Mad as Hell, and Not Going to Take it Anymore!

At the Pittsburgh Comet, Bram Reichbaum has given notice: The blog will wind down. I know from my own experience what this means: license to bleat and boast a bit about what it means to have tried -- and apparently, to have failed -- to attract the notice that one thinks is due a blog about serious topics in Pittsburgh. Along those lines, today, Bram winds up and delivers an uppercut to the mediocrity of Pittsburgh's media, and Pittsburgh's audience. It's a thoughtful, passionate rant about everything that is wrong with local television. Much of it applies with equal vigor to our local newspapers. Bram has been backfilling the failings of the paid media, and he's discouraged and exhausted.

Someone who works as hard as Bram does at his blog, for as little compensation as he receives, certainly deserves gratitude -- and a break. Agree or disagree with his day-to-day analysis, there aren't many paid reporters in town who dig into the details of the mysteries of Pittsburgh's politics as regularly as he does. (For the record, Bram and I have corresponded occasionally, but we've never met.)

Along the way, Bram discovered what almost all professional journalists eventually discover, whether or not they work in Pittsburgh: Investigating and reporting real news -- the news that matters to the future of a community, and that (surprisingly) even includes what happens on the playing field -- is backbreaking work. The hours are long, the wages are low, and gratitude from an appreciative and adoring public is rare. Journalism is partly a calling and partly a form of public service: You do it because you have no choice, and because it needs to be done. The payoffs are meted out inconsistently, unexpectedly, and over long periods of time, when they are meted out at all.

Bram makes a plea for serious, sustained coverage of local news. In principle, I think that he's right, and I've written here about related issues: The future of paid media, especially failing print media, lies in figuring out how to map the economy of the neighborhood onto the network of networks that we call the Internet. Mapping the economy of the neighborhood onto itself used to be the name of the game, but now it's like getting a recalcitrant child to eat spinach. You can't force people to eat the journalistic equivalent of what's good for them; it turns out that the neighborhood often just doesn't want to think that hard about itself -- not when there is OJ to watch, or (Not in the) Balloon Boy, or Facebook to waste time with. Few people who aren't absolute masters of their domains really enjoy looking in the mirror each morning all that closely; it's much more fun to look through someone else's window.

In other words, I suspect that the media enterprise is overrated as an agent for change. We like to pretend that the TV station, the newspaper, and even the thoughtful blog can shine a light on corrupt government and, by force of the First Amendment, make things better. People will read the news, emerge from their huts with pitchforks and torches, and toss the miscreants into the streets.

But if the world ever worked that way (and maybe there was a time when it did), today it works more indirectly than all that. I don't pretend (as I once might have) that this blog has any direct influence on the direction of the Pittsburgh region. What I can pretend is that the blog occasionally gives me access to conversations with people who are creating, organizing, and innovating in organizations, institutions, and neighborhoods around town. Pittsburghers *do* care about what happens here; they just don't often care for much self-scrutiny in the media. We have become The Truman Show. Fixing The Truman Show doesn't mean turning fake news into authentic news; it means breaking out of the myth that what happens on camera or on the screen can really control our destiny. Jim Carrey, prophet! Who knew?

I suspect that Bram has figured this out; at least, I hope so. My experience, and that of at least one other once-retired local blogger, teaches that he will be back.


2 Responses to "Mad as Hell, and Not Going to Take it Anymore!"

Bram Reichbaum said... 10/29/2009 7:12 PM

Thanks for the big nod. We really have to cure that "never met" thing.

I imagine if I do return, it'll be on a less individual, free form basis. After a while it gets to be draining, as you know, running an office of one, accountable to no body or no thing -- particularly so after circumstances conspire to turn one into something people expect and profess to rely upon. That part was all sort of an accident, though a welcome one.

Bram Reichbaum said... 10/29/2009 10:19 PM

Oh, and maybe it's worth pointing out: when I criticize local TV news, I don't meaning to single out *our* local TV news. I've been to other cities and I know it's not remarkable. I'm criticizing the broad societal franchise of what is local TV news.

And when it comes to being discouraged -- okay, maybe there's a little of that, but I've also seen a lot of progress. We've seen a majority of City Council overhauled with intelligent and largely progressive-minded individuals, and we've advanced the story to the point where pay-to-play is front and center, and the problem of the elusive investor / lobbyists / fund raisers behind the curtain of the political machine are formally within our viewfinder. Progress is slower than I'd like to see it and I can't say it's not being made. I'm optimistic. I've just got to take a nice long breather, and maybe find another role.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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