I just don't know who to trust anymore | Slag Heap
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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I just don't know who to trust anymore

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2010 at 7:23 PM

After considerable confusion as to his whereabouts today, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl emerged at a late-afternoon press conference. He'd gone incommunicado the rest of the day, he told reporters, "just to kind of prove a point: that you all need to be more responsible."

Ravenstahl railed about rumors that he had traipsed off to Mardi Gras, and confirmed what his press spokesperson had said previously: He'd been in the city all day.

I find this behavior so utterly baffling that I can't decide what's worse: the possibility that this is a weird excuse to cover for his absence, or the possibility that Ravenstahl is telling the truth

In either case, I'm going to stand by what I said before: It's hard to square Ravenstahl's seeming disappearance -- whatever the cause -- with the fact that his administration was asking city council to extend a declaration of emergency to fight the snow. If this is an emergency worthy of the name, now is not the time to pull a stunt designed to teach reporters a lesson. Especially a lesson about the need to be more responsible. 

But I will say this: If I were Luke Ravenstahl -- and thank God I'm not -- I too would suspect some members of the press of reckless behavior.  One reason is Virginia Montanez's post about the mayor's disappearance

Earlier today, Montanez posted that "From what the media and others are telling me, Lukey has gone AWOL." She also tweeted that "Two separate sources from mainstream media tell me [Ravenstahl] wasn't at [John Murtha's] funeral."

It's no state secret who is, or isn't, at John Murtha's funeral. But if I'm the mayor, here's what that looks like: You've got a blogger passing along rumors that purportedly come from the mainstream press -- but you can't be sure who in the press is spreading this stuff. So when reporters demand answers and accountability from you, you have no way of knowing how accountable they are for spreading the rumors you're answering questions about. And bear in mind: If I were the mayor, I might be just a little over-sensitive about the press to begin with.

But put aside speculation about Ravenstahl's motivations. If I'm a reporter tempted to share stuff with Montanez, I've got to ask myself: Is this really smart? Why am I running the risk of scooping myself on a breaking story by helping it to appear online?

Reporters are incurable gossips, of course: That's part of why they get into the business. And maybe it's not much of a leap from relying on an anonymous source -- something almost all of us do from time to time -- to becoming an anonymous source for someone else. But reporters ought to know better than anyone that, each time you invoke the old "sources say ..." formulation, you're testing the reader's faith. If the reporters start becoming such sources -- especially on a breaking, sensitive story -- don't they risk testing the faith of the public officials they talk to every day?

I don't claim to have the answer to that question. But it's one reporters other than me might want to ask. 

I mean, there's a weird phenomenon going on here, especially where Montanez is considered. More than a year ago, I noted that local media outlets were willing to bend all kinds of rules for her. Back then, of course, Montanez was anonymous, blogging under the name "PittGirl." And reporters indulged that to a surprising extent:

I can't think of too many cases in which the Post-Gazette has done a 600-word Q&A -- plus prominent mention in multiple follow-up pieces -- with someone whose identity it refused to disclose. And it's not because nobody over there knows who she is. I know of at least one reasonably high-ranking Post-Gazette editor who has met PittGirl for lunch.

In fact, this may be PittGirl's most impressive accomplishment: Her popularity was such that she got some of the city's most prominent media outlets to play by the blogosphere's rules.

And so it seems to be. Now it's reporters who are being accorded anonymity by the blogger. Just yesterday I wrote that while local blogs seem to be drying up a bit lately, that may be partly because "the bloggers have 'won' -- in the sense of gaining more say inside power structures they sought to change."

Is that a problem? Maybe not. For right now, it seems like no one -- except possibly some local officials -- seems to mind.

And it's not like this is the first time questions have circulated about the mayor's whereabouts. It's also not the first time the mayor has acted like it's a damn imposition for reporters to ask him questions that any fool would ask. It's sometimes as if he thinks reporters are like the stereotypical immature, reckless blogger. If a couple reporters have started acting like it, how much right does he have to complain?  

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