Friday, March 16, 2007

It's Not About Who Took The Bloody Picture

It doesn't matter who took the photograph. For the moment, we can even ignore the question of who paid for it. It doesn't matter if it was donated, or to whom that donation was made. The big deal here, and I don't know how many times we will have to say this until the issue becomes clear in everybody's heads, is that the same image has been used as the visual centerpiece of both any number of official city programs and, as of this moment, of a prominent election campaign. Even a grade-school politician running for class president knows that this behavior is wrong, wrong, wrong. And there is simply no way on earth for anyone to argue otherwise with even a scintilla of legitimacy.

Yesterday, WTAE reporter and fellow blogger Bob Mayo broadcast a piece which detailed much of the recent firestorm concern the use of the same photographs in both official city documents (most commonly web pages) and in the election campaign of Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl (most prominently on its own website). Mr. Mayo's story correctly notes that many of the photographs which appear on the city's website have now been removed from the interim mayor's campaign site. He also notes, however, that the most obvious image continues to be used in both locations (and in locations throughout our great city):

The biggest buzz is about this hands-on-the-hips photo that remains on the city's and the campaign's sites, as well as city Redd-Up fliers and billboards.

"Those were private photos that were generated and given to me personally from a photographer in the South Side," said Ravenstahl. "So that was a file that was given to me. The city never paid anything for those photos, so that's my personal photo." [snip...]

The professional photographer who took that hands-on-the-hips photo of the mayor confirmed that he gave the mayor the photo for free.

It's from a photo session that would normally cost $1,500.

Ravenstahl [himself] provided that photo to both the city and the campaign.
Fine. Let's take the interim mayor for his word. The city didn't pay for that photograph to be taken. Some photographer generously donated the $1,500 sitting fee and took the photograph at no charge to anyone, including the city, Master Ravenstahl, or the interim mayor's election campaign. The photograph was given to the interim mayor personally, and was -- at least at that point -- the mayor's personal property. I accept that all of that is completely factual.

At this point, however, the mayor handed the photograph over to the City of Pittsburgh. And it got a bit of use. It wasn't just buried in the explosion of smiling pictures that constitute the mayor's portion of the city's official website. Instead, it became the iconic image that has been used countless times, on billboards, on official mailings, and as the visual anchor to the entire "Redd Up" program. In other words, at that moment, it became the property of the city and it's taxpayers. It wasn't Luke Ravenstahl's picture any longer. If it showed up on my garbage collection calendar, which is an official city document, then it belongs to me and every last one of my neighbors.

And so now this same image is being used by the Ravenstahl campaign. And once again, it's not just being used in an ancillary sort of way. Just as it has been used on the "Redd Up" billboards, just as it has been used on three different refuse and recycling mailings, and just as it is continues to be used on the city's official website, the Ravenstahl campaign is using this very same photograh as its visual centerpiece. Once again, it is being employed as the central visual icon that defines every last page on the campaign website, and (for all I know) in other campaign publications.

If the campaign really wants to use this image, that's fine. But if the campaign wishes to define themselves with this photograph -- if they continue to use this "hand on hips" picture as the central visual anchor which defines their candidate's political aspirations -- then all of the following inescapable conclusions must necessarily follow:

  • The $1,500 sitting fee donated by the photographer must be declared on the campaign's financial disclosure forms as a campaign donation. Since this picture has been in circulation for months, this donation should have already been reported in earlier financial disclosure filings.


  • Every billboard donated to the City of Pittsburgh for the "Redd Up" program must similarly be declared to be a campaign contribution. Again, since these billboards have been up for some time now, these declarations should have already been included in earlier filings.


  • The "garbage collection day may change" notice mailed to homes throughout the city in December 2006, which carried the campaign's central defining "hands on hips" image, officially becomes -- as many of us suspected all along -- a piece of campaign literature.


  • The recycling newsletter mailed to homes throughout the city in January 2007, which carried this same image, must also be recognized as a campaign mailing.


  • Every last copy of the a city refuse collection calendar, which also featured (you guessed it!) this exact same photograph, is therefore also a piece of campaign literature. So is any city document which featured this image. If you don't believe me, imagine how up in arms many of us would be if every Federal tax form prominently featured the red-white-and blue elephant symbol of the Republican Party. The use of the Ravenstahl campaign photograph on official city mailings is exactly the same kind of thing.


  • The city must be reimbursed for its costs in printing, distributing, and mailing all of these pieces of campaign literature. There must be more than half a million official city mailings that, having used the campaign's central iconic image, must now be paid for out of the campaign's coffers.
If this photograph is the personal property of Luke Ravenstahl, that's fine. If he wants to use his own personally-owned photograph in his personal political campaign, that's fine, too. But if he wants me to pay for printing up his campaign photograph hundreds of thousands of times, mailing it throughout the city, and slapping it up on official city billboards, then I have a real problem with that.

And I'm betting that the State Ethics Board will, too.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your sentiment, Admiral, but just one very small point - elected officials aren't permitted to accept such extravagant gifts from "interested" parties or parties with whom the City has a contract. If the City has any type of relationship, contract or ongoing matter (e.g. zoning, etc.) with this photographer, it's a violation of local rules of ethics.

Skip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Skip said...


A little gem
from McKeesport.

EdHeath said...

The admiral said “Every last copy of the a city refuse collection calendar, which also featured (you guessed it!) this exact same photograph, is therefore also a piece of campaign literature. So is any city document which featured this image. If you don't believe me, imagine how up in arms many of us would be if every Federal tax form prominently featured the red-white-and blue elephant symbol of the Republican Party. The use of the Ravenstahl campaign photograph on official city mailings is exactly the same kind of thing.”

Actually, I am inclined to say a better analogy is if the US Treasury exchanged all our current money for money with George W Bush’s picture on it. I mean, legislative incumbents have always issued newsletters paid for by taxpayers, giving them a big advantage over challengers. There’s some similarity here between these newsletters and Luke’s picture on the city’s mailings. But I think at some point someone in the party at the city, county or state level may tell Luke to rein it in. I mean, you are right, the sheer magnitude of free campaign publicity that Ravenstahl has used is flat out shocking. Habay found out the hard way that the state takes the firewall between campaigning and the job seriously. This isn’t campaign workers, but someone may take notice of the volume of campaign contributions the city is making to the Mayor. If it were a lawsuit, I wouldn’t bet on the Mayor.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Good work. Nice points.

Habay (also young for his age) came undone with more than just a few workers/hours doing double duty. The white powder things, the flip-flopping and more. But, the root of Jeff Habay's downfall was a state ethics issue. The tumble came in how he reacted throughout.

So, when something big goes wrong, it generally is after a NUMBER of things go poorly, leading to another stumble, etc., etc.

Process. One gotcha isn't going to amount to much. Sustain. Escalate.

Carry on.

Matt H said...

The photograph file was given to Mayor Ravenstahl before he was a delcared candidate for the position. It doesn't have to go on any expense report.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Matt: how do you know?

JT said...

I could honestly care less about a photograph. This isn't watergate, and isn't nearly as big of an issue as you are making it out to be. With each sensationalized lead you mushroom, you come off as more desperate and desparate. Instead of posting disparaging stories about Ravenstahl, talk about what your own candidate (Peduto) is doing. HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING!