Here's a couple of things that were flitting around the news yesterday, the Monday before Thanksgiving. One was a report that the Philadelphia School District, which is barely getting through the current school year with kids lacking access to nurses, guidance counselors and other building blocks of an actual education, is already looking ahead to its next money crisis.
Then there was a story that was getting a lot of play on right-wing blogs and on local TV stations in the midst of their big November ratings push -- that teens in big cities across America are playing something loosely organized and allegedly called "the knockout game." which is said to involve walking up to adult strangers and cold-cocking them.
Which one do you think Mayor Nutter jumped on? If you can't get this one, you haven't been paying attention the last six years.
As you may have noticed, we've been encouraging more people to buy and read the Daily News. I wish the mayor had read -- or read more carefully -- a really good piece that my colleague Jason Nark published yesterday, hours before both Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey went before the hot TV lights. Nark said the police in Philadelphia and around the country have no idea if the so-called "knockout game" is even real or just an urban myth, and that while there's one -- yes, one -- incident in Fox Chase that Philly cops think might have fit this pattern, they were quick to add that, as Nark wrote, "the attack is just a new name for an age-old phenomenon: random violence."
Nark also wrote that Lt. John Sanford of the Philadelphia police related that "talk of the game, real or imagined, could prompt copycats." He sounds like a smart cop -- the mayor should listen to his men and women on the beat. Instead, Nutter broke the first rule of the alleged but possibly non-existent fight club and talked about the fight club -- which he said, powerfully, is "possibly" happening in Philadelphia.
He persisted even as the story actually unraveled a bit more: His police commissioner Ramsey admitted the two men arrested in Fox Chase did NOT say they were playing a knockout game, and the commissioner added, according to the Philadelphia City Paper: "We suspect it's occurred here. But to what extent, I really don't know. But I do know that it's not something that is that widespread, but we're trying to prevent it from becoming widespread by taking action at this point in time."
Mayor Nutter's emergency warning about something that happened maybe once and possibly never in Philadelphia and which may largely be a legend elsewhere got exactly the kind of media play he could have hoped for. The widely read Drudge Report highlighted the story in red -- "Philly Mayor Announces War..." -- and ran it close to its featured picture of the day, President Obama photoshopped as pre-World War Ii appeaser Neville Chamberlain (you can't make this stuff up.) To paraphrase my favorite musical "Book of Mormon," I guess that's what Mayor Nutter was going for.
And Mayor Nutter is going to keep running Philadelphia in the mayoralty-by-link-baiting style unless we call it what is is: Media whoring, pure and simple. It's a harsh term, but what else can you say about a mayor whose most memorable crime-fighting achievement has been the multiple times that he's called crime perpetrators "a-holes." It gets great media play, and, sure, he's channeling the rage of the people, and there are moments when that's called for. But citizens don't look to City Hall for anger or, in the case of last night, unvarnished alarm and paranoia. They look for leadership.
After six years, the city is still looking for that. As I've noted before, Nutter's two grand achievements are things that didn't happen (no corruption scandals, relatively little fiscal damage from the '08 crash) but the electorate had expected so much more after his 2007 campaign. It's easy to "punch down" at lowlife "a-hole" criminals but when did he ever punch sideways at the Philadelphia School District administration that ran things into the ground during his first term? Now he's discovered poverty at the No. 1 issue, which is great but it would have been better to "announce war" on the income gap back in 2008. Instead, we get today's hostilities against this Loch Ness Monster of a so-called "knockout game."
But I'm sure getting on the Drudge Report will help out Nutter when he runs for higher office someday. Maybe it will even get the Democrat a few votes on the political right. But if the mayor wants to impress conservatives, wasn't it already enough to watch our public schools crash and burn?