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Newspaper columnists eager to land on the good side of local readers have several surefire ways to get the job done. Rhapsodizing about the beauty of the place where they live (particularly when it isn't that beautiful) works wonders, and paying tribute to its essential goodness and character (especially if it's lacking in both) almost always does the trick as well. Then there's insulting another community, which not only makes area residents feel better about themselves by comparison, but has the happy side effect of generating angry reactions from outsiders too guileless to realize that they're playing into the writer's hands. The Denver Post's Woody Paige has made a virtual second career out of this last approach; over the years, he's gleefully denigrated the likes of Detroit, Jacksonville, Lincoln and, in a tirade of Olympic proportions, Salt Lake City ("Woody Goes Limp," February 21, 2002).
Still, nothing is more effective than defending one's city against an attack from beyond, because it establishes a scribe as one who is willing to stand up and fight against ignorant aggressors for all that is true and right and just. So Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano discovered after publicly spanking Post theater critic John Moore for a music article that sported disapproving comments about the famously typical Illinois municipality. "Reporter's Slur of City Unfounded," published August 1, spawned over fifty e-mails and innumerable attaboys for Luciano, who decried "outside media depictions of Peoria as a decayed wasteland filled with rust and debris, the perfect setting for Mad Max."
This mini-maelstrom was set spinning by the unlikeliest of offerings -- namely a July 20 Post effort that declared Planes Mistaken for Stars, a group dominated by Peoria transplants, to be Colorado's "Best Underground Band." Moore, who maintains a keen interest in Denver's music scene despite having moved to the theater beat, began his look at the combo by telling the tale of bassist Jamie Drier, who recently moved back to Peoria to spend time with his father, who has cancer. According to Drier, Peoria "is a great town to be from, but a horrible place to live, because it just drags you under." He later calls the burg "a racist town, where you drink yourself to death because you're never going to leave it." Moore echoes these remarks by describing Peoria as "the blight that put the rust in the Rust Belt," adding that the musicians and several other buddies "all left together in 1997. No, escaped is a better way of describing their...exodus."
Upon reading the profile, Luciano, who's spent fifteen years at the 80,000-circulation Journal Star (fourteen as a columnist), wasn't all that miffed by Drier's views. "I don't sweat an aging youth bagging on his home town," he wrote in his August 1 salvo. "Every Next Big Thing has spewed the same stale story since Rolling Stone first rolled off the press." However, he was troubled by the descriptions of Peoria offered by Moore. "Those aren't the bandmembers' words," he pointed out. "They're Moore's." He subsequently phoned Moore, who referred to his imagery as "paraphrases of what the band said. They're statements meant to maintain the tone they'd set. You have to have some artistic license when you write a feature story" about a band.
"If you say so," Luciano retorted in print. "But the unattributed phrases imply that it's an undisputed fact that Peoria has become a corroded and contemptible hellhole. He's presenting opinion as fact, and that's unfair. It would be like my making a broad, unattributed statement like 'Denver Post music reporters have brains of mush.'" Near the column's end, Luciano provided the e-mail addresses of Moore, Post editor Greg Moore (no relation) and assistant managing editor/features and arts & entertainment Ray Mark Rinaldi, not to mention the Post's newsroom phone number. "I doubt they care what we think," he declared. "But they should learn that our heads aren't as empty and feeble as their perceived, pretend Peoria."
Moore, communicating via e-mail, writes that he wasn't swamped by cyber-hatred as a result of Luciano's challenge, but he did receive around thirty missives from Peorians, all of whom he responded to individually. The breakdown, he estimates, found "about two-thirds defending Peoria and one-third attacking it themselves. The problem is, most of these readers, I think, had no idea what I had written and in what context. Phil had them believing I had just decided to write a column attacking their city. When I explained to people I was just trying to write a success story about a band that just happened to be from there, they got it."
Some went further. The mix of correspondence that came back to Moore included "a few poignant e-mails expressing the idea 'that you are not too far from the truth' (note the quotes -- those are NOT my words)," he writes. "One was a particularly reasoned assessment of a town that's been severely impacted by the economic downturn. It ended, 'Truth hurts -- in many ways, Peoria is a racist town, with a struggling rust belt economy. Those bandmembers are more right than wrong.'"
Moore concedes that he "blended" some of the Planes' observations "into transitional phrases to support the overall flow of the story, but the source material (from the ex-Peorians) is plain from the first paragraph." So, he believes, is the motivation of Luciano, whose Web page at www. pjstar.com describes his column as being "all about humor, muck-raking and people, people, people." In Moore's view, "He set out to stir up a hornet's nest, and he did -- somewhat. This is a blip compared to the response I got from angry Colorado Rockies fans after publishing [pitcher] Todd Jones's anti-gay comments in a story about the Broadway play Take Me Out. The Rockies had just had a decent April, and many fans were more upset that Jones's comments would screw up team chemistry than they were by what he actually said." The Rockies subsequently cut Jones loose because of his pitching foibles, not homophobia, but his absence didn't prevent the squad from collapsing anyway.