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All The News That's Fit to Steal

In December of last year, Monthly Review magazine, of which I am Associate Editor, published an article by Jim Straub titled “Braddock, Pennsylvania: Out of the Furnace and into the Fire.” In his essay, Jim told the story of one of the nation’s most devastated industrial towns. He described how this once famous steel city, home of Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thompson Steel Works and the first of his libraries, has hit the skids and is now one of the poorest places in the United States. The focus of the piece, however, is not on Braddock’s past but on its future. The town has a new and inspiring mayor, 6′ 8″ John Fetterman, who lives in a freight container perched on a “bunker-like” concrete building and who has the town’s zip code tattooed on his left arm. Fetterman is trying to revive Braddock, buying buildings for rehab, starting summer programs for young people, and encouraging artists looking for cheap property to move there.

My purpose here is not to reprise Straub’s fine homage to Braddock. Readers should read it for themselves. Jim has a genuine and unique voice, and I have encouraged him to pursue his project of visiting and writing about several other rust belt villages. When he finishes his series, he will have the making of an excellent book, which I hope Monthly Review Press will publish. Right now Jim is an itinerant union organizer, moving around the country urging workers to unionize and fight for their rights. From what I can gather, he lives a hand-to-mouth existence, trying to balance his literary ambitions with radical political commitments and the need to make a living. His Braddock article has received much praise and was referred to favorably in James Walcott’s Vanity Fair blog, which pleased Jim and all of us at Monthly Review.

What I do want to say here has to do with an email I got on January 31 from my friend Michael Perelman, radical economist and moderator of the Progressive Economists’ Network list (Pen-L). Michael pointed me to a February 1, 2009 New York Times article written by David Streitfeld and titled “Rock Bottom for a Decade, But Showing Signs of Life.” You guessed it. It’s about Braddock. Streitfeld doesn’t write about Braddock with nearly the skill and insight as does Straub. But there are striking parallels. The busted town. The decimated population. The outsized mayor. The zip code tattoo. The references to the Edgar Thompson works and to Thomas Bell’s novel, Out of This Furnace. The out-of-towners come to homestead in dirt cheap houses. The mayor’s social welfare programs. Naively I kept reading Mr. Streitfeld’s post, hoping to see a reference to Straub and Monthly Review. I didn’t.

I finished reading and started to get angry. The only remotely recent references I found to Braddock in the Times were several years old and referred to plays by Braddock native Tony Buba (who, by the way, Straub interviewed but Streitfeld didn’t mention, surprising since anyone who knew anything about Braddock would have been certain to interview Buba, who knows as much about the place as anyone). So what are the chances that, unless Stretfield is from the region (best I can tell he is not. He is based in Chicago and writes about agriculture and real estate for the business desk ), he would have chosen to write about a place not one American in a hundred thousand has ever heard of. I did discover that he wrote a piece about Pittsburgh in early January, but this essay showed a remarkable lack of insight, one more ridiculous and untrue paean to the city that has shed its industrial past and is now a vibrant post industrial oasis. Perhaps after getting the Pittsburgh assignment and reading Straub’s article, he figured that Braddock might give him two bylines for the price of one. I have also learned that Mayor Fetterman and Braddock did receive some media attention even prior to Straub’s publication. It is possible that Streitfeld read just these and then decided to do his own feature story. However, the timing of the Monthly Review essay, its depth, and its mention on Walcott’s blog make this scenario unlikely.

I decided to write a letter to the Public Editor of the Times. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Hoyt:

On January 31, the Times published an article by David Streitfeld on the town of Braddock, PA. This article, titled “Rock Bottom for Decades, But Showing Signs of Life,” is remarkably similar to one published in Monthly Review‘s December issue by Jim Straub–“Braddock, Pennsylvania: Out of the Furnace and into the Fire.” Virtually everything in the Straub article is in Streitfeld’s. Given that the Monthly Review article has gotten a good deal of publicity, even praised on Jame’s Wolcott’s Vanity Fair blog (December 18, 2008). I’d bet that Mr. Streitfeld got the idea for a Braddock piece from Straub and used Straub’s article as a template for his. Yet he gave no credit to Straub or Monthly Review. Straub did the original work and your journalist piggy-backed on it without telling readers what he had done. I am from western Pennsylvania and can assure you that unless Streitfeld is from around there too, he would not know much about Braddock.

The person who informed me of your Braddock piece remarked that newspapers are becoming more like blogs. Original research is a thing of the past. Copying is in.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Yates, Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Editorial Director of Montlhy Review Press

I did not get a reply from Mr. Hoyt, but one of his assistants wrote to assure me that my email would be forwarded to Mr. Streitfeld. The latter has yet to contact me.

Alexander Cockburn has excoriated the New York Times more than once for its sloppy and, as in this case, nonexistent journalism. These days I stick to the business pages and sports. The rest of the paper is pretty stupid. Insiders stroking one another in the arts section and Sunday book reviews. A travel section devoted primarily to the wealthy (with, I suspect, a good deal of plagiarism). Same for the food articles, which also have the virtue of giving plenty of space to chefs whose restaurants are accused of stealing wages from their workers. The newspapers shouldn’t wonder that readers are quitting their subscriptions in droves and getting their news elsewhere. If they did some real, critical reporting, they would come back.

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