Don’t Bash the ‘Burgh

Thursday, February 16th, 2006, 12:54 pm

Ask me what my dream job is (aside from Isabelle Mercier’s chip-caddy) and I’d say I’d like to be a newspaper columnist. To write about whatever I wanted, with a large audience reading my every word. That’d be awesome. That’s a big reason why I started this blog, to give myself the outlet no reputable news organization would. When I was first out of college I applied to be a guest columnist for our neighborhood paper. It would’ve been a nice way to break into journalism by a side door, they held a dozen column inches a day on the opinion page for an Average Joe or Jane to write about whatever moved them.

I thought I’d be a good candidate. I was a writing major, I had clips to prove I knew my way around the language, and I had enthusiasm like you wouldn’t believe. Heck, I even used to deliver that paper from time to time when I was a kid. You’d think I was a shoo-in. Nope. I never even got a rejection from the opinion editor. I sent follow-up letters, I called him–nothing. And it’s not like this was some hectic big-city daily, they only published during the week and probably had a circulation of around 50K. Prick. They ended up going with a predictable slate of “interesting” voices–a businessnam, a housewife, a girl in her freshman year of high school, a senior citizen. Not a lot of brilliant copy came out of that, as I recall. Maybe that was the whole point of the exercise.

So when I read newspaper columns I came at them with an envious eye, because they have the job I want. And though there are good reasons why I might be a lousy columnist (I’m shy, I’m lazy, my writing style becomes more baroque every day) I still think maybe I COULD be a good columnist. And when I read crap that is, well, crap, my blood boils.

It boiled double when I read a column written on January 18th by Bill Johnson of the Rocky Mountain News. Johnson wrote a piece about visiting Pittsburgh on the eve of the Steeler-Bronco AFC title game, and he pretty much trashed my home. He wrote that Pittsburgh is a “butt-ugly” town and that was the tone of the rest of the piece. He described a blighted city burdened by abandoned steel mills overgrown with weeds and inhabited by “hard” people who think about nothing but football.

Thing is, that doesn’t describe the city at all. I think I wrote about this before, but the steel mills have been gone for decades. The mill where my father worked is now a huge retail/entertainment complex. Reading the piece made me wonder if Johnson had made it all up out of whole cloth. He describes a “forbidding” skyline, which is nonsense, our skyline is small but brightly lit with some interesting architecture. He wrote that the South Side was home to 100-125 bars, which is patently ridiculous. If only!

Johnson also wrote about seeing a man who was standing on a street corner wearing a dress and holding up a sign that read “I BET AGAINST THE STEELERS”. And here is where Johnson made a big mistake. Maybe he made up the stuff about the mills and the weeds and the bars and all the other stuff he dissed us with. But he definitely made that up, at least the part about seeing it. Because it happened days before he arrived in Pittsburgh and it appeared on the local news.

Johnson got caught, and his column now comes with a correction. An article written by a critc named Michael Roberts said that Johnson should lose his job over this, in part because this isn’t the first time he’s made this sort of “mistake” before. Roberts’ piece got picked up and linked by Jim Romenesko’s column, meaning it should get more play that it otherwise would.

I was not one of the “Pittsburgh-based bloggers” who Roberts said brought Johnson’s malfeasance to light, at least I don’t think I was. You can leave comments about articles at the Rocky Mountain News and I did just that, going far beyond the “you’re a jagoff!” stuff many Pittsburghers wrote. I wrote at length about how the abandoned steel mill images were 25 years too late, about how Johnson misidentified the river he was supposedly looking at, about how even as a hatchet job it was vague and senseless.

I’m glad to see that feathers outside Pittsburgh got ruffled. I don’t mind criticism of my home town…well, actually I do, but God knows Pittsburgh ain’t perfect. Hell, how many cheap potshots did I take writing about the parade? Cheap, cheap potshots. But if you’re gonna bash the ‘Burgh, you’d better have compelling evidence right at your fingertips. We’re the touchy sort.

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3 Responses to “Don’t Bash the ‘Burgh”

  1. DuggleBogey Says:

    We’re going through the same thing right now because Charles Barkley trashed Oklahoma City on National TV. Local TV folks are ranting and raving, even going to meet him in Houston to make him retract his statements….which he already has done.

    What I don’t get is, aren’t people allowed to not like a city? Can people have their own opinions about places? Or is it too politically incorrect to give one’s honest opinion about someplace, just because some people happen to live there and love it?

  2. SirFWALGMan Says:

    I have been to the Pitts’ a few times. Once through the Airport which did not impress me initially, although on my last visit they had improved it alot.

    My last visit I got to stay a few days. It was a nice city. Sprawling and friendly. Not a huge, overpowering, monstrocity like New York. All of the people I met were really nice and cool and they for sure loved their team. I give the Pitts’ a HUGE thumbs up.

  3. the wolf Says:

    Yeah, people are certainly allowed to dislike cities and vent their opinions, but what Johnson did was cheap and gratuitous, simply because his team was playing a football game against Pittsburgh. Not to mention that he (1)made some shit up and (2)got easily verifiable facts wrong.

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