Friday, October 21, 2005

Public Outrage vs. The Pennsylvania Punditocracy: Who Ya Got?

Public Outrage vs. The Pennsylvania Punditocracy: Who Ya Got?

What do you get when you combine an “anonymous web site devoted to state politics,” the politically connected Punditocracy, and a public eager to shake up the establishment?

A big mess.

In the royal rumble that also includes a now-focused media, the state and federal courts, gubernatorial candidates, a slew of interest groups, and a giant inflatable pig, one wonders just how ugly things will get before the May primary.

My advice: book the cleaning crews.

What began as political outsiders and the media expressing outrage at governmental largess has developed into a political awakening of the masses that may influence Pennsylvania politics for decades. With so much at stake, no one is in the middle. Even the observers have become participants.

Professor Pundit

Enter Professor G. Terry Madonna. OK, scratch “enter.” He was already there. Madonna considers himself Pennsylvania’s “pollster laureate” and never met a microphone he didn’t like. The guy is so omnipresent, few would be surprised if he gave commentary on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Entertainment Tonight.

Madonna’s views on the reform movement seem to morph depending on which way the wind blows. Citing pre-Information Age political history (one might as well look to the fossil record), he first announced that public anger wouldn’t last more than a few weeks. Then he declared the movement “has legs.”

In a bizarre twist that indicates just how self-important he is, Madonna put out a press release in response to a rival pollster’s numbers. A “private citizen” commissioned national pollster Kellyanne Conway and The Polling Company to gauge voter opinions in Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer’s district. Jubelirer will likely be opposed in his own primary by Blair County Commissioner John Eichelberger.

The poll found that Jubelirer – one of the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania – was trailing Eichelberger. Strangely, Madonna fired off a news release urging the media to ignore the poll. Madonna accused Conway of failing to disclose certain AAPOR “minimal information.”

The Tribune-Review rightly dismissed Madonna’s criticism. AAPOR standards allow the pollster to “make available when that report is released” the information Madonna whined about (but never requested). Reporters who contacted Conway got the information. Ironically, Conway shot back at Madonna, pointing to several questionable survey methods he employed in the past.

Truth be told, Madonna is neither a pollster nor a credible analyst. He’s a pundit. In the past, he’s provided purportedly unbiased analysis on political matters while lobbying Harrisburg on behalf of APSCUF (can you say “conflict of interest?”). Criticism over that flap, Madonna’s flawed (push) polling and his self-promotion creates a serious credibility gap for the man who wishes to be Pennsylvania’s foremost talking head.

Kurtin’s Cawl

After the successful Harrisburg rally, Curtin…or Curtain…or whoever (even PoliticsPA can’t decide which it is, spelling it both ways on the same page), first name omitted, jumped into the fray and labeled the whole protest a “circus.”

The mystery man (I’m sure he’s not so mysterious to “insiders”) embarked on a cynical, typo-filled tirade that ripped the reform movement, PACleanSweep’s founder, YCOP, and others.

Apparently, PACleanSweep’s strategy is “doomed to fail.” Founder Russ Diamond is a “self-promoter disguising himself as an activist” and he shouldn’t be taken seriously because he’s changed political parties. Mr. C. even claims Diamond may be on the ballot in November as a Democrat. Fact check, anyone? If you want to question someone’s credibility, do a little homework. Five minutes of research uncovers a number of erroneous attacks in Curtin’s column.

I’d gladly debate strategy and “divide and conquer” politics with this hack, but I’m sure he’s too busy learning how to use spell check.

Cut Down to Ceis

Then there’s Larry Ceisler of the public relations firm Ceisler Jubelirer. The Jubelirer is Jeff, son of the aforementioned senator who reformers would love to see toppled next year. Ceisler Jubelirer lists the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (a group aimed at “fostering judicial independence”) as clients. Ceisler’s old company, Snowline Communications, scored a hefty $585K contract with the House Democrats.

Predictably, Ceisler attacked PACleanSweep’s opposition to the retention of Supreme Court Justices Sandra Newman and Russell Nigro, calling it “stupid and irresponsible.” Ceisler was all over PACleanSweep’s alleged motivation, labeling it “locked into a ‘guilt by association’ philosophy” while accusing PACleanSweep of supporting a “no” vote as “the proper way to send a strong message of disgust regarding the pay raise.”

Ceisler made it personal, too, leveling his criticism directly at PACleanSweep founder Russ Diamond (he even titled his column, “Diamonds and Rust.” Diamond’s photo was plastered at the top of the column (even bigger than the photos of Newman and Nigro) and Ceisler personally called out Diamond four times. The main page of PoliticsPA features Diamond’s photo with an unfriendly “zoom in” effect. How mature.

Facts be damned. Homework? Who has time?! Apparently Ceisler lost sight of his public relations background and forgot that credibility is the backbone of effective PR. Ceisler didn’t bother to contact PACleanSweep to check his facts, or even read PACleanSweep’s official position on the justices.

Ceisler made such bizarre and factually challenged statements as “Russell Nigro and Sandra Newman by all accounts have been excellent jurists,” “The clash comes with those who have toiled for years to take the money and politics out of judicial races,” and “the sitting Justices may be forced to crank up the fundraising machinery one last time.” Pick up a paper, Larry. You’ll find plenty of “accounts” that are less than flattering. As for fundraising, Nigro raised over $300K before any opposition even materialized. What’s more, Ceisler himself apparently doesn’t mind keeping the money in judicial races. He had no qualms giving $25K to a judicial candidate just six months ago.*

Ceisler does an excellent job of building up a phony rationale for opposing the retention of Newman and Nigro, attributing it to Diamond and PACleanSweep, and then tearing it all down. How sporting of him.

Adding personal insult to injury, Ceisler accused Diamond of something worse than “a ‘kill the messenger’ tactic.” He did this without inquiring into Diamond’s role in PACleanSweep adopting its anti-retention position: none. Diamond had absolutely no hand in PACleanSweep’s Board of Directors voting to oppose retention. He didn’t even write the press release that followed. Now who’s killing the messenger, Larry?

To Ceisler’s credit, he remains accessible. In preparation for this response, I contacted him to verify some facts and he sent a prompt and substantive reply. He may have missed the mark by a wide margin, but at least he’s willing to talk about it. That’s more than can be said of the rest of the Punditocracy.

Anonymity’s Downfall

So who is Sy Snyder, and does it matter? Hasn’t Snyder presented balanced political commentary and done a public service by hosting PoliticsPA?

I’m not saying, yes, sort of, and no.

Since good ole Sy could censor this, I won’t venture a guess as to his identity. OK, I have more than a mere guess. But you can ask around yourself. It’s not that big a secret anymore. I won’t even say which party Sy backs, or which power brokers he’s associated with. Let’s just say this: Sy is connected to powerful figures in the Pennsylvania political establishment.

It matters because we’re beyond partisanship. Though there have been allegations that Sy has allowed PoliticsPA to nudge content in one direction, it has been pretty balanced. But now that it’s “establishment vs. reformers,” can the newly awoken outsiders possibly expect a fair shake from an anonymously insider-run political site?

In the new Pennsylvania where average citizens are pitted against the political establishment, insiders all want to be on the winning team. History labels the odds of a real “revolution” as slim, so what’s the upside of backing the angry mob with pitchforks? If you’re Terry Madonna, Curtin, or Larry Ceisler – none.

As for providing a public service, I’m sure Sy and the gang aren’t making a dime off those annoying pop-ups that prevent some users from even accessing the site.**

Anonymity is lovely when it comes to protecting one’s identity for the purpose of speaking without fear of retaliation. But when it’s used to hide one’s true intentions and affiliations, credibility takes a whopping hit.

PoliticsPA is now set to become a relic – a Turkish bathhouse where a small collection of political insiders and their cronies come to chew the fat. The average Pennsylvanian doesn’t need to be told that their opinions are stupid by the powers that be or their pals. The news can be read elsewhere with fewer annoying ads and a more down-to-earth perspective.

(* Editors Note: PoliticsPA confirmed the above political contribution information to be inaccurate.)

(**Editors Note: PoliticsPA earns a small fee for banner ads, which keeps the site free for our tens of thousands of readers.)

Mike Bergmaier is the Strategic Director of PACleanSweep. This column represents his views and was not approved by PACleanSweep, Inc. He can be reached at


Vice Chairman of Voter Education

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