Press Lord 2.0

Can a self-made adman with big ideas and a Walter Annenberg fascination save the Inquirer and Daily News? Maybe. But when Brian Tierney’s finished, the newspaper business may never be the same

TIERNEY IS A PITCHMAN. That’s his culture. He sells stuff. Always other people’s stuff. Hoagies for Wawa, credit cards for Advanta, the blue-chip products of blue-chip companies like Aramark and Exelon, political candidates for the GOP. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t believe in some of the things he sells. He does. As a Catholic, he went to war with the Inky in the ’90s over its investigation of Cardinal Bevilacqua’s spending priorities, then reached out to Catholic voters on behalf of George W. Bush in 2000. Later he handled PR for the Camden diocese and its law firm while they fought off those pesky allegations of child molestation that kept appearing under the bylines of those (totally biased!) journalists at the Inky. So he believes in the Church. Bush, too. In 2003, when Tierney chaired Sam Katz’s mayoral campaign, he resisted attempts to broaden his candidate’s appeal in a Democratic city by having Katz criticize Bush. At one early strategy meeting, a leading GOP consultant told Katz he should try to become Philly’s Mike Bloomberg, perhaps by coming out against the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Says the consultant, Chris Mottola, “I thought Brian was going to have a stroke. ‘You can’t do that! You can’t do that! The White House will never stand for that.’” Katz lost. Tierney says, “I’m post-political now,” though it’s clear that certain folks see him as the Great Right Hope; at a business breakfast in October, a man approached Tierney and said he thought the Inky should feature more “good news” that was “fair and balanced.” Tierney said, “I’ve got 1,400 letters just like yours. And five on the other side.”

But these are the exceptions. Mostly, Tierney has been a hired gun. His words, his opinions, have always been for sale, even when he was ostensibly speaking for himself. For years he was a panelist on the Channel 6 public-affairs show Inside Story, and when you watch the tapes, what’s amazing is how unseriously his fellow panelists take him. He spews Limbaugh-isms about “overly sympathetic liberal bleeding hearts” and “irresponsible environmentalists” and how Hillary Clinton has no credibility because “SHE WAS SELLING PIG-BELLY FUTURES!!!” Those were heady days for Clinton-haters, and Tierney could Clinton-hate with the best. Once he even compared Bill to Saddam Hussein, saying that Bill’s relationship with special prosecutor Ken Starr was like Saddam’s relationship with weapons inspectors: “You know, what the President has done is in many ways what Saddam Hussein has done, which is to hide and obfuscate for so long that people will get fatigued and not want to keep looking.” On one show, Tierney protested to his fellow panelists, “I’m a noble person.” Then smiled ironically. Then they all burst into laughter.

Sometimes Tierney was such a deft spinner, he talked about his clients without disclosing the relationship. In 2001, when Sixers officials Ed Snider and Pat Croce battled for control of the team, Tierney took Snider’s side, slagging Croce with what Croce says were “pure lies.” (Tierney says he never lied about Croce.) Croce was so furious that he declared, “If I saw him on the street, I would rip off his head and spit down his neck.” A few years later, Croce confronted Tierney about it. Says Croce, “He said, ‘Pat, Ed paid me!’” Croce was disarmed by Tierney’s “pure candor and honesty,” eventually going into business with him on the proposed Donald Trump casino. The two men literally hugged it out. Tierney is such a pitchman that he will keep selling himself to someone he’s been paid to smear; it doesn’t compute with Tierney that anyone might actually dislike him. Four years ago, PR consultant Alison Grove told Tierney that she’d love to work for him because she respected his willingness to ruffle feathers: “I know a lot of people think you’re an asshole.” She meant it as a compliment. Tierney didn’t take it that way. He demanded to know which people. “It derailed our relationship for weeks,” says Grove. “For a guy who has all this vim and vigor, and who, frankly, gets paid to offend people, he’s very sensitive.”