There are rules to writing for a newspaper. Journalistic ethics, we call them.
Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson: Shot-and-beer Pittsburgh froths at mouth, Jan. 18, 2006
Morning File by Peter Leo: Denver columnist calls Pittsburgh "one butt-ugly town", Jan. 19, 2006
Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson: Yinz might like Steeler Nation, after all, Jan. 19, 2006
For example, I would never stoop to publish something unless the source knew that I intended to write about it.
But once you call my city "butt-ugly," baby, all bets are off.
I first heard of Bill Johnson, a columnist for The Rocky Mountain News, on Wednesday, the day the Post-Gazette published my story looking at Steelers fans in Denver. Some readers who saw what I wrote e-mailed me their thoughts.
Some readers e-mailed me Bill Johnson's thoughts.
Apparently, Mr. Johnson's editors, looking ahead to Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and the Broncos, had sent him on a like-minded mission to scope out the football fans in "enemy territory." (Mr. Johnson was flown out here and put up in a hotel. I worked the phones from my desk.)
Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson, by his own admission, rattled off his first impressions only a few short hours after arriving in Pittsburgh. And first impressions, as so many of us know, can be dangerous things.
As reported in The Rocky Mountain News and subsequently in the Post-Gazette and countless radio and television stations, Mr. Johnson's peek at Pittsburgh was a little bleary-eyed. He called the Monongahela River the Ohio. He saw steel mills where none existed. He saw weeds in smokestacks and bars on every block.
He called our city "butt-ugly."
Some might say "them's fightin' words." Whatever, they certainly stir the blood.
So I called him out on it. Not to a brawl or anything, but rather to a friendly tour of our friendly city.
Mr. Johnson answered his phone with laugh and said he'd be happy to join me. We met a few minutes later in the hotel bar, not far from the first barmaid he'd interviewed in his glimpse of Pittsburgh.
He couldn't have been nicer. Sure, he was taking a devilish delight in the furor he'd sparked, but he didn't mean any harm.
Besides, he told me, he was already paying for his sins. Former Pittsburghers living in Denver had loyally stood up for the old homestead and sent hundreds of e-mails and left scores of voice mails telling him off. Others had seen his words on the Internet and had echoed the cries of "foul."
And, truthfully, he'd had a night to sleep on it and spent a sunny day in our fair city. By the time we hooked up, he'd already filed a column for the next day's paper softening some of his stances and sharing more of Pittsburgh than he'd seen on the surface.
I told him that there was much more to see than Station Square, the South Side, the Strip District and Heinz Field.
"Get in the car."
I promised that I wasn't out to sell Pittsburgh. I just wanted to show Pittsburgh.
Our first stop was Bloomfield, where we dined at Tessaro's restaurant. I thought this would be a good place to start. So, apparently, did Mr. Johnson.
"You see!" he exclaimed as he exited the car. "This is exactly what I was talking about."
He gestured to the homes and shops lining Liberty Avenue. "This is an old neighborhood," he said accusatorily. "In Denver, these buildings would have been torn down and something new would be built."
I didn't know how to respond to that. I was, like, "Yeah, OK, come on before someone runs you over."
My friends at Tessaro's didn't disappoint me. Things were kind of slow, so they were happy to sit with us and talk to Mr. Johnson about the glories of Pittsburgh.
This was what I wanted. And I wasn't pulling any punches. Everyone to whom I introduced Mr. Johnson was told right off the bat that this was the guy who dissed us big-time in The Rocky Mountain News.
I guess Pittsburghers are sort of used to it. Most of them feign to be highly insulted, then smile and patiently try to share their appreciation for the things that the newcomer cannot see.
It was the same in Oakland, where we stopped at the Fuel and Fuddle for the end of the Pitt basketball game. The university students and teachers there were engaging and sociable, even after learning what a villain was in their midst. (The Broncos shirt he was wearing didn't help matters.)
I showed him the Cathedral of Learning, the Carnegie Museum and the old Forbes Field wall. I pointed out the stretch of medical facilities that give us so much to brag about. We looked at college girls.
Then it was off to Mount Washington, where I live. The Shiloh Inn, with its renovated restaurant and heavy-wooden piano bar, seemed perfect. Until, of course, he spotted the television set showing Denver's NBA team playing Cleveland. "I had tickets to that game," he mused. "You guys don't have an NBA team, do you?"
That meant it was time for the Overlook. It was a little chilly, but it's always worth it.
The nighttime view, as you know, is spectacular. A bright, shiny skyline, perfectly sized and properly pointed, squeezed between three black, rolling rivers. You can't view other cities like that.
I asked him if he still thought it was "butt-ugly."
He said he didn't want to hurt my feelings, but, yeah, he didn't think it was much to look at.
Well, that's it, I thought. I've done all I could do. My work here was finished. And I took him back to his hotel.
He's flying back to Denver tomorrow. And he's not back-pedaling.
Today, I see, people are still trying to show Mr. Johnson the light. A local television station also took him on a tour. The Post-Gazette's Morning File gave him some tough love. And readers of both papers have continued to share their thoughts.
Some are friendlier than others, but, hey, he started it.
Dan Majors can be reached at 412-263-1456 or firstname.lastname@example.org .