Local television continues to approach reporting about upcoming protests against the G-20 summit as if the stations were filming News Gone Wild, seemingly ready to focus their cameras on pretty much anyone who lifts a shirt and jiggles.
Case in point: a pair of KDKA reports in mid-August. One of them lacked a single named source but managed to pass along death threats against "people" in general. The other insinuated that protests during the international summit, to be held Downtown on Sept. 24-25, might actually be a form of terrorism.
On Aug. 10, reporter Marty Griffin warned that "highly organized protester advance teams are mapping out possible attack points" for G-20. The evidence included:
- film of a burnt-out park campfire, allegedly left behind by tent-dwelling anarchists
- graffiti under a bridge, bearing the obviously anarchist sentiment "We the people"
- a secondhand tale, from "a young man, who did not want to be identified," who said "he'd been told" that some protesters had been renting homes in the South Side
- anonymous police sources contending that protesters had been filming local landmarks, and were collecting "human waste" to throw at cops.
Griffin topped all this off with a quote from another anonymous male, this one declaring that a "friend" told him that "People are going to die" as a result of the protests.
Griffin did not return a call for comment on this story, and it is hard to assess the legitimacy of his account.
"It just seems like secondhand information that doesn't do a lot for me," says Dave Aeikens, head of the national Society for Professional Journalists, about this last bit of anonymity in particular. "It seems like a weak source."
David Meieran, a local protest organizer prepping for G-20 who is also in touch with national organizers, says Griffin's report perpetuates "the protest-equals-terrorism trope ... that has appeared at so many of these [events] in the past and is used to acquire weaponry and money" for local law enforcement. Griffin's report, Meieran points out, begins with news about trouble the city had been having extracting federal security funds.
"It is simple hype," Meieran adds. "It helps justify pre-emptive measures to inhibit our ability to organize."
When asked whether city police had proof to back up the claims in the KDKA report, police spokesperson Diane Richard would only say that "None of that information is public."
Then, on Aug. 11, Griffin filed a follow-up report about a Downtown merchant who decided "to take out a -- get this -- 'terrorism insurance policy.'"
Rob Kania, owner of Metro Preschool and Nursery, said he feared a large protest might result in damage to his business, located several hundred yards from the G-20 summit site -- the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Kania has grounds for worrying even about routine vandalism: As he explained to City Paper, fixing a broken window or making other repairs to his business would also necessitate closure for the state re-licensing process.
But even Griffin's report acknowledged that Kania's insurance purchase wasn't prompted by any terrorism warning from the Secret Service, which is in charge of G-20 security. It was triggered because smaller Downtown businesses like Kania's are getting no specific security information at all.
"To this day [Kania] has heard nothing from the county, the city, the state, the feds ...," Griffin said.
Kania told Griffin that he took out the policy in case the government decided to identify any damage as an act of terrorism. "[N]obody knows how they'll qualify the damage by the protesters -- will it be domestic terrorism, will it be vandalism?" Kania asked.
And there Griffin leaves Pittsburgh hanging.
Could the feds declare any acts by protesters "domestic terrorism"? And how necessary is anti-terrorism insurance?
In 2002, the federal government began offering supplemental insurance to cover an "act of terrorism" if it was officially certified by government officials. In 2008, the law was amended to lose the requirement "that the [terrorism] be committed by an individual 'acting on behalf of any foreign person or foreign interest.'"
"I don't think anybody [official] has said this is an option anybody should be looking into" for G-20, says George Mathews, chairman of the Three Rivers Contingency Planning Association. The association works with the city's larger corporations preparing for G-20 and similar events.
Downtown business-insurer Beynon & Company sold Kania his policy. Beynon's insurance head, William Cunningham, says terrorism insurance is usually solely the concern of larger buildings such as stadiums or casinos. For G-20, "I do not see it as a large concern," he adds. "I am not saying we are not recommending it."
But in the absence of more concrete information from the feds -- and in the face of panic-button journalism from local media -- some Pittsburghers are bracing for the worst.
One local businessman, Sol Gross, is already advertising on Craigslist "to hire 4 off-duty police officers to protect our building during the G-20 summit. ... We also are looking to have someone man fire hoses in case protesters get disorderly. We will provide and pay for tear gas and masks."
Gross, part owner of apartments and street-level businesses with a parking garage at 625 Stanwix St., explains, "I have a big investment here and a responsibility to the people living in the building. We can't get any information where they are going to [put] these people -- the ones coming in to demonstrate."
Krystal Jordan, the property manager at 625 Stanwix, says a few of her tenants, particularly the businesses, are in "near hysteria" about G-20.
"It may very well be unnecessary" to worry about building damage, Jordan allows. Even if officials don't recommend extreme actions, the building may post a few security people in front, she says -- but "maybe not with fire hoses."
As for day-care owner Rob Kania: "It might be overkill," he says now of his terrorism insurance. "I'm hoping it is wasted money."