and press.

So here we are, at the end of July, and that prophecy seems to be fulfilling itself. This week's issue of City Paper contains not one but two stories about the local media's treatment of public protest.

In one of those stories, we touch on a KDKA-TV report concerning a recent protest on the North Side. That story, filed by John Shumway, is merely patronizing and smug (and is deconstructed in much greater detail here). It treats the protesters -- who were seeking better pay and benefits at city development sites -- as charlatans, intent on producing nothing more than a bit of political theater. 

The other piece, by WTAE-TV, is much more insidious, despite its laughable Reefer Madness-style hysteria.

The WTAE story, in fact, actually isn't about a protest at all. It's about police fears that a month-old minor crime -- trespassing in a former Polish Hill school building -- could lead to protest activity in the future.

Listen for yourself as Shannon Perrine murmurs darkly about the fact that it was "young people" committing the trespass. Note how she and the anchorpeople fret over the "European connections" of some of the trespassers (who appear to have been members of a Swedish rock band on tour). And bear in mind that this incident -- about which the police supposedly still have "questions" -- took place a month ago.

This story pretty much sums up the reason Pittsburgh's TV media has a reputation for small-mindedness. I mean -- holy shit! Young people in Pittsburgh? Clearly, they can't be up to any good. (After all, when Kevin Bacon wanted to dance in Footloose, where did he go? That's right -- a vacant building!)

And for God's sake ... what would Europeans be doing in Polish Hill?

On the bright side, it's nice to see Scandanavians being the target of racial profiling for a change. It gives the 6 o'clock news a little diversity. 

What isn't so funny, though, is what this portends for media coverage when the G-20 does come to town. 

Perrine's report doesn't quote any of the trespassers -- though one of them lives across the street from the "crime scene." But we were told the trespassers' only agenda was exploring a neat old vacant building. Now, maybe that isn't true, but Perrine's report gives us no evidence to think it's false.

The story itself acknowledges that the trespassers didn't have any "protest materials," so why all the fearmongering about G-20? Perrine doesn't say. She doesn't even identify the source of these fears -- other than nameless "police" and "authorities." The G-20 connection is pure speculation. 

It makes you wonder about how Perrine will react when there really are protesters in town. And what about Shumway? His whole story seems to take umbrage at the idea that protesters called police in advance, and explained their intention to be arrested. So if the G-20 protesters do something spontaneous, does that mean he'll take them more seriously? I doubt it. ("Say what you want about the smashed windows and burning automobiles, Patrice ... but at least it's real!")

And make no mistake: When the G-20 comes to town, there will be need for skepticism directed toward both sides. Just today, in fact, we have news from Washington that law-enforcment there may have suppressed evidence stemming from a mass arrest in 2002.

Those arrests involved hundreds of people, who were protesting against the global financial system. (Among those taken into custody was a demonstrator who later became a CP staffer, perhaps as a form of penance.) The police overreacted so badly that the police chief later apologized for the department's actions. Protesters filed a lawsuit against the city for violating their civil rights, and today we learn that

Some evidence [in the case] including a key report and portions of radio transmissions, has vanished. In recent days, the D.C. government has also turned over thousands of pages of records and videotapes to protesters' lawyers, some of which should have been produced years ago.

Attorneys for the protesters are, not surprisingly, accusing local law-enforcement of destroying evidence. The federal judge in the case called the disappearance of key records "abysmal" and "not acceptable." 

All of this ought to be a timely lesson for reporters: In large-scale protests, the cops too can get out of hand ... and law-enforcement accounts deserve to be questioned as well. Especially considering that many of the cops who come to Pittsburgh will be from out of town -- just like the protesters.

So keep your eyes open, Ms. Perrine: Some of those cops might even be from Europe.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Keeping quiet on Roethlisberger suit

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 3:21 PM

One thing you won't find on the CP Web site is much commentary on the rape allegations made against Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Since I don't have the resources to head off to Tahoe, I'm just watching the same news broadcasts and reading the same stories that you are. 

Which is what this blog post is about: the way our media outlets are covering this case -- and how much they are divulging about Roethlisberger's accuser. 

Both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review are keeping the accuser's name under wraps, even though it is listed on the lawsuit itself. From what I can tell, meanwhile, our three local TV stations are reporting her name. At least one TV report I've seen, aired by KDKA's Andy Sheehan, has also shown her photograph. 

I think Sheehan's one of the best TV reporters in town, but showing that picture, at least, seems utterly gratuitous. Its news value is nill, and is guaranteed to prompt a lot of really shitty commentary about  the accuser's looks. That is, in fact, exactly what happened at the, which first published the photo -- and whose comments section gives you a pretty good illustration of why rape victims often want to be anonymous. (I'd provide you a link, but  a lot of that commentary will likely damage your faith in humanity, and I don't want that on my conscience.)

Disclosing the accuser's name? That's a trickier call.

Withholding the name of an alleged rape victim is a widely accepted journalistic practice, of course. But in a high-profile case like this one, its shortcomings become apparent pretty quickly.

For one thing, the name is already is all over the web -- a Google search for "Roethlisberger rape" produced it in the first news story. And the P-G's own forays into online media complicate matters as well: The paper posted a video of Roethlisberger denying the charges on its Web site, but blanked out the sound when Roethlisberger named his accuser. At some point, you wonder how far this thing should be carried: If you're going to tinker with the sound, why show the video at all? And if you're going to edit the audio, why not go the extra mile and pixilize Roethlisberger's face -- so lip-readers, too, will have to go somewhere else to find the name?

Another complicating factor: This is a civil case -- where the accuser is seeking monetary damages -- rather than a criminal complaint. And it seems pretty clear that no criminal complaint will be filed, given that the alleged rape happened more than a year ago. 

Some would say that it shouldn't make any difference whether the case is civil or criminal. The accuser, after all, says she feared her employer would retaliate against her if she went to the police. If that's true, a civil suit might be her only shot at justice.

But that assumes she really was raped, something none of us know, and that we're not very likely to ever find out for certain. Let's remember that the burden of proof in a civil court is much lower. In a criminal case, Roethlisberger would need to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- a very high standard. In a civil suit, the burden is a simple majority of the evidence. So even if there's a verdict against him, we couldn't have the same confidence in his guilt as we might otherwise.

The P-G, for one, wrestled with some of these questions a year ago, in a story that's worth a second look now. That story was about a woman who'd been raped in the Waterworks mall parking lot: She later sued the mall's owners on the grounds that they'd provided inadequate security. But in order to protect her own anonymity, she sued as a "Jane Doe" -- something the mall operator challenged in court.

The P-G's story presented a nuanced look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. It also quoted the paper's managing editor, Susan Smith, saying the paper "continue[s] to believe that more harm than good would come from routinely naming rape victims. It's a violent crime of a very personal nature and that puts its victims in a class by themselves." Indeed, the P-G refrained from naming the woman (who later settled her suit with the mall owner).

But the circumstances then were much different. For one thing, unlike in the Roethlisberger scenario, the woman was suing a third party, not the person accused of assaulting her. And in the Waterworks case, there was no question that the woman HAD been raped -- her attacker had already been found guilty in a criminal trial. In this case, the facts are much murkier: No criminal trial was held, nor is likely to be. And definitive evidence either way will likely be very difficult to come by.  

And what happens if the case is tossed out by a judge? Or proof emerges that the lawsuit was an attempt to extort money from Roethlisberger? Should journalists continue to protect someone's identity, even if there's no evidence that "a violent crime of a very personal nature" ever took place? And if they do, at what point does anonymity simply become a shield for one person to tear down the reputation of another? 

Steelers fans will recall that Jerome Bettis faced rape accusations back in 2002. In that case, no charges were ever filed: In fact, the district attorney pondered whether to charge Bettis' accuser. The DA told the P-G that "there was 'clear' evidence that the accuser's uncle planned to use the allegation to extort money from Bettis." Even then, though, the P-G did not name Bettis' accuser (though the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review did). The P-G spared the accuser the very shame and embarrassment her allegations inflicted on Bettis, perhaps for ulterior motives.

All that said, I think the right call here is to maintain the accuser's anonymity. 

Yes, Roethlisberger has been and will be harmed by the accusations, even if they are proven to be scurrilous lies. And yes, that would be deeply unfair. But how would that injustice be mitigated by stripping away the accuser's anonymity?

As we've seen, her anonymity has already been taken away, thanks to the folks at TMZ and our local news stations. She's a celebrity now too -- and she's probably come in for as much public abuse as the man she's accused. Still, I doubt Roethlisberger is taking much comfort in that fact. And her suit wasn't filed under "Jane Doe," so it's not as if she was counting on anonymity when she filed it. So far, at least, the Roethlisberger case is showing how little difference it makes to the defendent whether his accuser's name is known or not. 

There are, I know, people horrible enough to falsely cry rape, in hopes of enriching themselves or harming others. But if we're supposed to assume Roethlisberger is innocent until proven guilty, surely we should extend the same presumption to his accuser. And, moreover, to any other woman who comes forward with an allegation of rape.

The only consolation for Roethlisberger, I guess, is that until the accusations surfaced against him, I had forgotten all about the Bettis case. Everyone else seems to have forgotten about it too: The allegations obviously didn't keep him from doing a halftime show on NBC. I'm sure Roethlisberger doesn't think so right now, but you CAN get your reputation back.

Meanwhile, the name of Bettis' accuser hasn't been concealed, merely forgotten. I'm pretty sure that's as it should be. If Roethlisberger did nothing wrong -- which I'm fervently hoping is the case -- then the same thing will happen here.

How Safe is Natural Gas Drilling?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 10:35 AM

Natural gas is the miracle fuel we've been waiting for -- at least if Robert W. Watson is to be believed. In his op-ed in the July 19 Post-Gazette, "The bottom line on Marcellus Shale," the Penn State professor promotes exploitation of Pennsylvania's natural gas with classic double-talk ... while leaving out important information to the contrary.

Drilling for oil and gas, Watson writes, is both the way we've always done things ("It's been going on since before the Civil War") and the wave of the future ("the bridge fuel for the next several decades between fossil fuels and new alternatives"). He even notes that it's "the cleanest-burning fossil fuel." Given concerns about greenhouse gasses -- which are produced by burning all fossil fuels -- that's a rhetorical turn in a league with "slimmest sumo wrestler."

What Watson doesn't acknowledge -- indeed, what his piece seems designed to banish any thought of -- is that drilling for natural gas harms the environment, and might harm people, too. He focuses on exploitation of the Marcellus Shale, the huge deep rock formation underlying most of Pennsylvania. "[M]ost concerns raised about drilling Marcellus wells are of little consequence," he writes. Even those we should pay attention to "all are essentially minor and short-term challenges."

Watson correctly notes that many of these concerns revolve around water use in one form of Marcellus drilling: deep-well hydraulic fracturing. (However, he incorrectly leaves the impression that the deep-well and horizontal drilling techniques frequently used to extract shale gas are decades old; in fact, in their current incarnation they date only to the late '90s.)

In this process, large volumes of liquid are forced at high pressure down a well a mile or more deep, and up to half a mile laterally through the shale. The water fractures the rock and extracts the gas. The "fracking" liquid typically includes toxic chemicals to facilitate the process, sometimes including known carcinogens like formaldehyde and butoxyethanol. Underground, the water can pick up salts and heavy metals (also including known carcinogens). Some of this frack water stays underground; some is retrieved by drillers. (We wrote about this issue in our story, "There Will Be Crud" earlier this year.)

Environmental activists, pointing to documented cases of water contamination from gas drilling, have called for a moratorium on deep-well fracking, or at least for better regulation.

But the status quo is OK with Watson. Noting that each frack (there can be several per well) requires 3 to 5 million gallons of water, he calls the volume "not appreciable when compared to daily water consumption across Pennsylvania."

Is that our standard? (A gas-industry PR person used similar language when I asked him about water usage this past spring, comparing drill-water usage to water used on Pennsylvania golf courses.) How many millions of gallons constitute "appreciable" -- especially when 450 permits for Marcellus wells were issued last year alone?

Watson further dismisses the "additives" to frack water (whose toxicity he never acknowledges) as "used in very small quantities and concentrations." He also says because of the depth at which the shale lies, "fracturing does not affect groundwater." He seems not to have heard that methane (i.e., natural gas) has been reported newly contaminating wells near drilling sites, especially in Western gas fields, but also in Pennsylvania.

Finally, Watson says we shouldn't worry about the "flowback water," the contaminated frackwater drillers retrieve, because it all goes to permitted treatment facilities. Yet until recently, the state's Department of Environmental Protection let drillers hand the water over to municipal sewage plants, who simply diluted it before dumping it in the river. And though Marcellus wells are drilled nearly statewide (mostly in the Southwestern and Northeastern regions), Pennsylvania is home to only three such treatment plants.

In fact, Watson says the whole drilling and extraction process is sufficiently well-regulated to forestall any concerns.

Watson is not disinterested in these matters. The P-G's bio notes that "he is an emeritus associate professor of petroleum and natural-gas engineering and of environmental systems engineering," and that he chairs the technical advisory board for the state's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management

But as such, he must know that plenty of informed folks -- from property owners to advocacy groups like Clean Water Action -- have serious questions about how strictly the state is overseeing this multibillion-dollar industry. For instance, DEP has mere dozens of inspectors to oversee the state's tens of thousands of wells. This despite recent hires, many of whom will be kept busy simply processing drilling permits (of which there were 8,000 last year alone) for both Marcellus and non-Marcellus wells.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Joe Sestak puts himself on the line

Posted By on Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 1:33 PM

Sat in on a somewhat unusual conference call with Joe Sestak, who will be running against Arlen Specter in next year's Senate race, though he hasn't said so officially yet.

I've posted an audio clip to give you a flavor of Sestak's talk with reporters from around the state. (Audio quailty is poor, sorry.) As you'll hear, Sestak said he was running to give voters a choice, instead of just compelling them to go along with the "establishment" that is backing Specter. Sestak repeatedly dinged Specter for being a reliable vote for George Bush, and thereby helping to create the country's current "savage recession."

Sestak acknowledged that most voters don't know him -- a Quinnipiac poll shows that fully 70 Pennsylvanians don't have an opinion of him one way or the other. But Sestak said he was better positioned than Ned Lamont had been at this point in his campaign: Lamont, you may recall, ran against Connecticut's Joe Lieberman -- largely on the basis of Lieberman's pro-Bush stance on defense matters.

Like Lamont, Sestak has become the candidate of choice for Netroots folks who are sick of Specter's machinations. Still, this was maybe not a great analogy for Sestak to use: Lamont beat Lieberman in the Democratic primary, but lost to him in the general election, when Lieberman ran as an Independent.

I don't know much about Sestak, who's from out east. (Though on a couple of occasions during the conference call, he did kindly remind everyone on the call that he served in the Navy.) I gathered, however, that some Philly-area reporters are less than entirely enamored of how this campaign is rolling out. In fact, one of my favorite moments in the call came when a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter said the race felt "personal between you and Arlen."

Reading over earlier statements, she said, "feels and sounds to me like mid-campaign mudslinging. And sir, you haven't even filed. Aren't you putting the cart before the horse?"

"I don't know; I've only been in politics for three years," Sestak replied. "So you better ask somebody like Arlen; he's been in for 30 years. He's probably a better assessor about where we are in the campaign." 

If nothing else, Sestak promises to make next year fun.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ruth Ann Dailey libels Pittsburgh's porn connoisseurs

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2009 at 3:04 PM

Strangely enough, I don't feel too much like mixing it up over the latest column about local US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. She's in lame-duck mode, for one thing. So if the P-G's Ruth Ann Dailey was talking about me with her column "U.S. attorney's critics need history lesson," I can't tell, even though I have been one of those critics.

Most of Dailey's column, I think, is about whether Buchanan should have said she still thought former county coroner Cyril Wecht committed a crime, even as she was withdrawing charges against him. This has something to do with politicized justice, I think? So, okay, I'm for Buchanan saying whatever the hell she wants.

But Dailey trips on one of the things I do find problematic about Buchanan's career. Summing up Buchanan's years of noble service, Dailey opines ...

Ms. Buchanan has prosecuted what our region presented her, from corrupt officials to drug trafficking, possession of illegal firearms, sex slavery, child pornography and violent pornography depicting the torture and murder of women.

Now at least one part of that statement is untrue, and a libel on Pittsburgh's many fine, upstanding pornhounds. Assuming that Dailey is referring to the Rob Zicari case, the truth is that "our region" never "presented her" with the "violent pornography" in question.  Buchanan went HUNTING for that material, and she went well outside "our region" to find it. 

As we wrote a while back, it's not like some horrified citizen called Buchanan's office after accidentally walking into a porn shop on McKnight Road while looking for the Starbucks. Instead

undercover agents and postal inspectors used the Internet to order Extreme Associates movies. The films were then shipped to Western Pennsylvania -- where Buchanan said they violated "community standards."

So in fact, agents ASKED for this material, and paid to have it shipped to them. Zicari obligingly did so, and got arrested for his trouble. In other words, Buchanan IMPORTED violent pornography into her district ... and then busted the cretin who exported it to her.

This matters, as we pointed out in our story, because 

There is no national standard for whether material is obscene: A multi-part legal test requires a judge or jury to determine whether the material has political or literary merit, and whether it appeals to "prurient interest" according to community standards. For an online pornographer, the problem is that community standards could be stricter in Pittsburgh than in California.

"It's called forum-shopping," says Bob Richards, co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University ...  "Mary Beth Buchanan seemed to do that a lot."

If you want to argue that Zicari was a slimeball, you'll get no argument here. Or maybe you think an online pornographer should know the risks, and that smut-peddlers should all open up bricks-and-mortar dirty-book stores instead, just like dear old dad. That is also a defensible position. But you can't say, as Dailey did, that this case was something WE stuck BUCHANAN with. It was the other way around, and that was what some of us critics found so irritating about her.

As it turned out, Zicari pled guilty. But had he not done so,  Buchanan would have been doing as much to inflict his porn on her district -- or at least on a luckless judge -- as Zicari ever did. 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Now THAT'S building a coalition

Posted By on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 9:24 AM

I'm kicking myself for letting the Post-Gazette's "Early Returns" blog get this one first, but guess who is one of liberal Democrat Joe Sestak's biggest contributors?

None other than Richard Mellon Scaife:

The Tribune-Review publisher and donor to conservative causes gave Sestak the full amount allowed by federal law -- $4,800 -- in his all-but-official Democratic primary run against ex-Republican Arlen Specter.

Which means Dick Scaife is now backing a candidate also endorsed by  the Daily Kos. 

File this as example #3,417,084 of the truism about politics and bedfellows. What's going on, of course, is that Scaife despises Specter. In recent months, Scaife's editorial-page minions have repeatedly shown the publisher's desire to oust him.

Much of the current animus is being driven by Specter's party-switch. But the animosity is much older than that. Back in 2001, for example, we were treated to this story, courtesy the Post-Gazette and the now-defunct Brill's Content magazine: 

Another former Tribune-Review employee, Lynne Margolis, told the magazine she was discouraged from writing about U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, because he had voted against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

When Specter chaired a Senate subcommittee hearing on breast cancer four years ago, Margolis told the magazine, editors removed all reference to Specter from her story.

"They took out all the references to the guy that organized the hearing," Margolis told the magazine.

The conventional wisdom here, I guess, would be that Scaife is backing Sestak because he thinks the lesser-known Sestak would be easier to beat in the general election. Scaife has a track record of such behavior: He penned a fawning column about Hillary Clinton during last year's presidential primaries, at a time when conservative Republicans were hoping she'd win the nomination because they thought she'd be easier to beat. And in fact, the Trib has alredy been falling all over itself to praise the likely Republican contender, former Congressman Pat Toomey.

But when you've got a paper using a story about breast cancer to settle political scores, I think, you're talking about a level of animosity that transcends political gamesmanship. I get the feeling that  while Scaife and Co. would like Toomey to win, they really want to be sure Specter loses

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Appoint Counterpoint

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2009 at 11:02 AM

Here's what gets me about this sudden rush to get Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's board appointees rammed through council.

Councilor Jim Motznik apparently thinks it's unacceptable that interviews with the appointees were delayed. Yeah, Jim, it sucks. But if you're upset at needless delay in the board-appointment process, you're coming late to the party. 

As we note in a news story on the streets today (online tomorrow), just about every board in the city has at least one member serving an expired term. EVERY member of the Parking Authority has been operating on an expired term. But now, all the sudden, Jim Motnzik is objecting to political "gamesmanship"? Where was he when Bill Peduto was removed from the Stadium Authority last year, but not replaced until 2009? 

In some cases, board members have overstayed their terms for a year or more, because Mayor Ravenstahl did nothing to reappoint or replace them. Among those appointees was Wrenna Watson, whose renomination is among those that got rammed through yesterday. Motznik's urgency here is mystifying: Watson has been serving on the Zoning Board even though her term expired in 2007

Now there's nothing wrong with that: By law, board members can serve indefinitely until they are replaced. But on the other hand -- board members can serve indefinitely until they are replaced. There was no reason to force Watson's reappointment through. So even if there was a desperate need to get some new blood on the Shade Tree Commission yesterday, her appointment, at least, chould have been held back. As Bram Reichbaum points out in a comment posted to his Pittsburgh Comet blog, there would be plenty to talk about. 

Sure, waiting to reschedule her council appearance would mean Watson would be in limbo -- but she's already been in limbo for a year and a half. What's another couple weeks?

But really, who is surprised by this? Of course there are plenty of questions that need to be answered about Ravenstahl's appointees. Why else would his council allies be in such a hurry to avoid the discussion?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book those contributions, Dan-O

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2009 at 10:54 AM

A dispatch from Dan Onorato's campaign just came wafting into my e-mail inbox. Penned by campaign manager Kevin Kinross, the letter notes that our county executive "continues to prepare Southwest Pennsylvania to host this fall’s G-20 economic summit and lay the groundwork to run for Governor."

Hard to say which of those causes is more important, isn't it?

The big news is that Onorato "picked up a major boost in the Philadelphia suburbs when Senators Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) and Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) said that Dan Onorato should be Pennsylvania’s next Governor."

And you know what they say ... as Andy Dinniman goes, so goes West Vincent Township. 

But I kid Andy Dinniman. The conventional wisdom really IS that the Philly-area suburbs determine statewide races. The Daylin Leach endorsement, meanwhile, is also interesting for another reason, hinted at when the e-mail boasts about Onorato

Taking a Strong Stand Against Discrimination

Last week in Allegheny County, Dan signed the region’s strongest anti-discrimination ban into law -- sending a clear message that discrimination against anybody is wrong, always.

The new law bans discrimination on the basis of gender, race, mental or physical disability, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, educational status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Actually, as most Allegheny County residents know, Onorato was a follower on this issue. The ban was driven at the county council level, by Amanda Green. And Onorato was very slow to take any position on it at all: As noted here previously, Green introduced this bill in 2008, but it wasn't until this spring that Onorato made his support clear. 

But hey, I'm a congenital optimist on the trend towards tolerance and equal rights ... so I'm glad to see Onorato exaggerating his support for the cause. Sure, he might not have supported the bill at all if he weren't running for governor. But even if he just blows with the wind, it's nice to see the direction the wind is blowing.

Anyway, Leach is, of course, is a hero to the LGBT community and its backers because: a) he introduced a same-sex marriage bill in the state Senate, and b) made John Eichelberger look like an even bigger idiot, which is no easy feat. Combined with the fact that Onorato eventually did get around to supporting the anti-discrimination bill, Leach's support may well help firm up Onorato's backing among socially liberal voters in the East.

Sure, those of us who've seen him up close might be a bit warier, but what the hell. Philadelphia foisted Rendell off on us -- this time, maybe, it's our turn. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Truth: The First Casualty of an Economic Downturn

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 9:25 AM

One of the irritating things about living in a city dominated by nonprofits is how they act as if they're morally superior to the rest of us ... even when they do the same shit for-profit corporations do. I know several people who literally can't bring themselves to watch UPMC's TV ads, for example. They find the empty bromides and syrupy string quartets too hard to stomach, given its two-fisted approach to doing business. 

But this past week, a local nonprofit set a new record for sheer unremitting bogusness.

As today's Post-Gazette notes, the Social Innovation Accelerator has shut down, prompting the layoff of all 10 of its employees. Funded largely by the McCune Foundation, the Accelerator helped provide guidance to other non-profits, helping them increase revenue and operate more efficiently.

I'm not going to blame the Accelerator's board or the McCune Foundation for what was, I'm sure, a very painful decision. Nonprofits are reeling from the bad economy just like everyone else, and layoffs are part of that. 

What I DO object to is how the Accelerator folks decided to disclose their decision early on. A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine tried to reach an Accelerator staffer by e-mail. This is the auto-reply response that came bouncing back a few minutes later:

The McCune Foundation has been among the most generous supporters of social enterprise and social innovation in the region as evidenced by its long-standing financial commitment to the Social Innovation Accelerator. While The McCune Foundation plans to continue its support of social enterprise, the current challenge centers around how to do so in a way that is even more efficient, and creates even greater impact.

To address that challenge the Accelerator Board of Directors has chosen to cease all current operations of the organization. Rather than allowing the Accelerator to operate in "business as usual" mode, the board believes that suspending operations provides a unique and valuable opportunity to pause, reflect and learn from the organization's past engagements... While there is widespread support for the Accelerator's mission of helping not-for-profits improve their financial sustainability, the board is committed to making sure its impact is felt more readily, and by more organizations. [Emphasis added]

Well, this must come as a big relief to all those Accelerator employees who are looking for work today. It's not like they've been laid off because of tough times. No, it's because the board thought shit-canning them would be a "unique and valuable opportunity" for self-discovery!

Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it? You certainly wouldn't want "business as usual" to get in the way of your employer's learning process ... even if "business as usual" was what gave you your freaking job.  

And look at the bright side, former Accelerator staffers! Now you have a "unique and valuable" opportunity to learn things as well! Like how to apply for unemployment benefits!

If this was just a poorly constructed e-mail, that would be one thing. But clearly this is an intentional messaging strategy. The Accelerator Web site asserts that "The Accelerator is currently undergoing a series of changes to help insure that the impact of social enterprise reaches even more organizations throughout the region." Nowhere does the site mention that these "changes" entail laying off the whole staff (all in the name "reach[ing] even more organizations," of course). 

The board's president, meanwhile, apparently reiterated the theme in the P-G, which paraphrases him saying "the board viewed closure as a better option to keeping the doors open and adjusting the business model as they went along."

That, of course, begs the question: a better option for who?

Like I say, I'm sympathetic to the board. I'm sure they wrestled with this choice. I'm sure they didn't mean to put out such an Orwellian bit of "war is peace/unemployment is opportunity" doublespeak. No doubt they just wanted to emphasize that the commitment to the Accelerator's mission will continue someday. Quite possibly they were going out of their way to sweettalk McCune, in hopes that they could tap McCune's cash pipeline down the road. 

Which is fine. But since these folks are engaged in a journey of learning and exploration, here's a bit of advice for them: Next time you have to lay somebody off, don't act like you are doing the world a fucking favor.


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