Is newspaper's anti-Rohr campaign over the line?

Some say newspaper's campaign against PNC's Rohr goes too far

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On the evening of April 24, a crowd gathered at the Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh's Cultural District to celebrate and roast outgoing Pittsburgh Cultural Trust chairman James Rohr, who also runs the state's largest bank, PNC Financial Services Group.

When it was Grant Oliphant's turn to speak, he raised the delicate topic of the "Jim Rohr box" -- a daily editorial-page feature in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review lambasting and lampooning Mr. Rohr for accepting $48 million in taxpayer support to help build a new Downtown skyscraper.

"What I did was poke fun at the notion of anybody in the community going after somebody for the sin of trying to save Downtown," said Mr. Oliphant, vice president of programs and planning for The Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh's second-largest philanthropy. "I poked fun, but the point was serious. The guy is doing fabulous and important things to help the community and he shouldn't be getting attacked like that."

The crowd appreciated the humor -- and the message. "I laughed so hard," said former Trust President Carol Brown.

Newspapers and magazines have been poking fun at business figures since the days of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. But as the Tribune-Review's Rohr-box campaign enters its seventh month, some of Pittsburgh's best-known civic figures are rallying around Mr. Rohr, a man the Tribune-Review now calls "the new face of American corporatism." His supporters argue that the newspaper's aim no longer is simply to attack the use of public money on private real estate projects. They believe the newspaper is more interested in questioning the motives and ethics of the person who runs Pittsburgh's most profitable company and chairs its most prominent business booster group, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

"To me, it became destructive and hateful and that's what troubled me," said Maxwell King, president of The Heinz Endowments and the former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. An editorial page "has every right to philosophically disagree with public subsidies and take on that topic and write about it with vigor. What I thought they did was turn a corner, taking it from a philosophical debate to an ad hominem attack against an individual."

Making it worse for Mr. King was that, in his view, "they picked the individual who I happen to think is the greatest business and civic leader in this community."

Former Cultural Trust President Ms. Brown, who worked closely with Mr. Rohr before she left the nonprofit arts organization in 2001, believes the daily drumbeat from the Tribune-Review could have a "chilling effect" on future development in the Downtown area. "The campaign against him has become so personal and obsessive it reminds me of (George) Santayana's definition of a zealot," said Ms. Brown, invoking the name of a 20th century Spanish-American philosopher. "A zealot is an individual who intensifies his efforts as he loses sight of his goals."

The Tribune-Review campaign began with the bank's decision last year to build a 23-story skyscraper on Fifth Avenue, at the heart of Pittsburgh's dilapidated central business district, billing it as a much-needed boost for larger redevelopment efforts Downtown. PNC is paying $130 million, or 73 percent of the total cost.

The state contributed $30 million in exchange for a pledge from PNC to create 1,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania over a five-year period. Local government also signed off on a $18 million tax-increment financing package, which doesn't take away existing property tax revenue but does divert a portion of future increases spawned by new development to help pay for the development, in this case PNC's office-hotel-retail complex . The city, Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh Public Schools all signed off on the arrangement , which will divert about $1.8 million of an estimated $3 million of new revenue created by the project to pay off bonds , with the remaining $1.2 million going to the three government entities.

Public support of development projects is always controversial, and the Tribune-Review is a frequent critic of such arrangements, having made similar free-market arguments during the building of PNC Park and Heinz Field, two private projects that benefitted from public assistance.

In the case of PNC and Mr. Rohr, an October 2006 editorial argued that PNC, which made $2.6 billion last year, "clearly has the financial wherewithal to underwrite its own risky endeavors" and that "it should give back the public's money ."

The running of the "Rohr box" began in early November on the lower left-hand side of the editorial page. Each day there is a photo of Mr. Rohr, sometimes wearing a tuxedo, sometimes a tie. The wording varies but the message is the same. Some recent samples: "Billions in profits & acquisitions. Yet PNC is getting a $48 million public subsidy? Give it back, Mr. Rohr." Or, "PNC must pay its own way, Mr. Rohr: return the $48 million!" And "taxpayers don't exist to limit your risk, Mr. Rohr. Return the $48 million!"

The director of the Tribune-Review editorial page, Colin McNickle, explained the daily focus in a Dec. 10, 2006, column, writing that "what Rohr and PNC are doing to Pittsburgh is so egregious -- a public molestation -- the editorials, read one day and forgotten the next, aren't enough. ... Sometimes a full-frontal daylight and right-between-the-eyes assault is required."

Mr. McNickle could not be reached for comment, nor could the newspaper's president, Ralph Martin, or its owner, Richard Mellon Scaife.

Defenders of the Tribune-Review see nothing wrong with the newspaper's expression of opinion or its focus on Mr. Rohr.

The newspaper is " personalizing it to point out that people make decisions," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank often in alignment with the Tribune-Review's free-market opinions and funded in part by several foundations controlled by Mr. Scaife. "PNC didn't make the decision; it was made by people" at PNC, led by Mr. Rohr. The newspaper " and I view it as a matter of principle ."

Newspaper industry ethicists are somewhere in the middle, acknowledging the unusual nature of the Rohr campaign but also noting that it harkens back to colorful newspaper campaigns of old that targeted high-profile corporate figures.

"I think there are all kinds of good reasons to cringe at this kind of campaign, which comes very close to suggesting that this guy, himself, Jim Rohr, is pocketing this money," said former newspaper editor and columnist Edward Wasserman, now a professor of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. "It all but says he has his hand in the public till. So, sure, it causes you to cringe a bit and it's obviously a very powerful polemic they have decided to undertake."

But is it unethical? Mr. Wasserman says no. "I understand why people look at this and say, 'Wow, this is really over the top,'" he said. " 'This is excessive. This is really not warranted. They are going too far.' I happen to agree with all those objections but I don't think it takes them into the realm of behaving unethically."

Bob Steele, who teaches media ethics and values at St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank The Poynter Institute, admits that "it is unusual to see a campaign of this intensity on an editorial page, a daily focus on one individual" and the intensity "is certainly much greater than virtually any example I can think of." All newspapers, he said, have to apply the tests of tone and proportion to any editorial-page crusade.

Whether they know or acknowledge it, PNC and the Tribune-Review have something in common on this issue.

Not noted in the many editorials and Rohr boxes is that the Tribune-Review Publishing Co. asked for public subsidies in the mid 1990s when preparing to build a $43 million printing plant in Marshall , inside the Thorn Hill Industrial Park. The newspaper company sought to qualify the site for Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance -- a state program that allows local municipalities, school districts and counties to offer abatements on property taxes, thereby lessening the burden on new development.

The township already had awarded "a couple" LERTA designations before the Tribune-Review's application arrived, said Neil McFadden, the Marshall manager. But on advice of counsel, Marshall rejected the request.

"He was finding it really a reach that prime real estate in a developed industrial park was a, quote-unquote, distressed area," Mr. McFadden said. "It did qualify as vacant land but we hardly had a brownfield situation out there."

The Tribune-Review, which went ahead and built its plant in 1996 and 1997 without public assistance, has argued that PNC's request for help with its Downtown development is "downright immoral."

But Ms. Brown, formerly of the Cultural Trust, counters by saying because of its Downtown location, PNC's new high-rise is much costlier to build than a similar-sized suburban development. "Anyone who has been involved in Downtown revitalization efforts in the last 10 to 15 years knows that the economics are very, very challenging because the Downtown real estate market is so depressed," she said. "Subsidies are required to launch any new project."

Mr. Rohr, when asked about the Tribune-Review's interest in his project, declined comment, so it is not known how he feels or how he might defend himself. A bank spokesman also declined comment.

But according to Mr. Oliphant, who stuck up for Mr. Rohr at the April Cultural Trust tribute, the longtime banker certainly seemed to appreciate the support. "He thanked me for the remarks afterward," Mr. Oliphant said.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
James Rohr speaks during a news conference announcing his appointment as PNC's chief executive officer in a 2000 file photo.
Click photo for larger image.A $48 million public subsidy for Three PNC Plaza, seen above in an artist's rendering, has been the source of a campaign by the Tribune-Review newspaper against Mr. Rohr.
Click photo for larger image.

Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.


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