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?

IN ANOTHER ERA, perhaps the bad old days when the Annenbergs almost ran it into the ground, the Inquirer might have treated Fumo as a darling. For all his well-documented petulance, the man possesses no small amount of personal charm. Smart, funny, urbane, he is also, as everyone concedes, refreshingly candid — with friend and foe alike. “I can’t remember a single time he has lied to me,” says John Baer, the Daily News columnist who has covered Harrisburg for 18 years. “He might not answer a question, but he hasn’t lied to me.” When Baer is asked if it’s common for other legislators in Harrisburg to lie, he doesn’t answer. He laughs.

But it wasn’t Fumo’s fate to be a darling. Instead, he arrived in public office in the wake of Watergate, when the media in general and the Inquirer in particular were rapidly and radically changing: from political accessory to adversary, from explaining power to holding it accountable. It was a transformation that Fumo witnessed and came to understand early in his public life. He has never forgotten what he considered the hypocrisy involved in the way the paper covered the downfall of Buddy Cianfrani, his political mentor. In the late 1970s, Cianfrani was romantically involved with the Inky’s chief political reporter, Laura Foreman — an affair some editors at the paper allegedly knew about — at the same time she was also romantically involved with people at the paper. (The situation was cause for New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal to offer the world’s most succinct lesson on journalistic ethics: “I don’t care if you’re fucking the elephants,” he said, “so long as you aren’t covering the circus.”) Nor could Fumo forget how the paper covered him after he was accused of participating in an alleged scam in 1980 that involved putting Democratic Party workers on the state payroll. (Fumo was convicted, but the conviction was subsequently overturned.) “With Buddy and then when he got indicted, he felt the papers went overboard,” says someone close to the Senator. “I don’t think he’s liked the papers since.”

From that early exposure, Fumo became acutely attuned to the politics and proclivities of the media, including how — and how much — he was covered: all the snubs and slights, all the double standards and contradictions. He often hasn’t helped himself. He can be imperious and arrogant, quick to anger and slow to forget. Nor does it help that he isn’t a schmoozer, that his skills are tailored to the back room, to wading through the fine print, mastering the details. Nor, perhaps, that he is unafraid and unashamed to wield the power he’s accumulated, whether it’s to deliver money to his district or to shiv an old enemy. “Vincent gets into some gray areas, you know” is how Democratic boss Bob Brady phrases it. “He never developed the relationship with the media that he should have,” adds Kenney. “When I worked for him, I urged him to do that, to talk to reporters, to treat them like they’re part of the process, not to look at them like they’re the enemy.”

Instead, Fumo became an exacting media critic. In 1997, when the City Paper’s Howard Altman wrote a column calling the Board of City Trusts a “goon squad” that was “controlled” by Fumo, the Senator hired superlawyer Richard Sprague to bring a libel suit against the paper. (The suit was settled out of court.) The following year, when Fumo learned that the Inquirer had nominated its scathing series on the Board of City Trusts’ management of Girard College — the articles Altman’s column was based on — for a Pulitzer, he wrote a letter to the prize committee taking issue with the series’ accuracy. (It didn’t win.) Indeed, by the time the Inquirer began scrutinizing corporate donations to charities with which he had close ties, Fumo didn’t think getting bad press in the paper was annoying. He thought it was unavoidable. For a while he even speculated that the harsh coverage was payback for his opposition to building the Phillies stadium on land owned by PNI, the paper’s owner. It was a specious argument — both the publisher and editor had changed since the stadium fight — but it hardly mattered. It was symptomatic of the way he saw the paper and, more important, how he thought the paper saw him. “I can’t help but think that at some point,” he says, “they put a target on me.”