Here are two facts about Ed Rendell: Until very recently, he was the front man for a group of investors that will probably soon own the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. And even more recently, he has been under investigation by the feds for ties to an Iranian terror group.
Here is one more fact to consider: It’s been nearly impossible to find those two Rendell facts side-by-side in the city’s two major daily newspapers.
It’s a bizarre omission—one that should be troubling to anybody concerned about the future of journalistic integrity at those publications.
So what’s going on?
News of Ed’s terror troubles emerged a week ago Friday, when the Washington Times reported the Treasury Department was probing speaking fees he’d received from the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian group on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. That occurred one day after news broke that Rendell had abruptly stepped back—without explanation—from chairmanship of the group seeking to buy the Philadelphia newspapers.
Then things got weird.
It took the Inquirer two days to follow the Times’ story. Such a lag isn’t unheard of—despite insinuations to the contrary—but it wasn’t what you would consider a timely report. In any case, you had to read all the way to the last sentence of the story to find it mentioned that Rendell “came forward for a time as the leader of a group seeking to purchase the Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com but has since turned over that role to local philanthropist H.F. ‘Gerry’ Lenfest.”
And that was the last Rendell-terrorism story to mention his media involvement.
Tuesday’s Inquirer made no mention of Rendell’s ties to the newspaper bidders in a story that (somewhat amusingly) featured the former governor commenting on the investigation through voicemail instead of talking directly to a reporter. And there was no mention, either, in Will Bunch’s Wednesday Daily News story that was mostly a rehash of the Inquirer piece. Nor in Trudy Rubin’s otherwise-sensible Thursday column suggesting Rendell be given a pass on the matter.
Why is this so weird?
Because in any other context—in any other big city—the combination of terrorism, a federal investigation, and Ed’s just-last-week attempt to run the local newspapers would make for an irresistibly huge story. Front-page stuff. Really outrageous headlines in the Daily News stuff. Gawker stuff. You’d at least get sentences like: “Rendell, who until last week was trying to buy this newspaper, would not comment on the investigation.”
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Rendell dropped out of the ownership group at the exact same time the federal investigation was coming to light. But maybe not. Under the usual rules of journalism, reporters and editors would ask the question, then let readers know they’d asked the question, and say whether it had been answered or not. Journalists worthy of their craft would know that their readers would be asking the same question, particularly when the future of such important, high-profile Philadelphia institutions are involved.
The reason Rendell’s bid for the local newspapers became so controversial is that critics believed he and his partners might bend news coverage to suit their interests. Philadelphia Media Network CEO Greg Osberg didn’t exactly allay those fears when he quashed stories about rival bidders, then lied about it to the New York Times.
Osberg’s actions badly damaged the credibility of the Inquirer and the Daily News. (Through no fault, I should add, of the hardworking reporters who have staunchly defended their own journalistic integrity in recent months.) That credibility could have been re-earned with a fresh commitment to transparency—and applying journalism’s usual methods and questions to the Rendell-terror story.
Instead, it appears that the critics’ worst fears about the newspapers and their future is coming true.
The worst thing that could happen to journalism in Philadelphia wouldn’t be the closure of the Inquirer or Daily News. That would be painful as hell, but there would at least be honor in having fought the good fight.
Worse yet, though, would be the prospect of those papers becoming propaganda mills. Right now, we have every reason to believe that is what the future holds.