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Potemkin Pittsburgh, perpetuated

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Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008

Like a crack addict in denial, Official Pittsburgh continues to live in a fantasy world in which it snows only magic Santa dust.

How else can one explain the city's latest public relations offensive, one that even modestly educated Pittsburghers should find obscene and proves yet again that truth is the first casualty of government spin.

Late last Monday morning, Joanna Doven, a spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, was busy e-mailing to local media a Sunday story from The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

"In case you missed it: Pittsburgh's Renaissance -- As seen by Cleveland!" gushed the subject line.

All of us Pittsburgh naysayers -- you know who you are, was the implication -- were "encouraged" to review the Scott Stephens story. After all, "It has always been an issue in Pittsburgh that Pittsburghers are among the last to recognize all of the good that the city is doing and how well we are doing in a global market," wrote Ms. Doven.

"This article highlights the fact that in the eyes of those outside of Pittsburgh, our city is a model," she added, concluding, "Let's keep it up!"

Actually, what the article "highlights" is that chamber-of-commerce "journalism" is alive and well and that chamber-of-commerce types in Pittsburgh exhibit great prowess in snookering hardly curious out-of-town media into believing their shtick.

Reporter Stephens regales us with tales of exuberant press release-like positivism from the likes of Mr. Ravenstahl and those usual suspects who regularly implore us to ignore those quite serious problems behind the curtains that they have drawn and would rather stitch closed.

Hunky-doryism never was more spit and polished coming from the mouths of Mike Langley at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, former conference CEO Rick Stafford, now at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, and Michael Edwards of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

"We've been through and worked through problems," says Mr. Langley. "It's actually kind of hardened us like steel." Oh really?

"It's almost a mathematical certainty," says Mr. Stafford of turning things around. Do tell.

"The city has done a remarkable job of reinventing itself because it had to," says Mr. Edwards. "We're trying to build a city for the future." Versus for the past?

Are you feeling sick to your stomach, too?

There is not a single mention in The Plain Dealer's nearly 50-paragraph story that Pittsburgh remains in state receivership. That's not unlike a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization for those of you into financial crises analogies.

Neither is there any mention that Pittsburgh's public employee pension plans are on life support. And they'll flatline without a massive state, i.e., taxpayer, bailout in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What about that overall massive debt, among the highest per capita in the nation• There is no reference to it by Stephens or those who offer such a glowing portrait of Potemkin-burg.

Neither is there any mention that this glorious city, nestled among those wonderfully historic three rivers, yet again is on a collision course with systemic budget deficits that not even virtual bankruptcy has shocked its "leaders" into addressing with any cogency.

Yet still chimes Ravenstahl, "The reports over and over again say things are not good but there's good news taking place here."

Wow, Pittsburgh is in "boom" times, The Plain Dealer reports. Holy moley, we even have Downtown Wi-Fi!

Talk about intellectual malpractice.

A few other salient facts: Pittsburgh's murder rate is on pace to be the highest in a decade. We are told only, and rather generically, that "crime remains a problem in many neighborhoods."

The continuing bastardization of the marketplace by one bank, myriad retailers and the barons of sport• Nothing from Official Pittsburgh in the story.

Neither does the story mention that such signs of Pittsburgh "on the move" -- PNC's $200 million office tower, the Penguins' new hockey arena and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- are heavy into tickling taxpayers' knees through their pockets.

And how about that current Allegheny County government that the Stephens story contends is so much more hip than the "creaky" commissioner form of government but that so routinely has flouted the law and violated the governing charter• Not one word.

Surely, Pittsburgh is the new Oz.

The Plain Dealer story might go down in history as the most uninformed look at Pittsburgh ever written. And how in good conscience could Pittsburgh's self-appointed power elite be party to such a whopping lie by repeated omission?

Indeed, Pittsburgh has many amenities and much potential. But it has yet to find a cure for its chronic disease: Sans the facts, it spins itself in out-of-town media as the be-all and end-all, snookers some gullible yahoo to actually regurgitate its spin, then touts the fiction that is published as proof positive that its failures are success.

Worse, the spinners then believe it themselves.

Pittsburgh has serious problems. It requires serious thinkers to tackle them. That those "ruling" Pittsburgh continue to practice such bait-and-switch PR and such misrepresentational government indicates they are not up to the task.

And no amount of magic dust from Santa's bag can alter that truth.



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