Rendell, a bidder for Philly papers, mum on muzzling reporters
February 13, 2012By Dave Davies
If the local heavyweights associated with Ed Rendell buy Philadelphia's daily papers, will they keep the management team that's showed it's willing to use them as mouthpieces for their owners interests?
Rendell, who recently praised the publisher of the papers and Philly.com, won't answer the question.
If you're coming in late on this story, it emerged recently that Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, is entertaining offers to buy the joint, and a group led by the former Pennsylvania governor and including South Jersey Democratic powerhouse George Norcross, Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider and millionaire Lewis Katz are making a bid.
It got very ugly last week when a rival group of prominent investors headed by developer Bart Blatstein announced its ambitions to bid for the papers. The newspapers' owners engaged in two days of heavy-handed muzzling of their own reporters to squelch any mention of the new suitors. You can read the details in the links box to the right of this post.
This isn't the first time these owners bent news reporting their way. As I reported a couple of months ago, when the company announced its move to a new location on Market Street, its coverage all but omitted the $2.9 million public subsidy they were getting. Read details here and here.
So the question arises – what kind of coverage can we expect if publisher Greg Osberg, who presided over these travesties, remains in charge when Rendell & Co. take over?
On Friday morning, I sent Rendell an email asking the following questions:
Does he stand by his assessment (made the previous week) that Greg Osberg has done a good job?
And can he credibly state that if his group gets the papers and Osberg is in charge, it won't be a mouthpiece for the views and interests of Rendell, Norcross, Snider, or Katz? Will his group retain Osberg as CEO and publisher?
I made it clear in the email I would report on his response whether he chose to reply or not. When I prodded again today, I got an email from his associate Kirstin Snow saying, "As it turns out, he signed another confidentiality agreement and cannot discuss the issue. Sorry."
Kind of a shame, since the answer has considerable bearing on the future of credible, independent journalism in the region.
I'll note that it took a weekend for the guv to determine he was barred from answering. And I'll further note that when he spoke with reporters two weeks ago about his group's interest, Rendell said their offer was governed by a confidentiality agreement. But that didn't prevent him from volunteering that all his partners agreed Osberg had done "an excellent job in the changes he's brought about and the stewardship he has rendered to Philadelphia Media Network."
The buzz in papers' newsrooms is that the Rendell group has the inside track on buying the company. This seems consistent with the company's handling of the story, and someone told me a couple of days ago Rendell had told him it was all but certain that his group would get the company.
A number of reporters have confided to me their terror at being owned by the likes of Rendell and Norcross, both known for calling reporters and editors to complain about their questions or coverage. Many fine reporters are looking to leave, despite the terrible job market for journalists.
I don't regard Rendell himself with such horror. I think he did some good things in office, and, in full disclosure he offered me a job ten years ago after he was elected governor. I agreed to be his press secretary, then backed out after a couple of days, for family reasons.
I know that as mayor, he yelled at reporters from time to time. I covered him in City Hall, and felt the sting of his temper more than once.
But it seems to me that no matter who buys the papers, there will be owners with interests affected by coverage from time to time.
What's important is that they hire real journalists to run the papers and the website. That means managers and editors who would flat out refuse to participate in the crap that was pulled last week with the company's print and online coverage.
It means hiring a publisher who gets that, and creates an atmosphere where editors know they can put journalistic judgment above the bosses' interests without risking their jobs.
We don't know exactly what role Osberg played in the events last week, but it's hard to see how he meets that standard.
Maybe the guv agrees, or doesn't.
One other note of disclosure: One of the investors in the Blatstein group is real estate executive Gerard Sweeney, who chairs the board of WHYY. I haven't spoken to him about this.