Dennis Roddy on the Veep Announcement, Why Pittsburgh is Really a Midwestern City, and Free Beer

Dennis B. Roddy

Dennis B. Roddy is a syndicated columnist and reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has covered news and politics in Pittsburgh for the last 30 years. Before joining the Post-Gazette he was a political reporter with the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press. He spoke with Campaign Desk from Pittsburgh as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the election.

Thomas Lang: There was a big announcement [of Kerry’s selection of Edwards as his running mate] in Pittsburgh this past week. How accurate do you think the national media was in its portrayal of the announcement and its portrayal of Pittsburgh?

Dennis B. Roddy: At the end of the day Pittsburgh is an American city and he had to make the announcement somewhere. Frankly, a lot of us are still trying to figure out why he chose to do it here and to do it this particular way. Usually when you announce your selection you try to have that person on hand so they can give him a look. At the same time there is also the sense that once he hinted broadly that he had made the selection, it was pretty clear that people were going to desperately try to claw their way through the airplane hanger walls and get a look at the new decal on the side of the plane. I know we tried like hell to do that, so he had to announce.

Obviously, this is a state they want to carry. Pennsylvania has gone with the majority of the American voters in every election since 1968. This is a state they want to win. Pittsburgh is a pretty reasonable venue to do a rally like this.

As far as how the national press portrayed it, the only real thing I would take a dispute with is one of the earlier pieces I saw on the wire that talked about a huge crowd in Market Square. They couldn’t get a large crowd in Market Square, first of all, because Market Square is not huge, and secondly, because it took so long once people showed up to get them through security that a third of the crowd was left down the street out of sight of the podium.

… [Also], there are very bizarre territorial boundaries being drawn inside John Kerry rallies … how they let people through, who they let through, and who they put where.

TL: David M. Shribman joined the paper over a year ago from the Boston Globe, and now local resident Teresa Heinz Kerry is involved in a presidential run. Has the presence of these two people changed the focus of the paper’s coverage or the way the paper is covering election?

DBR: Teresa Heinz Kerry is not just a candidate’s wife. She is a local celebrity here and was well known long before that. There are two things we find ourselves doing. Of course, paying a lot of attention to this campaign because Teresa Heinz Kerry is from here and she has a sizable farm here — what one TV reporter referred to as the Kerry ranch. Which I just loved, because this is Pittsburgh, and we barely have ranch dressing. Teresa Heinz Kerry brings him here a lot. He’s camped out in the area. We are sort of the Western White House in exile right now.

The second thing it has done is that it has made us have to check the impulse to jump on to the national bandwagon that seeks to portray Teresa Heinz Kerry as a very exotic person. If she didn’t have an accent, people wouldn’t be writing about her the way they do.

I saw this Newsweek cover that said something like “Teresa Heinz Kerry: loose cannon or crazy like a fox?” There is this out-of-space perspective that they are applying to her.

In Pittsburgh she is considered another Pittsburgher; not terribly unusual, not particularly liberal and not what we would consider a giver to any radical or extreme causes. She comes out of the traditional moderate Republican tradition. So all of this coverage of Teresa Heinz Kerry as Hillary Clinton with a big scarf and unruly hair leaves everyone here perplexed. And of course, like the rest of America, so many of us in Pittsburgh take our cue from the national media, so we have to check our impulse to join in on it.

As for David Shribman he came to town figuring that he was going to cover national politics along with the local news. In other words, he came to town to make us act like a big city paper. And that is what he has us doing. So far he is getting high marks even though he is a Red Sox fan.

TL: I noticed a few days ago you did a real-time online story for the Post-Gazette website after Kerry’s VP announcements. Large papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post now have small operations dedicated to online coverage. How have the pressures of online journalism affected political coverage at the Post-Gazette? What are you doing to keep up?

DBR: It’s important to note first off that a lot of the story was AP copy, as was acknowledged. I’m used to this [type of reporting]. You’ve got to remember that a quarter of the staff here is from the old Pittsburgh Press which was an afternoon newspaper. Not only was it an afternoon paper but also it was too cheap to buy laptops and cell phones. A lot of us were very accustomed to running out in the morning and grabbing a pay phone, a neighbor’s phone, or even stealing a cell phone from a competing reporter and simply dictating a story from the location. The stuff you saw at the top of the story was simply me dictating it right from the rally. It’s not a big change for me. For some of the others it would be.

I’m seeing some reporters come in and I’m amazed that they take hours to write a deadline story. They are very much trained in the art of perfectionism. We’re not writing for posterity. We’re writing for Thursday.

The short answer on how the web has changed things is that it has given us an afternoon edition without the expenses. People are going to have to relearn the lost craft of shouting a half-written story into the phone and counting on someone over here [hearing] everything right.

In other words, the web has brought back one of the oldest forms of journalism — afternoon deadlines.

TL: This campaign season has seen a number of battleground-focused stories picking apart every minute detail of states such as Ohio, Florida, and yours, Pennsylvania. What’s the story in Pennsylvania that national papers are missing?

DBR: I don’t know that it is a specific story so much as it is that [they aren’t] getting a real sense of the place. Remember when Michael Winerip from the New York Times moved to Canton, Ohio, which is a really brave thing to do, even if you are just moving there as an accountant. He moves there and immerses himself in the culture. So what the national media misses — and what has to be missed, what we would miss if we hopped on the campaign plane and were stalking the candidate — is an on-the-ground long-term sense of understanding. It’s something a philosopher would have to dissect to explain, the sense of effect and perception that you simply get by being in a place.

So Pennsylvania gets a large-picture story, usually about the economy and the trending-right/trending-left template. But it doesn’t mean you really understand Pennsylvania, because it’s a lot of different states. Pittsburgh isn’t an Eastern city; it’s a Midwestern city. If you had to apply a geographic ethos to Pittsburgh it would be Midwestern. Philadelphia is an eastern city. The town I grew up in — Johnstown, PA, which is 72 miles east of here — is an Appalachian city. We even have a different accent. Erie has a great deal more in common with Cleveland and Buffalo that it does with Pittsburgh. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is in the orbit of the New York Daily News. So you miss a real sense of the understanding of the individual regions within Pennsylvania, which really comprises many states.

That’s why I think it’s really important, and it only took me 30 years to learn this so I must be good at what I do, that local reporters cover the national campaign from their home towns. Simply, look out from their hometowns at these guys coming in. Understanding Washington or understanding how the national reporters look at the country as a whole doesn’t really help you understand the campaign as it connects to your readers.

When I was a political reporter for the Pittsburgh Press, for a long time I thought this is awful because they don’t spend the money to send us all over the country. Then I started to notice reporters flying into Pittsburgh to report about the campaign by visiting Pittsburgh and I thought, good God, I’m already here, I know the town. It’s actually helpful to have a politics writer who doesn’t live in D.C. but who lives in the town you are based, because you need to tell readers things that are going to be important to them and also you need access to people you understand, to a region you know.

TL: Everyone’s looking for the essential swing group this election season. Who do you think the Steelers-fan vote is going to go for?

DBR: It’s going to go to the first candidate with the good sense to hold an open rally and post a big sign that says “Free Beer.”

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.