“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” — Mark Twain
There is a reason Thomas Jefferson said he would prefer newspapers without a government over a government without newspapers. If Ed Rendell & Co. end up buying the Inquirer and Daily News, everyone in Philadelphia—the birthplace of Democracy—will find out what Jefferson meant.
Under that proposed ownership model, the Fourth Estate in Philly will essentially cease to exist as a serious journalistic enterprise. Instead, the newspapers will be viewed as a direct extension of the Democratic Party and Chamber of Commerce.
The intrinsic value of a newspaper rests in its creditability. Readers must trust what they are reading is honest, fair, accurate and the best effort at the truth. There are many first-rate journalists at both papers, and they will try to soldier on. But any real or perceived conflicts of interest stemming from the Rendell ownership group will undermine their credibility.
That’s why the prospect of the Rendell-led group owning the newspapers should scare the hell out of everyone—regardless of their politics, race or class. In short, you can’t have a former mayor, governor and head of the Democratic National Committee involved in a legitimate newspaper—especially one with such deep ties to some of the region’s most powerful and influential institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, Ballard Spahr and Comcast, where Rendell’s friend and former chief of staff David L. Cohen still casts a long shadow.
Questions abound. How could readers trust the reporting on issues where Rendell is so deeply vested, such as casinos or gas drilling? Will the Corbett administration, or any Republican for that matter, get a fair shake? Will there be any more coverage of DROP, the controversial and costly pension perk that Rendell implemented when he was mayor? How about any deep analysis of the DRPA or PHA, two agencies that Rendell once chaired and have since come under scrutiny?
Do you think there will be any enterprise reporting on powerful politicians or business executives with close ties to Rendell? What about the list of Rendell’s influential donors over the years? What reporter is going to dig into their business dealings, government contracts, bond work or tax breaks?
What about Rendell’s role as a special adviser to Greenhill & Company, the investment bank involved in deals to lease roads, bridges or other government-owned infrastructure? As governor, Rendell unsuccessfully tried to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Will the paper suddenly champion that cause?
Will a Rendell & Co.-owned newspaper commit the time and resources to an investigation of a powerful Philadelphia politician like the one the paper mounted against former State Sen. Vince Fumo? Or a mayor whose City Hall office is bugged?
Suddenly, this is starting to feel like the fifth season of The Wire, writ large.
Rendell’s tangled relationships are troubling enough. But the rest of the potential newspaper ownership group comes with their own conflicts. (Never mind that none of them has any experience running a newspaper company.)
Take George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey political boss. Will his brother, Donald, the electrician-turned-New Jersey state senator who was first sworn in without facing voters, receive any scrutiny? What about the mayor of Camden who is viewed as a Norcross puppet? Or Cooper Hospital, where Norcross is board chairman?
When Gov. Christie was U.S. Attorney, Norcross came under investigation but was never charged. Christie claimed state prosecutors botched the investigation. If Norcross becomes one of the newspaper owners, could that impact coverage of the Christie administration?
Other potential newspaper partners in the Rendell group include Flyers owner Ed Snider and Lewis Katz, a parking lot king and trustee at Temple University who has been one of Rendell’s biggest contributors over the years. Snider and Katz are part of a group awarded a casino license in Philadelphia. The license was later revoked when they failed to come up with the financing.
That group is fighting to get the license back. How will the reporting go on that issue? Will any sports columnists write any tough pieces on the Flyers’ front office? Could a misfired tweet prompt a publisher to try to fire a Daily News sportswriter?
Indeed, almost every story is fraught with trouble if Rendell & Co. ends up buying the newspaper.
When Adolph S. Ochs took control of the New York Times in 1896, he published a mission statement that included his goal “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”
Would the Rendell group take such a pledge if they bought the papers? If so, would it be enforced? Will readers or advertisers even want a paper where they have to read between the lines?