Politically Savvy Friends

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Luke at Oakmont

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

The big story locally this week has been the U.S. Open out at the exclusive Oakmont Country Club, fifteen miles north of the City of Pittsburgh. So maybe it’s no surprise that the top story, politically, has been Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s successful effort to get into an invitation-only private event to watch Tiger Woods practice on the challenging course back in late April.

Afficionados of this story have had a field day on radio talk shows and in the blogosphere, dissecting Luke’s every move and motive. The story developed “legs” when the mayor decided to go on radio with WDVE’s Jimmy Krenn and Randy Baumann and KDKA’s Fred Honsberger and Dom Giordano (sitting in for Marty Griffin), followed on Thursday with an on-camera interview with WTAE’s Bob Mayo.

Now, as Luke has been quick to tell everybody, KDKA-TV was the first to break the story on Monday night. His repeated use of KDKA and my name in subsequent media appearances [“I have great respect for Jon Delano but . . . .”] made this a little awkward, since I am a journalist and the messenger of the story, not the source of the facts. Still, he has every right to state his version of events. In fact [see below], I wish he had done that on Monday so I could have included them in my story. Nonetheless, by consistently referencing KDKA in his response, I found myself getting invited by responsible journalists to restate the facts as KDKA learned them – thus prolonging the story beyond its normal life cycle.

First off, I really didn’t break this news story.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review first broke the story back on May 6 in its “Whispers” column. Under the headline, “Luke Crashes Tiger’s Party,” the anonymous columnist wrote: “The story making the rounds in political circles has Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl getting the folks at the Oakmont Country Club upset recently after Tiger Woods played a round of golf there. Seems that after Woods was done practicing for next month's U.S. Open at Oakmont he attended a private party sponsored by American Express. Political insiders say Ravenstahl showed up at the event uninvited and angered folks by worming his way into pictures with Woods and others. Country club officials would neither confirm nor deny they were perturbed at the young mayor. Nor would they comment on whether Ravenstahl was able to secure Woods' autograph.”

As far as I know, the mayor never responded publicly to the Trib’s story, although I understand that some of the investigative reporters (print and broadcast) in town may have pursued the mayor on this. I was not among them, and the story was largely dropped by the MSM (mainstream media).

That changed on Monday when the first practice rounds of the U.S. Open began and everybody was looking for Open-related stories. At KDKA, the “crash” story was recalled, and I was assigned by the news managers to see what I could find out. This assignment would have probably fallen to KDKA’s two investigative reporters, not me, except one was on vacation and the other was already assigned. No problem. That’s the way it works in TV-land. You do what the boss says!

It did not take long to confirm the basics of the story. When Mayor Ravenstahl learned that Tiger Woods was going to be out at the Oakmont Country Club, he tried to secure an invitation to see him. His staff called out there, and later on radio, Luke said he himself also called. KDKA sources told me that Luke was told that this was a private event, and, as the mayor later acknowledged on radio, his subsequent appearance did “anger” some at the Club.

American Express officials told me that Ravenstahl was not on the list of 82 people attending their special luncheon and golf outing scheduled for the same day that Tiger Woods was practicing on the links. The event, for which AmEx charged $900 a head, included a surprise: Woods would appear at the private luncheon and give some golf tips out on the course for the participants.

Even though he was not on the AmEx list or a member of the Oakmont County Club, Ravenstahl and two body guards drove out to the Club in hopes of fulfilling “a life long dream” of meeting the golfing great. Once out there, Luke insists he was “welcomed.” I guess that depends on whom you talk to, as both the company and the club were put in a very awkward position. Kick the mayor off the property and risk adverse publicity and whatever other consequences might follow – or let him in and try to contain the situation.

As KDKA reported Monday night, Ravenstahl got into the club and was invited to dine with members of the club’s board of directors. KDKA sources also reported that the mayor was again told that the AmEx event was a private affair. What exactly happened next is unclear. KDKA reported Monday that Luke “got his hands on an American Express golf shirt.” That was true. In subsequent interviews, Ravenstahl says the company, perhaps like the club, decided to “welcome” him and gave him the shirt (along with shirts for his body guards). I have no reason to disbelieve the mayor on this, but American Express won’t confirm or deny that.

Again, as KDKA correctly reported Monday night and now confirmed by Ravenstahl, the mayor was, however, told not to approach or interfere with Tiger on the links. He says that he respected that warning, but that an ESPN anchor volunteered to introduce him to Tiger and, ultimately, Ravenstahl got a minute or two with Woods, who, sources tell me, was in a great mood that day and friendly with everyone. In a DVD released by American Express out at their hospitality tent this week, you can see brief pictures of the mayor among the crowd, clearly enjoying himself. Who wouldn’t? It must have been a great experience.

I will leave the analysis of the mayor’s behavior to the radio talk show hosts, sports commentators, and bloggers. As for me, I do regret that Luke himself was not part of the initial story on Monday night. But as a journalist, I did try to get his take shortly after I was assigned the story late Monday morning. I called his office and requested time to talk to the mayor. At the same time, his office was pitching their own story, a follow-up on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s piece about Luke’s billboards and using the U.S. Open to promote Pittsburgh – all quite legitimate and of interest to me. But I was also clear that I wanted to talk about the Oakmont incident. Their response – the mayor was not available on Monday because he was spending the day with the mayor of San Diego, although he could talk to me the next day. When the news managers decided to run the piece on Monday with or without Luke, I did the next best thing. I got a statement from his office and used it, accurately, in my tag.

Throughout the week, KDKA continued to offer Luke time to give his version of events. As I always do, I would have posted the entire unedited, uncut Q&A of that interview on the KDKA website. I do that so people will know that I do not engage in selective editing to make a politician look bad, and it also protects the politician from being taken out of context. The mayor and I had a private telephone conversation on Wednesday, which I will keep private, except to say that he thought he had said everything there was to say on this subject on radio and that it was time to end the story. [Luke and I have known each other since before he was elected to city council. I believe I was the first local TV reporter to put him on television, and we share a mutual respect, even if on this story we “agree to disagree” on the facts].

As I said above, in my view, this story was never more than a 24-hour piece, but as late as Friday, I was still hearing snippets on radio about it. Some are suggesting that the mayor’s announcement of another shake-up at City Hall was timed to get off the Oakmont story. I don’t really believe that because the story was over anyways.

Finally, despite what some radio talk show hosts and bloggers may have opined, this was never Luke versus KDKA. It was about the facts. I laid them out as best I could, and the mayor disagrees. Okay, that’s cool by me. I have been in this business a long time – on both sides as an aide to an elected official doing damage control and pitching stories – as well as on the media side seeking to get the truth out to the public.

Nobody is perfect, and we -- politicians and journalists alike -- all make mistakes. I work hard to be accurate in everything I report, but if I make a substantive error, I will be the first to correct it. This story relied on “sources” because, especially during the U.S. Open, people in the know, including those present on April 23 at the club, were not willing to go on camera. That doesn’t make their statement of the facts wrong, any more than someone on camera always speaks the truth. And, so far, I’ve seen no evidence that contradicts the basic story.

I am deeply grateful for the many emails, phone calls, and expressions of support that I received from my colleagues in the media and many others in the community. But I was only doing my job – like most of you do – albeit in a somewhat more visible way. And unless someone has something more to add, the “Luke at Oakmont” story is over. Now let’s move on.

5 comments:

Bram Reichbaum said...

Hi Jon,

In a sort of sidebar to this story, the issue of anonymous sources (and how to use them) came up. I was hoping you would share some thoughts about when/how to responsibly use anonymous sources, seeing as how some of us have begun to do some of our own reporting, without a net, or an editor.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Jon:

In your post, you note that you always post the unedited video of any Q&A sessions, so that people will know that you aren't engaging in selective editing.

For what it's worth, I find these unedited postings very useful, but I don't use them looking to prove or disprove anything about selective editing on either your part or on the part of others at KDKA who may be involved in the editing process.

To my mind, television news simply has a product that they have to produce. The name of the game is to get as many eyeballs on the screen in the hopes of generating advertising revenue. And I'm cool with that.

But that process means that things will have to be edited. Most people don't want to watch a full interview with any political figure. But the internet allows the small number of us who really do care to watch the full thing, rather than trying to scrape together a small amount of meaning from a 2-minute broadcast.

So keep posting those unedited videos! They are a true public service. But you needn't worry about protecting yourself from charges of selective editing. All editing is, ultimately, somewhat selective. Most of us understand that.

dayvoe said...

I second what Bram said!

Maybe we can put together an informal seminar: The Use of Anonymous Sources for Bloggers.

Or something like that.

I'll buy the first pitcher.

Mark Rauterkus said...

The story is over when we say its over. Jon doesn't get to say when it is ends.

Jon and KDKA do get to say, often, when some things begin, however.

When the media kills a story -- or aborts a story -- that is when I wonder and when alarms should sound.

When the media tells and reports on a story, that's the way it should be. Don't be sorry for being a watchdog. Don't be sorry for telling all the sides as well. And, FWIW, there are MORE than two sides.

Finally, as a clincher, when anonymous sources can out-flank and out-shout those who have real names, repeatedly, then it is time to wonder about the landscape. Anonymous sources have a role to play, no doubt. But, those roles should be bit roles.

Alex said...

Hey, I recently added a news widget from www.widgetmate.com to my blog. It shows the latest news, and just took a copy and paste to implement. Might interest you too.