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Friday, August 29, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2008 at 6:06 PM

Well, so much for experience. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, having beat up on Barack Obama's callow youth for months now, has chosen a vice-president who by any standard is far less experienced than the Democratic nominee.  

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as you may have heard, hasn't even served a full term as governor of one of the least populous states in the union. And that, as Democrats suggest, undermines McCain's emphasis on experience as the standard by which this election should be decided.  

But surely, Republicans will counter, the stakes are lower for a vice-president, and experience is not so important?

Well, not according to John McCain himself, who in July told our very own Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the ability to take the Oval Office "immediately" was a key consideration. And he wasn't going to let his choice be determined by identity politics either. 

The relevant portion of the interview: 

Trib: Do you feel pressured to pick a woman or a minority vice president?

McCain: No, frankly, I hadn't thought about that.

Trib: What kind of a vice president do you want?

McCain: Someone who shares my priorities and my principles. And also obviously who is ready to take my place at a moment's -- you know, immediately.

Or, you know, not.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2008 at 1:28 PM

Add CNBC to the growing list of cable channels cheerfully dumbing down. (Remember when Bravo and A&E pimped high culture and not endless bitchy and sleazy reality fare, respectively?) Now the business-news channel has returned from the international-TV clearance sale with a three-year-old reality series, The Apprentice U.K., which is also, as you've likely guessed, already a knock-off of the American version.

Of course I tuned in, because I still enjoy The Apprentice -- if only for personal and petty reasons. The shows attracts those deeply annoying, go-for-it, ego-driven yet clueless sorts who drove most of us mad in high school -- and here they are back: all grown up and being humiliated on national TV by a blowhard with an orange comb-over.

Of course, the British version, set in London, offers a few variations: everybody has an accent (which can mean more in terms of cultural perception, i.e. working class, Northern, put-on); flashy pin-stripe suits are de rigueur for the men (and apparently reddish-purple-dyed hair for the women); the contestants get a nicer, bigger place to live; and the celebrity zillionaire (i.e. the Donald Trump replacement), at least for me, comes with no baggage.

Our business mogul is Sir Alan Sugar, an East End barrow boy made good, who now runs some amorphous mega-billion empire of something or other (the show assumes any natives watching will know all about Mr. Sugar, but I caught something about computers ...).

At once I preferred this guy to Trump, if only for the freshness, and his not-quite-smoothed-out rough edges. He appears to be a tiny, pudgy bearded fellow ('Tonight, the part of Sir Alan will be played by Bob Hoskins.") In the boardroom, Sir Alan clearly has a special seat that lets him tower nearly a foot above his adjacent colleagues. (Fine, but this could be finessed with more discretion.)

And whether to be trendy and give the Mockneys a run, or because that's just who he is, Sir Alan drops plenty of low-rent slang into his executive-speak: 'on yer bikes," 'suited and booted," 'old geezer" and 'done is done." He was also amusingly inarticulate about the winning team's prize -- 'I've got one of those capsule things on the Eye" -- and the reward itself smacked of Best Day Ever for a Street Sweeper and his Missus: drinking champagne on a gigantically vulgar Ferris wheel. (And this after the My Fair Lady challenge: selling flowers on the street!)

In fairness to Sir Alan, he seems more articulate and sharper than Trump, at least in the boardroom scenes. He's quicker to argue, to call bullshit and doesn't give off the bloated, treading-water, every-dumb-thing-I-say-is-golden vibe that Trump does.

After just one episode, it's too early to get a read on the 14 contestants, though two have surfaced early as most annoying. For the men, it's the looming, 6'9" Matthew, who among other suspect ventures founded something called The Tall Society.

Among the women (or 'girls" as the unreconstructed side of Sir Alan called them), Saira has already got me clenching my teeth. She's a master of that British passive-aggressive criticism that takes the form of long-winded politeness.: 'If I could just say something here and I really don't mean to be pointing out anyone in particular, but I really do think, after much reflection, and I'm sure you'll agree with me, that this may not be the best strategy, that is if we're meant to be a team, which I think we all agree we should be."

And so on. And on. And on.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Aug 27, 2008 at 5:44 AM

I guess I should be more excited about Democrats' chances after watching footage from their Denver convention last night. Last night, Barack Obama's candidacy generated something akin to enthusiasm even in Senator Bob Casey -- which is no easy task. So why don't I feel more energized?

Partly it's because the media commentary seems to get more inspid every year. It may be an act of mercy that the networks only showed an hour of the convention, and spent the rest of the evening broadcasting reality-TV. (Which convention coverage increasingly resembles, of course, what with the Big Brother-like gossip about how Hillary would handle being kicked out of the house.)

On CBS, you had Bob Schieffer demanding to know why the keynote speech by former Virginia governor Mark Warner didn't offer more "red meat" attacks on Republicans. And you know damn well that if it had done so, Schieffer would have demanded to know whether it was smart for the party to be so angry. Over on PBS, meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks was his usual unctuously duplicitious self. Before Casey's speech, Brooks dredged up dubious claims that Casey's father, the late Gov. Bob Casey, had been barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic Convention because of his pro-life stance. I guess it doesn't matter how often people try to correct that claim; it's just one of those things that on-air pundits go on repeating.

Not that pundits alone are guilty of hoping that something will be true if they just insist upon it strongly enough. Casey's speech tried to convince us that Barack Obama was equally comfortable shooting the shit with Franco Harris or hanging out in a sports bar. (No mention of his time spent in bowling alleys.) And that as a result of his just-plain-folks charisma, Pennsylvanians had accorded him their higher honor -- deeming him "one of us."

I'm not sure how you square that with the fact that Clinton beat him by 9 points in the primary, or with more recent surveys. A recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, suggests that while Pennsylvanians want to see "a Democrat" in the White House by an 18-point margin. But when they're asked whether they'd vote for Obama, the margin shrinks to a 49-to-42 lead over John McCain.

As for Clinton's much-anticipated speech ... it was fine, I guess. But for the most part, it struck me as the kind of speech anyone could have made, and that could have been made about anyone. She had a nice passage in which she asked her supporters if it was only her she'd been fighting for -- or all the forgotten people who stood to gain from a Democratic victory in November. But other than that, Clinton didn't really address her supporters -- especially women -- as directly as I hoped she would.

It won't surprise me if the GOP goes right on using her remarks during the primary to attack Obama, and I was hoping she'd take on GOP tactics to split the party. I wanted her to say: The very thing that made this primary so painful is what makes Democrats strong. We had not one but two candidates who represented long-ignored constituencies -- and as hard as it was, only Democrats draw on the kind of diversity that we saw during that primary. That's a GOOD thing about the party -- that it would try to satisfy so many hopes, to address so many long-unmet needs, all at once. DON'T LET THE REPUBLICANS USE THAT AGAINST US.

I think Clinton could have done so much more to bring the party together, and start bringing this election home. And I guess she, more than Bob Casey or even the networks, is the real reason I haven't caught convention fever yet.   


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2008 at 9:56 PM

In these partisan days, it's hard to see much that Democrats and Republicans have in common. But after attending a "Candidates' Comedy Night '08" at the Waterfront's Improv, I can tell you this: When an aspiring comedian bombs on stage, you feel bad -- no matter what their party affiliation.

Yes, even your faithful CP correspondent felt pity for Melissa Hart, the Republican former Congresswoman who is trying to regain the seat she lost to Jason Altmire. Hart's act -- which consisted largely of unfunny riffs on how being a candidate was like being a child -- became a joke for the OTHER politicos at the event, a fundraiser for the Allegheny County Music Fund. (The Fund provides opportunities for kids in the county's juvenile court system and the Department of Human Services.) Altmire, who went up on stage after his rival, rather cruelly noted that Hart had a tendency to cling to center stage too long. He also jested that he'd finally found a difference between Hart and George W. Bush: Bush, Altmire said, was at least funny. 

We've posted video excerpts of stand-up routines performed by various politicos -- including county executive Dan Onorato, state auditor general Jack Wagner, and Congressional representatives Tim Murphy and Mike Doyle. You can judge their performances for yourself. But here's our brief recap of highlights and lowlights (quotes may not be exact -- it's not easy working a camera and taking notes at the same time):

Funniest politicians: Mike Doyle and Dan Onorato. Doyle offered a seemingly well-practiced series of riffs on John McCain's age, and other red-meat issues for blue-state voters. Onorato's performance, while less polished, was wickedly funny on occasion. Alluding to controversy over the fact that county council Democrats have held secret meetings, Onorato said he'd tried to make sure there weren't enough councilors in the audience to trigger a quorum. The problem, Onorato said, was that he didn't know who any of the county councilors were.

Onorato's drink tax had been the subject of numerous jibes all evening long, and he joked about it a few times himself. At one point, he told the crowd that he was in the best shape of his life. "Don't clap," he added a moment later. "It's because I can't get served."

Least funny politicians: Hart and Chet Beiler, a Republican running for state auditor general. Beiler was apparently brought up in an Amish household, and his act certainly lived up to the Amish reputation for humor. The best part was when Beiler asked if anyone in the audience recognized the sound "clip-clop, clip-clop, bang-bang." (Answer: It's an Amish drive-by.) 

Beiler was so unfunny that afterward, emcee Gene Collier announced that he'd decided Melissa Hart was "fucking hilarious" after all. 

Sharpest tongues: Altmire and his Republican Congressional counterpart Tim Murphy. Murphy proved the Republicans could dish it out as well as take it, taking several pokes at Democrats in general and Doyle in particular. In one shaggy-dog story Murphy told, the premise was that Doyle was no longer able to sexually satisfy his wife. 

Most surprising talent: Murphy played guitar and sung a composition he wrote himself. He wasn't bad either, although the song -- a sort of "Schoolhouse Rock" ditty about how environmentalists and other special-interest groups were screwing up Washington -- had at least two more verses than it absolutely needed. At one point in Murphy's performance, someone in the audience held up a lighter.

Most surprising attire: Tom Ellis, a Republican running for state treasurer, showed up dressed like Napolean. The point here was that Ellis is short. In case anyone in the audience was confused about that -- in case they assumed Ellis, like Napolean, had grown up in Corsica or something -- Ellis made numerous jokes about his stature to drive the notion home.

Most conspicuous no-show: You guessed it -- Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was listed alongside Onorato on the program. Onorato laughed it off, explaining that Ravenstahl was at the nearby Dave & Buster's, trying to top his personal best skee-ball score. But Ravenstahl's absence was commented on -- and not kindly -- by others on stage at least twice.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2008 at 10:46 AM

One of the benefits of being a reporter is that you end up on the e-mail lists of every right-wing whack job in the tinfoil-hat brigade. Which means that when former Sen. Rick Santorum recently used a conservative e-mail list to call his comrades to the ramparts, I got the message too -- addressing me as a "Friend of Marriage," no less.

Dated Aug. 17, Santorum's message is a plea to support the National Organization of Marriage, which bills itself as "a mission to protect marriage and the faith communities that sustain it"

And judging from the image on the site's homepage, marriage has the power to take your love and enrich it ... until it turns you into a septuagenarian white person. Who can deny its value as an institution?

But with Santorum's plea comes a warning: "Unless we act today, we will lose the battle for marriage -- not a decade from now, not 'someday,' but quite possibly in the next few months."

What makes the threat so dire? A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court, which held that an anti-gay-marriage referendum was unconstitutional and had to be thrown out.

But the threat to marriage isn't just in California! Santorum warns us that those damned gay-rights activists are "pushing the battle first where the secular left is strongest ... even in my home commonwealth, Pennsylvania."

Nice to see Santorum still claiming Pennsylvania as his home, no matter where his family actually lives. It's even nicer to find out that the secular left is strongest here in Pennsylvania. What a relief. I guess Obama's got this baby locked up, and we can start the victory party now. Sodomy all around!

In a way, it must be satisfying for Santorum to believe this too. After all, it would mean he lost his 2006 re-election bid not because he was completely out of touch with average Pennsylvanians, or because he shamelessly flogged the inert body of Terri Schiavo rather than deal with healthcare for the rest of us. No, Santorum lost because of the all-powerful secular left.

Indeed, as Santorum warns me and my fellow friends of marriage, "[W]hile we are tending to our jobs, going to church, and raising our families, a handful of wealthy gay men are plotting ways to use their giant fortunes to reshape the entire American political landscape in their own image."


As evidence, Santorum cites an Atlantic Monthly article from 2007. That article reveals a sinister conspiracy in which wealthy gays are -- brace yourself -- making campaign contributions. Or as Santorum breathlessly quotes the story reporting, gay leaders are spending money to defeat conservatives "who were building their careers on antigay policies, before [those politicians] achieve national influence."

Stop the presses! Apparently, rich people are spending money to affect the outcome of the electoral process! Next thing you know, they will be trying to gain influence over K Street lobbyists.

Of course, Santorum is so strident about the dangers of political fundraising because … he's trying to raise political funds. The whole point of his letter is to seek financial support for the National Organization of Marriage's "State Action Plan." As Santorum writes, "I know politicians ... and nothing gets their attention like the possibility of a competent, well-funded campaign to let voters know how they really vote!"

But sadly, while the "gay millionaires are writing big checks," he says, "most Republican donors are afraid to take on this issue."

Yeah, dammit. When will Republicans find the courage to contribute large sums of money to promote their philosophies? Where are my fellow "friends of marriage" today? Pennsylvania needs them, as surely as it needs such marriage-friendly Republicans as John McCain and our own Don Sherwood!

Richard Mellon Scaife! Rick Santorum calls for aid! You believe so strongly in marriage that you've done it twice, and are even now undergoing the paperwork that will someday enable you a third chance to enjoy that blessed institution! You will spend millions on your ex-wife; can't you spend a few bucks encouraging the rest of us to take marriage seriously?

As Santorum's letter explains explains, supporting NOM "is the start of something really big and new... It's a whole new model for getting politicians to do the right thing on traditional values."

And if right-wingers don't campaign on those values, God forbid, they may start having to live them. You've been warned.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2008 at 8:01 AM

Sometimes it seems like a Pittsburgher can barely renovate the basement without The New York Times writing about our transformation "from a down-and-out smokestack to a gleaming cultural oasis." (See, for example, here and here.) Whenever one of these pieces gets published, the locals e-mail and dissect it, trying to discern what it says about Pittsburgh's attempts to reinvent itself, and whether the national press understand us at all.

I suspect this story, in the Times business section, won't get the same kind of attention. Which is too bad, because it may end up having a much greater impact.

In it, business reporter Gretchen Morgenson cites the West Penn Allegheny Health System as "Exhibit A" in how shoddy financial reporting can "leave ... investors decidedly in the dark about" the health of non-profit and government entities.

For a dissection of the intricacies of municipal debt, you'll have to turn to better minds than mine. The bottom line is this: Shortly after West Penn issued $750 million in debt in May 2007, serious financial problems at the healthcare provider began surfacing. Among them: The hospital simply hadn't disclosed several months' worth of financial results prior the bond sale. As a result of this surprising news, bonds that originally sold for more than $1,000 are now selling for $830.  

Much of the fallout -- like downgrades in West Penn's credit rating, and the fact that the hospital barred journalists from a conference call with investors early this month -- had been reported locally, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. But the Times piece is worth a look.

First, it concerns the health of a vital Pittsburgh employer -- the only real rival to the UPMC behemoth. Second, the story suggests that even after the nationwide economic fiascos of recent months, we're still not even close to understanding how screwed up America's financial system is.

While much of the business world's focus has been on the creditworthiness of banks and other for-profit companies, Morgenson reveals a huge problem in the non-profit market too. Very little scrutiny has been paid to "municipal securities," she says -- bonds issued by governments, hospitals, and other not-for-profit agencies.

"If we have learned anything from this unrelenting credit mess, it is that greater disclosure is needed if investors are to regain their trust in the financial system," Morgenson writes. "Nowhere is this disclosure more urgent than in the $2.6 trillion municipal securities market, ... where information is scant." 

What makes this all especially ironic is that West Penn was born out of the bankruptcy of AHERF, the now-notorious hospital chain that went belly up in the late 1990s. You may recall that AHERF CEO Sherif Abdelhak spent a few months in the county jail as a result of the chain's financial problems.  

Now here we are a decade later, and it's not clear that anyone has really learned their lesson from the collapse of AHERF -- still the largest bankruptcy ever among healthcare nonprofits. Ironically enough, in fact, just last month, the Moody's rating agency issued a post-mortem on the AHERF bankrupty, which led to the creation of the West Penn system -- and to the issuance of the troubled bonds. Summarized in this Post-Gazette story, the report offers a largely sunny perspective on life post-AHERF.

The AHERF bankruptcy, a Moody's exec told the P-G, "has stimulated greater transparency and greater disclosure from hospitals.... The marketplace has demanded greater disclosure."

Or not.  

"[H]ospitals that have learned from AHERF's missteps are in a better position to ... preserve credit quality and bond ratings," the Moody's report concludes.

Too bad West Penn isn't one of them. Just a week after issuing this report, Moody's downgraded West Penn's credit rating. 


Friday, August 15, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2008 at 8:34 AM

I've long been a fan of the media-watchdog group Media Matters, so I felt a slight hometown thrill when I saw this item, about Pittsburgh's own Mike Pintek, last night. 

Pintek attracted MM's notice while guest-hosting on the Quinn & Rose program. (Which -- full disclosure -- used to be hosted by the parent company that owns City Paper.) Relying on such expert sources as "some people who know what they're talking about" and "a guy [who] sent me info about his belief," Pintek dredged up rumors (again) that there was something fishy about Barack Obama's birth certificate. 

"I'm still not convinced that he actually [is] a natural-born citizen," Pintek said. Though he conceded "This is not an official Republican campaign issue. It's not an official John McCain issue."

You might think that if even the McCain camp -- the folks who put Paris Hilton in a presidential election -- balks at making an issue of something, it's probably not worth digging into. But as Pintek pointed out, "[T]his keeps popping up in the blogs."

So do LOLcats, of course. I'm guessing we'll see those in a McCain ad any day now.  

The fine folks over at 2 political junkies noted this item as well, and they've previously done a fine job deconstructing the ludicrous attacks on Obama's citizenship. (See for yourself here and here.)

All I'll add to their fine work is this (fairly obvious) point. I don't think this rumor persists because anyone actually believes it. I've been a guest on Pintek's show, and I don't think he's that dumb. I think the falsehood persists because it dovetails with something that is an official Republican issue -- the attempt to suggest there is something suspect about Obama's credentials as an American. Even if everyone agreed tomorrow that the allegation was false, the residue of it would linger. And it would color future claims in a similar vein, leading uninformed voters -- i.e. many of them -- to leap to the conclusion that where there's smoke there's fire. 

Ronald Reagan's press secretary, Michael Deaver, once said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." I'd update that only slightly for a 21st century political campaign: If you tell five variations on the same lie, it's a "perception problem." Which gives people license to talk about it even if they know better. And which forces candidates and their backers to defend themselvse against the charge.

This can be done to anyone, of course -- it's what the pundits mean when they talk about "defining the other guy." You could do the same to McCain with respect to his treatment of women -- and probably with some justice. For Obama, you've got a weird name and an unusual ancestry, so the lies practically write themselves. This rumor is a particularly absurd example -- you hear people talking about how Hawaii, where Obama was born, isn't like a regular state -- but that just shows how easy the game can be. 

I respect Media Matters and the Junkies, and they have to do what they're doing. But this bit of nonsense has already served its purpose.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Aug 14, 2008 at 7:41 PM

I'm pretty sure there's no penalty for taunting in hockey. I'm positive there isn't going to be any penalty for Mario Lemieux's taunting Pittsburgh about his new hockey rink, either.

But I kinda wish someone would highstick him anyway.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for his new $290 million arena today, Lemieux told reporters it "wasn't a possibility" the Penguins would ever leave Pittsburgh ... despite the team's threats to the contrary, and Lemieux's well-publicized trips to other cities. 

"We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way," Lemieux is quoted saying in the Tribune-Review. "Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back."

Is anyone surprised by this? Probably not. The Trib's editorial page will harrumph and use words like "perfidy," but for the rest of us, the surprise isn't that Lemieux was playing a game. The surprise is that he was such a bad sport after winning it.

He's apparently forgotten how sports stars are supposed to act when they get the big paycheck. Sure, you threatened to hold out or play elsewhere, but when the contract is signed, you smile for the cameras and say you're "just glad to be back playing for the best fans in the world. This is where I hope to end my career." You DON'T say, "Yeah, I took those dumb shits for everything I could. I WOULD have settled for $5 million less. But what the hell, it all gets paid by higher ticket prices anyway. Thanks, suckers!"

There are people who should feel betrayed by Lemieux's admission. I'm thinking of all the fans, the talk-show hosts and the people who called in, the folks who posted on blogs ... the rabid mob that bellowed FOR GOD'S SAKE DIDN'T THE REST OF US REALIZE THE PENGUINS WERE PRACTICALLY LOADING UP THE MOVING VANSRGHGHGHGHADHHXVXCSDF?!?!?!?!?!?!!!.

But it won't happen. For one thing, sports fans aren't as stupid as they like to pretend. I'm sure a lot of them knew it was all bullshit too, but were happy to help Mario out. At worst, some might feel like the loser in high school who gets pushed over by the starting quarterback: As he picks himself out of the cafeteria trash, bits of snickerdoodle in his hair, he says breathlessly, "He -- he -- NOTICED me." 

In fact, the worst part about Lemieux's admission is he could say exactly the same thing on every talk radio show for the next six months. He could publicly light cigars with hundred-dollar bills, grind the embers out on the foreheads of homeless people, and laugh at their torment. And 10 years from now, he could start the whole give-me-a-new-arena process all over again ... and nothing would turn out any differently.

(Not that the Penguins would ever do something like that, of course. I mean team CEO Ken Sawyer told the Trib that "A new arena means we're here, in Pittsburgh, forever." Really, who could doubt such a heartfelt statement now?)

This is the thankless thing about opposing new stadiums. You can gripe about the Steelers and their already-healthy profit margins, and no one wants to listen ... until suddenly a few years later, people are wondering where the Rooneys get off asking for public money to build an ampitheater next door. You can argue that, just because a city retains a team doesn't mean residents will always be proud of it. But no one wants to hear it ... until the Pirates go a decade-plus without a winning season. You can point out in advance that Mario Lemieux is going to bullshit an entire region, and it won't prevent the tactic from working.

But hey. I'm sure that Pens fans are happy, and that local politicos would rather have Lemieux gloat than risk the ire of Pens fans. Plus, Lemieux is a great athlete, supports local charities, and does wonderful things. I guess we should be GRATEFUL he stuck around long enough to rub our faces in today's freshly-broken dirt. 

But the next time an hockey player breaks his word, or sells the Pens out for a better deal elsewhere, I don't want to hear anyone complaining.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Aug 13, 2008 at 3:52 PM

You know when you've got an image problem? When you're making City Councilor Jim Motznik look like the adult.

And that's where "progressives" on council find themselves today.  

As you've probably heard, city council President Doug Shields had a meltdown during a confrontation today with Barbara Trant, the city's personnel director. Shields and others on council have been seeking a review of the city payroll, an effort to ferret out any gender or racial disparities in compensation. But it's taken months to get the study going, and Shields boiled over today. He accused Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration of trying to undermine the effort -- and accused Trant of proffering a "pack of lies." Finally, Trant had enough, and made her way toward the exit. Shields went so far as to demand the on-duty police officer -- who is generally on hand to control unruly members of the audience -- to detain Trant.

The officer let Trant go, rather than, say, Tasing her. But the irony here -- council president seeks gender-disparity study, bullies woman in process -- is so obvious that even Motznik saw it. 

"[D]uring a conversation relating to a Gender and Race Wage Disparity Study," wrote Motznik in a letter calling for Shields' resignation, "your attack on one of our city's female department directors was the most disgraceful scene I have ever witnessed in these chambers." 

"Women and citizens all around this city are outraged" by the incident, Motznik added.

OK, so it's a little presumptuous for Motznik to speak for women. And yeah, Motznik has challenged Shields for the council presidency in the past, and can be counted on to use any ammunition he can find against his nemisis.

But still. 

As someone with scarcely more hair than Motznik, I can't speak for women, either. So it's not for me to decide whether Shields' outburst dents his long, and admirable, legacy of advocating for gender equity. (And that legacy is worth noting: Shields has been a staunch supporter of equality for women, the glbt community, and everyone else you can think of.) But today's circus has shifted the question from whether the city treats women fairly to whether Shields treated Trant fairly. And that can't possibly help anyone, least of all the women whose paychecks are at stake.

Nor is Shields the only offender. The debate over this study has been so acrimonious partly because of another councilor who touts his support of women's causes: Pat Dowd. Dowd objected to the means of funding this study: The money was attached to a spending bill providing uniforms to firefighters, while Dowd believes funding should come from council's own budget. 

In principle, I agree. But as others have noted, the irksome thing about Dowd is that when he takes a stand on principle, the end result is that standing on principle is all council ends up doing. We saw this in the great Lamar billboard dispute, in which Shields and Dowd ended up feuding, even though they both opposed an electronic billboard on Grant Street. Shields and his allies wanted to use city funds to pay for an attorney they'd  hired to challenge the sign. Dowd objected -- on principle, of course -- saying council should have sought authorization to pay the attorney before hiring him. After all, Dowd said, council's complaint was that the sign hadn't been propertly authorized either. 

I appreciate Dowd's willingness to see the mote in council's eye. I'd appreciate it even more, though, if that speck didn't seem to distract him from the beam being used to bash the city over the head. Dowd sometimes acts as though "following proper procedures" is the only principle at stake. It's not.

Council had two choices today: Perpetuating a less-than-perfect process for allocating money, or perpetuating a payroll that may discriminate against employees. Dowd's most immediate concern was the former, and I think that's the wrong set of priorities.

Actually, council had three choices, and today it followed the third -- doing nothing. And part of the reason is that whatever their individual merits, Shields and Dowd seem to bring out the worst in each other. Dowd insists on "proper procedure" so stridently that almost nothing gets done. Shields, meanwhile, has gotten so frustrated that he simply lost his sense of propriety. 

The problem is, I don't know where we go from here. Maybe Shields should step down, for his own well-being if no one else's. Put Ricky Burgess up there, maybe -- he's a reverend and could bring some badly-needed gravitas to the position. Plus, having him ascend to the mayor's office should Ravenstahl leave the post might be our best chance at having a black mayor. Somehow, though, I don't get the feeling we're going anywhere any time soon. Not as long as the cop is standing by the door.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Aug 12, 2008 at 7:47 AM

You may not have realized it, but the Democratic Party came to Pittsburgh last weekend and held not one but two gatherings to cobble together the planks of its national platform. The events were held at the same time, and in the same place (the David L. Lawrence Convention Center), but had totally different outcomes. At one gathering, supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were able to put aside their differences. At the other, the two camps remained riven by bitterness and resentments.

I realize it sounds strange -- even for Democrats -- to try settling their differences in two separate events. But I can only assume that's what must have happened. Because I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth pulled, I had to rely on accounts from Pittsburgh's two daily newspapers. And it's impossible to see how they could have been at the same event.

Here, for example, is the headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's story about the convention, as covered by Jim O'Toole:

"Democrats convene here and reach a consensus on the party's platform"

and the story's lead:

"Democratic officials crossed a policy minefield without a misstep yesterday as they reached consensus on the party platform that will be submitted to the full convention in Denver later this month."

Over at the convention the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review covered, meanwhile, the story was somewhat different. As the headline warned:

"Party unity eludes Dems at platform meeting"  

And here's how the Trib's Mike Wereschagin began describing the convention he covered:

"Unity will have to wait.

Emotions of some supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton remain raw, months after Sen. Barack Obama all but locked up the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Their frustration bubbled to the surface Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where more than 150 Democrats finalized the party's platform."

You'll note Democrats eventually agreed on something -- to wit, the platform that defines their ideals and aspirations. And Wereschagin eventually got around to mentioning the fact.

But the tone of his piece remains consistent throughout. In O'Toole's piece, moments of discord are exceptions to an overall consensus. In Wereschagin's piece, an overall consensus is just a momentary exception to ongoing discord.  

At this point, it's SOP to note the right-wing slant of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, whose publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife, is an ardent foe of all things Democratic. When the Trib endorsed Hillary Clinton earlier this year, for example, most Dems I know assumed it was simply because Scaife thought she'd be easier for McCain to beat.

So when the Democrats came to Pittsburgh, I'm sure the Trib's elders saw a chance to play up Democratic turmoil. And honestly, much of the Trib's account does read like an attempt to cater to the publisher's agenda. The headline especially is absurd: How can you say "party unity eludes Dems at platform meeting" when Dems at the meeting ... um ... agreed on their party's platform? 

Of course, Wereschagin is too conscientious a reporter to make stuff up, and he didn't have to. Divisions exist within any party, and you can always find someone to complain about what the majority has settled on. In fact, once you boil away the reporters' attempt to characterize the convention's tone and atmosphere, they both agree on the essential facts. 

Both papers, for example, note an attempt to abandon the caucus as a means by which states like Iowa choose the party's nominee. (I write about this issue in a column due out tomorrow, in fact -- a piece that reads as if the writer just had his wisdom teeth removed.) Both accounts noted the grievances of delegate Prameela Bartholomeus, a former Clinton backer. Both quote her assertions that these disputes won't hurt the party going forward. Only Wereschagin notes the presence of 15 die-hard Clinton backers who demostrated outside the meeting ... but only O'Toole notes a dispute over health-care reform.

The difference, really, isn't over the facts themselves, but over which facts the reporters present -- and how. Depending on what happens in November, I suppose it's possible for Wereschagin's account to seem prophetic in hindsight ... but I doubt it. In any case, other media outlets, followed the Post-Gazette in noting a lack of acrimony at the Pittsburgh gathering.

To me, Wereschagin's story points up the real, ongoing problem with the Tribune-Review. It's not that it's a hive of fanatical right-wingers, zealously carrying out the whims of their masters. It's largely made up of decent people who push themselves to get the facts right ... and are pushed by their "superiors" to get the context all wrong.