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Friday, December 30, 2011

There's no pleasing some people

Posted By on Fri, Dec 30, 2011 at 6:15 PM

Thought I'd share this feedback from a reader, who apparently wasn't impressed with our "Occupy Christmas" cover of a few weeks ago ... or with the Occupy movement itself. (It's worth noting that, like so many of the letters I get here, this came in an envelope addressed in a shaky hand, with no return address.) It raises some questions to be sure. Like: Do Occupiers REALLY shop at J. Jill?

On a related subject, did ANYONE catch that the little poem that went with this image was to the tune of "Away in a Manger"? Oh well. Happy New Year, all.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Santorum comes from behind!

Posted By on Thu, Dec 29, 2011 at 4:12 PM

All right, I confess: I just wrote that headline because it's a sophomoric riff on the alternative definition of Santorum. And in fact, I stole it from a comment posted on one of the zillion other online posts -- including some made locally -- expressing surprise and dismay that Rick "Frothy Mix" Santorum is polling well in Iowa. He may even finish third.

Already, Santorum is being taken seriously enough to be drawing fire from fellow Republicans like Rick Perry.

Lefties too are drawing a bead on Santorum, reminding us of his knuckle-dragging views on gay rights, sexual privacy, and a raft of other social issues.

I can't say this uptick in popularity comes as a huge shock.

Continue reading »

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Did UPMC just blink in dispute with Highmark?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 1:42 PM

As you may have heard, UPMC has agreed to extend its contract with Highmark until June 2013. That means Highmark subscribers will still be considered "in network" by UPMC physicians and facilities for at least another 18 months.

In a joint statement, the healthcare behemoths assert

Highmark and UPMC want to jointly announce that Highmark subscribers will continue to have access to UPMC hospitals and physicians at in-network rates until June 30, 2013. The additional time period will provide certainty for UPMC patients and Highmark subscribers. Discussion sessions have taken place with the assistance of Governor Corbett and via third party mediation.

Is that a sign that the tide has shifted against UPMC? That its executives are abandoning their take-no-prisoners approach? Or is the health-care giant simply playing for time?

Continue reading »

Occupy Pittsburgh to survive into 2012

Posted By on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 11:08 AM

Break out the champagne and the funny hats: Occupy Pittsburgh will remain on Mellon Green through New Year's.

Earlier this month, BNY Mellon -- which owns the Downtown parklet where Occupiers have been since Oct. 15 -- began legal proceedings to have the Occupation evicted. This morning, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward held a "status conference" -- an administrative meeting between the judge and attorneys in a case -- to set out a timeline for handling the dispute.

During the conference, attorneys agreed to hold a full hearing -- where arguments and testimony can be presented -- on Jan. 10 at 9:30 a.m. The Occupiers will be allowed to remain on the Green pending that hearing -- and perhaps after it.

Mellon is seeking a preliminary injunction to remove the protesters; such an injunction asks a judge to take immediate action pending a future ruling on the merits of a case. As such, a judge must feel that a plaintiff's case is very likely to succeed, and that the plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm if action is delayed until the legal process plays out. It would be possible, in other words, for Ward to deny the injunction, but ultimately rule in Mellon's favor after further legal action.

During today's conference, Ward noted for the record that she knew Daniel Booker, the Reed Smith attorney representing BNY Mellon, socially. She also acknowledged knowing Jules Lobel, the University of Pittsburgh law professor who is one of four attorneys representing Occupy Pittsburgh. (Oddly, Occupy's legal team outnumbered the two attorneys on hand for BNY Mellon.)

Ward, who typically handles highly complex commercial litigation, also addressed the courtroom at the end of the conference. She told attendees she was "aware of the passion that everyone has for their individual causes," but asserted that within the courtroom, respect for the law was the only passion she followed.

Outside the courtroom, on the Grant Street sidewalk before the City County Building, Occupiers struck a defiant note. During an impromptu picket, more than a dozen Occupiers circled the sidewalk, holding signs and chanting. "I don't know but I been told, Mellon Bank ain't got no soul," one chant began.

"The same banks that would like to remove Occupy Pittsburgh are pushing good families from their homes," Occupier Celeste Taylor told and ensuing press conference and rally.

"We're here to tell BNY Mellon that you can't evict an idea," added Jeff Cech. "We're not going anywhere."

Not everyone was impressed. "Get a job!" shouted a passing motorist.

"Got two!" a demonstrator shouted back.

Mike Healey, one of the attorneys representing Occupy, said that there had been no discussions with Mellon about settling the dispute out of court.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Op-Ed: GOP supports burdensome government regulation ... sometimes

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 11:58 AM

So it looks like there is at least one sector of the economy where Republicans do favor onerous government regulation: women's health.

As you've probably heard, both houses of the legislature have now passed SB732, which imposes a whole array of burdensome regulations on women's health clinics that provide abortion. Ostensibly a response to the House of Horrors abortion clinic run by Philadelphia's Kermit Gosnell, the bill would force clinics to adopt medical procedures more in keeping with a hospital: driveways capable of accepting ambulance traffic, larger elevators, new HVAC systems and so on. Clinic operators have decried the measures as totally unnecessary for protecting patient health, and a backdoor effort to put clinics out of business.

Ordinarily, of course, Republicans are highly hostile to regulations that interfere with commerce. The very first bill Gov. Tom Corbett signed as governor, in fact, was the repeal of a bill requiring new homes to be equipped with sprinkler systems. The state's construction industry had argued that the requirement could add as much as $10,000 to the cost of a new home.

Republicans were sympathetic; bill sponsor Garth Everett opined that the sprinkler measure "was basically going to add a lot of cost to a home at a very small increase in the safety factor, and it was handicapping the housing industry in Pennsylvania." And in signing that bill, Corbett declared "Whether or not new homes are equipped with sprinklers should be a decision left to individual consumers and not the government."

The reports from Gosnell's clinic are horrifying no matter what you think about abortion. But it's not at all clear how larger elevators would have changed that, or how imposing such requirements will "increase the safety factor" at any location where abortions are provided.

Meanwhile, home fires can be horrifying as well, and often have tragic results for mothers and children alike — as Pittsburghers have seen, tragically, just this week. But hey, this is the GOP: When a special interest like the construction biz is involved, a cost-benefits analysis is necessary. But no price is too steep when a group like Planned Parenthood has to pay it. And reproductive decisions are the one area where "individual consumers" — i.e. women — can't be trusted. For guys like Everett — who voted for the new clinic regulations this week — it turns out there's a place for paternalistic government after all.

Of course, it's obvious what's going on here: As I've written before — and as we saw with the surprise trouncing of an extreme anti-abortion measure in Mississippi, of all places — there's little support for the extreme pro-life position. So pro-lifers are using a different tack, opportunistically using the Gosnell case to achieve their ends through more subtle means. And Republicans in the legislature have been willing to help.

But let's not just call out Republicans. Here are some local anti-choice Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, just in case you want to remember in November:

Dom Costa
Paul Costa
Dan Deasy
Anthony Deluca
Marc Gergely
Bill Kortz
Joseph Markosek
Harry Readshaw
Adam Ravenstahl

Civic Arena blight designation adds to Hill District tension

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 10:50 AM

Hill District leaders are crying foul over the City Planning Commission's decision earlier this week to designate the Lower Hill as "blighted," arguing that the neighborhood was never consulted before the decision, which will allow the Pittsburgh Penguins to receive public funding for their development of the 28-acre property.

"Because there was no community process, and therefore no community input, from the Hill District, [t]he Hill District Consensus Group is in opposition to [the] decision by City Planning," Carl Redwood, who heads the Consensus Group, wrote in a press release on Wednesday. "Deals are being made between the Penguin Corporation and the City of Pittsburgh that are not in the best interest of the Hill District Community."

On Tuesday, City Planning approved the Urban Redevelopment Authority's application seeking to designate the Lower Hill as blighted. Doing so allows the Penguins to benefit from tax subsidies that would help pay for roads, utilities and other infrastructure.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anti-abortion bill passes both houses of legislature (updated)

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 at 4:00 AM

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Proposed abortion regulations have now passed the full Senate as well. See bottom of post for update.]

Women's health advocates are bracing themselves for what will likely be the passage of a controversial abortion measure that they fear will make the procedure inaccessible to women.

As City Paper has previously reported, Senate Bill 732 would reclassify abortion facilities as "ambulatory surgical facilities," and subject providers to the same fire, personnel and equipment standards. The state House of Representatives passed the bill yesterday, 151-44. Advocates expect the Senate to take it up today, as it was advanced out of a committee this morning. While the Senate convened this morning, they are currently on recess before the afternoon session -- we'll post updates as they become available.

Advocates, meanwhile, are pressing legislators to vote against it. The ACLU of Pennsylvania yesterday called the House approval of the measure a continuation of its "anti-woman agenda."

"Burdensome regulations come right out of the playbook of those who think women should have no access to abortion care," said Andy Hoover, the ACLU's legislative director in a statement."It's a way to undercut women's access to abortion."

New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, is urging the public contact their Senators via telephone, Facebook and Twitter to oppose the bill. And in a statement sent out today, Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, says the passage of the bill "will either shut down abortion providers or cause the cost of an abortion to skyrocket, further decreasing Pennsylvanian's women access to abortion, including in the cases of rape and incest."

Officials at Planned Parenthood have previously estimated that proposed changes could increase the cost of an abortion by $1,000.

This bill, and a similar measure in the House from Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga), were proposed after authorities shut down a Philadelphia abortion clinic operated by Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who was accused of performing illegal, late-term abortions. Authorities called Gosnell's clinic a "house of horrors," and he was charged with killing seven live infants, one woman and operating in deplorable conditions.

In a video posted on his website, Baker says the bill "basically holds abortion clinics -- for the first time in decades -- to the same medical standards, safety provisions of ambulatory surgical facilities." The bill, he says, provides a "higher level of standards of care for patient safety to help protect women and children that are being treated in abortion clinic.

But women's health advocates say this bill isn't about protecting women and their rights.

"Gosnell was a rogue criminal who deserves to be punished," Stevens says. But, she adds, "Proponents of SB 732 have exploited his victims to pass their anti-choice agenda and should be ashamed. We see now how low our elected officials are willing to go to push their anti-woman agenda."

UPDATE: The full  Senate passed Senate Bill 732 this afternoon, by a vote of 32-18. The bill now goes to Gov. Tom Corbett.

Prior to the vote, only one lawmaker spoke in favor of the bill: Sen. Jane Orie (R-McCandless), chair of the Republican Pro-Life caucus.

Orie, like many who support the bill, invoked the tragedy at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia where he is accused of murdering seven life infants and one woman, and operating in horrible conditions. "It's one death too many," she said.

"This issue came to us," she said. "We have a duty and obligation to ensure that the poorest of poor or women of means -- that all of you have the same safety and welfare in any medical procedure you get, especially one of this nature."

But lawmakers opposed to the bill called that argument disingenuous. Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park), called the measure "False legislation.

"If we close clinics that right now are safe ... we're going to force individuals into unsafe opportunities, and God forbid there should ever be a situation like Gosnell," he said on the floor. "There's an inherent contradiction by limiting and closing safe, clean places with no incidents.”"

Ferlo and other Democrats who spoke in opposition of the bill echoed sentiments that the bill is more about choosing sides on the abortion battle then it is about helping women. Ferlo and other female democrats also said it smacked of sexism.

"If men got pregnant, abortions would be free, they would be legal, they would be comprehensive and available on demand."

An incensed Sen. Lisa Boscola, (D-Lehigh Valley), agreed that if the bill had anything to do with men's health, it wouldn’t have advanced in the chamber. "I think it's arrogant to be done here this way. It's a clear rush to judgment, pandering to special interests."

She urged woman to run for office and pledged to help them.

"This is what happens when you don't engage and don't run for office," she sad.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Protesters urge Casey to aid jobless

Posted By on Sat, Dec 3, 2011 at 9:38 AM

Worried that Congress might not extend unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the year, roughly 75 local unemployed workers, union members and Occupiers delivered petitions yesterday to the Downtown office of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, urging the Democrat to support laid-off workers.

"We want jobs or we want money! This unemployment crisis is not funny!" demonstrators chanted outside the Federal Building, at the corner of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue

Lately, Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been jousting over extending the payroll tax holiday that is set to end at the end of the year. But now the debate is beginning to shift to the issue of extending unemployment benefits, which have enabled the long-term jobless to receive support for up to 99 weeks. Unless Congress acts, the benefits are set to expire on Dec. 31.

"Folks here are extremely concerned that ... extended long-term benefits will expire if Congress doesn't act," said Catherine Balsamo, member coordinator for Working America. "This is not the time to let that happen."

Today's demonstration coincided with the release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly unemployment report, which showed that the nation's jobless rate fell four-tenths of a percentage point to 8.6 percent in November, the lowest it's been in more than two years. But the rate fell partly because 315,000 unemployed workers simply gave up looking for work.

"We need jobs!" local pastor Ken Love shouted. "And if they don't give us jobs, at least give us an unemployment check!"

Antonio Lodico, director of the Mon Valley Unemployment Committee, told the crowd that his group helped collect 15,000 signatures urging Sen. Casey to support extending the jobless benefits. "We know that Sen. Casey supports us," he said. "But in this holiday season, we want him to be a champion" of the cause.

As Lodico spoke, a Downtown pedestrian pushed his way through demonstrators, saying, "Make way! Make way for someone who actually works and pays for you people!" Near the end of the crowd, he ran into a large union member who refused to budge. The two bumped chests before police officers came over to separate them.

After listening to a few short speeches outside the Federal Building, demonstrators marched to the Regional Enterprise Tower, where they chose a half-dozen people to deliver the petitions to Sen. Casey's office inside the building.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Op-ed: Do perp-walks serve a purpose?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Christian Rash stands accused of a variety of crimes: receiving stolen property, eluding police, retail theft, and driving without a valid license. He may also very well be a jerk, based on my very limited exposure to him and fellow defendant Larry Brown -- which came by way of brief news segments on WPXI and KDKA earlier this week. 

And yet, Rash may have performed a valuable public service: demonstrating the idiocy of one of TV journalism's most pernicious devices -- the perp walk. 

The perp walk, of course, is when police haul an accused criminal, in handcuffs, before a bevy of reporters and news cameras. The ritual typically requires journalists to toss some inane questions at the suspect -- "What do you have to say for yourself?" "Did you do it?" The suspect then offers one of small number of stock responses: a hardened-criminal badass stare; a fruitless attempt to duck his head and hide; or some muttered profession of innocence. He is then shoved into the back of a waiting police car, and driven off. 

The perp walk is a mini-trial in its own right. It generally takes place before a real trial has weighed the charges, and yet the verdict of a perp walk is almost always "guilty." (Is there any way to convincingly declare your innocence when you're handcuffed and surrounded by police and reporters?)

But earlier this week, the accused went off the script.

Brown and Rash got their 15 yards of fame after a police chase at the Ross Park Mall:

According to police, two men stole items from Macy’s and then returned to the store a short time later to rob it again before fleeing in a stolen vehicle.

Not a particularly noteworthy crime, you might think. What was more notable was what happened afterward, when it came time to haul the suspects off to jail. As KDKA's Kym Gamble told us, "Let's just say this was not your typical prisoner transport."

"I want to listen to this," Brittny McGraw urged viewers over at WPXI. "One of the subjects even joked as police were leading him out of the police department."

Both stations then treated viewers to a brief clip of Rash being led away. Gable's off-camera voice asks, "Want to tell us what happened?"

"I saved a bunch of money on car insurance by switching to GEICO," Rash says into the proffered TV news mikes, without breaking a smile.

I guess we're supposed to be struck by Rash's wanton disregard, his failure to recognize the gravity of the situation. Consider McGraw's intro: "One of the subjects even joked as police were leading him." My God, has he no respect for authority?

Of course, it seems equally possible that Brown has no respect for dumb questions. "You've just been accused of a series of felonies -- crimes that could land you behind bars for years! Care to make a full confession for our viewers?"

I'm not faulting Gable for asking the question: It's hard to think of a not-dumb question that can be asked in these circumstances. ("You're being charged with a series of crimes tonight: How does that make you feel?") If anything is to blame here, it's the local TV news tradition of: a) emphasizing crime reporting far beyond its actual importance to viewers, b) exposing people to public denunciation before they've been convicted, or in some cases even charged; and c) milking the spectacle for as long as possible. 

And as we've seen in the high-profile case of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the perp walk may be a distinctly American institution:

Things like that don't go on in France or in Europe ... European law, like European culture more generally, is very sensitive when it comes to questions of the protection of personal dignity. And personal dignity is understood, in particular, as control over one's public image. So that events like this are really, thoroughly condemned by --- not just by French criminal law, but by French privacy law and not just by French law, but by European law much more broadly.

Another, more practical, objection to the perp walk is that it provides very little information, but rather a bit of police-state porno.

To be sure, when a crime is of public interest, a perp walk can serve some purpose. It gives the accused a chance, however brief, to respond to allegations. That may be better than nothing.

But if we're honest, we'll acknowledge that this isn't really about the accused at all: "[P]erp walks aren't disappearing anytime soon. Police love them. The media love them. And by the time any of the perp-walked suspects are proved innocent, everyone else has moved on."

And very often -- in the vast majority of cases where the accused isn't an internationally famous financial expert -- the perp walk just serves to reinforce the image of young black males as violent criminals. 

Still, Rash's joke, at the media's expense, may suggest that perp walks may not be doing TV reporters any favors either. Its formulaic nature just makes them look like like preening idiots; the point isn't so much to get answers, but to have reporters looking all aggressive by asking questions. Intentionally or not, Rash pointed up the pretense for what most viewers already know it to be.

And in this case, the price was higher than just a reporter being the butt of a joke. During the perp walk, Rash's alleged accomplice, Larry Brown, actually spat at a KDKA cameraman -- a gesture which may result in further charges. 

Was that a despicable, vulgar gesture that deserves our contempt? Absolutely. And did both TV stations broadcast footage of a trained professional being spat at? You bet they did.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

WTAE reporters, anchors take labor dispute to the public

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2011 at 10:56 AM

Ordinarily, reporters don't like to keep mum about a potentially big story. But for months now, the news staffers over at WTAE Channel 4 have been doing just that -- with a story that involves their own well being.

Now that story is beginning to surface. And WTAE employees are asking for the public's help in ensuring it has a happy ending. 

Here's the gist: Back in the summer of 2010, the station's reporters and anchors voted in favor of joining a union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). But talks on a new contract with the station's owner, the Hearst Corporation, have gone precisely nowhere.

Until now, employees have been loath to raise the issue publicly. But as frustration with the bogged-down talks has increased, that has been changing. Last month, AFTRA sent out a flyer, urging recipients to "Tell Hearst TV and WTAE managment to play fair in Pittsburgh!" Veteran sportscaster Bill Hillgrove appears on the front --


-- while other staffers appear elsewhere, including a group photo featuring such talent as anchor Wendy Bell, investigative reporter Jim Parsons and internet heartthrob Bob Mayo.


And speaking of the internet, AFTRA is now engaging the power of SOCIAL MEDIA. Which is where you, dear reader, come in. 

In The "Fairness 4 WTAE" campaign has launched its own Facebook page. And just this week, it put out an online petition urging station General Manager Michael Hayes to "bargain fairly" with the on-air folks. 

In a letter sent to Hayes last month by AFTRA Pittsburgh Executive Director John Hilsman, the union maintains that "We remain willing to engage with you and/or your representatives and will continue our disucssions with you at the bargaining table. What's new is that we now intend to reach out to friends within our greater Pittsburgh community and engage them as well." 

Despite this outreach, WTAE employees were wary of speaking on the record about the dispute, or the working environment at the station. (There are a variety of reasons for their wariness, including sanctions for speaking out contained in their existing personal contracts with the station.)

But off the record, employees have told me that some of the most serious concerns involve not pay, but things like scheduling issues: workers being required to put in very long hours at a stretch, having to put in extra shifts on short notice, working overtime without proper pay or comp-time, and so on. Anchors often find themselves with even less protection from additional assignments. 

A litany of complaints posted at the Fairness 4 WTAE Facebook page -- and its Twitter account -- echoes the kind of grievance I've heard from staffers:

What do you say to a company that says its up to you to beg co-workers to cover for you if a family emergency requires you to take time off?

How would you like to work for a company that changes your schedule 90 minutes before your scheduled start time?

How would you like to work for a company that approves time off for a family vacation, then tells you "no" just a few days before?

It's worth noting that AFTRA represents Hearst employees in six other markets; the union contends these demands are similar to those already enshrined in contracts at Hearst stations elsewhere. 


For that matter, I'm told the demands aren't much different from those which used to govern WTAE itself. Channel 4's on-air talent used to be represented by AFTRA until 1997, when reporter Alan Jennings led a drive to decertify it. Employees narrowly voted for decertification early that year; after results were certified, Jennings promptly left the station for WPXI).

I've put in a call to the station's management, and when I hear back from them about WTAE's position on negotiations, I will post it here.

In the meantime, let's all remember that even the dreaded mainstream media is part of the 99 percent.


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