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?

ON A FRIDAY in late September, Vince Fumo held one of the more surreal press conferences of his career. Three days before, the Inquirer and Daily News (both are owned by San Jose-based Knight Ridder) had announced that they would be slashing editorial positions from their payrolls — 75 at the Inky, 25 at the DN. But that morning, standing at a podium outside the National Constitution Center, Fumo decided to play nice. He talked about freedom of the press, journalism’s role in democracy, and the importance of a diverse media landscape. Then, comparing himself to “Nixon going to China,” he announced that he would try to save the reporters’ jobs. “If I would let my heart rule, I would probably be dancing around with glee,” he admitted at the press conference. Even so, “I think it would be a major economic blow to the city to lose these kinds of high-paying jobs.”

 The announcement is destined to go down as another notch in the Fumo legend. Most Vince-watchers believe he cares about freedom of the press as much as a wildebeest cares about the freedom of jackals. But in one deft move, Fumo not only got to remind the world that the Inquirer is, at its core, a money-­making enterprise (and a rather hard-hearted one at that); he also got to broadcast his beefs with the Inky with a level of subtlety that didn’t make him look paranoid or obsessed. “It’s a great fuck-you and a mind-fuck at the same time,” says former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, not without admiration. “It’s what makes Vince so wonderful.”

For all of Fumo’s complaints about the Inquirer, it’s important to note what he hasn’t done: sue the paper for libel, despite having the city’s most feared attorney, Sprague, on his side. This doesn’t necessarily mean the paper has always been 100 percent right about him, but it’s hard to believe Fumo wouldn’t seek recourse through the legal system if he thought he had a case. Not even Fumo’s friends pretend that most of what the Inky has written isn’t newsworthy.

“They have the right to write about anything they want,” says Kenney. “He is fair game, and frankly, some of the ways he’s handled things weren’t handled properly.” Stalberg, hardly an Inky apologist, agrees. “They’ve uncovered some stuff people didn’t know about,” he says. “They’ve covered him very aggressively, and I think that’s what a newspaper is supposed to do. Vince is not without flaws. … The whole issue of politicians controlling gigantic private funds, essentially as their own piggy banks, that’s a big issue.”

When he was president, Lyndon B. Johnson — another man who knew something about bad press — said of the media: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline would read: PRESIDENT CAN’T SWIM.” Fumo understands the sentiment better than most. For all the good things he’s done during his career — and there are many — he remains convinced the Inquirer will bash him given any opportunity to do so. “I think they just want to see me gone,” he says. That may be true of the editorial page, which has long had a burr under its saddle for the Senator, despite endorsing him last year.

But it’s not as if the Inquirer has emerged from the fight without its own wounds. It is, for instance, hard to fathom the argument some at the paper have put forth — that Fumo isn’t unique in the attention he’s been given.

That, to use a Fumo-ism, is bullshit. House Speaker John Perzel, who is certainly more powerful than Fumo these days, doesn’t receive the same sort of scrutiny. Neither does Chaka Fattah — or even John Street. And it is hard to argue that all these figures couldn’t use a wedge of light on their little worlds.

No, the problem with the Fumo coverage isn’t that it’s too tough on Fumo. It’s that it has become conspicuous by the absence of tough coverage of other powerful, compelling political figures. Everybody who holds a lot of power should wonder whether he’s going to be followed to a funeral. As one disgruntled Inquirer staffer puts it: “The paper sucks in so many ways. Whatever you think of Fumo or the stories, being too hard on somebody shouldn’t even make the list of things we should be worrying about.”