Ed Rendell may be gone from the group that bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, but the tangled business relationships and political interests of the remaining owners still pose serious problems for anyone who cares about good journalism.
The new owners can pledge all they want not to interfere with news coverage but who is going to stop them?
The Gang of Six that now owns the paper all have ties that could be an issue, but the main one to watch is George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic power broker who owns an insurance brokerage business and is chairman of the board at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. Norcross wasn’t shy about browbeating reporters and editors about news coverage in the past, so one can only imagine what it will be like now that he owns the ink.
There are many good reporters at the two papers still doing fine work under some difficult conditions. But who is going to have the courage to dig into Norcross’s business dealings or the many issues involving the other owners? Even without Norcross or the other owners saying anything, it is pretty easy to see how self-censorship could seep into deciding what to cover and what not to cover.
Going forward, will Norcross still make the front page of the Inquirer as he did last month, playing a starring role in a scathing report alleging financial mismanagement and cronyism at the Delaware River Port Authority?
According to the report by the state comptroller, Norcross’s insurance brokerage business received a $410,000 payment as a referral fee for recommending another insurance broker to the DRPA. A second broker, Michael Martucci, an acquaintance of Norcross’s wife, also received a $45,000 payment. When asked by the comptroller what work he did in return for the payment, Martucci said: “I performed nothing.”
It gets better. The money was paid to Norcross’s firm by Willis Insurance of New Jersey. Willis executives said they had not pursued the business but were notified that they had been selected via an email from Norcross. This is like Ed McMahon showing up at the door to say you won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
Norcross denies any wrongdoing.
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg last month urged federal officials to review the proposed merger between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan Universities. On its face, the merger makes no sense.
To his credit, Lautenberg cut to the heart of the matter in questioning whether a deal had been “crafted to benefit powerful political interests without regard for the impact on students.” Lautenberg specifically questioned whether the merger is being proposed to benefit Cooper University Hospital, where Norcross is chairman of the board. Cooper and Rowan have partnered to open a medical school in the fall. Ah, lots of jobs, contracts and legal work up for grabs.
Of course, this is not the first time Norcross has been in the news. Norcross and his political allies were caught up in a probe examining jobs and contracts more than a decade ago. Norcross was caught on wiretaps boasting about his influence with then-Governor Jim McGreevey and then-U.S. Senator Jon Corzine. Norcross was never charged with any wrongdoing. But the U.S. attorney for New Jersey at the time was the now-Governor Chris Christie. Christie wrote that his office was unable to bring charges against Norcross because the state attorney general’s office botched the investigation before his office was involved.
Even though they represent different parties, Christie and Norcross have seemed to make political peace. Now that Norcross owns the newspaper, who is going to be the public’s watchdog?