All posts for the month July, 2016

Way back in the 90s, I put a Sam Katz for Mayor sign in my Philadelphia window. To my recollection, it is the only political sign I have ever put out, if you don’t count my old “don’t blame me, I voted for Perot” bumper sticker.

Sam Katz was a republican candidate running for mayor in a Democrat town. Ed Rendell had run his two terms and up next on the Democratic ticket was John Street, a bully of a City Councilman who’d decided to throw his name in the ring.  The city was still (yes) reeling from W. Wilson Goode’s two terms in office and finally getting over Frank Rizzo. Katz came out of nowhere and ran a solid campaign, convincing the city’s intelligentsia, and moreover, the editorial board of the left-leaning Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Inky endorsing a Republican candidate for mayor was the east coast equivalent of a magnitude 8 earthquake, and it left the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board in a bit of a pinch. The Inquirer had leaned left for so long that this shift caught everyone by surprise. The News pulled their endorsement editorial and sat on it for a week, during which the editorial board decided to endorse Street. Street went on to win the election, and by all measures was a good mayor for the city during his terms.

Some time after the election, the editor of the Daily News was interviewed about the endorsement of Street, and opened pointed out that endorsing Katz as they had wanted to do would not sell papers. Endorsing Street was news on many levels. First, it made a race out of the contest. Second, Street was a character – he sported a big afro with a white Bride-of-Frankenstein streak and kept a fleet of conversion vans and ATVs on his Overbrook property – and was known to lose his cool in Council meetings. Third, brother Milton Street was a multiply-convicted felon, so there was opportunity for scandal. And fourth, the flip-flop of positions by the two papers was news in and of itself. By holding their endorsement editorial, they kept the discussion of the papers’ roles in city politics at the forefront of discussion, selling a ton of papers on that news alone.  Street’s personality was good for at least one feature a week. Milton stayed out of trouble for the most part. The race was on. Three out of four bets paid off. Papers sold, both from the News and from the Inquirer, too. Subscriptions at both papers went up.

It’s arguable whether the Daily News’ endorsement and coverage actually influenced the election – Street was a popular black councilman with well-honed skills in back-room city management, and Katz was a total outsider of the Ross Perot mould who tanked with the working class. All the wishful thinking in Chestnut Hill wasn’t going to get Katz elected, and Street swept the neighborhoods. To be clear: this is about the media using the candidate, not the influence the media had over the public. Papers sold. The two papers successfully (if unplanned) co-opted the election for themselves.

This co-opting is happening again in our entire US media. The demand for clicks is so high that our newsmedia is going for anything that will sell their content, regardless of what it looks like. This is scary, because Donald Trump is no John Street. He’s no Sam Katz, either, not by a long shot.

So, dear media, please stop worrying about selling clicks. They are coming to you regardless. But I need reporting, not clickbait. I need the deep analysis more than ever. I need you to treat politics like the future of our country, not the Kardashians. I need your editors to double down on the meaning of “fit to print”. Please. Now.


His first thought had been “well, that was easy.” It was a long time ago, but some days it still seemed fresh. A bit escapist, sure, but fresh, and clean, thanks to the car wash. He still occasionally used the single old self-service bay, and always put a $100 in the tip jar, even if he didn’t get a towel dry. It was the only place from that day in real life that he ever revisited.

He had parked his car in the driveway like every other day, walked up the path, and into the house. Same car, same driveway, same house. Same beige barge of boredom, same cold grey concrete, same cookie-cutter dwelling. He was different, sure, but he knew that no one could see it and it wouldn’t matter to anyone who saw him, anyway. This time it was a little more, and the risk had been a little greater, but ok, a little physical risk once in a while was not a bad thing. Fear in small quantities is a benefit. Kept him on his toes. The usual way of doing it was boring and nearly without risk, because he was so good at what he did. People rarely noticed his actions or even questioned them when they did.

He had washed the car right before he got home and parked. The high pressure bay was open like he had planned. No stress there. It took a little longer than he expected to complete the job, mostly because of all of the cracks and crevices and their ability to hold the brownish-red stuff covering the car. He was surprised at the tenacity of the material he was trying to remove, especially because it was supposed to come off more easily if you got to it quickly. That’s why he had chosen this means to his end. The radio was on, he liked the news station and he was hearing what he expected to hear. The information was wrong, but hey, no one else needed to know that. Ten minutes before he dropped his quarters in, he had been in a dangerous place doing a dangerous thing. A financially rewarding dangerous thing. At least everyone saw him do it. He was pleased to know that he had been seen.

He was getting away from the scene, just a few hours of his life and just a little money to stow in the offshore bank he’d set up and been quietly feeding for a few years now. The sirens were wailing nearby, time to get going with the next step. It was time to get away with it.

The encounter had gone off without a hitch. He got what he was after and drew the attention he wanted. It was surprisingly public for a person who stayed in the shadows most of the time. He assessed the target as he approached the meeting point. He re-established trust and made sure to make a show of how he arrived. He liked his not-very-special car, even in this guise. It was in many ways a very good car for him, even if he barely recognized it as his. From then on, the scene wasn’t pretty by any means. It was an ugly, brutish takedown, and he was counting on as many witnesses as he could get. He needed them to see his car.

The car wash was important. He knew that this was actually the highest risk element. It had to be operating and he had to be able to get into the high pressure bay. Worst case would be a delay there, so he had stopped by on the way and jammed a slug into the coin-op unit. He figured that he could put a $100 in the tip jar another day if everything played out ok.

He had gotten into the car more smoothly than he expected to. He had been a little worried that he would spend too much time there because it was different now. No hesitation. No hitches in the plan. Out of the garage, onto the street. Checking off the mental checklist in his head. Necessary tools were packed. Slugs in pocket. Plan in place.

The prep work for the encounter was surprisingly little work. He had been even shocked about how easy it was, he’d expected to spend hours on it, and in reality it wasn’t much more than one. A bit of newspaper here, some tape there. Some draping off of the surroundings and trash hauling. Uber for a couple of days while the car was “at the shop”. No stress, if you didn’t count the extra bag of trash that week.

The encounter had been in the plan for a while, but the getaway had been a sticking point until a few months earlier. The kid who delivered the mail at the office had given him the idea when he had arrived at work in a different colored car every week for a while. The kid fun to talk to, a gear head on a low budget who was always fiddling around with something. He’d asked the kid about the color changes and thankfully gotten the idea before he pried too much and made his interest too clear. The kid had said that he just sprayed it on and then washed it off at the car wash when he got bored, you know, the one over on Batton Street with the self-service high pressure bay. The kid laughed as he recalled the secretary who thought he kept buying a new car each week. The idea was coming together.

He smiled as he thought back to it. Every once in a while, he entertained the idea again. Not the encounter, that was enough of that and he was back to his normal way of padding the account. It was safer, and way easier. However, the whole getting away thing… That might be worth revisiting one day.