Was Firing Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow a Business Decision, or an Editorial Decision?

As the owners of Philly’s daily papers head to court, new leaked emails shed light on that crucial question. Or do they?

Bill Marimow

Bill Marimow

The drip, drip, drip of information and emails out of the ownership dispute surrounding the firing of Philadelphia Inquirer editor in chief Bill Marimow continues.

Now, a source close to the situation has released a few emails between Lewis Katz and publisher Bob Hall. In the emails, sent in August of this year, Katz and Hall discuss Marimow’s reluctance to fire some of his editors. The emails provide a window into the disputes that led up to Marimow’s firing, by Hall, last month, which sparked a series of lawsuits among the media company’s fractious ownership group.

In what now seems like a recipe for a long hair pull of a legal dispute, Interstate General Media, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, is essentially run by a two-man management committee of parking entrepreneur Katz and insurance mogul/New Jersey Democratic party boss George Norcross. According to the written terms of their agreement, the pair must reach some consensus on decisions related to “business and operational aspects of the company” but “shall have no authority with respect to editorial or journalistic policies and decisions.”

So the million dollar question is this: Is firing the editor in chief, or his subordinates, an editorial decision—or a business one?

Katz, in his lawsuit, filed by legendary trial attorney Dick Sprague, says it is a “major business decision” that could not be made without the approval of both Katz and Norcross. As a result, he claims, Hall had no right to fire Marimow, and so the suit demands that Marimow, the venerable, two-time Pulitzer winner, be reinstated.

But what these latest emails seem to demonstrate is that the dispute over authority ranges up and down the Inquirer‘s masthead.

The email exchange is business-like, with Hall advocating for the dismissal of two top editors. Katz, citing Marimow’s belief in his editors, objects. In an email sent to Hall and CC’d to Norcross, he writes: “I’m against this action and I’m invoking my co-managing partnership agreement to block this attempt. We promised to keep our hands off of editorial [and] this seems to me to be getting closer to that line. George and I are scheduling a meeting this week to discuss the obvious dysfunctional partnership and a hopeful solution to a solution. Hopefully that process will lead to an amicable divorce and then this issue will get resolved among many others.”

An hour later, Hall responds, also CC’ing Norcross: “I agree that the owners have promised to keep hands off editorial,” writes Hall, “but from my years in the industry this is part of the role of a Publisher as I have hired and fired editorial staff in the past.”

I called Katz, on Friday of last week, and began reading him the email exchange, line by line, till he decided he needed to see the email to respond.

One business day later, a three-paragraph response from Katz’s attorney, Sprague, arrived. “The email simply confirms Katz’s understanding of section 5.2 of the operating agreement,” writes Sprague, “that hiring and firing decisions are operational and under the authority of the management committee and that only changes in the content of the paper are subject to the prohibition.”

What, exactly, does Katz mean when he writes that “We promised to keep our hands off editorial [and] this seems to be getting closer to that line”?

“In my opinion,” writes Sprague, “[the email] shows Bob Hall acting on Norcross’ behalf since he is the only owner copied on the email interfering with the content of editorial by attempting to direct changes in the Sunday paper, requiring Katz to admonish Hall that Hall is getting close to the line.”

In this instance, the evidence of Norcross’s interference would be that he is CC’d on the email exchange. According to the email record provided, however, it isn’t Hall that first CCs Norcross. It’s Katz. Further, Sprague seems to be suggesting that firing the paper’s Sunday editor, as Hall advocated, would effect the paper’s editorial content, causing Katz to admonish Hall that he is “getting close to the line” of violating the operating agreement not to interfere in editorial.

Of course, as publisher, Hall isn’t actually bound by this pledge of non-interference. If he was, Marimow would essentially occupy a kind of editor-for-life position, in which any change in editorship would affect the paper’s content and thereby become verboten. And so Sprague’s opinion, that Hall was merely acting as Norcross’s bagman, is crucial.

It’s impossible to forecast, with any certainty, just how long witness testimony might last on Wednesday, and how deep down the rabbit hole of Katz V. Norcross we might spiral. Will any evidence be presented that Hall was acting on Norcross’s behalf? Will these emails be discussed in court?

If Sprague can convince a judge that Hall was not authorized to fire Marimow without Katz’s approval, Bill Marimow could plop right back down in his office chair by the end of the week, and the city’s largest media enterprise will be right back where it started — led, if that’s an appropriate term, by a two-man committee that must but can’t agree.

****

Response from Sprague:

“The leaked email exchange is significant for a number of reasons: (1) It shows Bob Hall acknowledging the authority of the management committee in running the day-to-day operations by recommending to Katz that [two top editors] be fired; and (2) in my opinion it shows Bob Hall acting on Norcross’ behalf since he is the only owner copied on the email interfering with the content of editorial by attempting to direct changes in the Sunday paper, requiring Katz to admonish Hall that Hall is getting close to the line.

The email simply confirms Katz’s understanding of section 5.2 of the operating agreement that hiring and firing decisions are operational and under the authority of the management committee and that only changes in the content of the paper are subject to the prohibition.

Finally, the leak of this email further demonstrates the defendants’ pattern of attempting to smear the good name and reputation of Bill Marimow, a nationally respected editor who won two Pulitzer prizes as a reporter. This email also is part of a smear campaign that now stoops to demeaning two superb journalists… .”

Follow @SteveVolk on Twitter.

 

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