Wednesday, February 9, 2011
You know, there used to be a time that if a Pittsburgh newspaper was going to be accused of catering to the interests of its publisher, that paper would be the Tribune-Review.
These days? Not so much.
In the past 72 hours, we've seen evidence to suggest the Post-Gazette, too, is being used as a platform for its owners to settle grievances. Only instead of Richard Mellon Scaife going after the Clinton administration, the Post-Gazette seems to be crusading so its owners can get better football seats.
As you probably know, this past weekend's Super Bowl was marred by the fact that Cowboys Stadium hadn't finished construction on several hundred seats -- seats for which Super Bowl tickets had already been sold. Some ticket holders -- who'd traveled thousands of miles to see the game -- were given seats elsewhere, but about 400 were only given the option of watching the game on TV screens or in standing-room-only areas. Refunds were promised, but lawsuits seem certain.
The P-G ran a front-page story about the seating controversy. In itself, that makes sense -- among the angry, disappointed fans were plenty of Steelers backers. Hell, on game day, at least one local TV station, WTAE, was running "breaking news" coverage of the problem, complete with angry fans talking about the fiasco live via cellphone.
But as it turned out, among the aggrieved fans was one Allan J. Block, who happens to chair Block Communications, the Post-Gazette's owner.
Block, in fact, appears in the story himself -- recounting his own bad experiences at some length:
Allan J. Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., which owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he and his guests, Norah Lawlor and Jeffrey Bradford from New York, were among those who entered the stadium and made their way to their seats only to be told they would not be able to sit there.
They first were taken to a lounge where they could watch the game on television but could not see the field.
"For $900 tickets, we would have been watching the game on TV as we could have anywhere," Mr. Block said.
When Ms. Lawlor protested, an usher took them to a handicapped seating area and placed folding chairs there.
"To see the monitor you had to look straight up and you could only see what was happening in the end zone," Mr. Block said.
But what was particularly unsettling, he said, was that they spent the game worrying that someone would arrive to tell them they were not allowed to be sitting there, or that they would be kept from returning to the seats if they left for concessions or the restrooms.
"We were humiliated and kept insecure for the entire time. We were not allowed to know we were authorized to be there," he said.
"The NFL pretends they took care of people, but they didn't," Mr. Block said.
Now of course the first question that occurred to me was -- what was Allan Block doing with $900 seats, where he'd be stuck amongst the hoi polloi? The Rooneys couldn't squeeze the guy into a luxury box?
But the broader question stems from the fact that, generally speaking, mainstream newspapers try not to put themselves in the middle of their own story. It goes against the grain of seeking to provide objective, dispassionate coverage of events.
Yet the very same day the P-G reported on the seating controversy, it also expressed its outrage in a blistering, 670-word editorial. The seat fiasco was a "travesty bordering on fraud," the paper thundered, "and it should not be inflicted on any fan, let alone the loyalists who spent much time, money and effort traveling to Arlington, Texas, for America's premier sporting event."
The NFL had an obligation, the paper added "to make these fans whole by covering all costs, plus a premium paid for their disappointment, humiliation, pain and suffering. The sum of $50,000 per ticket would not be too high."
$50,000? Really? (ADDED: Also -- "pain and suffering"? Really?) The editorial cites no basis for this number, and I couldn't see one in its news story either. (The highest losses I saw cited in th news story were those of a fan who paid $8,800 for two tickets. The P-G would reimburse that person a total of $100,000 -- which seems like a lot even factoring in travel and lodging expenses.)
In any case, it's unusual for a daily newspaper to produce an editorial about a story being reported in the very same issue -- for the above-mentioned reasons of seeking to provide objective, dispassionate coverage. It's also unusual for the P-G to run a nearly 700-word editorial about anything.
For example, a recent P-G editorial about food safety got fewer than 500 words. Would it have gone longer if Allan Block had recently gotten food poisoning? Because the 500-word length is much more typical. That's the length of a recent piece concerning GOP efforts to restrict abortion access, for example. Another recent editorial, on whether to try children accused of murder as adults, was just over 500 words.
Today's three editorials -- concerning the state GOP's attempts to nullify federal health care law, the fate of the Civic Arena site, and the future of U.S./Egyptian relations were 370, 230, and 390 words long, respectively.
But seriously: Would the owners of the Post-Gazette, the city's historic paper of record, really use the paper to pursue the personal interests of its publisher?
Don't ask me. Ask Clementine.
As we've reported before, Clementine is the household pet of another member of the Block family, J.R. Block. And she's appeared in the paper's pages as well -- without disclosing the family ties.
In terms of journalistic outrage, this is all pretty small beer. The Super Bowl seating fiasco is definitely newsworthy, and no doubt the P-G editorial page would have taken up the cause of angry Steelers fans sooner or later, even if one of them hadn't been the paper's publisher. Stories about dogs don't do anyone any harm -- which is something you can't say so easily about the Trib's apparent score-settling coverage of, say, the Clinton administration.
What's more, in a lot of ways the city benefits from the fact that the Block family takes a personal, and proprietary, interest in what the Post-Gazette publishes.
While the paper has gone through buyouts and cutbacks in recent years, it could have been much, much worse. And I'm sure it would have been if the paper had been owned by a big chain. Everything I've ever been told about the P-G's finances leads me to believe that the Blocks accept much lower profit margins in good times -- and much worse losses in bad times -- than a chain like Gannett would tolerate. Arguably, a few shaggy-dog stories are a small price to pay for a paper that is still willing to invest in long-term investigative projects like "Mapping Mortality."
But man. At some point, this stuff is gonna make it hard to take those worthy projects seriously. You've got an editorial that -- to all appearances -- took a much more strident tone because its publisher was pissed off. If that sort of thing can happen, how can we be sure the paper's editorial endorsement of Tom Corbett doesn't just reflect its publisher's wishes? God knows little else could explain it, since the endorsement itself makes clear that the P-G agreed with Corbett on few issues other than liquor-store privatization.
Having met a member of the Block family, I think its owners are serious about journalism. But if this stuff keeps up, it's gonna get harder to take their journalism seriously.
ADDED: A final, additional, piece of advice to the Blocks. If you really want to use the leverage that comes from owning a daily newspaper -- next time you should make the Rooneys save you a seat.
Tags: Slag Heap