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Letter to the Editor: 'You're Either In or Out, Sir'

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
July 22, 2018
Posted in: Commentary-Editorial, Letters to the Editor

(Above: A.M. Rosenthal began his career at The New York Times in 1943 and retired from the paper as a columnist in 1999. He discussed his career in a 1993 interview with C-SPAN.)

Reader Tim Martin writes:

Regarding our July 10 story about city council's decision to hire the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh to evaluate the reuse of the Penn-McKee Hotel ---

I really don't understand why Mr. Togyer is covering the Penn-McKee story, and the editor's notes on top and at the end of July 10's story don't take the curse off the circumstance. You're either in or out, sir.

Tim is absolutely right. Reporters should not be involved with the stories they're covering. Period.

The late A.M. Rosenthal (above), city editor, managing editor and executive editor of The New York Times, supposedly had a colorful rule for his reporters:

"If you want to cover the circus, you can't (make love to) the elephants."

The problem with being a reporter in a small town is that you almost can't help getting involved in your stories. It's a lot easier to not get involved in New York City (population 8.5 million) than in McKeesport (population 19,000).

For that matter, this website and its parent organization are already ankle-deep in conflicts of interest.

For instance, we host the McKeesport International Village website, because there wasn't a website, and we were asked if we'd host one. We don't take any money for it (and neither does our webhost provider) but it's a clear conflict of interest.

And our conflicts of interest are going to get deeper: The city would like our Internet radio station, WMCK.FM, to be a tenant in the Daily News Building. It's a great opportunity for our DJs and hosts to interact with the public. But now we'll be paying rent to the city --- which we're supposed to be covering fairly and honestly.

That concerns me, and it should concern you, too. Or at least you need to know about it.

In the case of the Penn-McKee, the editor's notes on our July 10 story pointed out that I helped to write the marketing materials that the city used to shop the Penn-McKee to potential developers, and I have been asked to sit on an unpaid, volunteer committee that will be trying to raise money to rehab the building, if the project proceeds.

I've been involved with efforts to do something with, or about, that building since at least 2009, when I was a member of the board of directors of the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. And I haven't tried to hide my involvement.

I thought back then --- and I still think --- that figuring out whether the Penn-McKee is re-usable is worthwhile. If the study comes back and says the building can't be re-used and is unsalvagable and should be torn down, well, that's also useful information.

Getting back to our July 10 story. I cover McKeesport City Council because, frankly, we have a limited budget and a limited staff of freelancers. And while we pay our freelance writers, we don't pay me. (Some people say we get what we pay for, ha ha ha.)

I'm not trying to be a hero or play the victim here. I am trying to be practical and honest. Finding new, reliable writers for Tube City Almanac hasn't been easy. Part of the problem is that we can only afford freelance writers, and most of them have full time jobs elsewhere.

(We have been very fortunate to have some good people, including Cami DiBattista covering White Oak and Duquesne, Lynne Glover covering some political and medical stories, and Vickie Babyak taking photos. And I'm excited to have Richard Finch Jr. coming aboard to help us cover North Versailles Twp. and the McKeesport Area School Board.)

Anyway, when the agreement with the Young Preservationists Association came before city council on July 10, my options were:

1. Don't write about it --- which is dishonest, or

2. Admit that I've been asked to be involved, and that I'm therefore not impartial.

I chose "2," which is the "least bad" option --- but a bad option is still bad, by definition.

The third alternative, of course, would have been for me to refuse to help when I was asked.

That would have preserved the appearance of objectivity, but since I love this community --- which is why I started this website back in 1996 -- that seemed like a lousy idea, too. So when I was asked to help --- as a volunteer --- I agreed to help.

In the 1993 interview with C-SPAN linked to above, Rosenthal --- the author of the elephant quote --- was asked by interviewer Brian Lamb, why do New York Times readers depend on that paper instead of other news sources?

"We're people, we're not infallible," Rosenthal said. "But we think we will carry out a job of giving you as much news as we can without playing around with it. And we respect you. (Readers) trust us to give them as much as we can, and as straight as we can. (That) means fair. You cannot achieve total, pristine objectivity. There is no such thing. But what you can do is try to move toward it."

I am not comparing us to The New York Times. We are to The New York Times what a corner lemonade stand is to Wal-Mart.

But we do respect you, too, and we try to report as many of the facts in a story as we know without, in Rosenthal's words, "playing around with it."

And we promise to try to be transparent here. If we have a conflict of interest, we tell you, and if we make a mistake, we admit it and we say we're sorry.

And if the work on the Penn-McKee goes forward, I will try to have someone else writing about it.

Tube City Community Media is committed to printing viewpoints from residents of the McKeesport area and surrounding municipalities. Commentaries are accepted at the discretion of the editor and may be edited for content or length.

To submit a commentary for consideration, please write to P.O. Box 94, McKeesport 15134, or email tubecitytiger -at - gmail -dot- com. Include contact information and your real name. A pen name may be substituted with approval of the editor.

Originally published July 22, 2018.

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