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Bye Lines

Scaife's place in history is assured — like it or not

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife never backed down from a fight. Even when he disclosed that he had untreatable cancer on his paper's front page May 18, he tartly observed, "Some who dislike me may rejoice at the news."

It's not surprising he thought so. His own paper has given little quarter to its foes, even after they've fallen. When legendary Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham died in 2001, the Trib memorialized her with an editorial that, among other things, seemed to insinuate she had a role in her husband's death.

But the 82-year-old Scaife's own passing — on July 4, no less — prompted little such rancor. Among other encomiums, the Trib ran a 364-word eulogy from former PNC Bank head Jim Rohr, who in 2006 was the target of a daily editorial-page shaming campaign, denouncing Rohr personally for using a tax subsidy to build a new office tower. (With typical restraint, the Trib's editorial page called the subsidy "a public molestation.")

The Pirates, meanwhile, held a moment of silence for Scaife during their homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies. Even granting the large number of Trib Total Media ads gracing PNC Park, it was a remarkable gesture. Not only had the Trib denounced the public subsidies used to build the ballpark, but Scaife funded a local think tank that also opposed them. And in a 2001 magazine story, a Trib editor said that Scaife told him flatly, "I don't want the Pirates on page one."

Sure, the response from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial page was ... less than fulsome. ("While Dick Scaife's voice was mostly one of opposition, not of support, today we leave it to history to decide whether that was good or bad.") And sure, plenty of media accounts noted Scaife's personal and political controversies. He helped provide start-up capital to right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks — groups that urge know-nothing/do-nothing responses to rising sea levels and rising inequality alike. And Democrats saw Scaife as the architect of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," as he financed journalism seeking to dig up dirt on former President Bill Clinton. But for the most part, Scaife's death has been observed with a notable lack of rejoicing.

One reason for that, obviously, is that Scaife made civic investments — ranging from social services to historic preservation — that benefited people from all walks of life. And whatever his partisan intentions, the Tribune-Review provides Pittsburgh with a luxury few other cities enjoy: a second source of daily print journalism, thanks to a staff that features a number of talented reporters. And as the Trib itself has pointed out, Scaife's support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage have put him at odds with the Republican Party.

In any case, Scaife no longer looms as large as he did 15 years ago. He's been replaced as a Democratic bĂȘte noir by the Koch Brothers, and Fox News now dominates the media landscape as no regional daily newspaper ever could. And while Scaife's Clinton-era advocacy helped restore paranoia to the political mainstream, years of empty allegations concerning Benghazi and birth certificates are almost enough to make you nostalgic for the good old days of Whitewater and Ken Starr.

But the fact that Scaife has been eclipsed by the Kochs and Rupert Murdoch is, perhaps, the strongest evidence of his legacy. By investing in think tanks to craft policy, media outlets to publicize it, and politicians to carry it out, he helped pioneer a vertically integrated approach to manufacturing consent, much as Andrew Carnegie pioneered the manufacturing of steel. And Scaife's name belongs alongside Carnegie and Frick's in another sense: His legacy too reflects the fact that, in a trickle-down society, the wealthy can both enrich our lives and impoverish our politics. His bequests, like theirs, beautified our city, while turning a blind eye to the despoliation of our environment.

But whatever Scaife expected, there's no reason for anyone to celebrate his passing. Friends and allies will mourn the death of one of Pittsburgh's most fascinating figures. As for the rest of us, this is still Dick Scaife's world. And we're still living in it.

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