Maybe He Isn't The One After All

Monday, 26 April 2010 04:43 AM Written by

(in which the president admits he can not raise people from the dead)

President Obama, during yesterday's eulogy for the West Virginia coal miners:

We cannot bring back those 29 miners we lost.

At which point a great and crushing wave of disappointment no doubt coursed through the audience. That was, after all, their last hope.

Here's hoping that at least one person, thus broken from a solemn reverie of grief by the portentous utterance of the unmistakable, thought to him- or herself:

Gee, thanks, Captain Obvious.  

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It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

Saturday, 24 April 2010 09:23 AM Written by


I am not alone.

In fact, I counted at least six other Pirates fans in this photo by AP photographer Keith Srakocic.

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Roger Ebert and the Kingdom of the Single Sentence

Saturday, 24 April 2010 07:54 AM Written by

(two thumbs way up)

The great Roger Ebert was the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. As I dug through a collection of old links and notes this morning, I found a two-year-old sentence for which he should have won another one:

I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you.

That's more than just a review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and more than just a masterpiece of diction, syntax, and sentence rhythm; it's a review of all films, film reviews, and film-goers. Those 29 words are, I promise you, more wise and clear and readable than any critique you could ever read of that film. Or, perhaps, of any other.

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The Other, Other Two Dan Onoratos?

Friday, 23 April 2010 01:00 AM Written by

Or "The Incredible Disappearing Dialect of Dan"

While Chris Potter at Pittsburgh City Paper (I love a man who knows what to do with a good Google cache!) and Maria Lupinacci at 2politicaljunkies have been dissecting "the two Dan Onoratos" regarding his nebulous position on abortion, I've been listening to another two. (We now have the makings of a mathematical equation. Dan Onorato squared?) 

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TRM on Air

Thursday, 22 April 2010 09:30 AM Written by

(mark, joe, coffee, tea, and me)

That's right, ladies and germs, it’s time for another three hours of often stimulating, occasionally scintillating, always entertaining talk, chat, debate, and discussion on Pittsburgh Business Radio.

Because Anna Dobkin will be otherwise occupied by her Hollywood-on-the-Mon day job, Mark DeSantis and I will be joined this afternoon by Duquesne University Law professor and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Joe Sabino Mistick.

Mark, Joe, and I will talk with a member of the local Tea Party movement, a member of the local Coffee Party Movement, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor (almost forgot about that, didn’t you!), and Nicholas Thompson, author of The Hawk and the Dove, an acclaimed Cold-War-era double biography. In the last hour we will, as always, punditize on all things Pittsburgh and beyond.

Today’s show runs from 3-6pm. You can listen on WMNY Money Talk 1360 AM, catch the live stream online, and/or participate in the accompanying real-time TalkShoe chat.

If you miss it — if you’re, say, stuck in a meeting, or already deep into tailgating for tonight’s Pens game — I’ll post a link to the podcast later this week.

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Bureaucracy's Got a Gun

Thursday, 22 April 2010 08:31 AM Written by

(a recoil from the archives)

Taught a class last night, spent much of the morning on the phone, have a radio show to do this afternoon — more on that in a later programming post post — and a Penguin game to attend tonight, so time to write, if not to think, has been slim. Which makes today a perfect fit for another blast from the archival past.

I originally wrote and posted this one three years ago today, in the still choppy wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, after an especially good class discussion and a particularly infuriating op-ed publication. The emotions are by now much less raw — which, it seems to me, makes reconsidering the point all the more important...

Bureaucracy’s Got a Gun
but it won't pull the trigger until two committees and a couple of p.r. people approve.

[First written and posted at TWM, April 2007:]

On Tuesday morning, securely nestled in the northwest corner of Hamburg Hall for our 9:30 OralComm class, my students and I, before we got down to the business of preparing for final speeches, got to talking about the Virginia Tech shootings that had occurred a little less than twenty-four hours earlier. It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to the two-hour-and-twenty-one-minute time gap between the first two murders and the first official university-wide communication about the incident — a time gape that, besides some "person of interest" searches by campus and Blacksburg police officers, produced only this email message:

Subject: Shooting on campus.

A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning.

Police are on the scene and are investigating.

The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231-6411

Stay attuned to the www.vt.edu. We will post as soon as we have more information.

You will notice, of course, the conspicuous lack of detail or urgency — it's written in the same bloodless style, and with the same robotic tone, that most campus police departments use to announce the vandalism of university property — or even simple, syntactical command; that herniated third sentence, composed by committee and no doubt vetted by dozens of administrators before it was sent, sounds like the work of an especially awkward (and tense-agreement-challenged) high school sophomore.

You will also notice the conspicuous lack of direction or imperative or anything even remotely resembling the suggestion that this should be taken any more seriously than one of those typical vandalism announcements; a guy with a gun had killed two people and was still on the loose, but recipients of that email still didn't know what happened, why it mattered to them, or what they should do about it. All of which pretty much defeats the purpose of making an announcement about it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. So let's go back, for a moment, to my OralComm class in Hamburg Hall.

We talked about the delay. About the lack of detail. About the university's alarming lack of a swift or tactical or even practical response. We realized that, yes, hindsight is always 20-20, that it would have been difficult to foresee the magnitude of what would follow, and that it would have taken a considerable and almost certainly alarming effort to shut down the campus and lock down the buildings while a careful search continued in earnest. But we all decided that, the obvious benefits of hindsight aside, it would have been a reasonable thing to do and a good thing at least to begin. And, in the end, we all agreed that it may well have saved lives.

Which led us, then, to the most painful, and painfully obvious, question:

Why didn't the university do something — hell, anything — more than produce a single, tragicomically inept, sixty-seven-word email announcement during that almost two-and-a-half-hour interlude?

After a few minutes of listening to my students propose and debate some possible answers, I told them that, though I (of course) could not know for sure, and though Virginia Tech may well be different from all of the schools at which I've lived and worked and studied, I was fairly certain that I knew the answer. I've been around universities — and been married to a woman who's been around universities — long enough to know that at times like these, when there are homicides or suicides or rapes or attacks or assaults or even silly little accidents or vandalisms or public intoxications, a university's first collective and administrative instinct is to worry about how this will look and sound and reflect upon it, if and when word gets out.

Universities are, in short, great academic and bureaucratic versions of my grandmother, always petrified of what the relatives or the neighbors or the parishioners — or the press or the parents or the prospective students or the trustees or the ranking publications or the gift-giving alumni — will think. They become instantly obsessed with controlling the message. Even, at times, when they have yet to control the situation.

I told my students that I could pretty well imagine how it all went down: the President and high-ranking administrators were notified; they convened a meeting or a conference or a focus group; they discussed theories and debated strategies and then finally decided to take the low and quiet road of sending out an email; they wrote and/or edited the email by committee, then cleared it through at least a couple of administrators, the legal people, the p.r. people, and maybe even the guy who plays the school mascot at football games, before finally allowing it, stripped now of anything that might cast the university in a particularly poor or unflattering light — do we really have to mention the shooting? could we just say that two people were injured? — as well as anything that might actually inform or prepare or benefit its readers.

In those two hours and twenty-one minutes, while a killer ran errands and reloaded and a campus waited to burn, Virginia Tech administrators fiddled with an email and fretted about their image. Nineteen minutes after that email went out, their image, and indeed all their attempts at damage control, died as swiftly and cruelly as those next thirty students.

In the five days since that class discussion, I've spent an awful lot of time thinking about our question and my answer. I know that, short of some administrative admission that, state and federal inquiries be damned, will almost surely never come, we can not possibly know for sure what happened — or, more accurately, did not happen — at the highest levels of Virginia Tech's leadership vacuum last Monday morning. But I am still convinced that the events and the thought process and the effective paralysis that resulted from them skew terribly, tragically close to the scenario I described to my students. And, after reading an essay on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's web site this morning — that it did not merit a place in today's print edition was, I think, a stirring error in editorial judgment — I am more convinced than ever.

If you want to read another informed, university-bureaucracy-trained take on the subject — this one from a man who worked for four years as Virginia Tech's news bureau chief — check out Marty Callaghan's stirring and ultimately pretty depressing When Violence and Bureacracy Collide. What he writes will, here at the end of this piece, sound awfully familiar. And more than a little frightening. I will leave you to its pleasures and to its horrors, but I will offer here a small preview, one that provides the heart both of his argument and of mine, three paragraphs that take you right to, if not quite all the way through, the point:

If we're looking for a scapegoat to pin this tragedy on, then let's blame the faceless juggernaut that infests every large institution: the bureaucracy. During my years as news bureau chief at Virginia Tech in the 1980s, I encountered that bureaucracy many times, and marveled at its ability to trap decision-making even during crises in the mire of "proper procedure" and "administrative review."

Whenever a death occurred on campus, I had the unpleasant duty of informing the media. One morning, the Tech police chief called to tell me that a male student's body had been found by a pond on campus; he had taken his own life. It took about an hour for the university administration to clear a three-sentence press release on the suicide. I wrote the release, gave it to the public affairs director (my boss), who ran it by the vice president for university relations, who ran it by the president's office, the legal department and the Tech police chief. Somebody wanted to change a sentence in the release, which apparently only I could do. So I rewrote the sentence and it went through the entire review process again before going out on the news wire.

By its very nature, campus bureaucracy kills quick, decisive action.

Mr. Callaghan doesn't finish the thought, but I will: And sometimes, perhaps, it even kills its own students.

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100 Minutes for Earth Day

Thursday, 22 April 2010 07:57 AM Written by
That's how long Disney's "Oceans" documentary is. I can't wait to see it.

It opens today.

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Plus and Minus

Wednesday, 21 April 2010 07:58 AM Written by

(a trm programming note)

It occurs to me now that I never did officially announce what many of you have no doubt already surmised: that my short-lived, oft-delayed, seemingly star-crossed PG+ webcast, Radical Pittsburgh, is no more.

I could tell you why, but then I’d have to kill you. Or someone would have to kill me. Or something. So let’s just leave it, like John Cleese’s parrot, at this: it’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. It is an ex-webcast!

I am, however, still happily appearing — on a volunteer, non-freelance, no-pay-for-almost-no-work basis — on Mackenzie Carpenter’s fabulous Omnivore webcast. This week, I’m editorializing on a subject of Mackenzie’s suggestion, if not quite in the way she suspected.

As always, if you’re not a full-fledged, ponied-up, allowed-behind-the-pay-wall PG Plusser, I can’t share the video. But I can, as always, share the text of the rant. Just imagine me in a pink oxford, at half-boil, having some fun with this one:

To kill some time before last night’s hockey game, I got to reading about yesterday’s Equal Pay Rally. And then it hit me:

The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of egregious and systematic wage discrimination.

In this postseason, the Pens have a center for each of their four lines. They all do the same job for the same employer in the same city, but earn wildly different salaries.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin make $8.7 million a year.  Jordan Staal — 4 million a year.  Max Talbot — 1 million.

Which means that poor, comeback-sparking, Game-7-two-goal-scoring superstar Max Talbot, despite more hockey experience and more organizational seniority than his associates, does not earn equal pay for his equal work.

Is it because he's the oldest? (Ageism!) Because he's French Canadian? (Francophobia!) Because he grows the bushiest playoff beard? (Folliclism!)

Whatever the reason, it’s an outrage. And it must be redressed immediately.

So I call on Max Talbot to strike, to stage a protest, to file suit on behalf of hairy, mid-20-something, fourth-line French Canadian centers everywhere.

And I call upon Penguins fans, indeed upon all liberators of conscience and watchdogs of paychecks who hear his cry, to join Max in this fight, to skate on his energy line of justice, to muck and grind with him in all the hard corners of wage equality, and to help him close this terrible Penguins pay gap.

In The Radical Middle at Omnivore, ranting for no wages, I’m Chad Hermann.

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