Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Drill, baby, drill?

A cloudy sheen of oil the size of Delaware is consuming the Gulf of Mexico as it inches closer to the New Orleans coastline. Thousands of gallons of oil is spewing from an underwater well after a rig caught fire last week and then collapsed into the murky waters. The ramifications to the wildlife along the coast will be devastating, so the U.S. Coast Guard has decided to light the oil on fire. And it has also ignited new questions about off-shore drilling.

What began as "drill, baby, drill" is turning into "burn, baby, burn" (although this doesn't appear to be a disco inferno).

So, where is Sarah Palin reacting to this man-made disaster? She offered fiery rhetoric at the 2008 Republican National Convention when she worked the crowd into a frenzy that off-shore drilling would be America's salvation for its fossil fuel consumption. She and other Republicans recently chastised President Obama, even though he opened wide swaths for off-shore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. That decision now appears to be a mistake.

Let me say that I'm not necessarily opposed to off-shore drilling, but I do think the calls of "drill, baby, drill" were ludicrous and short-sighted. Fossil fuels obviously are finite, so rather than drilling for more oil and ripping off mountains to mine more coal, why don't we put all of our energy (literally) into finding new fuel sources that are both renewable and cheap.

Ah, but "green energy" isn't cheap, you say? Well, nothing is cheap in its genesis. It takes years to develop technology and find more affordable ways to link it into our lives. From televisions to computers, things become cheaper over time.

Glenn Beck likes to talk about his 9.12 project, but imagine if we had started a full-tilt green revolution on Sept. 12, 2001? I seriously doubt we would be dealing with a faltering economy and strained diplomatic relations with the Middle East. And I know we wouldn't have idiots like Sarah Palin calling for us to "drill, baby, drill" in the wake of an environmental disaster.

Monday, April 26, 2010

NASCAR is back

I realize I live in the north, but NASCAR is my favorite sport. Ever since my father took me to my first race at Daytona in 1993, I have fallen in love with a spectacle that excites some and bewilders others. Regardless, the sport has fallen on hard times (with ratings and attendance) as it tried to become mainstream. The bigger the fanbase the more the money, right? Wrong: The sport needs to connect with the southeast, which is where it roots are firmly entrenched.

That's why Sunday's race at Talladega was so amazing. From the bumping and fighting, the Aaron's 499 had it all. There were a record number of leaders and lead changes. And it's amazing the response you get when the sanctioning body decides to afix a spoiler onto the backs of the cars rather than a douchey fin.

But I digress. What made the race so intriguing is the passing and rivalries. Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson cut off teammate and fellow four-time champ Jeff Gordon on the backstretch. Gordon had to slide back into the pack and he wrecked a few moments later. This is the second time in as many weeks that the two teammates have tangled, making for an interesting storyline despite their clean-cut images. This is what racing is all about.

Then, on the last lap, Kevin Harvick bumped Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray to the side and they drag raced the final 300 yards to the checkered flag. It forced even the most hardened NASCAR fan to stand up and shout.

This is what the sport needs. More fighting and more side-by-side racing. I realize I'm in the minority with NASCAR, but I have a feeling that more people will start showing interest if the racing -- and story lines -- are as intriguing as they have been this year.

(Photo by Getty Images in the last lap of Sunday's Nationwide Series Race)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wrong side of the law

The trooper's name sounded familiar, but I wasn't quite sure...

While working with the Observer-Reporter on May 29, 2009, we heard on the scanner a police chase involving a motorcycle on the interstate. The bike crashed, so my editor looked over and asked me to go to the scene and find out what happened. I obliged and rolled up to the crash -- as I had in numerous other interstate crashes since 2005 -- and got out of my car to investigate.

I walked up to a Cecil Township police officer and asked her if she could locate a state trooper to help me out with the accident. A few hundred feet away was a crashed bike near several state police cruisers and ambulances. But before she returned, a state cop on a motorcycle rode up to me and asked me what I was doing there.

"Hi, my name is Mike Jones, and I'm with the Observer-Reporter," I told him. "Do you know what happened here?"

"No," the motorcycle trooper said to me.

"Can I talk to the supervising officer?" I responded.

"No," he said. "You have to go."

"Can I stand in the grassy medium?" I asked, since in four years I had never been kicked out of an accident scene.

"No. You have to leave," he said.

So I walked back to my car and called my editor, Liz Rogers. We had been struggling for several months to get timely press releases from state police based in the Washington barracks. Those press releases are the lifeblood of a news organization trying to get the daily crime updates to the public. But about five minutes after talking to my editor on the phone, the trooper rolled back up on his bike and ordered me to surrender my license and registration.

"What is going on?" I thought.

He let me sit there on the side of the road for another seven minutes while he took my information. When he returned, he cited me for failing to follow traffic instructions from a uniformed officer and failing to change my registration address. I didn't know his name, but it would become the subject of much debate at a later time.

I appealed the citation with District Justice Jay Weller, who decided that I was not wrong for parking my car on the side of the road to obtain information for the story. The media is protected by Constitutional rights that permit us access to some places where the general public is not allowed. Both citations were dismissed and I felt vindicated for my work. But the trooper who cited me would become entrenched in a much greater story less than a year later.

I forgot his name, but later I learned the trooper was Edward Joyner: the same person who is being investigated for his role in the Ben Roethlisberger saga. He's the "bodyguard" who allegedly stood in the way of several sorority girls as they tried to get their friend out of a dank Georgia bar bathroom with Roethlisberger. Now, the Pennsylvania State Police are investigating the case to see whether Joyner acted wrongly in the situation.

The Roethlisberger allegations are shocking to me, but I am willing to wait to see how the Steelers and NFL handle the situation. Still, while most Pittsburghers have their eyes on Big Ben and his suspension, my attention is focused squarely on how the state police handle the actions of Trooper Edward Joyner.

And I wonder if he told those girls standing in the Georgia bar hallway the same thing he told me: "No. You have to leave..."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pittsburgh's role model

Friday night gave us a stark reminder of the differences between Pittsburgh's two greatest athletes.

On one side, the star quarterback of the football team is practicing on the South Side about a month after following a wasted girl into a single commode bathroom. The unsavory details have already been exposed, so there's no need to expand upon them here.

A couple miles away at the Mellon Arena, you have the captain of our hockey team pulling off an usual hat trick: Scoring a goal, making an unbelievable save and passing the puck on his knees to a teammate for the game-winning goal.

Make no mistake about which player Pittsburghers most align themselves with today.

Football will probably always be king in this region, but Sidney Crosby has officially taken the mantle as this city's brightest star. Since arriving in Pittsburgh five years ago, he has been gracious to both the fans and media. And, oh by the way, he's the best player in hockey.

We used to identify ourselves by our football team, but it's becoming increasingly evident that we might want to reconsider. The Steelers players continue to get into legal trouble and their supposed leader, Ben Roethlisberger, disgraced his team and the city with his disgusting behavior in Georgia. Do you notice how that doesn't happen with Sid the Kid? That's a funny nickname, considering he acts like more of a man than Roethlisberger.

The past month has been an eye-opening experience for even the most ardent Pittsburgh fans, myself included. Both the Steelers and Penguins are winning championships. The difference between both teams are their leaders.

And Sidney Crosby showed once again Friday night why he's the face of Pittsburgh.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Honoring the dead

A 27-year-old Army veteran in full uniform lies dead with a twisted white sheet covering his body. The statue of a Civil War soldier stands over him, looking down as if to gaze at what had happened just a few feet away.

The deceased man apparently used an assault rifle to shoot himself on the steps of the Veterans Affairs medical center in Dayton, Ohio. The man, who I will not name, enlisted in the Army in 2003 shortly after the Iraq invasion before leaving the service in 2007. Details of the soldier's suicide are vague, but it seems to be another reminder of the devastation inflicted on our citizens when they are sent to fight an unjust war.

But political feelings aside, why did The Associated Press feel the need to publish the photo of this man? How does it serve the story in any way besides to sensationalize his death? The AP used the full shot from the Dayton Daily News, which cropped the photo for its website.

There were plenty of times when I was sent out following a fatal car accident -- many times the person was ejected from the vehicle -- and the photographer declined to capture the shot or would not agree to have it published.

Using difficult photos is one of the most troublesome decisions for an editor. Some elicit strong emotional responses that would be tamed with a censored photo. But the details of this soldier's death are clear. And any good reporter would have been able to describe the sad scene, while also preserving this man's dignity.

UPDATE: 4:26 p.m. - In the few minutes after writing this post, the Post-Gazette and Associated Press have taken the non-cropped photo down from their websites.

Photo by Ron Alvey/Dayton Daily News

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A hectic week

The common misconception about breadliners is that we don't do anything. That couldn't be further from the truth, especially for me this week. On Monday morning, I ventured out with the Census and enumerated 18 people for a few hours. Then I wrote a story about a new apartment complex in Braddock for the Trib in the afternoon before covering the Mt. Lebanon School Board meeting in the evening. That's when I got a call from Dan Hirschhorn of asking me to cover a union endorsement on Tuesday for Jack Wagner. Back from that, I had to write a couple political stories for his website before polishing off the Lebo school meeting for the Trib. Toss in a few extra bucks for yardwork and I'd say it was a very productive week.

Braddock housing complex a symbol of renewal

A sparkling new apartment complex for low-income seniors, situated in the shadow of the defunct UPMC Braddock hospital, is set to open Friday, a $13 million project that county and local officials hope will help revitalize the borough.

The Avenue Apartments complex, on Braddock Avenue in the borough's main drag, has 53 units. Pennrose Management Co. has finalized 10 leases since it began accepting residents last month.

The property manager and Mayor John Fetterman are concerned the lack of a hospital next to the apartment complex will waste an opportunity to serve the complex's residents.


Wagner looks to showcase union support

Auditor General Jack Wagner rolled out a slew of union endorsements on Tuesday, seeking to demonstrate his support within the organized labor community even as the state’s largest umbrella labor group did not make an endorsement in the Democratic primary for governor.

About 35 members from six local unions stood behind Wagner in the lobby of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center here, where the AFL-CIO was holding its state convention. Neither Wagner nor Democratic rival Dan Onorato were able to garner the two-thirds vote needed for an endorsement from the AFL-CIO, but the Wagner campaign was clearly looking to downplay that by holding Tuesday morning’s news conference.

“I think it’s powerful,” Wagner said of the union endorsements. “I appreciated every one of them from the bottom of my heart. I always make sure my employees are treated the way I want to be treated. They are really about the middle class and providing quality jobs for Pennsylvania.”


Mt. Lebanon renovation draws criticism, support

Residents packed the Mt. Lebanon School Board meeting Monday night, some to support and others to rail against the proposed high school renovation project.

The board was considering a motion to submit the renovation plans and public feedback to the state Department of Education for approval.

About 25 people spoke -- with opinions on the project's $113.3 million cost evenly divided -- before the board voted 7-2 to forward the documents to the state. School directors James Fraasch and Faith Ann Stipanovich voted against the motion.

The project has prompted a petition drive to lower the costs to $75 million. Mt. Lebanon resident Elaine Gillen brought a stack of papers to the meeting containing 3,333 signatures and laid them on the desk in front of the board.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Slime Bowl XXL

Apart from the Steelers losing Super Bowl XXX and a few AFC Championship Games, I'd be hard-pressed to find a worse day in franchise history. It amazes me how the two most critical players from Super Bowl XLIII -- Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the endzone -- both got into such serious trouble in the offseason. By now, we all know the (alleged) stories, so I won't get into them again.

But we awoke this morning to news that the Steelers had traded Holmes to the N.Y. Jets for a fifth round draft pick. That's all a Super Bowl MVP is worth these days? Actually, that price seems way above market value considering Sanantone's frequent run-ins with the law and his Twitter followers. He told one Twitterer (or is it Tweeter?) to "go drink the worst thing you can drink and kill yourself." That's one way to keep a loyal fanbase. And now he's been suspended for the first four games in 2010 due to a second violation of the NFL's substance abuse police. Apparently, Sanantone likes to "wake n' bake" at his crib. Good riddance to that spoiled idiot.

Amazingly, that wasn't even the biggest headline on Monday. Instead, we were all waiting to hear whether a Georgia prosecutor would file charges against Big Ben after a 20-year-old college student suggested he raped her in a bar bathroom. Although the prosecutor declined to press charges for lack of concrete evidence, his vivid and disgusting details of the incident that occurred in a 5-by-5 foot bathroom made me want to vomit. I'm wondering if public backlash against Roethlisberger might be more ferocious than felony rape charges.

However, District Attorney Fred Bright had a good suggestion for Roethlisberger that both he and his teammates should follow: "Grow up ... You need to be a role model for your team, your city, the NFL. You can do better."

I'll second that.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A cheap date

The 80-degree weather yesterday just begged for an outdoor activity. So my girlfriend and I decided to head to PNC Park for the nightcap between the Pirates and Dodgers. Now, sporting events can get rather expensive, which is a turnoff when you're unemployed. But after 17 losing seasons, the Pirates marketing staff devised a way to keep people coming back. And "Buc Night" worked liked a charm to attract me and Tiffany.

Usually, the cheapest seats available at a game are $9. Throw in a hotdog and coke that each cost about $4.50 and your date night is getting expensive. But not on Wednesday night. The cheap seats, hot dogs, soft drinks and popcorn were all a dollar. With that said, I didn't expect Buc Night and the nice weather to push more than 31,000 people to the ballpark. We stood at the end of the line for several minutes before an older gentleman threw up five tickets and said he was selling them... for a dollar. He had already purchased the tickets online before several people backed out at the last minute. Were they counterfeit tickets, we wondered for a minute? But there really was no reason why he would have taken so much time to manufacture them for a dollar a piece.

So we purchased a couple and zoomed to the gates to beat the crowd waiting in the snaking ticket lines. Then we immediately bought four hot dogs and four (child sized) drinks. Unfortunately, they ran out of hot dogs when we went for a splash-n-go near the end of the game.

The cost for the night was astounding: Parking, two tickets, four hot dogs, eight small cokes and a bag of Cracker Jacks ran us to $22.50. You can't get out of the movies or dinner for that price. Regardless of what people say about the Pirates and owner Bob Nutting, a trip to the ballpark is a steal, especially for the breadliners.

Oh yeah, and the Pirates also won 4-3 in extra innings.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A bleak morning

West Virginians should be bursting at the seams with pride just a few days after their WVU Mountaineers made it to the Final Four in the college basketball tournament. Instead, the state is surrounded in a cloak of sadness today following another coal mining disaster that has most of us dumbfounded by the magnitude of the tragedy.

Nearing the end of the day shift yesterday, a blast ripped through the Big Branch Mine that snakes beneath rural Boone and Raleigh counties. The force of the blast killed seven miners riding on a mantrip as they finished their workday. In total, 25 miners have died and four are missing as of this morning. Rescuers plan to continue searching for survivors later today when methane levels decrease.

There should be no doubt that mining is a dangerous business. Anyone who travels miles into the earth probably understands the inherent risks, but they take pride in their work due to family ties and livable wages. But it should not be acceptable for a country as advanced as ours to endure such a tragedy. A disaster like this usually is reserved for countries with governments -- such as China -- that treat their workers like toy soldiers.

Instead, we have a mine and a company with numerous safety violations and past fatalities. There are few characters in the mining industry with such a poor reputation as Don Blankenship, who owns Massey Energy. You might remember his name from a few years ago when he whisked one of West Virginia's supreme court justices away on an all-inclusive vacation to Monte Carlo. Not long after the trip, the state supreme court ruled to overturn a $75 million decision that Blankenship was originally ordered to pay to a competitor.

That's sleazy, but it's still just money. What happened at 3 p.m. Monday has destroyed lives and families. In a country like ours, I don't understand why it's so readily accepted that people might die while trying to earn a paycheck.

UPDATE: 7:19 p.m. -- I thought ABC News did an excellent job covering this story tonight. Diane Sawyer spoke to a miner who was heading into Big Branch as the explosion happened. He described what it was like to watch his friend being carried out of the mine, which illustrated the heartbreak even for those who survived.

They also interviewed the wife of a miner killed in the blast and spoke to her son, who had just left his shift in the mine minutes before. He teared up as he talked about how badly he wished his father was standing on the porch with them. ABC did not sensationalize these stories, but merely let these people speak for themselves.

At the end, Sawyer interviewed Blankenship and she refused to let him off the hook. He looked contrite as though he realized that the magnitude of this storm might destroy his company. The anchorwoman finished the newscast with a story about why people in West Virginia do such dangerous work. The answer: It's in their blood.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Raise the Jolly Roger!

Even 17 consecutive losing seasons couldn't ruin today. Opening Day in baseball is like a national holiday, and that certainly is the case even in Pittsburgh where a winning season -- let alone a playoff appearance -- seems more elusive than finding a job in this economy.

After enumerating four people in Findlay Township this morning, I returned to my house to polish off some paperwork and sit down in front of the television to watch the game. Expectations couldn't be lower coming out of spring training, but it was exciting nonetheless. Then Garrett "The Legend" Jones crushed a couple of homers to lead a 11-5 rout against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are now a game above .500 and lead their division. It probably won't last longer than the end of the week, but we can dream, right? That's what makes Opening Day special.