Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pittsburgh's Other Story

Recently I’ve written some gung ho pro-Pittsburgh pieces for ENR magazine and Reuters, and I’ve had a queasy feeling ever since. That’s because I know that those stories, and others that could appear one-sided in touting the city’s supposed miraculous recovery, have not said much about how poor the region became before it made the climb back up the economic ladder. A climb, by the way, that many in this region don’t seem to realize is still ongoing.
Simply put, we as a city and region are not where we were thirty years ago in terms of our economic mightiness. While the steel industry hasn’t gone away entirely, and we are fortunate to have numerous companies founded in that industry still thriving here (not the least of which is U.S. Steel), a way of life was largely discarded with the cooling of most of the blast furnaces and the dismantling of many of the mills.
Maybe things were changing anyway with the American way of life in the 1970s, even without considering the narcolepsy of steel industry leaders, but I don’t know. When I was growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties in Bellevue Borough, many large families lived on one paycheck—the pay of a tradesman father or white collar dad. The families bought the big houses in the North Boroughs because their idea of the Good Life was living in a small town in a fixer-upper Victorian house with a big family. A huge family nowadays is four kids, but in Bellevue back in the day, four wasn’t considered large at all, but more average. Large was probably at least six kids, if not seven or more kids. The North Boroughs had many such families back when.
Now, it seems that most families must have two paychecks to get by. I’m sure that part of that economic urgency is based on the fact that expectations of what folks want for their families have changed and become costlier. But part of that daily grind also is based on a true economic need, since the average job no doubt brings home less in real income then it did just a quarter-century ago. I am no economist, but I know that mill workers were making $25 an hour twenty-five years ago. Now try and find a job for a non-college grad that pays the same, decades later.
A whole way of life was lost when Big Steel was dismantled to a shadow of its former self. Certainly, for many decades before the collapse, industry titans (both white collar and union) were allowing mills to become antiquated, making the steelmaking process costlier and inefficient than it needed to be to remain competitive. But a lot of folks here in Pittsburgh still are blaming the demise of Big Steel on the federal government allowing foreign government-subsidized companies to “dump” steel imports here. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but clearly, many steel industry executives had a few too many three-martini lunches to care enough about their charges.
Why should they have cared, though, since they had contracts guaranteeing them golden parachutes? It's reminiscent of today's banking industry.
I am not complaining about this just to be a down-in-the-mouth Pittsburgher, like so many others. I mention it because I know that many of Pittsburgh’s traditional “inner ring” neighborhoods, like Bellevue, or even Squirrel Hill, seem more impoverished than they were 25 years ago. In some parts of Squirrel Hill and Bellevue, the neighborhoods look more run-down than ever. I should know, since I have been hanging out in Bellevue all of my life, and in Squirrel Hill for 25 years.
Sure, “eds and meds” are benefiting many people in the region and raising the standard of living for some, but those sectors are no panacea for the economic depression that Pittsburgh still is working through.
I’m not saying that I have the answer to this conundrum, but I had to get my feelings out. The notion of Pittsburgh’s Miraculous Turnaround is only somewhat true. Part of the reason why we continue to tout that myth is because we Pittsburghers are hard workers, and we will continue to strive and survive. But shouting “We’re Back!” doesn’t make it true, no matter how many times we say it.
Also, I mistrust those who would discount the many contributions of blue collar people in the making of this city and nation. But when we aren’t honest about what happened with Big Steel, and when some of us continue to not own up to the blame for expediting that collapse, we tell just part of The Pittsburgh Story.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Finding Sarah Palin

Those who know me or who are readers of Barnestormin know that I lean left-of-center, though I am an Independent voter. Still, I can’t say I was star-struck, but rather, somewhat confused to see yesterday what erstwhile Alaska governor Sarah Palin has been doing.
There has been much speculation in the media regarding why Palin stepped down as governor of Alaska, but Barnestormin has the scoop—she is working undercover as a reporter for ABC.
Let me explain. Yesterday I was doing some follow-story coverage of Pittsburgh’s most recent mass murders for the New York Daily News. I was hanging out with a local freelance photographer, who was trailing me as I tried to get comments from neighbors of gunman George Sodini’s mother, and also from Sodini's own neighbors. I was somewhat successful, and John, the photographer, also got some decent shots that ran in the print edition of the Daily News.
Overall, we were pretty lucky to get comments from and photos of some of these folks. It was an overcast day, and we were kind of late on the scene in Baldwin, attempting to get info and shots from Sodini’s family and neighbors, but still, a couple of folks who live near his mum did speak with me. A couple of neighbor of Sodini’s, who live across from the gunman’s house in Scott, did speak with me. Trish Cohen and Bob Fox had a few things to say, and not a whole lot of their comments made it into the paper, but you do what you can to make a story, then editorial runs it the way they want.
But what was weird about the whole situation was that when John and I went to Sodini’s neighborhood, at first we didn’t encounter any news vans or reporters. But we did see a reporter or producer of some sort waiting patiently and quietly in a rented car near Sodini’s house. We also saw a weird thing for a news scene—a proper, four-door, black Lincoln Town Car limousine—presumably from the airport. The limo was for a woman who wore the schoolmarm glasses of Palin, and who also bore a striking resemblance to the former governor. She was dressed plainly, in a knee-length skirt, designer flip-flops and casual shirt. She was standing in the middle of the street, clutching a notebook and looking like a rather clueless reporter. We asked her where she was from, and she said she was from ABC.
She was accompanied by an older gentleman in a separate car. He was a tall, nondescript white guy wearing a crisp white dress shirt and pressed dress pants. I approached him and found that he was a local private investigator. I didn’t immediately realize that he was working with Little Sarah Palin—I call her that because the woman looked like she could be Palin’s younger sister, if not the Alaskan herself.
They were working to get quotes from neighbors who live across the street from Sodini, and were trying to conduct private interviews with the folks in their home. I was able to get some quotes when Cohen loudly commented on the strange blogs Sodini had written, which in part spoke nastily about Cohen’s daughter. After a while, I was able to get Cohen to speak with me on her porch, and later, I got Fox to do the same.
After I’d been in touch with my editor at NYDN and John and I had gotten pretty much what we could, we waited to be told what to do next. We were told by the editor to sit tight for a bit and wait to hear from her. So as we tried to get a bit more info and a few more photos, we hung around chatting with a couple of other news guys—an Antonio Banderas-looking dude and Jerry Garcia-looking chap, who were stringers that were there to cover the scene for Fox News. They were a howl, and fun guys to work around. John, Antonio and Jerry started snooping around Sodini’s house, and eventually they all headed into the gunman’s back yard, and I trailed behind. This is what we reporters and photographers often do at such scene; we help each other out, give directions, and sometimes even share information with each other.
Which is why it was weird when a bit later, I walked up to Little Sarah Palin and asked her what her name was. Her response would have been typical, if she was a witness to the shooting and I was asking for a quote:
“I don’t want to give my name,” Little Sarah said.
That got me thinking. When I approached the limo driver after I’d been at the scene for a bit, he told me he was there to drive the Palin lookalike around town. When I’d asked the private investigator who he was when we’d first met, he’d given me his business card and told me we could talk in a week or so. But Little Sarah wouldn’t tell me her name, which I found strange, because I’ve never been covering a story and had a fellow newsperson refuse to identify herself. That was odd.
But I also found it strange that a reporter, sans cameraman, was being accompanied by a P.I., who was helping her to cover the story. And it was very weird to me that a reporter was allowed the expense of having a chauffeured limo (with the driver in full formal driver attire) to taxi her around Pittsburgh while following a day-old news story. Then she refused to give her name.
I’m a bit slow sometimes, but I think I may have figured it all out. Former Gov. Palin has said she wants to write a memoir for a cool million or so, and she also has expressed an interest in becoming involved with the news media. Some reports have speculated that she might become a political commentator for one of the big news companies, or that she might get her own talk show. I think I have the answer—Palin is being groomed to become a newswoman for ABC, who obviously will spare no expense to school the simple-minded governor in the ways of the news business. Having the P.I. with her and the chauffeured limo was like giving her gold-plated, motorized training wheels as she learns the business.
What’s Sarah Palin been up to? Ask ABC. They’re banking on her.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

City of Mass Murders?

I haven’t been in the media business so long that I am truly cynical, but I may be getting there. I guess I never expected to have taken part in coverage of three mass murders in and around the city in my 14+ years of being a journalist. I am talking, of course, about the Collier Township L.A. Fitness slayings last night, in which four people (including the gunman) were killed, and at least 10 others were shot.
I saw [the gunman] laying there with a chunk out of his head, one male twenty-something gym member said to me as I arrived late at the scene. I was called after 9 p.m. by one of my Reuters editors, who wanted me to find out what I could over the phone and head to the shooting scene to get more “color,” as we call it in the business.
Hey, I’ll admit it—I am in an ugly business sometimes. We casually refer to our getting the tear-smeared testimonies of people who’ve witnessed mayhem as “color,” and we have a funny little saying for why these tragedies get such play in the media—“if it bleeds, it leads.”
These sorts of events are like mini-reunions for me sometimes, where I see good people like some of the fine journalists I’ve worked with around town. Last night, I saw for the first time in quite a while Mike Hasch, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s finest longhaired reporter, and also John Schisler, a photographer for the Trib who also is a friend, and who actually took the photos of my wedding some years ago.
This is what we journalists sometimes do while we are sitting around waiting for a police press conference to start. We jawbone about what we’ve been doing, and catch up.
The shooting scene wasn’t all reminiscing, of course. It reminded me of the chaos after to Baumhammers shooting several years ago, in which several people were killed because of their race. At the time, I was working for the Tribune-Review in its North office in Cranberry, and we kept score on the shootings by listening to the police scanner speakers mounted on the ceiling. One by one, we reporters were sent out to cover the most recent spot where the roving murderer Baumhammers had shot someone. Because I was working on other stories, I was one of the last reporters to be called by my editor Tony LaRussa to head to one of these scenes. Consequently, I only had to cover a “perp walk” that the local media was hoping to catch when Baumhammers was transferred from the Beaver County Jail.
The cops snuck Baumhammers out the back door of the old prison, avoiding the cameras and note-taking reporters. While we all were waiting, though, we did as reporters do—we pumped people for any information we could get on the killer. I spoke to a lady who said she was a relative of one of the victims—her nephew’s sister dated the guy, or some such thing.
“HOW was this woman related to the victim?” one of my Trib editors sternly questioned me over the phone. I want to say it was Marty Kinnanen, who was always a great ball-buster, but I don’t remember who it was.
That’s what we do in the aftermath of these tragedies—we try to find whatever scraps of information we can gather, to try to make some sense of the story.
With the Wilkinsburg killer Taylor, who went on a racially charged shooting spree not long after Baumhamers, his first victim was the carpenter who was fixing his apartment door. John Kroll was gunned down by Taylor, and I got to go Kroll’s funeral, where I was to pester people for quotes, and get as much as I could out of the church service itself.
It was ugly—some people who were closer to the family wanted to kick my ass for having the guts to ask questions. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I felt terrible for the Kroll family, though, and the tear-streaked faces of Kroll’s daughter and son, both in high school at the time, were devastating to see.
My friend Ryan, a Cleveland native who came to Pittsburgh to attend CMU and never left, has lived around the country and sometimes thinks he has a better sense of what Pittsburgh is about, because of his experience. Ryan says every city has its crimes that are common to it, and in Pittsburgh, those crimes are bank robberies and arsons.
I will have to agree about the bank robberies and arsons, since I read the paper and also, since I grew up in Bellevue Borough in the 1970s and 1980s. While growing up in the borough, I knew two different guys who went to jail at different times for robbing banks in the Pittsburgh area. One of them died of an overdose after doing his time, and the other did his time, and then thought he was smarter because of prison. So he tried to rob some banks again after he was released from prison, and he went back to the Big House.
Steve has since been released from prison, and I understand he’s doing well. But with this third mass murder in Pittsburgh, I am thinking of adding slaying sprees to crimes that are typical of the Steel City. Not that I want to.