All the Vince That’s Fit to Print

In the past two years, the Inquirer has published nearly 300 pieces about State Senator Vince Fumo. Is it aggressive reporting—or a vendetta?

THAT FUMO SHOULD find himself the object of media attention should be news to no one with the most cursory knowledge of Commonwealth politics. At a time when even the most skilled candidates are happy to come off as inoffensive facsimiles of real human beings, Fumo is an anomaly: powerful, profane, a smorgasbord of delicious contradictions. He’s a product of South Philly who belongs to Mensa; an entrepreneur, a millionaire, and a member of the NRA who has one of the most liberal voting records of any Pennsylvania politician; someone capable of shouting “faggot” on the Senate floor who is a staunch supporter of gay rights. A licensed electrician, a plumber, a man with a talent for swearing like a dyspeptic longshoreman who nonetheless has done as much as any politician to support the city’s most prominent cultural institutions. Over the years, he has been such a consistent source of good copy that his business cards might as well read: “Vincent J. Fumo: State Senator, Banker, Lawyer, Godsend to Pennsylvania Media.”

Yet to say the Inquirer has covered Fumo during the past two years is akin to saying the Titanic took on some water. Since November 2003, the Senator’s name has appeared in almost 300 stories, columns, letters and op-ed pieces. There have been articles about Fumo’s friends, his feuds, his finances, his campaign, his spending habits and his bank. The paper has parsed, probed and deconstructed one story in particular: how a South Philly nonprofit with which Fumo is closely tied, Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, managed to secure millions in donations from companies — PECO and Ikea — with whom the Senator had done deals.

The exhaustive exposure has at times reflected a uniquely Fumo-centric rendering of the world in the Inquirer’s pages. On one day — in a bit of synergy that surely deserves some sort of award — the paper managed to publish a column about Fumo that referred to a news story about Fumo that also took issue with an op-ed piece about Fumo. And in September, after reporting that Citizens Alliance had paid for some political polling for Fumo — a big no-no — the Inky published an editorial structured as a fictional poll question: “Fumo always wins reelection handily,” it noted. “Does his unchallenged political power make you very nauseated, somewhat sick to your stomach, mildly queasy, or totally listless and apathetic?”

This is not how major metro daily newspapers usually write about local politicians, even rich, powerful, gay- and gun-loving, potty-mouthed politicians. Reporters and editors at the Inquirer, not surprisingly, argue that the scrutiny of Fumo is well deserved — and long overdue. He has been a central figure in state and local government — making deals, punishing enemies, rewarding friends, pulling the levers of power — for almost 30 years. “Investigating and holding accountable those who have influence over many peoples’ lives in our communities is one of our most critical missions,” says Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett.

Fumo, to put it mildly, disagrees. He has complained at length and in public about how the Inquirer covers him: the tone, the frequency, the placement of stories. (They always seem to end up on the front page — or at least the front page of the local section.) He has called the paper obsessed and overzealous. He has accused it of pursuing a vendetta. He is not the only one who believes these things. “Vince is not a perfect guy,” says James Kenney, a Philadelphia city councilman who once worked for Fumo. “He can be abrasive. He can be tough. He can get in your face. But I’ve never seen such a coordinated attempt at one newspaper to bring a guy down.”

Mutual distrust — antipathy, even — between the press and politicians is an American tradition, up there with parades and personal-injury lawsuits. Yet the clash between Fumo and the Inquirer is more than another public pissing match. At a time when both sides are a little bloodied, a little bowed, the fight has taken on the proxy frustrations of two wounded institutions: Fumo’s aggravation at being investigated by the feds and his endless uphill fight with Harrisburg’s Republican horde; the Inquirer’s loss of readers and relevance, as well as its corporate purge of veteran employees. Still, to understand how Fumo came to be the paper’s favorite topic, one has to understand the history and dynamics of the peculiar relationship between the two. This is not the biggest, the best or the last battle for either. But it has been an inevitable one.