Much has been written about the new owners of the Philadelphia Media Network, a merry band of rich white guys who now control the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. Many of those stories have questioned—rightfully—how a group with so much wide-reaching power can run a news operation without influencing its coverage. And no member of Interstate General Media is more controversial than George Norcross. He’s one of the IGM’s managing partners, but he’s best known as the Democratic power broker and kingmaker who arguably has done more to shape South Jersey than most elected officials. It’s hard to believe that he won’t impact the way his many friends, business interests and political agendas in the region are scrutinized in his newspapers. But there’s something about Norcross’s past that troubles me, and should concern everyone at 400 North Broad: his complicated relationship with the press.
I know a few things about reporting on Norcross. In 2005, I profiled him for Philadelphia magazine, and the story’s title, “They Have No Choice,” was a Norcross quote about how that year’s gubernatorial candidates, Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine, would be on his side no matter how much they may have disliked him. Considering that there have been few in-depth profiles of such a heavy hitter—one of which, an award-winning three-part series in the Courier-Post, coined the nickname “Boss Norcross”—one might think the man is press shy. In truth, Norcross is a master at media manipulation.
With my story, he set the ground rules early. We could talk, but everything was off the record unless he said otherwise, which effectively hand-cuffed me from the start. During a five-hour dinner at Lamberti’s on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, we covered a wide range of topics, ranging from his childhood to his political career and his reputation. He was at times likable, profane, cautious and intimidating. Precious little was on the record, and he wouldn’t agree to let me tape the conversation. The two occasions when we met without restrictions were in saintly settings—once at the Larc School for disabled children in Bellmawr, which does heartbreakingly wonderful work, and again at Cooper Hospital’s cancer center in Voorhees. Norcross wisely let the teachers and the docs do the talking while he hovered in the background, somehow both present and invisible all at once. He was determined to do whatever he could to shape my story in his favor.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, though as a journalist, I was looking for more than photo ops. He proved a formidable adversary, and his chess-match approach to dealing with reporters was well known. That’s where things get thorny. One of Norcross’s strategies for handling the press could be summed up as a twist on an old saying: “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.” Four Courier-Post staffers ended up either working for Camden County, the heart of his Democratic power base, or with ties to his political machine. Norcross went so far as to hire a Courier reporter as his personal researcher. As it so happened, that writer also found work with Cooper Hospital and another agency connected to Norcross. His son got a government job.
Then there was Alan Guenther, author of the “Boss Norcross” story, a largely critical series that Norcross didn’t hang on his wall. In the aftermath, Guenther became the target of a seven-page letter sent to the Courier, accusing the reporter of “vigilante tactics” and “conflicts of interest.” Even his father was dragged through the mud for “soliciting no-bid contracts.” Though the letter was penned by Norcross’s attorney, there was no doubt about the hand that guided it.
The cynic would look at the PMN purchase as a natural extension of what he did to the Courier; this time, instead of recruiting a handful of reporters, he took over the entire newspaper company. A rosier view of future comes from David Carr, the usually razor-sharp media columnist at the New York Times. He spoke with returning Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, and believes him when he says that Norcross’s group “is interested in producing news in print and online that is going to be distinguished and will serve the public.”
I wonder if Carr and Marimow are familiar with the way Norcross often treated the Fourth Estate before he bought himself a corner office on the inside. As for Guenther, the Courier reporter who faced Norcross’s wrath, he stayed at the paper for a while, but eventually left the business. These days, he’s working for the New Jersey Office of Higher Education in Trenton. I wonder what Guenther thinks about Norcross’s new role as media mogul and whether Norcross had anything to do with a series of government jobs he’s held recently. Guenther didn’t return my calls.
If there’s one consistent theme throughout Norcross’s life, it’s that the man hates to lose, whether it’s in business, at the polls, or on the tennis court, despite a bum knee. As for what defines winning in his new role as head of the Inquirer and Daily News, if his past is any indication, the public good isn’t the only thing he’s interested in serving.