Rendell bid on Philadelphia newspapers creates controversy
Some believe Rendell's political affiliations could ruin the journalistic integrity of the city's newspapers
February 20, 2012, 9:17 pm·
The future of journalistic integrity in Philadelphia’s major newspapers is being questioned as a group of political big shots bids for their ownership.
In what he calls a “civic-minded” decision, former governor, mayor and district attorney Edward Rendell — a 1965 College graduate — is submitting a bid on The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. A former general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Rendell has a long history in Philadelphia politics.
The Philadelphia Media Network purchased the two newspapers in 2010 and is now selling its investment. It is currently in talks with Rendell. Rendell’s group of investors include Edward Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectator — a local sports and entertainment company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers — and George Norcross III, a Democratic Party fundraiser in South Jersey. While Rendell is not the only one interested in purchasing the papers, he is stirring up a lot of debate over his potential conflict of interest.
Because Rendell and his investors are so steeped in local politics and businesses, some question whether the papers would offer fair, unbiased coverage.
About 80 percent of newsroom staff at the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com have signed a public statement to ensure the persistence of journalism integrity and hold the new owners to a civic duty. “The news we publish is crucial to civic life, to holding the powerful accountable, to democracy itself,” the statement said.
Dick Polman, WHYY daily blogger and Writer in Residence at Penn, signed the statement.
Polman, who writes a weekly political column for the Inquirer, said, “the petition is very useful … for just informing the public that the journalist network there is accustomed to working with a large amount of independence, and this is something worth drawing the line over.”
1976 College graduate Buzz Bissinger does not support Rendell’s bid for the papers even though he is an admirer of Rendell as a person and politician. Bissinger is the author of A Prayer for the City, a novel that follows Rendell during his first term as mayor of Philadelphia. Bissinger was also a reporter for the Inquirer in the 1980s and a sports and opinion editor at The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Rendell himself is a threat to journalism integrity of the newspapers, he said. “Ed probably knows more people than anyone in the state. [His] friends … are all going to call him when they get wind of a story they don’t like because that’s how Philadelphia works.”
Bissinger pointed to the fact that Rendell and his partners in this bid are still politically active and still making appearances in the newspapers. He thinks it is unlikely that Rendell and his group will run stories that portray themselves in bad light. “You don’t get mellow with age.”
“He’s a good man, but he does not respect journalism, and he does not understand it. None of them do,” he said.
Bissinger said they despise honest journalism and only like stories that serve their own interests.
However, he emphasized that these presumptions are completely hypothetical and nothing is certain, including Rendell’s bid. He said there is another probable bid for the paper, which remains anonymous.
Tom Ferrick, senior editor and founder of the journalism website Metropolis and former editor, columnist and reporter for the Inquirer had a different perspective. Noting the immense size of Rendell and his investors’ wealth, Ferrick said buying the newspapers would not be a financial or political move for Rendell.
“They believe newspapers are important” and are simply making a “civic investment.” They are not old-fashioned newspaper barons, who interfered with the integrity of the papers.
Rendell is not expected to invest much of his own money in the papers. He is likely to be the “public face” of the investment group, but will leave spending the big bucks to his partners, Ferrick said.
WHYY senior reporter, blogger and radio personality Dave Davies worked for the Daily News as a reporter, columnist and senior writer. He said it is not uncommon for privately-owned newspapers to have wealthy owners.
Davies said though there is a possibility that the journalistic integrity of the papers could be jeopardized, it certainly doesn’t have to be. If the owners make it clear to the journalists that they still have authority over the paper, a bias should not be a real threat, he said.
Former Inquirer editorial board member and columnist Rick Nichols, a Journalistic Writing professor at Penn, said he does not believe Rendell is a “bad guy.”
He worries, however, that the group of investors he has put together may lead readers to question his agenda because they have their hands on almost every aspect of political life in Philadelphia.
Polman said readers are going to “automatically — maybe unfairly — question the credibility of the story.” For example, if the Inquirer publishes a “perfectly accurate story that puts Republicans in a bad light,” readers may automatically assume that the article is biased if big Democrat players own the paper.
He added reporters do not want to have to look over their shoulders before writing a story and want to maintain their independence from the ownership.
A full-time journalist at the Inquirer for 22 years, Polman said, “I want to be able to invoke the Inquirer proudly to students at Penn.”