Brian Goldman | Preventing an unfree press
The Gold Standard | Philadelphia’s newspapers are on the precipice of a crisis
February 19, 2012, 10:57 pm · Updated February 20, 2012, 11:04 pm·
I don’t remember the first time I opened a newspaper, but I can recall the feeling of its ubiquity, its daily presence throughout my childhood.
Although those days often blended into each other, there was always The New York Times and Newsday sitting on the doorstep of my home in Queens, ringing in the new day.
When I got old enough to read, I’d flip through the back pages and the sports section. When I was old enough to care, I remember taking a leap of faith into the front sections, the Op-Eds and national news. I learned of the big, boisterous world through the Cheltenham font of The Times.
I’m sure there are many parallel stories in Philadelphia with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. But these papers are now on the precipice of a crisis. What’s at stake is not the physical paper itself, but its content and its unshakeable integrity.
The Philadelphia Media Network — which publishes the The Inquirer and The Daily News — is close to being sold to an investor group that is made up of a who’s-who in the city: Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor leads the charge. He is backed by Philadelphia Flyers chair and Comcast executive Ed Snider and George Norcross III, a “Democratic powerbroker in South New Jersey,” as The Times described.
The group also counts “parking lot and banking magnate” Lewis Katz, and has recently tried recruiting union leader John Doughtery Jr.
Newspapers are not merely an avenue for free speech. They are an inseparable cog of any functioning democracy and are often-called the “fourth estate.” They provide a powerful and necessary check on corrupt government practices and big business malfeasance.
To allow The Inquirer and the Daily News to be gobbled up by the very people that should be kept under a newspaper’s microscope is an injustice of the first order. We are already beginning to see the repercussions of a newspaper guided by corporate and political interests.
As reported in The Times, Gregory Osberg, CEO of the Philadelphia Media Network, told the most senior editors of the company’s three publications that he would personally oversee any articles relating to the sale of the company. Editors would be fired if these orders were not followed. After initially denying that this meeting had occurred, Osberg admitted that it had in fact taken place.
According to The Times, “the management, while conceding that an article and blog post related to the sale had been killed, said those were mistakes that would not be repeated.”
Last week, nearly 300 editorial employees from The Inqurier, Daily News and Philly.com, including several Penn alumni, signed a petition protesting this interference.
This whole ordeal makes those involved in the buyout seem like a couple of children sitting around the kitchen table, denying they ate the cake while the icing hardens all around their mouths.
1976 College graduate H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger — journalist and author of Friday Night Lights — expressed these sentiments forcefully in an Op-Ed for The Times. Bissinger, a former The Daily Pennsylvanian sports and opinion editor, asserted that the papers, if sold to Rendell’s investor group, “will be owned by a group of power-hungry politicians and politically connected businessmen who, far from respecting independent journalism, despise it.”
If Rendell really hoped to fulfill a philanthropic duty — saving the city’s two cherished papers — then why did he reach out to a network of such politically entrenched figures? He raised millions to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Surely, he knew some other wealthy individuals.
In fact, other bids at buying the Philadelphia Media Network have been blocked. Recently, billionaire investor and 1966 Wharton MBA graduate Ron Perelman reportedly inquired into purchasing the company on behalf of his father, 1940 Wharton graduate Raymond Perelman. He was told “we’re not interested in selling to you,” Raymond informed The Times.
Newspapers are not going anywhere anytime soon. I have full confidence that the same feeling that I experienced as a child — of seeing the morning papers and all the information about the world they carried — will persist.
What I fear, however, is that the information within those papers, here in Philadelphia, will no longer tell the entire truth or even pretend to. Our view of the world will be narrowed, impaired and propagandized.
We need not take that risk. Newspapers are too vital to the lifeblood of this city. This train needs to be derailed before it carries the Philadelphia free press far, far away.