There are so many things wrong with "Shot-and-Beer Pittsburgh Froths at Mouth," a January 18 effort by Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson, that counting them all would require a calculator with the power of a nuclear reactor -- but one stands out above the rest. Johnson described driving past a dude wearing a dress and holding a sign reading "I BET AGAINST THE STEELERS," but it turns out that this scene, which starred Pittsburgh-area resident Mike Gerrity, took place before Johnson was even in town. He actually saw it on a television news broadcast, as the Rocky acknowledged in a February 3 correction.
The dress contretemps reflects dismally on Johnson, who's been down this sorry road at least twice before. He built "The Policeman's Job Reconsidered," a 1999 column, around a pro-cop essay credited to the late "Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police." Johnson could have easily confirmed that Brown never existed and that the apocryphal essay was a widely circulated Internet fantasy, but he didn't bother -- and when a reader called him on the screw-up, he initially claimed Brown's bogusness was "irrelevant" before belatedly issuing a mea culpa. Then, in a July 20, 2005, offering tagged "A Season for Hating Those Who Aren't Us," he told of an abortion protester who'd threatened his life for two years after he'd written about her in the Orange County Register, where he was working at the time. In an e-mail to the News, a reader claimed that this story existed only in Johnson's imagination, since there was no evidence that the Register had ever run such an item. When Johnson couldn't prove otherwise, he apologized, sort of, in a September 2 column.
The latest gaffe is even more blatant, since it doesn't seem to constitute an accidental slip-up and can't be brushed off with excuses about foggy memory. The simplest theory? That Johnson pretended to have eyeballed Gerrity in person and gambled that no one would bust him -- and he might have gotten away with it if assorted Pittsburgh-supporting bloggers hadn't been so offended by the column as a whole that they decided to look at it more closely. Several of Johnson's online detractors considered this part of his narrative to be a straightforward fabrication, and it's tough to dispute their logic.
Johnson doesn't bother to try, at least not in this venue. He sent Westword an e-mail stating that he had "nothing to say" beyond comments already provided by Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple. For his part, Temple believes that the correction was an "appropriate" way to address Johnson's actions, which he sees as "sloppy" rather than devious. "I take it very seriously," he said, "and Bill does, too."
He should. With journalism's reputation reaching subterranean depths, it's likely that many news organizations would have disappeared Johnson by now. But at the Rocky, three strikes doesn't always mean you're out.
The idea behind the column under scrutiny was for Johnson to offer firsthand observations of Pittsburgh in advance of the January 22 American Football Conference championship game between the Steelers and the Denver Broncos. All too often, journalists faced with such assignments respond by ridiculing the rival community in ways designed to rile up the locals; once-and-future Denver Post scribbler Woody Paige pulled this tired stunt so often that he single-handedly turned it into a cliche. Johnson, no stranger to stereotype himself, stuck fast to this formula, branding Pittsburgh a "butt-ugly town" -- a grade-school caliber insult if ever there was one.
Even more suspect were Johnson's attempts to detail his surroundings. "Old mills, long stilled, dot the town. Weeds spill from smokestacks," he wrote. Problem is, this description is decades out of date. Multiple Pittsburgh sources confirm that there's only one abandoned mill within the city limits, and one other former steel facility that's been turned into a mall. Dan Majors, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who took Johnson on a tour of Pittsburgh after "Froths" came out, retraced the steps Johnson took during his first few hours in town -- "There weren't very many of them," Majors concedes -- and came to the conclusion that the visitor from Colorado may have driven past a not-terribly-attractive cement plant. "It's still open," Majors notes, "but there are some weeds there." Majors also concluded that Johnson mistook the Monongahela River for the Ohio (although Temple didn't find his argument convincing enough to warrant a correction). In the view of Peter Leo, a Post-Gazette columnist, such inaccuracies undermined the entire column. "It almost seemed like he wrote it before he got here," he says. "I may be wrong about that, but if I am, his powers of perception are very questionable."
Majors is less judgmental, and no wonder: His editors asked him to write an article about Denver whose initial concept wasn't far from the one Johnson penned. (Majors's version was smarter and better.) He found Johnson to be likable personally, and sympathizes with the pressure he was under to turn in his first column from Pittsburgh mere hours after he arrived there. "I'd fault the journalist," he says, "but I'd also fault the editors. Your plane touches down at 2:30, you've got to get a rental car, and then you've got to file in five hours. I wouldn't want to do a take on a city with that kind of a deadline."
But this excuse rings false to Leo. "Readers don't give a crap about columnists' or reporters' problems," he maintains. "The old journalistic bromide goes, ŒShow, don't tell.' Well, Œbutt-ugly' was all tell, and his show was minimal and erroneous."
An anonymous correspondent raised many of these issues in a January 24 e-mail addressed to Temple and sent separately to me. Nevertheless, Temple says he didn't learn of questions about Johnson's column until February 2, when he received an e-mail on the topic from Rocky media columnist Dave Kopel. The correction followed the next day.
Temple, who has a policy against divulging personnel matters, won't say what punishment Johnson received. If the correction was his sole reprimand, it raises important questions -- like, for example, "Does Johnson have nude photos of Rocky executives?" Whatever the truth, Temple continues to laud the columnist for his work in general. "Bill has reported from war zones twice, and the military has always felt great confidence in his ability to accurately portray their experiences," he points out. "He's fully capable of the highest level of journalism."
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That may be so. But in these instances, he fell waaaay short.
Kobe redux: Back in 2004, filmmaker Brian Malone created a surprisingly poignant portrait of a figure known principally to locals: Blinky the Clown. For his latest project, however, he takes on universally recognized subjects. Breaking News, which debuts at 6:30 p.m. Friday, February 17, as part of the Boulder International Film Festival (visit www.biff1.com for details), examines today's media through the prism of court cases involving Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. Even so, Malone feels the film "isn't only about Kobe or Michael or even celebrity trials. It's about how the forces of profit and big corporate broadcasters have contributed to the erosion of good journalism."
During Malone's visit to this year's Sundance Film Festival, Films Transit, a Montreal firm, purchased Breaking News's broadcasting rights for everywhere other than the United States. He expects an hour-long version of his opus to screen in as many as forty countries by year's end, and folks worldwide will almost certainly adore it, since it makes lots of American media types look terrible.
Clearly, Malone has a gift for working with clowns.