A. J. Liebling once wrote that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In Pittsburgh, that is certainly true. One of the two major papers is owned by the media group which itself was owned by the late Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife, a rabid right winger who would give Mussolini a run for his money in arrogance and mean-spiritedness, established The Tribune-Review as an answer to what he perceived as excessive liberalism in the dominant newspaper of the region, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Post-Gazette (P-G) is also privately owned as part of the Block group. John Block, the publisher/owner, is true to the Liebling quote: the paper’s content decidedly reflects the owners’ views.
It is a commonplace to follow the lead of the far-right Scaife and pronounce the P-G a voice for liberalism. But that requires brutal violation of the facts. For the recent general election, the “liberal” P-G endorsed Guy Reschenthaler for State Senator, the Republican candidate who could make old Joe McCarthy smile. Running against an authentic liberal in a largely suburban district, Reschenthaler warned that his opponent, Heather Arnet, was an “extreme liberal,” a not-so-subtle red meat offering to Neanderthal elements in the South Hills. She, in turn, dug up his public association with the hardcore radical right.
But none of this fazed the folks at the P-G. They scoffed at the liberal candidate and joined the Scaife paper in endorsing the blustery conservative. This is not an aberration since the P-G also endorsed Tom Corbett for Governor—another conservative—in his successful first campaign. One can hardly count this as an impressive track record for a liberal journal.
Lest we think that Block is a closet conservative, it must be noted that the issue that animates him is the state stores. Both Reschenthaler and Corbett are anti-state store stalwarts. Mr. Block thinks the stores are an affront to civilization, a tragedy that rivals the Johnstown Flood in its consequences for Pennsylvanians (also coincidentally, a lost source of newspaper revenue from private liquor stores). It is of little importance to Mr. Block that– for most Pennsylvanians– where we buy our booze is as burning of an issue as what we think about the new parking meters.
To the P-G and Mr. Block’s credit, the paper employs perhaps the most astute, thoughtful commentator on international matters of any major US newspaper. Unlike the WaPo, NYT, and WSJ columnists, the P-G’s foreign affairs columnist has actually lived and worked in the field, met the players, and studied the countries that the highly-paid gasbags are so anxious for the US military to bomb.
The P-G also has a superb investigative reporter whose talents are wasted on digging into the gossip surrounding Block rival Scaife’s contentious divorce and, now, the even more contentious settlement of his estate between his surviving over-privileged children. While fascinating in the same way as Kardashian sleaze, should we now understand that the P-G is really competing with the National Enquirer? Or is this just an expression of personal pettiness?
How about assigning the reporter to following up on the County Comptrollers’ strong suggestions that there might be something fishy in the Stadium Authority or other County offices? How about revisiting the inequities of property taxes in different neighborhoods? Or consider the assignment of digging into the distribution of publicly-guaranteed loans, TIFs, and other city and county perks to private entities?
But these questions do not interest Mr. Block as much as his signature concern: an abiding compassion and unmatched advocacy for animals. If he has left any indelible stamp on his newspaper, it is this devotion to the animal kingdom.
Apart from the weekly Pet Tales column, the P-G led the fight to bring justice to the intrepid police dog, Rocco. After city police sicced Rocco on a mentally unstable man cornered in a basement laundry room, the man stabbed Rocco, resulting in the K-9’s eventual death. What in most cities would have been a back page story of the tragic encounter between a pathetic young man and a dog questionably employed as a weapon became a front page tale of animal cruelty and the murder of a police “officer.” While even children know that K9 dogs are not really policemen, the P-G persisted in portraying the incident as a crime against society. No one at the P-G dared question the training of dogs as aggressors, the anthropomorphizing of Rocco, the portrayal of a mentally ill man as a cold-blooded murderer, or the lynch mob like hysteria stirred by P-G coverage.
Thanks to the P-G and the publicity around the largest traffic-stopping funeral in memory, Rocco’s death cost a desperate young man a forty-four year sentence—not in a mental health facility (are there any left?)– but in prison. To follow tragedy with farce, our Harrisburg legislature, eager to bask in the media light cast by the P-G, passed draconian laws for transgressions against police dogs.
As an encore, the P-G recently (11-11-15) brought the region’s attention to the dastardly taunting of a dog at a Steeler game. The P-G reports that an Oakland Raiders linebacker raised his blouse, pounded his chest, and barked at a bemused Allegheny County police dog. The article’s author reminds the reader that—thanks to our ever vigilant legislature—taunting a police dog is a third degree felony in Pennsylvania. You may wonder what the bomb-sniffing dog and its handler were doing in the corridor reserved for players to come and go to their locker room. Apparently, the Allegheny police who generously volunteer their time for Steeler home games are jock sniffers as well as bomb sniffers.
So far nothing has come of the charges. Mr. Block’s eager animal vigilantes must have forgotten that you can mess with the homeless, the mentally ill, but not the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers!
One can only hope that Mr. Block will one day also take a special interest in poor, disadvantaged, and neglected people.