Mayor Nutter: Press “Scared the Shit Out of People” Over Pope Visit

He wishes the media handled pre-Pope coverage differently.

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Monday morning, at what mercifully looks to have been the final Pope press conference, I asked Mayor Michael Nutter a question. I’m paraphrasing, but it went a little like this:

For those who made it, this weekend was amazing. But a lot of people stayed away because they got the message the city was closing down for this event. Is there anything you’d do differently? Is there anything you wish the media had done differently? That Philadelphians generally had done differently?

Nutter allowed that there were surely things the city could have done better. Then he turned to the media’s role.

“In some instances, you all scared the shit out of people,” Nutter said.

“So did you,” another reporter shot back immediately.

So much went right this weekend. And in so many respects the City of Philadelphia’s performance was exemplary. This is an administration that has really mastered the nuts-and-bolts execution of large events. Cleanup operations Sunday night and Monday appeared efficient and thorough. City police were smiling, helpful and omnipresent.

Within the festival zone, the city was on on a feel-good Pope high; the combination of huge crowds and car-free streets was, for a lot of people, a euphoric, once-in-lifetime experience.

Outside the core of Center City? Eerily empty streets and a lost weekend for businesses. Even in the ‘burbs — miles from the Parkway — it was clear people hunkered down, waiting for Hurricane Francis to pass.

And who can blame them? The steady drumbeat of news about pope fences and road closures and the national guard and magnetometers and stripped-down SEPTA service and so forth ad nauseam sent a crystal clear message: Get Out.

Today, Mayor Nutter blamed the media for that. No doubt  we played some role. There’s a headline or two I’d take back if I could.

But the mayor is kidding himself if he thinks the press set the tone on this one. If the media spooked people, that’s because the press itself was legit freaked by the dire warnings and over-the-top security measures we were hearing both through leaks and formal announcements.

It’s hard not to let a certain tone creep into the coverage when dudes who are working for the World Meeting of Families say, in public meetings, stuff like this: “We’ve got a request in to the Mayor, to the Governor, to the feds, to close down the entire region.”

The Nutter administration has plenty of strengths. Communications, though, is not its long suit. And selling security measures this extreme to a dubious public would have required some impressive communication chops indeed.

For those who were here, the weekend was a spectacular success. It’s just a shame that more Philadelphians weren’t there to share in it.