Rendell Threatens Media Objectivity

Friday, 10 Feb 2012 07:04 PM

By Chris Freind

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Famed political strategist James Carville once referred to Pennsylvania as two major cities with Alabama in between. What an insult to Alabama.

The folks in the nation’s fifth-largest state are the backwards ones, the sad result of refusing to hold their leaders accountable for broken campaign promises and abject failures. All the while, their neighboring states, AKA “the competition,” continue to make gains at Pennsylvania’s expense.

inquirer.jpg
Former DNC Chair Ed Rendell has been approached to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer.
(Getty Images)
From Ed Rendell to Tom Corbett (is there a difference?), a lack of leadership has left Pennsylvania on the precipice, its citizens staring into the abyss of permanent mediocrity, paralyzed by fear to take the risks necessary to forge ahead. Such a malaise is anathema to employers looking for economic stability, a less hostile atmosphere and a better educational system.

While that lack of leadership is inexcusable, there is another, even more important factor as to why the state finds itself in such a precarious situation: a media that has sold its soul, forsaking its most basic mission of holding everyone accountable, with a “no sacred cows” approach. For far too long, stories that needed to be told were relegated to the dustbin. And unsavory politicians and business leaders counted on that. Without an aggressive press, it was, and remains, the Wild West where bad guys operate with impunity.

There is no better example of the media’s fall from grace than that of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Once a paper of national significance that took a bulldog approach to its reporting, it has since become a shell of its former self, an also-ran full of AP feeds and local fluff stories of virtually no interest.

The Inquirer really jumped the tracks when its now-former publisher, Brian Tierney, did the unthinkable by approaching then-Governor Rendell for a taxpayer-funded bailout to keep the papers afloat in 2009, a story that Yours Truly broke and was picked up by the Wall Street Journal in its harshly-worded editorial “Bad News In Philadelphia — The Worst Bailout Idea So Far: Newspapers.”

Despite what common sense unquestionably tells us, that a taxpayer-funded newspaper would in fact be an “adjunct of the state,” as the WSJ described it, the players in that ill-fated bailout attempt saw nothing wrong with their actions.

Thankfully, Tierney is out of the picture, having lost the papers to an investor group who held much of the original debt. But incomprehensibly, the situation has come full circle. Now the current owners want out, and it has been reported that none other than Ed Rendell has been approached to put together an investor group to buy the papers, which includes immensely powerful Democratic powerbrokers and possibly the head of an entrenched labor union.

Really? Ed Rendell? The former head of the Democratic National Committee? How is that even remotely possible?

Where is the journalistic integrity in working with the very man who stood cocked, ready to unleash millions in taxpayer funds to bail out an “independent” media entity? It’s no secret that it has become increasingly difficult for papers to make a profit in the age of The New Media, but having Rendell as your “Go-To” man underscores just how desperate the situation has become.

Taking marching orders from elected officials destroys the very essence of being a journalist and jeopardizes the unique constitutional protections afforded to media members. Sure, Ed Rendell is a private citizen now, but his mentality — how he sees the role of the government working hand-in-hand with the media — has undoubtedly not changed.

But the behavior of the Inquirer’s ownership should come as no surprise, given that it recently accepted a $2.9 million loan from the City of Philadelphia to assist the company move to a new headquarters. Yes, the same city, the same mayor and the same city council that the newspapers are supposed to be objectively covering. Is nothing sacred anymore?

The last thing the region needs is an investor group led by political insiders and ideologically-supercharged individuals with aggressive personal agendas. As painful as it would be for the thousands of hard-working folks at those newspapers, it would be better for the entire entity to close its doors than be associated with folks who may, at any given time, make a pitch for public financing.

And while past performance is not indicative of future results, it’s a darn good bet.

Better to have no paper at all than one that prostrates itself at the feet of the very people it purports to objectively cover. And since the Philadelphia newspapers have been anything but a watchdog over the last six years, churning out less than a handful of quality investigations, the bad guys would see virtually no difference, since they’re not exactly sweating investigative reporters knocking on their doors.

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