Monday, August 31, 2009

Pay to Play at the P-G

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 3:47 PM

It's official: As first reported here last week, the Post-Gazette is launching a new members-only online site at midnight tonight. Here's an excerpt from the press release, which I just received. A thought or two of mine below:

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tomorrow will launch PG+, a rich, dynamic members-only Web site that will offer an insider's guide to the current buzz in Pittsburgh.

The highly interactive site will be hosted by a team of bloggers and feature some of the Post-Gazette's best-known personalities, including Ed Bouchette, Doug Oster, Mackenzie Carpenter and Mike White. PG+ will provide an exciting new experience for members, mixing social networking, live chats, videos, blogs and a behind-the-scenes look at the news of the day. Members also will gain exclusive access to special Post-Gazette events and will receive outstanding deals across a wide range of sports, retail and entertainment venues.

...

The annual membership fee for PG+ is $36. Individuals who prefer to pay monthly will be charged $3.99 per month. For a limited time, members who sign up for an annual membership will receive a free copy of Super Six, a book by the Post-Gazette chronicling the Steelers’ most recent Super Bowl victory, a $14.95 value.

My initial thoughts: 

First, no mention of PittGirl? Is the paper just being coy, or did the negotiations not pan out? 

Chris Chamberlain, the paper's president, ain't talking. "I can't really comment on that, or on the hiring of the freelancers the news room is making. We're lining up a stable of people to contribute, and we're definitely reaching out to the local blogging community. But on  [individual names], I can't comment." Chamberlain did note that the site will be "evolving" over time, so if you log on tomorrow and don't see anything by PittGirl, you shouldn't start panicking.

Chamberlain was a bit more forthcoming about some other features the site will offer. These will include stuff like special events and discounts offered to members, more interactive features, live streaming video, etc. One feature, he says, will involve P-G columnists kicking around ideas and hashing out disagreements. Readers will be able to put in their own two cents as well. 

Second, how will this affect the existing print edition and Web site? Chamberlain maintains that "One guiding principle of P-G Plus is we didn't want to take things away" from the existing print and online product. So if you like Chad Hermann's blog, say, or the paper's sports blogs ... those will still be on the near side of the paywall. And Chamberlain says that just because writers like Bouchette (the Steelers beat guy)  are participating in PG Plus, you'll still be seeing their byline in the regular edition.

As a guy who has edited his own audio and video, I'll believe that when I see it. Online stuff can be a real time-suck. But Chamberlain says the P-G has "made an investment in people" to make sure it's sustainable. Existing newsroom staff will be contributing to the new site, but in ways Chamberlain believes can be balanced with their existing obligations.  

Third, this online membership fee is being applied to everyone -- including those who already pay for the print edition. So I'm afraid the P-G just lost a print subscriber: me.

I've been paying for the print edition all these years out of solidarity -- even though I could have been reading it online for free, just like those freeloading bloggers. I like Mac Carpenter as much as anyone, but I'm not going to pay twice to read her. After all, she doesn't have to pay even once to read me -- and that sort of inequality is no basis for a relationship. 

I'm not sure losing print-edition readers is the kind of revenue enhancement the P-G has in mind. But I doubt there's a lot of overlap between print and online readership anyway. So this could be smart business even if it ticks me off.

Chamberlain told me that while "we highly value our paid subscribers," the online membership rate is "a very low monthly fee, and it's complementary to what you get in print."

Chris Chamberlain seems like a nice guy. But he's not the only person around here with a head for business. See ya, print edition. 

This Weekend in Media (with updated bonus item)

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 7:53 AM

Just a couple media gleanings over the weekend.

--  Interesting piece in the New York Times magazine -- complete with a photo of angry white guys taken in Kittanning -- about Barack Obama's relationship with older voters. The story, by Matt Bai, observes that one thing that plauges Obama's efforts to overhaul health care is the fact that he has never connected with the elderly. The takeaway:

[I]t's probably time for us to update our notions of elderly Americans and how their worldviews were formed. We are inclined to imagine our oldest citizens as products of the New Deal, voters whose earliest memories engendered a lasting faith in the goodness of government. But ... a 70-year-old American today, born in 1939, probably has no personal memory of F.D.R., but he would have lived through the pain of disappearing manufacturing jobs and family farms, and the rapid deterioration of urban neighborhoods and schools, conditions unabated by government experiments in welfare and public housing. Wooed by Ronald Reagan during their prime earning years, these voters may not be nearly as sympathetic to Obama’s vision of activist government as Democrats might have assumed.

As Bai notes, conversative strategists have long reached out to older voters on just this basis. No doubt it explains why I've been seeing TV ads locally warning about what Obama's healthcare reform would supposedly do to Medicare.

Also in this week's issue of the NY Times magazine: Cyril Wecht playing a cameo role in a piece about the euthanization of patients in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. 

-- Not once but twice this weekend, I watched WPXI's Stu Brown reporting "live" on shootings happening in and around the city ... without having any information about what the hell was going on. The first report, on Saturday night, followed what Brown said might be a shooting between police and ... um ... someone. Brown had gone to police headquarters for what was supposed to be a press conference, but then wasn't. But the shooting, or whatever it was, definitely happened in Mt. Oliver. Yep, Mt. Oliver. So ... uh ... back to you in the studio. 

Almost the same thing happened Sunday night, when Brown reported on a SWAT deployment in Wilkinsburg that involved, uh, someone. And the police cordoned off a few blocks of the area to deal with a, uh, situation. Hard to say what that was about, but Stu pledged to work on it. 

Tough weekend for Stu. And obviously not a great one for me either, since I apparently had nothing better to do than watch WPXI's 11 o'clock news. 

-- Speaking of WPXI, this piece about Sheraden residents complaining about the potential closure of their post office was interesting for one reason (if you don't live in Sheraden): Mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin was on hand to make his own feelings known. What Acklin said wasn't so interesting -- "Once you lose a post office so critical to the neighborhood, you never get it back" -- but it's a good sign for his campaign that he was there. I think we're all tired of watching Luke Ravenstahl's rivals act as if the East End represents the whole city ... Acklin's efforts to engage with long-forgotten neighborhoods are a sign that, whatever happens in November, at least we'll be seeing some different backdrops for the drama this time around. 

-- UPDATED BONUS ITEM: I'd be remiss if I didn't note THIS blog post, (which I found thanks to DailyKos) apparently written about Heather Sherba, one of the wounded survivors from the LA Fitness shooting. The blogger notes that Sherba is struggling with medical bills -- because she is looking for work and uninsured -- and decries the fact that friends and family are having to hold charity car washes to pay the bills. 

As other online commentators have noted, what's interesting about this piece is that at least two of our local TV stations have reported on these charitable acts ... but with a much sunnier perspective. They chose to emphasize the reassuring angle that Pittsburghers have turned out to help Sherba, and isn't our city wonderful. Which it is. But Jeebus. How about a little reporting on what kind of society leaves a 22-year-old woman -- with a nursing degree, for chrissake -- on her own to figure out how to pay for being an innocent shooting victim? 

As far as I can tell, of our local TV stations, only KDKA even broached the subject.

No wonder it's so hard to reform health care in this country

Friday, August 28, 2009

BREAKING: Gertrude Stein Political Club endorses Harris

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 3:46 PM

Here's a little political news for a Friday afternoon: The Gertrude Stein Political Club, the city's longstanding LGBT voters' organization, has endorsed Franco "Dok" Harris for mayor. 

From the group's endorsement: 

An active Democrat for many years, Harris is currently running as an independent/third party candidate. Mr. Harris is a well-spoken and well educated businessman who happens to share the most famous name in Pittsburgh with his Steeler father, along with his mother Dana Dokmanovich's name and her long-time democratic and progressive activism. He dropped by the endorsement meeting to speak about growing up in the North Side's Mexican War streets--which he described as benefitting from "a rich diversity" of race, age, wealth, and orientation-- and to emphasize his enthusiasm for working with, and for, all Pittsburghers, most definitely including LGBT citizens.

This is just the latest chapter in what has been a very interesting political story in recent years: the extent to which local politicians have begun coveting the support of LGBT voters. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has sought the support of gay organizations in the past ... and I'm sure Kevin Acklin, Ravenstahl's other challenger this November, would have liked to have the Gertrude Stein club's support.

But although Acklin supports gay marriage, and supported the countywide anti-discrimination ordinance, he is also anti-choice. (Editor's note: Some readers objected to this characterization of Acklin's position, with some justice. See the comments section below.) That's not going to help you with a group like the Gertrude Stein Club, which identifies itself as Pittsburgh "home-grown LGBT & feminist organization." Besides, Harris has impressed other LGBT advocates as well, as you'll see from this blog post by Sue Kerr

So if you're an anti-Ravenstahl voter trying to decide which of these two challengers to back, here's an issue that may help you to distinguish between them. 

The Stein Club announced some judicial endorsements as well:

-- State Supreme Court: Jack Panella

-- Superior Court: Robert J. "Bob" Colville, Anne E. Lazarus and Kevin F. McCarthy

-- Commonwealth Court: Barbara Behrend Ernsberger and Linda S. Judson

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas: Joe Willams, Susan Evashavik DiLucente, Arnie Klein and Don Walko. (The Club also backs Judge Kim Eaton in her bid for retention.) 

In local municipal races, the Club "enthusiastically support[s]" county councilor Amanda Green, the District 13 representative who sponsored the anti-discrimination ordinance. It also backs Thomas R. Michalow, the Democratic challenger in District 1, where he is taking on Republican Matt Drozd.

For city council, the Club chose Natalia Rudiak in District 4, Robert Daniel Lavelle in District 6, and Bill Peduto in District 8. For the city's school board, it reiterated previous support for Sharene Shealey in district 1 and Thomas Sumpter in district 3.

The Club also backed a Wilkinsburg Borough Council candidate, Ward 2's Pamela Macklin (Ward 2).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Did the state budget impasse just get resolved?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 3:27 PM

I'll admit for a moment just now, I thought the state must have wrapped up that whole budget mess, overnight.

True, I hadn't seen or heard anything about it from the governor's office, or the legislature, or other media outlets. But I couldn't figure out any other reason why State Sen. John Wozniak would be sending me a press release that began thusly: 

WOZNIAK: PITT-PENN STATE SHOULD RESUME RIVALRY

State Sen. John N. Wozniak today renewed his annual call to help mediate an agreement for Pitt and Penn State to resume their century old football rivalry. "I think the time has come for both school’s administrators and athletic directors to spare us the excuses and get this game back on the schedule," Wozniak said. "Again this year, I will offer to facilitate discussions leading to resuming this once-great football rivalry."

Right. Because you know what? Whenever I need to "facilitate discussions" in order to resolve endless bickering ... whenever I want to cut through the excuses and get stuff straigtened out and back on schedule ... you know who I call? A Harrisburg legislator.

My mind, it was a-reeling as I read the first few sentences of this release. But then I got a little farther down the text, where Wozniak allows that 

Pennsylvania’s legislature and governor have more important things to do. "Pennsylvania’s budget is nearly eight weeks late and this impasse threatens to devastate important government services statewide,” Wozniak said. "I am in no way saying that this football rivalry issue deserves to be a government priority or become a legislative issue"

So if this doesn't "deserve to be a government priority or become a legislative issue," why is Wozniak, a government legislator, issuing public statements about it? Apparently because "many people have urged ... that the state legislature step in and mandate that the schools resume their annual game."

Seriously? People have actually suggested that Harrisburg intervene in the college football schedule? Is there anyone out there who really believes that: a) this situation demands state intervention, and b) that state intervention would do anything except make things worse?

Because if the state interevened, I'll tell you what would happen: Pitt would play Penn State, all right, but somehow the winner would be a school in Philadelphia. 

This is one case where I'd like to think a politician is lying. I'd rather believe that Wozniak was just making up this business about getting pressure from constituents. But I have the nagging sense that he's telling the truth. 

Which in some ways makes it unfair to single out Wozniak, a Johnstown Democrat. As the release suggests, this is something he does every year. And of all the posturing that has taken place in Harrisburg over the past few months, this may be the least harmful example. It hasn't resulted in any state employees going without paychecks, at least. 

Still, if I was giving advice to a Harrisburg pol, I would say the following: "Do you want voters to be happy with you? Then this is what you should do until a budget gets passed: Shut. The. Hell. Up." 

P-G poised to take another step into the electronic frontier

Posted By on Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 9:39 AM

The Post-Gazette appears ready to make a serious upgrade of its online offerings. But enjoying some of it will cost you.

According to the rumblings emanating from the Boulevard of the Allies, in the weeks ahead -- perhaps as soon as Sept. 1 -- the paper will begin offering premium online content for those willing to pay for it. When last I heard, the roster of talent hadn't been firmly established. I can say that the P-G has been talking to some local bloggers about contributing -- and yeah, it's a pretty safe bet that Virginia "PittGirl" Montanez is one of them.  Expect the paper to make use of some of its established in-house talent as well.

For reasons I'll get into below, an obvious target for this content will be the "Pittsburgh diaspora" -- former Burghers who've moved away but still check in on their old hometown.

The paper also seems poised to allow comments on its news stories in the near future. This change will be made across the site, and it's about time. Papers like the Washington Post, the dailies in Philadelphia, and even City Paper have enabled that function for years. 

If you want to get some insights into the paper's online strategy, get real comfortable and watch the video posted here. It's tape of a panel discussion held at the Netroots Nation conference held in Pittsburgh earlier this month. In it, veteran P-G reporter Michael Fuoco talks about the paper's online hopes and fears.

A caveat: This footage runs more than an hour long, and it doesn't always make for great TV. The Q&A section at the end is especially painful, featuring audience members making floor speeches that you can't hear. But from Fuoco we learn the following:

-- The P-G claims between 38 and 40 million page views a month, divvied up among 3 million unique readers.

-- 54 percent of those online readers are from outside the region. "Let's face it: They’re coming for the Steelers stories," Fuoco said. "That’s pretty much what drives our Web site is the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're well aware that it's not my sparkling writing."

Don't sell yourself too short, Mike. As Chris Briem has pointed out, while the P-G's rhetoric about internet journalism is sometimes dumb, its actual practices are pretty smart. They devote more resources to stuff like online video than we do, certainly. (Though in fairness, they HAVE more resources than us too.) The Tribune-Review doesn't even come close.

But even at the P-G, the progress hasn't come easily. Listening to Fuoco, you can see why.

Fuoco first speaks a half-hour into the video, preceeded by Jay Rosen, one of today's most astute observers of the journalistic scene. "We have to figure out how professional journalists ... and all the other journalists [like bloggers and providers of crowd-sourced content] can work together," Rosen suggested. "We’re all participants in the new system. But don’t freak out, it'll be fine."

"I am freaking out," Fuoco said a couple moments later. He said that for him, the question wasn't so much "does democracy depend on newspapers" -- the conundrum the panel was supposed to discuss -- "but can the Post-Gazette last another three years so I can get [my son] through college?"

Even so, Fuoco later added, "there is so much focus on our Web site, that I don't think some people realize we publish a newspaper any more." This despite the fact that neither the P-G nor anyone else has figured out how to make a profit from it yet.

Obviously, one approach would be having out-of-towners pay for online content. And the P-G isn't the first paper to hit on that idea. Across the country, newspapers are coming to the conclusion that giving away content for free online just isn't a viable business model. The internet advertising dollars simply are not there. 

But it'll be interesting to see how the P-G feels its way through all this. Like a lot of us, reporters like Fuoco are still struggling to figure out how to "work together" with the online community. During the panel discussion, Fuoco suggested that he was "probably viewed as something of the enemy" -- although it was pretty clear that Rosen and other panelists didn't see him that way at all. Fuoco did draw Rosen's ire, however, by suggesting that what separated print journos from online commentators, really, was that the pros had a higher commitment to the truth.

By way of example, Fuoco cited the notorious story of McCain volunteer Ashley Todd. Fuoco contended that while sites like the Drudge Report regurgitated Todd's account of being attacked by an Obama-supporting mugger in Pittsburgh. (The "mugger," you'll recall, supposedly branded her with a backwards letter "B" on her cheek.)

"I covered police for 12 years," Fuoco recalled, "so I had a source I called." The source confirmed that a police report had been filed based on Todd's allegations, but Fuoco said, "'off the record, what's going on?' And he said, 'It's bullshit."

Rosen snapped back a few minutes later. "I love this description of the reporting process. Call up the police: 'What's going on here?' 'Well, there was such a report ...' 'Off the record, what's going on here?' 'It's bullshit.' Very good encapsulation of professional reporting."

More importantly, Rosen said, it's not just professional journalists who had misgivings about the story, orwho wanted to discover the truth. "There were actually a lot of people online who were concerned about verifying whether this was true as well ... The verification of what happened ... is not something that we can ever reserve to professional journalists. Everybody is part of the verification of the truth. Everybody has the duty, and the role, and now the means, to check if it really happened."

In fact, Rosen added, "When journalists think of themselves as the [only] ones who care about whether something is true to not, they're on the road to ruin." 

Ouch. Despite its foibles, though, I think the P-G has too many smart people to end up on that road. But I guess we're going to start finding out soon enough.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harris and Acklin Square Off (with video!)

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 10:32 AM

I've been a little remiss in keeping up with the doings of our two third-party candidates for mayor: Franco "Dok" Harris and Kevin Acklin. It's not for lack of trying on their part: Acklin, for example, recently toured Beechview to bemoan the lack of progress in the long-neglected South Hills neighborhood. Harris' campaign, meanwhile, has been opportunistic about firing off press releases grousing about the mayor's various failures in leadership. 

But until last week, there really hasn't been a chance to see the two candidates on the same stage. Harris participated in only a couple of mayoral debates during the spring -- even though neither candidate was on the primary ballot -- and Acklin wasn't even an official candidate. 

But the two men finally faced off on Aug. 20 -- not in a debate, but in a stand-up comedy routine. The decision? Acklin wins on points, but Harris gets the Congeniality award. 

Their appearances were part of a "Candidates Comedy Night," in which politicians seeking office try their hand at stand-up comedy for charitable purposes. This is the second year of the event, and unlike the inaugural installment last year, most of the comedians were in judicial races. The event was widely covered, especially Arlen Specter's performance. But our very own Chris Young was one of the few journos to stay until the end, when Harris, Acklin, and County Executive Dan Onorato took the stage. 

Onorato was surprisingly good last year, and he acquitted himself pretty well this time around too. (This video seems to be loading pretty slow -- we're working on it.) He launched in with a merciless dig at Melissa Hart's dismal performance last year ... but his notable joke came at the expense of City Council President Doug Shields. I feel a little guilty repeating it ... though as you'll see, I have no qualms posting video of it. 

Acklin's routine began with some digs at Ravenstahl, some of which were fairly obvious, if well crafted. He also did a nice job of defusing his previous support for unltraconservative Republicans

"I gave a campaign contribution to Rick Santorum," he told the staunchly Democratic audience. "The good news is, Rick never cashed the check, because I actually mailed it to that vacant house in Penn Hills."

But perhaps the most surprising moment in his set came toward the end, when he began taking digs at Harris. Acklin took special umbrage at an interview Harris gave to the Pittsburgh Comet, in which Harris said, "Growing up, it was very tough." Harris, of course, is the son of Steelers legend Franco Harris, and he grew up in Sewickley. 

"Dok actually said that times were tough growing up in Sewickley. In Sewickley?" Acklin asked. "I was so poor growing up that we were eating cat food ... What was tough about it? Like the time when the cafeteria at Sewickley Academy ran out of silver sporks?"

Harris' own routine followed, and he largely declined to take the bait, except to joke that if Ravenstahl won re-election, "I can go back to selling donuts [and] Kevin go back to being a fact-checker for FOX News." He also jested that he was "the only candidate who did not actually play high school football. I was a mathlete."

This appears to be the context in which he spoke of "tough times" growing up, incidentally: that he was bookish and unable to live up to any expectations of athletic greatness people might have had. 

Harris' set was half the length of Acklin's: To me, it was less funny on balance, but also gentler and more self-effacing. 

All this raises an question both campaigns will have to wrestle with: As they challenge Luke Ravenstahl, to what extent should they take on each other? Obviously, the incumbent is the guy to beat, but inevitably the two independents are competing for some of the same neighborhoods. 

The conventional wisdom is that this is a moot argument. When Ravenstahl ran in November 2007 against a single candidate, Mark DeSantis, he crushed the Republican by a nearly two-to-one margin. Assuming that the overall dynamics of this year's race are similar, you'd expect Ravenstahl's margin to be even more comfortable this time around, since Harris and Acklin will likely split much of the vote DeSantis got. 

But inside every reporter is a frustrated Meet the Press panelist, so this is the advice I'd give each campaign. Don't waste time or energy attacking each other, because then you just end up competing for a pool of "anyone but Luke" votes which -- as DeSantis proved -- isn't big enough anyway. You need to EXPAND the anti-Luke vote, and you won't do that by picking away at some OTHER guy the voters have never heard of. The odds are stacked against you no matter what you do, so you may as well tilt at the biggest damn windmill you can find. You'll feel better about yourself after Election Day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sympathy for the Diva?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 25, 2009 at 7:17 PM

Like everyone else on the Internet, I guess, I feel obliged to offer my thoughts on the great PittGirl outing story. But there's been so much said about this already that I'll try to keep it short. (Short for me, anyway.)

1) I have a lot of respect for Virginia Montanez’s decision to out herself. She risked her job in order to speak her mind openly -- despite a shitty economy. That takes courage, of a kind reporters especially should admire.

I also admire the fact that Montanez has been admirably stoic about losing her job. As she has candidly disclosed, while blogging as "PittGirl," she slagged institutions that her former employer, the Negro Educational Emergency Drive, relied on for support. She's long acknowledged that if her identity came out, she'd probably lose her job. She knew the risks of outing herself, did it anyway, and is taking her lumps with grace and good humor.

In fact, some of Montanez's champions could stand to learn a lesson here, because ...

2) While she was brave for risking her job, that doesn't necessarily make NEED a villain for canning her. 

Some bloggers disagree, apparently. Justin Kownicki says that as a result of PittGirl's termination, "my respect for society in general continues to plummet ever downward." The WWVB blog opined that "the person who fired [Montanez] should also be looking for work." Meanwhile, Bram of the Pittsburgh Comet insists that "firing someone for blogging just isn't right. I don't care that it's acceptable for some reason. Is it acceptable to fire someone for writing a letter to the editor?"

Infinonymous, meanwhile, thunders that

Unless NEED provides an adequate explanation, I wouldn't object to seeing it wither and die.

NEED, as you may have heard, helps provide money to disadvantaged kids who want to go to college. But to hell with that! An anonymous blogger demands ACCOUNTABILITY. 

But let's bear in mind that Montanez wasn't just some back-office drone. She was NEED's head of marketing. And by coming forward, she didn't just out herself -- she outed her employer, too.

That put the agency in a bad spot, something local bloggers of all people should understand. I mean, I've seen plenty of internet speculation that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, a frequent PittGirl target, targets his critics for political reprisal. I'm not saying that happens, or that it would have happened to NEED. But unless you think it's totally out of the realm of possibility, NEED deserves a bit of sympathy. Had the nonprofit stood up for Montanez's right to speak her mind, it might have hampered its ability to help other minds get a college education.

And Bram's concerns about free speech notwithstanding, Montanez apparently was able to write a letter to the editor -- about a hotly contested presidential election, no less -- without losing her job. Maybe NEED drew the line at having its marketing head publicly insult big supporters like UPMC? If so, would it be so terrible for NEED to prioritize the kids it was chartered to help? I'm just asking. 

Also, let's note that NEED has not on commented Montanez's departure. And despite the internet's call for answers, that's typical behavior by an employer. (Which just shows how unusual this situation was for NEED: Ordinarily, personnel decisions are the sort of thing you pay your marketing person NOT to talk about.) So we should acknowledge that there's another side to this story, one we aren't likely to get. 

3) Finally, tomorrow's issue of City Paper features a story about a couple of guys who were fired from their jobs, perhaps becuase they'd been participating in a unionization drive. Somehow, I doubt they're going to become a cause celebre the way Montanez has.

Seems unfair, doesn't it? If you write a humorous blog mocking pigeons and Ben Roethlisberger, your free-speech martyrdom gets a write-up on CNN.com. If you get canned after merely trying to get better wages and benefits for yourself and your coworkers, though, you have to make do with poor old City Paper

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If you outlaw protest, only outlaws will have protests

Posted By on Thu, Aug 20, 2009 at 12:50 PM

Just got back from a press conference at Point State Park, where a sizable group of lefties -- representing various causes ranging from labor to environmental to antiwar causes -- voiced concerns about the lead-up to the G-20 summit this September.

There will be daily-type coverage elsewhere. But a few points by way of summary: 

Much of this press conference was really directed at the press itself. Participants expressed concerns that reporters were not conversant with issues, and that too often, the media was "regurgitating talking points" from law-enforcement. David Meiran, a longtime local activist, decried what he called the "demonization of protest," and said that pre-emptive smear tactics directed at protesters were "pages from a playbook" often used in the run-up to global economic summits.

We've written about some of the fear-mongering coverage already, including a piece just this week. But as if to underscore activist fears, a reporter from KDKA Radio repeatedly asked about the danger posed by outsiders who might be coming to Pittsburgh intending to do harm. These questions met with some chuckles from the activists standing near me. 

Two local civil-rights attorneys, Jules Lobel and Vic Walczak, noted that the groups present at the press conference had all been going through the appropriate legal process of getting permits for their activities. "Don't hold all of these folks hostage because you've got a few people bent on creating problems," Walczak urged.

The problem, of course, is that so far, the city has not been particularly forthcoming about issuing permits for ANY kind of protest. This morning there was word that the mayor's office may allow a gathering sponsored by state Sen. Jim Ferlo in Point State Park -- to be held the day BEFORE the summit kicks off in earnest. But it was pretty clear that wasn't going to be good enough. 

Already, in fact, some activists are warning of a divide-and-conquer strategy. A local veteran protester, Albert Petrarca, recently sent out an e-mail warning

It's entirely possible that we are being set-up. It's not too hard to imagine an Emmanuel/Axelrod strategy in which they knowingly went into this environment with a first phase-----they(us) get nothing approach-----and then begin, in the second phase (beginning now)  to appear reasonable and compromising by doling out permits in a fashion that splits the unity mentioned above and, in a way, that they control who gets heard, for how long and from where. So, for instance, Jim Ferlo and the more establishment-type protesters will be accommodated first to peel them away from the united front.

I'd just add the following ... the folks actually at this press conference -- some of whom I've known for years -- are about as harmless as can be imagined. If the goal is to prevent out-of-control protests from doing damage, it makes sense to work with the people who are willing to play by the rules. Otherwise, you end up criminzalizing dissent, such that every dissenter must be a criminal. That seems like a guaranteed means of creating exactly the kind of bad behavior the authorities say they are afraid of. 

A natural question here is: so what? What difference does it make if these protesters get within 50 yards or 500, when the G-20 already knows what they think, and doesn't give a shit? To be honest, I'm prey to those thoughts myself. So it's a good thing that Al Hart, of the fiercely independent United Electrical workers union, was on hand.

To Hart, the dangerous message here is that by seizing control of Downtown, the G-20 is treating Pittsburgh the same way its policies treat the world. Whenever the world's financial panjandrums want to have a "festival of the powerful," he said, they just want to push the working people to the side -- including all those Downtown restaurant workers who will be taking a compulsory couple days off when the summit comes to town. 

Hart also said -- well, just listen for yourself. It's good stuff. 

 

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Miss Diagnosis

Posted By on Tue, Aug 18, 2009 at 6:57 PM

So I'm back. Not much seems to have changed since I've been away -- Pennsylvania still doesn't have a state budget, for one thing. The birther nonsense has died down, but only to be replaced by a new laughable conspiracy theory -- the notion that President Obama's healthcare reform involves "death panels" of government bureaucrats deciding when to pull the plug on grandma. 

After being outside the country for 10 days, I can tell you that the picture we present of ourselves in these debates isn't pretty. For example, I actually got to see our very own Arlen Specter being shouted down by one of his mad-as-hell constituents, Katy Abram of Lebanon, Pa. 

"This is about the systematic dismantling of this country," she insisted to Specter. "I am only 35 years old, I've never been interested in politics ... I don't like this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country. My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our fathers created according to the Constitution?"

Abram was just one of many Americans shouting down their elected officials at these gatherings. Abram, however, set herself apart by actually agreeing to an an interview on MSNBC's Hardball afterwards.

Fair warning: Even for those of us who disagree with Abram, this is painful viewing. It hurts to watch, much like it hurts to see a comedian bomb. 

To be honest, after seeing the town-hall shoutfests on TV, my first thought was that these folks might be GOP operatives, fanning out into the countryside. I've argued before that the Republican strategy seems to be not so much opposing Democratic ideas, but opposing the idea of ideas themselves -- opposing logic and reason. Shouting at your elected officials so they can't get a word in edgewise, obviously, would be a perfect tactic for such a strategy.

But after watching the Hardball interview, conducted by fill-in host Lawrence O'Donnell, I've decided that my theory is too simplistic. If people like Katy Abram WERE Republican operatives, they'd be a lot better prepared for interviews like this one. And anyway, the GOP doesn't have to carry out a campaign to make Americans like Abrams ill-informed: We're already there. 

In the interview, it quickly becomes obvious that once Mrs. Abram voices her bromides against socialism, she doesn't have anything left to say. On Hardball, she says that one concern she has about healthcare is the cost. Her family owns their own business, she says, and "The amount of taxes we pay out on that, it's ridiculous."

O'Donnell points out, though, that the President has pledged only to raise taxes on people who make $250,000 a year. Does her family qualify?

"Honestly, I'd rather not say," Abram says. "I don't even know. My husband takes care of the bills and everything. He takes care of us, and that's all that matters."

So while Abram doesn't know how much income her family earned, she's sure the taxes on that income are "ridiculous." Ohhhhhkaaaaay.

It develops that the Abrams family has a Health Savings Account, a delightful device championed by our very own Rick Santorum. Their HSA is structured such that the first $5,000 of health expenses a year -- prescriptions, doctor's visits, etc. -- are paid for right out of the family's pocket. This year, their son may need repeated surgery -- but on the bright side, Abram says, they may now reach the $5,000 threshhold when the HSA kicks in, "so that's a good thing." 

It won't surprise you that Abram hasn't thought through her GOP talking points. Asked if she wants her parents to not use Medicare -- which is a government-funded single-payer health plan -- she says "We don't talk politics." 

Would she favor repealing Social Security?

"I hate to say yes or no." 

"I hate to have words put in my mouth," she adds. But by this point, it's clear that she doesn't have many words of her own.

For me, the key moment in the interview comes when O'Donnell asks why it took THIS issue for Abram to get interested in politics. O'Donnell pointed out that in recent years, the United states has been through 9/11 and two different wars, among other things.

"How could those things pass through your life like this and not spark any interest in politics, prior to Washington saying 'we think we want to help out some people can't afford insurance the way you can'?" he asks. "Why would this be the thing that wakes you up ...?"

Abram's answer:

"I always seemed to have faith in the government, and honestly, I didn't really care. I had other things going on -- getting married, having children. It wasn't a priority in my life ... Maybe I'm just not that smart, but it seems like ... we're [always] having some kind of conflict. I don't know, that just seems commonplace now, I think everybody's just so used to it."

So there you have it. Katy Abram is a perfectly pleasant woman living in Lebanon, Pa. And it troubles her conscience not a whit that her country seems constantly at war. What really pisses her off isn't the fact that her government is constantly killing people in other countries -- it's that her government might want to do something to help her own neighbors.

But I feel guilty picking on Katy Abram. The thing is ... the person in that interview (as distinct from the person yelling at poor Arlen Specter) seems genuinely likeable. She's self-effacing, modest, charming. I'll bet she's a great mom, and a nice neighbor. I'd like to have her living next door. 

More than that: I wouldn't mind paying a bit more in taxes so the Abrams family could have a decent healthcare plan. It seems sad and mean that there are people in my state who are actually hoping their kid's operation will cost more than $5,000, just so someone ELSE can pay the bill for a change. If you believe in universal health coverage -- as I do -- then that means you want everyone to have a good insurance plan, even people you don't like or, as in this case, people whose obvious silliness is deeply unsettling. 

You could argue that any sympathy for Mrs. Abram is misplaced. Nobody forced her to show up at a public meeting and denounce a Senator, or to accept the invitation from Hardball. She chose to put her own ignorance on display, and if letting her do so on a national cable TV show seems cruel, well ... tough shit. 

But hey, I'm a liberal -- blaming society for people's mistakes is what I do. And in fairness, can you fault Abram for thinking she could just come on the air, spout Republican talking points, not look stupid? That's how everyone ELSE does it. Abram appears no more ill-informed than Sarah Palin or Pat Buchanan ... and if Palin could be the GOP's nominee for vice-president, why shouldn't Abram have 15 minutes of fame? Or even a spot on a Sunday morning talk-show panel? Why not make her the next Joe the Plumber?

The irony of all this, of course, is that of all the dubious government spending that goes on, the program that turns Abram into a raving lunatic at a town-hall forum is the one program that might actually do her some good. She says she opposed bank bailouts too ... but she apparently didn't REALLY get upset until somebody offers a government program that could help HER family. That's how bollixed up our political discourse is these days.

Maybe this shouldn't be surprising: The whole premise of conservatives -- especially the sort that would invest in a Health Savings Account -- is "We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much." I'm sure seeing your tax dollars go to help bankers, or people on welfare, is a constant irritant. But for Abram, it's only when a program threatens to help YOU that it becomes oppressive ... because those programs are the ones that attack your self-image as a self-reliant American, somebody who doesn't rely on anyone else. 

So maybe Abram got exactly what she wanted. She didn't want the world to do her any favors ... and the folks at Hardball certainly weren't guilty of that. I hope she's happy, wherever she is. And that her kid's operation is REALLY expensive. She deserves a break.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Oh God Not Again

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2009 at 8:28 AM

Another multiple shooting, another senseless tragedy perpetrated by some deranged cretin in Pittsburgh.

And it seems like this shooter, too, has left messages for the rest of us on the internet.

As Maria of 2 political junkies has also discovered, it seems the alleged LA Fitness shooter, George Sodini, has left a Web site behind. 

I'm wary of providing links to, or excerpts from, the site. For one thing, I'm not positive it's genuine ... although a bit of internet sleuthing confirms that it is registered to Sodini's home address. Other addresses on the site also check out. 

Mostly though, I don't want to quote from the site because it seems that's just what its author wants us to do. The bottom of the Web page urges visitors to "Copy this to usenet/newsgroups where my voice will speak forever!" Yeah, no thanks, dipshit. Plus which, the site identifies the names and addresses of family members who the author felt were insufficiently loving during childhood. If the site is genuine, those folks are probably suffering enough already. 

At any rate, suffice it to say that the site's author puts Sodini's own date of death -- yesterday -- at the top of the page,  followed by the question: "Why do this?? To young girls? Just read below."

What follows is a pathetic mixture of abject self-pity, racism and rampant misogyny. None of which would be particularly surprising for someone who carried out these acts. In fact, the author claims to have orginally planned to commit this act several months ago, and nearly went through with it in January.

Reading this over, one is reminded of the old maxim about the banality of evil. Here's a guy who claims that he didn't get enough love as a child, can't get laid as an adult, feels misunderstood ... and so apparently decided to shoot up a roomful of innocent women.

Everywhere is the sense that a mass-murder/suicide will give the author some of the accomplishment he lacked in life.

And what comes through, in word and deed alike, is the portrait of an abject, pathetic loser. Here is someone who thought he was superior to the "hoes" who rejected him, who smugly derided religious hypocrisy but thought HE was going to Heaven ... someone who was convinced of his superior intelligence, but couldn't understand a goddamn thing -- and so tried to destroy everything he was too stupid to comprehend. Including himself. 

I'm leaving for vacation in a few hours, and this blog will go dark for the next week and a half. But I'll be thinking of my grieving neighbors and my city -- wounded more times already this year than any of us could have imagined in our worst nightmares.

There is some kind of madness in this culture that I don't have a name for. But it seems to be getting worse. 

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