Thursday, October 28, 2010

Governors say the darndest things

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 5:37 PM

I can't explain why the blogging has fallen off as late, especially with an election so close at hand. I guess it's for the same reason that, when you see a collision with a freight train coming, you sort of lose interest in fiddling with the radio.

But I'm struck by this news, from the Allentown Morning Call: Ex-governor Tom Ridge -- who these days is pimping the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry -- is apparently less hostile to a tax on natural gas than Tom Corbett, the GOP front-runner for Ridge's old job.

Corbett, dutifully reading from the Repubican catechism, opposes new taxes of any kind. But ... 

Ridge ... said he believes Pennsylvanians would accept Corbett breaking his pledge on a shale tax because they'd feel no personal impact and would be getting something in return for it.

"I've got to say that, if the dollars were going to a specific cause -- enforcement, regulation, support [for] local communities, counties -- I personally don't think the public would view that as going back on his pledge," Ridge said. "It wouldn't affect them, it would socialize the benefit of these companies' presence. But I have to let Tom make that decision -- if he wins, and I think he will."

Democrats have of course seized on this as proof that Corbett is too extreme. ("It's become more and more clear that Tom Corbett is ... out of the mainstream," a state Democratic official claimed in a release issued today.)

Which is no doubt true. I mean, natural gas is taxed by even Republican states with significant natural gas industries. TEXAS has a tax on natural gas, for God's sake. We're going to be more beholden to the fossil-fuels business than fucking TEXAS?

But of course, you want to beware of gas drillers bearing gifts. For one thing, the gas industry has been pretty clear that they'd willingly accept a tax if they got something in return -- preferably a "forced pooling" provision allowing them to take gas even from  land whose owners don't want to sign away their rights. And there's kind of a funny admission in Ridge's claim that Pennsylvanians won't oppose taxes that a) they won't be the ones paying; and b) might produce some sort of tangible benefit for communities. These days, talk like that gets you a roomful of irate Tea Party activists.

I mean, federal estate taxes -- "death taxes," as Republicans are fond of calling them -- are only paid by a tiny fraction of people. (Less than 2 percent of estates are subject to the tax, according to a 2005 report from the Congressional Budget Office.) Yet to hear GOP rhetoric, an estate tax is little more than tyranny. And somehow, I doubt they'd feel differently if the proceeds of that tax were earmarked "to a specific cause."

Not that Democrats appear any more cognizant of how the political landscape is changing. Take Gov. Ed Rendell, who during a recent CNN appearance said of Democrats, "We're a bunch of wusses."

OK, who exactly is this "we"? Because surely the wussiest move in Pennsylvania politics this year was the effort to push Arlen Specter -- a former Republican -- as the Democratic nominee in this year's Senate race. The fear was that only Specter could beat the GOP's nominee, Pat Toomey, because progressive insurgent candidate Joe Sestak was too liberal to have a prayer. You may recall Democratic party leaders warning that a Sestak candidacy would be "cataclysmic." And Rendell was a leading Specter backer as well.

Now it's quite possible that Sestak will indeed lose next week. The race is tight. But does anyone -- anyone at all -- think there'd even be a race at this point if Specter had won the Democratic primary? When was the last time you heard a Democrat say, "God, if only Arlen were still in this thing, we'd really have a shot at winning it"? 

In fact when you look back now, Rendell's prognostications are nothing short of hilarious. Take, for example, his 2009 prediction that in primary contest against Specter, Sestak would get less than 20 percent of the vote. Way to have your finger on the pulse there, governor.

But the problem isn't that Rendell was wrong about Specter's electability. The problem was that Specter's alleged electability was the main reason we were supposed to vote for him. We were supposed to toss aside questions about Specter's trustworthiness, or his wayward track record on most of the issues that matter to us. We were supposed to go with Specter simply because he could beat Toomey.

Now, having counseled voters to abandon their beliefs, Rendell faults party figures for lacking courage in their own convictions. After backing a guy who has confounded Democratic initiatives as often as not, Rendell suddenly thinks the part should be boasting about those initiative more openly. As he told CNN:

"If we're going to go down, we should go down over things we believe in."

That's a noble sentiment, and familiar to those of us who backed Sestak six months ago. Too bad that -- much like Rendell's moratorium on gas-drilling in state forests -- Rendell has discovered his convictions just when he's totally unable to do anything about them. It almost makes you wonder how serious he really is.

In fact, when you look at these two ex-governors, you see exactly how our politics has gotten to this point. Ridge, a moderate Republican, seems blissfully unaware of how far the party has moved from his values. Rendell, meanwhile, only seems to have remembered his values now that he can't do anything to advance them. The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. And that's why the center ain't holding. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NPR story targets Pittsburgh stations

Posted By on Wed, Oct 20, 2010 at 1:55 PM

It's taken me a few days to get to this, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, but NPR reporters visited Pittsburgh for a story aired last week on new trends in poiltical TV ads.

The story discusses a phenomenon noted previously here and a zillion other places: the rise of political ads taken out by shadowy groups with names like "Americans for Prosperity." Such groups avoid disclosing donors, making it hard to track who is trying to influence your vote. 

But NPR adds a new wrinkle: asking how much the broadcasters who air these ads can be counted on to police them. And WTAE and KDKA don't come off looking so great. 

You probably don't know it, but radio and TV stations are required to maintain what's called a "public file" -- open to inspection by anyone -- which keeps track of ads about politicians or issues of public importance. This is a decades-old requirement, recently updated in Section 504 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. According to the law, stations must compile a paper trail on any ad that

(a) is made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate for public office; or

(b) communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including: a legally qualified candidate; any election to Federal office; or a national legislative issue of public importance.

The paperwork must include such details as the amount of money spent, the time the ads run, information about the people buying the time, and "the name of the candidate to which the communication
refers and the office to which the candidate is seeking election, the election to which the communication refers, or the issue to which the communication refers."

NPR found that at both KDKA and WTAE, that last field was left blank:

[T]he U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful voices in these midterm elections, logged 206 ads at WTAE in a period of three weeks for the Senate race and two House races. The cost: $134,000. That's for one station, in one market, in the chamber's nationwide campaign.

There are also many disclosure forms ... that give less than full disclosure; parts of the form are blank, and that's not atypical.

At KDKA, another TV station, there are more huge ad buys: On Sept. 7, the group Americans for Job Security booked a month worth of ads for which it paid $105,560 and left incomplete paperwork.

The group is required to fill in the name of the candidate that the ad is talking about, but it left the field blank

The NPR piece linked above includes an example of the Chamber of Commerce's filing with WTAE. And indeed, at the top of page 2, there's a blank space where the Chamber was supposed to identify the target of the ad. Partly becuase of that, it's not clear exactly which ad is at issue here. The Chamber of Commerce ads I've seen, however, have targeted Joe Sestak, claiming that he is but a lackey of House speaker Nancy Pelosi

Based on such omissions, NPR concludes that "TV stations can't act as a watchdog of these groups."

I called up WTAE to see how they responded. Bob Bee, the sales director, told me that not every space on the form needed to be filled out, and directed me to Mark Prak, an attorney who represents WTAE's parent, the Hearst Corporation. 

I had phone and e-mail exchanges with Mr. Prak, who was a garrolous and likeable guy, but who nevertheless gave me the strong impression that in a deposition, he'd reduce me to a quivering mass of jelly. The discussion was for the most part pretty arcane, but I'll try to summarize the station's position.

First of all, we're really talking about a few blank spots on a form: The really key information -- the details of how much the ads cost and when they were placed, etc. -- was indeed in the public file. (That's why NPR reporters were able to see it.) And the distinction "any political matter of national importance," might be a little blurrier than you'd expect.

Things that are only of state or local relevance, see, would not be governed under the law. And issues like gun control or abortion can be state or federal, since both levels of government have a hand in shaping such policy.

OK, but what if the ad in question really were the "Sestak is Pelosi's whipping boy" spot? Isn't that ad about a federal candidate, since Sestak is a Congressman running for Senate? And couldn't the rules apply in that case?

Prak, though, questioned whether a spot faulting Sestak's voting record was a matter of national importance -- or just for the people in that candidate's state. It may also be worth noting that this particular doesn't actually tell people to vote against Sestak: It merely urges them to call him up and tell him he's an asshole. (Or more precisely, to "tell [him] Pelosi's agenda hurts Pennsylvania taxpayers.") If you wanted to vote against him too, well -- that's your business. But the ad, strictly speaking, isn't about a federal election. 

At the end of the day, I still think WTAE (and presumably KDKA and other stations) should have made sure the form was complete. I'm not sure how big a deal it is, but I'll bet the station made sure its $134,000 check was filled out properly. You know? 

I also think, though, that the real story isn't whether the stations complied with the law ... but about what is legal in the first place. 

First off, even if all the documentation had been complete, you still wouldn't know where the money for these ads is coming from. The people bankrolling these campaigns don't have to disclose their funding to the federal government -- they ain't gonna tell the TV stations either. 

Second, consider that to do this story, NPR had to go to the stations themselves to review the file. (There's some rather breathless reporting from the WTAE parking lot.) How many members of the public who don't work as reporters, or campaign workers, are going to drive out to Ardmore Boulevard and look at this stuff? 

In an internet age, it seems ridiculous to limit public inspection -- especially of records belonging to media oulets with strong web presences -- to those who come to the office. Maybe instead of worrying about whether all the boxes are checked, government officials ought to be trying to get this material out of the storage boxes -- putting it online where the public can actually see it. That would be a step, however small, for transparency and disclosure. 

Which is why I'm not holding my breath. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blast from the past: Gina Redmond speaks out after 8 years

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2010 at 5:51 PM

Courtesy of the folks at Pittsburgh Urban Media comes word that former WPXI anchor Gina Redmond -- who ended up the subject of news stories after a 2002 barroom altercation -- is commenting on "What Really Happened in Pittsburgh" on her own website.

As Ms. Redmond tells the story:

Several years ago, I was accused of slapping a former producer across the face during a non-work related function. Now granted, as the main anchor of a top 30 television station, hanging out at a dive bar in the wee morning hours, is a decision that teeters on insanity, stupidity and pure ignorance. Lesson learned.

... However, let me set the record straight once and for all. My hand never made contact with her face. In layman terms, I did not slap her. No doctors were consulted, no criminal charges were filed, and no pictures were taken of a bruised and battered innocent face. Yet in this sue happy climate a trip to the magistrate’s office is all that is necessary to make a legal accusation against your enemy.

All of a sudden, I was on the defensive. For months I remained silent, while my accuser’s then boyfriend, spewed vile lies about me in the media. At the request of my employer, I kept my mouth shut and agreed to plead no contest to make this nightmare go away. It was then that I realized this battle had nothing to do with seeking the truth, it was solely about revenge. I am not good at revenge. So instead, I chose to forgive, forget and move on. Unfortunately, others were unable to do the same. That little white lie left me unemployed for two years.

The producer in question was Roberta Petterson; the boyfriend was John McIntire, former City Paper columnist and one-time host of Nighttalk, which airs on WPXI's cable-only sister station, PCNC. Redmond did indeed end up before a magistrate as a result of the incident, and pleaded no contest to the charges ... though by that point, she'd already gone before a magistrate to have a PFA taken out against Petterson. (For McIntire's take on the incident way back in 2003, click here.) 

In her blog post, Petterson likens her situation to that of Shirley Sherrod, who the Obama Administration prematurely fired because of an out-of-context snippet of video tape circulated by conservative muckrakers. "[N]egative controversy is far more appealing and easier for most Americans to believe," Redmond concludes.

In the meantime, Petterson left Pittsburgh for Cleveland, and is now apparently in Nashville, Tennessee. Redmond, it seems, was let go from a station in Birmingham, Alabama over the summer. The reasons remain unclear.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fearing for the future on parking lots and police accountability alike

Posted By on Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 5:19 PM

So I've finally been bestirred from my blogging torpor by the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the apparent death of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease city parking facilities. The plan, which would have raised $450 million in an effort to shore up the city's pension fund, was given a preliminary thumbs-down by council yesterday. 

I can't entirely disagree with those who say torpedoing the idea before having a solid alternative is premature, or a bit of dangerous gamesmanship. But I'm not sure the vote makes a big difference. While I thought the mayor made a pretty decent sales pitch, it's been clear for awhile now that council wasn't buying. And hey, it's not like council were the only ones to have prematurely foreclosed on other possibilities. As I pointed out awhile back, the legislature played that game itself, offering the city a chance to raise parking taxes only if it chose privatization.

Finally, let's be honest: Some of the chatter in favor of the lease plan suffered from a bit of cognitive dissonance. At times, the argument seemed to be that the parking lots suffered from inefficient management and overpaid employees -- and that parking rates were too cheap. It's a little like the restaurant customer who says the pork chops were dry, the vegetables tasteless, the dessert undigestible ... and on top of that, the portions were too small.

Still, I feel where foks at the Pittsburgh Comet are coming from. Council paid $250,000 for its own study of the lease proposal. Its consultants determined the present value of parking lot proceeds -- the value of tomorrow's cash if you had it today -- was $400 million. The city was being offered $450 million. 

Note to council: Next time you want to hire a consultant, give me a call. I'll give you advice you can ignore for half the price you piad. 

Because perhaps like the folks at the Comet, I feel a bit like a voice crying in the wilderness lately. Only the issue I'm concerned about is police accountability.  

Maybe you missed this disclosure last week: The city is facing a potential exodus of police officers in the years ahead, as more than half of its 886-member force will become eligible for retirment by 2015. 

For some of us older heads, this all seems very familiar, even if we have to go back more than a decade to remember why:

Some thought long and hard. Others didn't have to think about it at all.

Each arrived at his decision, 410 of the 453 Pittsburgh police officers eligible for an early retirement incentive in the mid-1990s took the offer. During that period, primarily 1994 and 1995, another 136 officers retired on disability or on a regular pension.

To replace those 546 officers -- half the force and representing more than 12,000 years of experience -- the bureau undertook a massive hiring program, resulting in the youngest and least experienced department in anyone's memory ...

[T]he new officers' inexperience led to numerous errors in judgment and performance. While mistakes by inexperienced officers are to be expected, they normally are mitigated by the guidance of veteran officers. But with so few of them left on the Pittsburgh force after the retirement exodus, that didn't happen and problems festered.

Among those young recruits were an officer who got busted for prostitution and Jeffrey Cooperstein, who became a poster child for police/community turmoil. 

That wave of retirements was induced by a cost-cutting measure implemented by Mayor Sophie Masloff in the early 1990s. But the infusion of new blood was just one of the problems the department faced. For example, efforts to fire officers could be be thwarted by arbitrators -- even when there were unsettling allegations of misconduct -- over the objections of the police chief.

Sound familiar?

Public frustration with the lack of police accountability led to a federal consent decree against the department. At the time, Pittsburgh's police bureau was the only one in the nation operating under federal oversight. The public's anger also led to a 1997 public referendum creating a police review board. 

In the years since, the consent decree was lifted. As for the review board? City officials have been taking steps whose impact, if not intent, would be to undermine the board's ability to do its job. 

So in the not-too-distant future, we may well have yet another crop of young, inexperienced cops taking the streets. And we've either dismantled or failed to improve many of the mechanisms for keeping their youthful exuberance in check.

On the bright side, though, at least there's still some hope we can fund their pensions.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Claim: Accused Pittsburgh cop-killer "loved Glenn Beck"

Posted By on Tue, Oct 5, 2010 at 5:53 AM

Here's a claim that maybe isn't all that surprising and which I missed when it first came out, but seems timely: Richard Poplawski, the man accused of gunning down three Pittsburgh police officiers, was a big fan of FOX News host/right-wing cult leader Glenn Beck. Will Bunch, a contributor to Media Matters and author of the popular Philadelphia Daily News blog Attytood, has the story:

This January, I spent several days in Pittsburgh investigating the Poplawski case and seeking to learn more about what really motivated him to kill three police officers. The research was for a chapter in my book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, which comes out at the end of the month. I learned quite a bit ...

"Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck," Poplawski's best friend Eddie Perkovic told me during a long interview in his narrow rowhouse on the steep hill running down to the Allegheny ... Perkovic and his mom -- who also had a close relationship with the accused cop-killer, still awaiting trial -- told me that for months Poplawski had been obsessed with an idea -- frequently discussed by Beck, including in ads for his sponsor Food Insurance -- of the need to stockpile food and even toilet paper for a societal breakdown. Poplawski was also convinced that paper money would become worthless -- another claim given credence by the Fox News Channel host, particularly in close connection with his frequent shilling for the now-under-investigation gold-coin peddler Goldline International.

And there was another idea that not only worried Poplawski but which Perkovic and his mom still swore by in January 2010 -- despite widespread debunkings in the mainstream media -- that the government had established a gulag of what Perkovic called "Guantanamo camps" here in the United States, for the purpose of arresting and detaining law-abiding Americans.

Bunch goes on to claim that Poplawski was a fan of hate sites like Stormfront as well. Washington Post scribe Dana Milbank, who has just come out with his own book out on Beck, also mentions his influence on Poplawski briefly in a recent interview with Howard Kurtz. 

These connections aren't entirely new. More than a year ago, some observers noted that Poplawski apparently posted Youtube footage of Beck talking about supposed FEMA concentration camps with Ron Paul. (Other scurrilous lefties, meanwhile, suggested that Beck's rhetoric had gotten at least as deranged as anything you might find on a far-right website like Stormfront.)  But by and large, media accounts of the shooting ignored the Beck connection.

Which raises the obvious question here: Does Beck, or whoever decided to give him a platform at FOX News, have some responsibility for what his words may have inspired an accused lone gunman to do? Bunch acknowledges that "individuals like Poplawski are ultimately responsible for their warped action." But he then asks what is the responsibility of talkers like Beck, "who now jack up their ratings ... by speaking of violence or irrational conspiracies -- especially when the evidence mounts every day that these ill-conceived words broadcast from coast-to-coast are motivating America's most unglued?"

Anyone who writes in a public forum, I suspect, has a view on this question that is likely to be ... nuanced. We've all had phone calls from a certain kind of fan, one whose enthusiastic endorsement of your work make you wonder if you shouldn't reconsider, or at least clarify, your position. A couple experiences like that, generally, are all it takes to make you wary of claiming responsibility for how other people interpret your work.

And I guess my initial response is to say that the problem with "America's most unglued" is that they are always easily motivated by something. That's what makes them unglued in the first place: their ability to ignore most of the world around them, while seizing on messages they hear from Glenn Beck, a track on the White Album, or instructions issued from a demon possessing the neighbor's dog. 

But of course one of those things is not like the others. If there was a demon possessing the neighbor's labrador retriever, David Berkowitz was the only one who heard it. And whatever Charles Manson heard in the song "Helter Skelter," the Beatles didn't put it there. By contrast, thanks to FOX's patronage, Beck has an audience of a few million people. And if Poplawski ignored Beck's occasional disclaimers that we ought to follow the path of non-violence, well ... it's not like he invented Beck's warnings of societal breakdown. 

Too, Beck isn't acting in a vacuum here. Ignoring everyday reality used to be the exlusive province of America's most unglued. But Fox News has given millions of Americans a chance to inhabit a different reality ... one in which our president may be a socialist, and the New Black Panther Party menaces us at every turn.

Here's the thing, though. Even if Poplawski is convicted ... even if he tries a "Glenn Beck made me do it" defense ... even if another member of Beck's audience goes on a shooting spree ... nothing will change. Lefties are allergic to tinkering with the First Amendment, and rightfully so. And if we ever overcame that allergy -- if we ever really did try to hold fearmongerers like Beck to account -- that's when you'd really see right-wing paranoia on display.

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