Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ravenstahl Retreats, But Without Really Doing Anything

Yesterday, the election campaign of Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl responded to the burghosphere with a completely meaningless gesture. In the past few days, a number of local political blogs have been discussing the campaign's flagrant misuse of public property to promote itself. A number of photographs and other images, produced at public expense and used in official city literature, were being employed in various ways on the Ravenstahl campaign website. The story began over at 2 Political Junkies. It continued when an excellent document, detailing the public lineage of a number of these photographs, was made available on The Burgh Report. And the wave of protest arguably culminated with a call, right here at The People's Republic, for readers to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.

In response, a number of readers have contacted me and have been provided with the screen image captures that will be needed to support their accusations. Let's hope that the State Ethics Commission responds to all of our complaints with a fair and thorough investigation.

While local bloggers have been hitting this story pretty hard, there has not been a great deal of attention from the mainstream press. The Post-Gazette deals with this story not within the paper's printed edition, but buried amidst a wide variety of other topics within a single meandering post on the newspaper's Early Returns blog:

Score one for the blogs. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's campaign took five photos off of its Web site after local political blogs, and then later mainstream media outlets, noticed distinct similarities to photos on the city's site.

"The fundamental issue was, were any of our pictures sourced from the city Web site," said Ravenstahl campaign manager Damon Andrews. He spoke with city officials, who cautioned him about a handful of pictures on the campaign site that closely resembled shots on the city site. This afternoon, the campaign took down the five photos that seemed to be a close match.

Mr. Andrews said that when he joined the campaign, he asked friends of the mayor to e-mail over their favorite photos, and got around 500 electronic images. He said he should have inquired as to their original sources. He said the campaign is now reviewing those it chose to post on the Web site to make sure they aren't city property or copyrighted by other entities, like newspapers.

The issue resonated in the blogosphere because Mr. Ravenstahl hasn't been shy about putting his image on donated billboards, city-paid post cards advertising various programs and services, and the city's Web site. Some bloggers even invited readers to submit complaints about the Web site photos to the State Ethics Commission.
For it's part, the Tribue-Review published a fairly decent ink-on-paper story, and I know at least one broadcast reporter is looking into doing one as well. As is often the case, a few questions from mainstream reporters were enough to (finally) spur the Ravenstahl team -- who typically only do the right thing after they get caught -- into action.

As noted by Early Returns and these other outlets, the campaign responded by removing five individual photographs from a "Photo Gallery" slideshow buried somewhat deep on its website. The five photographs in question were ones specifically mentioned in The Burgh Report's evidentiary document. All of them had been copied directly from the city's official website, and were clearly inappropriate for use in the interim mayor's political campaign.

I guess I should commend the Raventahl campaign for taking fast action on this issue, but I remain deeply underwhelmed by their response. They have removed five photographs from a long slideshow of boring snapshots that most people were never likely to sit through anyway. Big deal. Those five images are fairly unimportant. The most egregious examples of this unethical behavior by the Ravenstahl campaign continue unabated. In fact, the most prominent taxpayer-financed image of them all not only remains up on the campaign website, but can be found on every single page. The main page itself, which every single visitor will see when they first enter the site, is nothing less than a joyful salute to unabashed public corruption:

You see that smiling, "take charge", hands-on-hips picture of our interim mayor that explodes out from the center of the screen? That same image -- and I mean the exact same image, down to the last pixel, and not merely one that "closely resembles" or "seems to be a close match" -- has been used on countless occasions in official City of Pittsburgh publications. It appears on the city's "Redd Up" website. It appeared on a December mailing to city residents, warning them of possible forthcoming changes to their garbage collection schedule. It appeared on a three-page recycling newsletter which arrived shortly thereafter. It appears on all versions of the refuse collection calendar, a copy of which is currently affixed just about every family refrigerator throughout the city. And most prominently, this picture can be found on a series of large billboards which were donated -- to the City of Pittsburgh as a whole, and not to the Ravenstahl election campaign -- in support of the "Redd Up" program.

And now, this exact same image is being used as the visual centerpiece of Master Ravenstahl's mayoral campaign. He's not just including this photograph as part of an easily-ignored slideshow of baby and wedding pictures. He's using it as a virtual icon to define his image and the promote his personal political aspirations. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. This picture needs to be removed immediately from the campaign website. Given the ubiquity of this photograph on every single page, eradicating it will likely require a complete redesign of the entire website. But Master Ravenstahl's campaign seems to have unlimited funds available for this kind of thing. While difficult and potentially expensive, overhauling a website is certainly preferable to sharing a state prison cell with former State Representative Jeff Habay, who was recently convicted of roughly analagous offenses.

I certainly hope that this particular problem is limited to the "Luke for Mayor" website, and that the "hands on hips" icon has not been similarly employed on the campaign's printed literature. Websites can be fixed fairly quickly, and they more or less disappear once a new one is introduced in their place. But printed matter is an entirely different matter. If even one scrap of campaign literature is floating around out there with this publicly-owned image upon it, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl could be in very big trouble indeed.


Bram Reichbaum said...

Has it occured to anybody else that "Early Returns" has evolved into the P-G's device for stroking and placating bloggers, without having to actually bother Joe Q. Public about anything?

Richmond K. Turner said...

It certainly has to me. In fact, I said something precisely along those lines in my first post today, but Blogger ate the damn thing and I had to retype it. But I'm beginning to see "Early Returns" as something that allows them to "publish" something where only the blogging community is ever likely to see it.

It was one thing when the "on-dead-trees" version of the P-G would carry a story, but Early Returns would carry a few things that they didn't want to say to the "dead tree" audience. For example, the P-G has printed stories on secondary employment, but the only mention of the burghosphere's role in that story has been on Early Returns.

The "dead tree" crowd at the P-G doesn't feel that we are ready for prime time n'at, I guess.

But over the past month or so, we are starting to see "only in Early Returns" stories at the P-G. I thought I was the only one noticing them, but obviously great minds think alike.

Skip said...

Oh yes, shame on Politics Editor James O'Toole for BOTH not giving printed attention to the arrogant violations of campaign finance laws AND for dragging-ass on following up on what the Ravenstahl campaign told 'Early Returns' (again, not in print) on Feb 28 (almost a month ago)about the mayoral debates.

Anonymous said...

It's not like there's any real pride of authorship amongst the blogging community - I mean, it's nice to be credited with breaking a story, but you and other bloggers have consistently BEGGED the MSM to lift stories from your blogs.

No wonder local politicians carry on as if there are no consequences - there aren't any, so far.

Anonymous said...

Dont any of you ever grow tired of constantly complaining? Get a job, or girlfriend, or hobby. This site should be called the Cry baby Republicrats of Pittsburgh

Richmond K. Turner said...

Always nice of you to stop by, Mr. Motznik. Shame you can't have a blog of your own.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to the day when we go back to a time when competent adults were managing our City - my eyes hurt from all the eyerolling.

Malificent said...

Bram & Richmond K.,

Yes! This thought has been an unformed bit rolling around in my head, you guys hit it exactly:

"Has it occured to anybody else that "Early Returns" has evolved into the P-G's device for stroking and placating bloggers, without having to actually bother Joe Q. Public about anything?"

Mark Rauterkus said...

Just as it is hard being a third party in a town where the second party is not fully functional -- it is hard to be a blogger when the 4th estate is so much of a lap-dog and not watch-dog.

A robust MSM is needed. Heck we've still got oversight boards -- and they should not be here if we had watch dogs that were worth a bite and bark.

Even Twanda C of city council district 9, a poster child for corruption, is with a fighting chance to get re-elected. She is able to weather the firestorm (yawn) of the media scrutiny.

We need to keep up the pressure with the media -- and politicians -- in this dance of live of love, hate and worst of all, indifference.

It has improved, but there are miles to go to get us on the right track.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Perhaps we need to clear the cache from the web browser to get back to the changed front page of his web site. I expected that image to vanish. The one with the hands on the hips, fly open, posture from the redd up jedi should be NUKED from the root /index.html.