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Local Politics Goes to the Blogs

On Jan. 30, Pittsburgh City Councilor Jim Motznik started his first blog. On Jan. 31, he killed it.

"I think it stinks," he says of Web logging -- the posting of news, opinion and commentary on a frequently updated Web site. Motznik created a single post -- headlined "HOW THEY GOT THE STORY WRONG AND WHO IS PISSED ABOUT IT" -- whose intent was to defend Mayor Luke Ravenstahl against the blog postings of others. But his site quickly earned the derision of local political bloggers, and a plea from the mayor to stop blogging altogether.

"I think the blog world is a terrible thing," Motznik says. "People put on their sites whatever they want. It's mostly fabricated to get some attention."

Motznik has taken down his blog, motznikspeaksout.blogspot.com, but the blogosphere never forgets. In this case, it even forges. Hours after Motznik killed his site, someone restarted it at the same address, with nearly the same content.

"We're looking at exactly who this hacker is -- we'll go after him legally if that needs to be done," Motznik says. He has created a new site -- jimmotznik.blogspot.com -- just to tell people his original site is no longer under his control. "Now we're finding out we don't even know the authors of the sites. There's not enough controls, regulations, protections in place. I think it's awful."

Welcome to Pittsburgh's political blog wars. The Burghosphere, as some have dubbed it, is no longer just an insular world of solitary keyboard-jockeys commenting on each other's posts. This year's mayoral election is their coming-out party, like it or not.

The current Mayor of Pittsburgh was actually handcuffed and detained ten months before he became Mayor, while he was President of City Council. How many of you have ever been handcuffed at a Steelers game? Sorry, this is news. Whether the detention was warranted or not, the people have a right to know the full story, if only to assess if he's fit to be Mayor.

-- Comment by "mimi" on The Burgh Blog

Online political skirmishes have been going on for years. (And continue locally at Wikipedia) But the shot heard round the region was a blog post by John McIntire, once and future radio and television host (and freelance City Paper columnist). McIntire has been writing the MacYapper blog (www.macyapper.blogspot.com) since November, but it attracted widespread notice on Jan. 17. That morning, McIntire posted what he called an "unofficial speculative version" of allegations concerning Ravenstahl's encounter with an off-duty city policeman at a Halloween 2005 Steelers game.

McIntire's post had the then-city councilor briefly in handcuffs after allegedly shoving a police officer; the next day, Ravenstahl summoned television and newspaper reporters to hear his side of the story.

"Mayor Ravenstahl: Explosive allegations, disturbing rumors," ran the WTAE-TV promo before the Jan. 18 news.

"The local blog scene picked it up and just ran with it, and now the mayor is making mainstream news by responding to the Web chatter," said anchor Michelle Wright.

"Blogging is a Web phenomena [sic] I guess that's off the charts now," added co-anchor Wendy Bell. "For one of the first times it's causing a real ripple effect in Pittsburgh politics."

"[B]logs are suddenly showing their power in Western Pennsylvania in a way never seen here before," responded reporter Bob Mayo.

"By the way," Mayo concluded, "I'll be blogging about all these development in my blog later on tonight."

By early the following day, local bloggers were already pointing out possible contradictions among all the TV and print interview transcripts helpfully posted on media Web sites, as well as on Mayo's blog, The Busman's Holiday (www.thebusmansholiday.blogspot.com). There was speculation about the connection between McIntire and Ravenstahl's mayoral rival, City Councilor Bill Peduto. Skeptics noted that Peduto was a regular guest on McIntire's shows and a guest at McIntire's wedding; was he McIntire's source? Who would benefit most from the news' timing, given that the May primary is three months away?

Both McIntire and Peduto deny any collaboration, and most bloggers were quick to discount such a link. As David DeAngelo posted on 2 Political Junkies:

Bill Peduto wasn't the one who had a few drinks and got rowdy enough to get hauled away in handcuffs by Pittsburgh Police. Bill Peduto isn't the one who denied all the allegations "months ago" to cover his own butt. But of course, because he'ss been on McIntire's show a few times, Bill Peduto's behind it.

The story played out in print for almost a week before Motznik's first and only blog post: "Boy, it must suck when you have such little credibility already and now you have Peduto, and his people, feeding you false information that you then post on the internet," he said of McIntire:

Maybe he will post a retraction and fess up to Peduto leaking the bad tips...probably not, that would be too much to expect from McIntire! ... [T]his campaign will be quite a mess and I will be here to make sure we can all wade through the shit and get to the truth!

That post was enough to set off the newspapers, television stations and especially the bloggers. The bloggers will be the last to quit.

"If this is any indication -- and this is just the beginning of the campaign -- it could translate to votes," says Nish Suvarnakar, political director of the local League of Young Voters chapter, which pushes for political participation.

"There's still an accessibility issue," he cautions. "Not everybody who votes in the city of Pittsburgh is on their computer eight hours a day, clicking 'refresh.' They get their views from the mainstream media."

Suvarnakar worked on Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts' run for lieutenant governor last year. Though McDonald Roberts lost, he says blogs played a significant role in building support. "One of the reasons Valerie had such success is the relationship she built with blogs in Southeastern Pennsylvania. It translated into endorsements from political organizations" near Philadelphia. "The campaign became a viable campaign because of the blogs" -- although Pittsburgh's blogs "might be a few years [from reaching] the bread-and-butter voters who come out for these off-year elections."

"I don't think blogs will make or break the election for anyone," says Peduto's campaign manager, Matt Merriman-Preston. But the campaign is preparing a blog of its own (pedutoforpittsburgh.blogspot.com), set to debut this month.

Mike Woycheck, who compiles a Web guide to Pittsburgh blogs called Pittsburgh Bloggers, seems pleased to note the medium's new power. "It may encourage [politicians] to pay attention to blogs or even reach out to bloggers," Woycheck says -- even though by his count, only 11 percent of the 500 local blogs are focused mostly or exclusively on politics.

Mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar says the mayor won't be reading blogs during his re-election attempt.

"The mayor is interested in talking about the issues, not about the blogosphere," Skrinjar says. "He's not interested in rumor, gossip or hearsay."

But the bloggers remain very interested in him.

"[T]his story has more twists and turns than a drag queen's virginal encounter with panty hose, a site[sic] much prettier than watching Luke Ravenstahl contort an explanation out of this story. If you read the subtext, its [sic] right out of a gay movie -- Slightly inebriated guy meets guy in uniform, intense exchange occurs, guy ends up in handcuffs, guy returns to wife and goes on to become mayor. Old guy makes it like it never happened. Denials ensue."

-- Post by Sue Kerr on her blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents

The origins of Pittsburgh political blogging are lost in the mists of a few years ago.

In mid-2004, when David DeAngelo and Maria Lupinacci began 2 Political Junkies -- widely cited as one of the oldest and most-read political blogs in the city -- they had already spent a year perpetrating Honsberger Is a Liar. KDKA's right-wing radio talker never acknowledged -- on air -- the pair's daily critique of his opinions, they say. But when DeAngelo, 43, a paralegal from Shadyside, appeared as a guest on a recent installment of WQED-TV gabfest Off-Q, he says Fred Honsberger dubbed him "Blog Boy" and acknowledged that he checked the site every day.

"If there is anything the Drudge Report teaches us, there are stories that circulate in the blogosphere that can cause a certain amount of buzz," DeAngelo adds, citing the Web site that famously forced Newsweek to come forward with news about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton earlier than the magazine planned. Since then, bloggers have forced CBS News' Dan Rather to retract a report about George W. Bush's military service record. They also helped compel Trent Lott to resign his Republican leadership post by exposing footage of the senator waxing nostalgic for the segregationist past of another senator, Strom Thurmond.

While 2 Political Junkies frequently comments on national politics, DeAngelo says he also keeps an eye on developments closer to home.

"If I did it on a national level, I'd be one of 10,000 blogs," says DeAngelo. "But if I could do it on a local level, I could have some kind of impact."

It was the mystery surrounding Mayor Bob O'Connor's long illness in the summer of 2006 that finally drew the local blogosphere out, says Lupinacci, 47, a Web and graphic designer who lives on the South Side. "People felt they weren't getting the full story. People were looking for more than what they were getting in the local news [and] that's when it came of age."

Carbolic Smoke Ball, a satiric blog run by Downtown lawyer Sean Cannon and two others, targeted Skrinjar's unrevealing daily health updates. "Telling us that the mayor was doing well and all was fine reminded us of the TASS News Agency telling us that Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko had colds," says Cannon. "We had pictures of Skrinjar in Havana with Raul Castro, giving updates."

For DeAngelo, his must-blog moment came with the announcement by Ravenstahl, after O'Connor's death, that he could remain mayor until the next regularly scheduled election in 2009. "That's when I said, 'I don't know -- there's something screwy here,'" DeAngelo says.

Ravenstahl is referred to in various blogs as "Opie," "Interim Mayor Ravenstahl," and, lately, "Handcuffs." He is not alone, of course: McIntire regularly refers to his alleged political ally as Mr. Peduto-Head. To PittGirl, the pseudonymous author of The Burgh Blog, mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar is usually "Mayor Ravenstahl's Chief of Making Shit Up"

"By the time I started my blog" in July 2005, says PittGirl, "[Tom Murphy] was so ready to not be mayor anymore that he pretty much bored me to tears. Then Bobby O came along and suddenly there's this larger-than-life, Jor-El-looking mayor who is rolling up his sleeves, yelling at everyone to redd the hell up, sprinting through the streets of Downtown during pigeon-sniper scares and man, how can I not blog about that? Now with Luke, him being so young and so terribly obsessed with 'moving forward,' he's been very obliging in giving me fodder too. We're not more obsessed; the mayors are just getting gradually more blog-worthy."

"Something tells me that if David L. Lawrence or Ebenezer Denny [Pittsburgh's first mayor] were alive during the time of blogs, they would have been similarly reamed," says the anonymous blogger who calls his site Angry Drunk Bureaucrat.

"Of course, I would also characterize Pittsburgh bloggers as less beholden to the establishment," he adds, "and there's this perception of Luke as an unqualified tool of the powers that be, so that makes him a good target."

It will be a few years until the major political-science journals study the blog world's impact seriously, says Stuart W. Shulman, assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also the editor of the just-founded Journal of Information Technology & Politics. "In the early days of the blogs, people referred to them as the bellwether of a new democracy," Shulman says. The sites can, after all, provide links to raw data and push news to public notice from the bottom up, without an editorial process.

Indeed, the emergence of blog power marks "a democratization of scandal," says Antirust blogger Sam MacDonald. "John McIntire decided what the scandal would be, not the front-page editor of the Post-Gazette."

When a politician starts getting paranoid about people who write commentary as a hobby on the internet, you can smell a meltdown coming. [...] Boo-hoo-hoo! A mean man with a computer (and no small amount of experience working in local media) called me a name and doesn't like me! The media honeymoon is over, pal. Get used to it.

-- From Ohligarchy, Jan. 19

Over at the Post-Gazette, reporter Rich Lord covered both the handcuffing and the blog reaction. Lord, a former CP staffer, says he first got whiff of Ravenstahl's detention at Heinz Field last October -- roughly a year after the incident happened.

"There seemed to be rumors coming out of the police ranks," Lord says.

At about the same time, reporter Rick Earle of WPXI-TV hit Ravenstahl with surprise questions about being in "an altercation" with police and being handcuffed during a Steelers game at Heinz Field. While "categorically" denying that he had ever pushed an officer, Ravenstahl replied to questions about other details by saying he had "never been arrested."

WTAE's Bob Mayo worked the story in tandem with Jim Parsons, who had been trying to nail down the facts for "over a year," he said during their Jan. 18 broadcast. Mayo heard independent rumors of the incident just a few weeks before it broke.

"Our station and other stations were working on it," Mayo says today. "But no one had gone on the air with it," evidencing a lack of available proof all around.

The search for documentation or on-the-record testimony from witnesses or city officials proved "very difficult," Lord says. "[W]e didn't have at any time in the process enough to go on that would satisfy the Post-Gazette's standards."

But by last month, Lord sensed that the story "was going to break out -- it was just a question of when and exactly how."

So he talked to "multiple people in the mayor's administration," asking for an interview with Ravenstahl "to clear up the rumors and get it into the newspaper. I didn't set a deadline, although I made it clear we wanted to do this very soon. I didn't get an appointment until John McIntire posted something in his blog.

"It's my belief the mayor would have talked about the Heinz Field incident," he adds. "Whether it would have occurred in January or whether it would have occurred in early February, I'm not sure. I'm sure I'm not the only reporter who was asking for an interview and getting rather impatient about it."

McIntire's blog is always headlined "The snarkery starts now," but he strikes a more serious tone when talking about the brouhaha.

"I helped bring to light a story that I thought should be brought to light," he says, "not because the incident itself matters, but because it might illustrate a lack of maturity and judgment by the mayor."

McIntire's name recognition and mainstream-media cred gave him an advantage over other bloggers seeking to push a story, he admits. "It certainly wouldn't surprise me," he adds, if this incident represents a watershed for local blogs' influence: "More people have their eyes and ears open, looking for any tidbit to blog about."

Bloggers aren't uniformly celebrating the moment, or McIntire's methods. Some object to the "snarkery" he embraces. ("OPIE ACCUSED OF RUNNING DOWN PEDESTRIANS!" shouts his Feb. 2 post. "OK, Not Really, But Cool Headline, Huh?") Others say McIntire should have been able to back up his assertions before posting. (Some hope to conduct online discourse without the dis.

Indeed, McIntire's original Jan. 17 post contains allegations that have not been proven, and that have since been denied by Ravenstahl. The mayor claims to have been detained briefly and then let go. McIntire claimed Ravenstahl "pushed the cop" involved, and that a political ally, Dennis Regan, kept him from being arrested.

McIntire also alleged that as payback for Regan's help, Ravenstahl nominated Regan as the city's public-safety director last year. (The nomination was scuttled after Regan was accused of interfering in police disciplinary matters.) More recently, McIntire has blogged that "a new source" claims that Ravenstahl's father, a district justice, was involved in the effort to "put the fix in" during the incident. The post does not identify the source or offer other substantiation.

"MacYapper thinks there will be more embarrassing revelations about Opie," McIntire wrote recently.

But Bram Reichbaum, the 31-year-old North Sider who runs The Pittsburgh Comet, says press coverage of the handcuffing saga left the non-blogging public believing this new medium was a factual Wild West. "The story was that, 'the blogs put out this story -- some facts were wrong, some facts were right. Those dang bloggers are confusing -- what do we do?'"

One of the anonymous pair responsible for The Burgh Report, another widely read blog, says he is "upset" about the situation. "I think it hurt local blogs rather than helped them. Because McIntire had some facts wrong. [It] is not a route I'd pursue."

Responds McIntire: "If they think a blog is The New York Times, they have the wrong idea. I still stand by everything I wrote. I do feel I labeled fact as fact, speculation as speculation. I don't even know if it's possible to sully the blogosphere. It's like sullying the tabloids."

An Open Letter to Jim Motznik: ... [W]e have one small nugget of wisdom for you Councilman that may save you years of embarrassment: GET OUT! I mean seriously, you drew attention to a story that was already winding down. If you had just let the thing die, it would have. You're the awful student in the back of class screaming "Teacher, you didn't assign us any homework yet!" If you and Luke are supposed to be 'friends,' the Mayor should seriously consider making you an enemy, if for no other reason than for safety."

-- From the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat, Jan. 30

While there may have been no bloggers invited on Air Force One during the run-up to the last presidential election, David DeAngelo of 2 Political Junkies was invited to the Washington, D.C., swearing-in ceremony of Rep. Jason Altmire. DeAngelo never inquired, but it was probably his blog posts on the freshman Congressman, and on Melissa Hart, whom he defeated, that landed him the invite.

Altmire has his own blog, hosted by the Post-Gazette, but it's not hard to see why he might have invited coverage from 2 Political Junkies. Few mainstream journalists would offer such reliably positive attention; the post previewing the congressman's first 100 hours ends with "Today is a good day in DC."

"I don't see how there won't be" more blog-prompted news, says DeAngelo's blogging partner, Maria Lupinacci. "We get tips all the time. We rarely do anything with them -- we try to maintain some sort of journalistic standard." At the same time, bloggers are allowed to play favorites, or even donate to political campaigns, as Lupinacci did with a $200 contribution to Bill Peduto's mayoral campaign last year.

Bram Reichbaum, of The Pittsburgh Comet, believes "the blogs will continue to have an impact, but I don't think it'll be that sensational, story-breaking impact."

Indeed, another blog post has already had an impact on local politics -- though in a much less explosive way. Ravenstahl recently responded to a blog post showing that, according to the city charter, the city had missed a deadline for permanently appointing a city solicitor.

Still, the younger, wired crowd who supported Peduto in the 2005 Democratic primary will be similarly arrayed against Ravenstahl this time. Blogs were built to attract and influence Peduto's base -- affluent knowledge workers -- more than to address Ravenstahl's constituency among former O'Connor voters, Reichbaum says.

"A lot of people are not going to read blogs for their news," Reichbaum adds. "But, this being Pittsburgh, you only need to reach the right seven or eight people to have an impact."

Already, the handcuffing story has burst the blog world's self-reflective bubble. "Once the tube and the print media ... get involved, the readership will go through the roof," says "Smittyfromtheflats," a frequent political blog poster, told City Paper. "I had a family member ask me today to turn her on to the 'good political' blogs in Pittsburgh."

And on Jan. 30, Pittsburgh had another first, says Mike Woycheck of Pittsburgh Bloggers: a blog targeting a single local employer. The blog "lulu211" purports to come from an ex-KDKA employee who claims the "lies and liars" at the station "will be exposed."

Concludes Sam MacDonald of Antirust: "Unburdened by professional responsibility, a blogger can just throw it out there. There is a different expectation of proof. In a lot of cases it can be a positive thing. In the case of the mayor, I certainly don't think it was any Watergate. But it could be, in the future."

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