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?

THE ONSLAUGHT HAD just begun. Over the next 18 months, the paper — with coverage led by McCoy and Cattabiani, but with contributions from several other staffers — would write slews of stories on Fumo. In April 2004, it wrote about the CEO of PECO’s parent company, Exelon, criticizing the utility’s secrecy over its contributions to Citizens Alliance. In May, it wrote about the Fund for Pennsylvania, another nonprofit tied to Fumo that gave out small grants to civic organizations in the city. In June, it wrote about Fumo’s bank awarding him 100,000 shares of restricted stock. In July, it wrote about how the Seaport Museum, when its yacht was laid up for repairs in 2001, leased a boat for Fumo to use on vacation. (Fumo paid the museum back, though not until 2004.) In October, it wrote (twice) about Fumo’s argument with Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, the one in which Fumo screamed “faggot” on the Senate floor. In February of this year, it wrote about a federal appeals court decision that allowed two dissident investors in Fumo’s bank to claim stock options the bank’s board had tried to void. In April, it wrote about the court fight over the FBI’s review of computer files seized from Fumo’s legislative offices. In May, it wrote the series about the bank.

To Fumo and his allies, not surprisingly, the coverage had long since come to feel like overkill, as if the paper was waging an undeclared war, and he had, in small ways, started to fight back. He stopped talking to the paper. He told anybody who would listen about the “Fumo desk at the Inquirer.” “They’re so interested, so obsessed with every aspect of his life, that it’s bizarre,” says Kenney. “When it comes to Vince, there is this blind spot, this rage, that seems to emanate from the depths of this paper.”

Fumo’s complaints, however, feed into a fundamental misunderstanding most people have of the media and the nature of its bias. It’s not that the media isn’t biased; it’s plenty biased. But its bias is in favor of stories — toward conflict and characters, toward clean lines and neat resolutions — rather than ideology. This is as true at the Inky as it is anywhere else, and maybe more so.

The Fumo story is but one conspicuous result of that ethos. Powerful, colorful and secretive, Fumo has long been the dark shadow of Delaware Valley politics, and the PECO angle offered a wedge of light into his obscurantist world. McCoy’s involvement also played a part. Because of his reputation and track record, says one reporter at the paper, “He can pretty much write his ticket” about which stories he takes on. Mostly, though, the paper kept publishing Fumo stories because it kept finding things to write about. PECO. DRPA. The yacht. The bank. The hits just kept coming. In the end, the reason Fumo attracted such exhaustive attention isn’t that somebody at the Inquirer disliked him — or even that he did anything illegal, or technically wrong. He attracted so much attention because a whole list of people did like him — as a story.