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Editorial: Rendell on the line / A reporter does the public a favor by listening in
Thursday, November 25, 2004

It was an unusual situation that a Post-Gazette reporter found himself in earlier this week. After the Legislature passed an imperfect bailout plan for Pittsburgh, Gov. Ed Rendell called members of City Council with some advice. One council member invited a PG reporter to listen in on the conference call.

Consider that the duty of a reporter is to shine light into dark corners. Journalistic ethics make clear that misrepresentation is wrong, but it says nothing about an invitation to stand in the shadows and listen. This was public business and it is hard to imagine that other interested parties, like aides, weren't listening, too. Why would the representative of the reading public, the most interested party of all, turn down such an offer?

The reporter listened and got an earful. Despite his representations to lawmakers in Harrisburg, Mr. Rendell told council he had a plan to get a commuter tax, although he did not divulge details. As for those lawmakers who don't like to raise taxes, "They're cowards."

In short, the call revealed that while Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, may not be a weasel, he can do a pretty good impression of one. Republican lawmakers, in particular, were understandably upset, no doubt thinking that in swallowing their distaste for the bailout plan all they got was a lousy gubernatorial song and dance.

Of course, once the Post-Gazette came out with its light shining into the dark recesses, the tune changed. Now it was time for the classic excuse of people who are found out: The words were misconstrued and Mr. Rendell said he has no plans to seek a commuter tax for Pittsburgh.

This came courtesy of one of the greatest quotes ever to be uttered at a news conference: "The reporter probably violated most journalistic standards I've heard of," Mr. Rendell said. "He only listened to a portion of the call. If he was going to unethically eavesdrop, he should have eavesdropped on the whole conversation."

Not to be outdone in the annals of folly, Council President Gene Ricciardi, Mayor Tom Murphy and other council members then called for an investigation into how the call came to be overheard by the reporter.

It is certainly very shocking when the public finds out what is being done by public officials behind closed doors, but the use of city resources to investigate a reporter is beyond chutzpah. Just think: No investigation will be launched into how the city got into its huge financial hole, but a witch hunt is recommended over a simple conference call.

To his credit, Gov. Rendell doesn't support an investigation. Smart people know when they are found out.

First published on November 25, 2004 at 12:00 am