Brian Tierney Doesn’t Deserve a Newspaper

By playing footsie with Ed Rendell when it comes to his papers' financing, Tierney has obliterated the line between the government and a free press

This is probably the easiest column I’ve ever written.

A no-brainer.

Unequivocally, Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News publisher Brian Tierney should be the last person in the world to have the honor of running a newspaper.

And yes, there is, or at least was, honor in that profession. But Tierney has done everything in his power to destroy the level of respect in which publishers were once held.

As everyone knows, all it takes is one bad apple to upset the whole cart. Once precedent is set, no matter how bad, others will follow suit. And in this case, the repercussions will affect us all. [SIGNUP]

* * *

It all started in 2006 when Tierney, a public relations executive, impressively assembled a group of local investors to purchase the newspapers. So impressed were the investors with themselves, however, that none saw the runaway freight train they were about to commandeer.

After paying a whopping $562 million for the papers — vastly over market value, according to virtually all experts — and expecting a coronation from employees and the public alike, it all went downhill.

At avalanche speed.

Soon thereafter, the papers started hemorrhaging money, for a variety of reasons.

As the most important aspect of Business 101 kicked in — namely, that a company, especially a well-established one, should be bringing in more money than it is spending — the PR wizard found himself in a dicey situation.

By 2008, the health of the papers was in serious jeopardy. Bills weren’t getting paid, employee taxes weren’t being submitted to the government, and Tierney wasn’t making any debt payments on the more than $300 million owed to creditors.

We all heard the reasons: the economy wasn’t doing well, advertising revenue was down, readership was plummeting, and the Internet was taking a toll.

All legitimate, of course, but not the main reason for the papers’ decline.

They were all symptoms of a much greater illness — lack of content. The venerable Inquirer had become a shell, offering virtually nothing of interest to its readers.

Where was the hard-nosed investigative reporting exposing the limitless corruption in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania? Virtually non-existent. Sure, there were a few good articles here and there, but in typical media fashion, they were usually one-and-done. Without aggressive follow-up, the bad guys knew they were off the hook, and business as usual resumed.

Heck, in 2008, during one of the most important election years in our nation’s history, the paper didn’t even have a Washington news bureau!

Things were getting dire for Tierney, so he made a conscious decision to commit the mortal sin of media protocol: he went to an elected official, his friend, Governor Ed Rendell, for a taxpayer bailout.

* * *

For obvious reasons, this was wrong on many levels, not the least of which was that objective reporting of the governor, his administration, his party, and any of his pet projects was off the table. A media entity that asks for, much less receives, government support has its integrity and credibility forever compromised. Period.

Of this, there is no dispute. And everybody who isn’t spinning a fairy tale knows it.

Yours truly broke the story of secretive bailout talks in February 2009. It was subsequently picked up by The Wall Street Journal, who titled their editorial “Bad News In Philadelphia… The Worst Bailout Idea So Far: Newspapers.” George Will’s syndicated column and National Review Online, among other publications, also picked up on the story, all opposing a government bailout of the newspaper.

Tierney, attempting to spin the facts, penned a letter to the editor to the Journal defending his actions — and proceeded to get it all wrong.

First, he tried to make a distinction — where there isn’t any — between a government “bailout” and “state economic development dollars.”

Second, he denied that state money would influence the editorial content of his newspapers and online content. Which is simply insulting to everyone, but most of all, his readers.

And third, he repeatedly denied that the papers had sought any financial assistance from the two state pension systems.

Pay no attention to the 2009 KYW Newsradio story where Gov. Rendell’s spokesman said there were discussions about state agencies renting space in the newspapers’ building, and that some bailout conversations involved two of Pennsylvania’s large state pension boards.

In a statement, Tierney claimed that discussions did not involve the use of pension fund dollars to buy any of the papers’ debt.

But a Jan. 31 article in the Inquirer — his own paper! — painted a different picture when it stated, “Gov. Rendell said he arranged a recent meeting between the publisher of The Inquirer and Daily News and the two largest state employee pension funds in hopes of helping the newspaper company lessen its large debt burden.”

In fact, the chairman of one of the pension boards, Nicholas Maiale, publicly acknowledged that in 2008 he attended a meeting with Tierney, Governor Rendell, newspaper investor Bruce Toll, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and several representatives of the Rendell administration.

Maiale stated, “The purpose [of the discussions] was to listen to Mr. Toll and Mr. Tierney describe their financial plight and to see if there was any way we could talk to some of our independent investment managers about possibly investing or buying some limited debt of the Inquirer.”

Yet another example of throwing honor and honesty to the wind.

* * *

Obviously, Rendell either isn’t aware of the line between government and the media, or just doesn’t care.

It was reported that Rendell had approached billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008 to buy the financially ailing Philadelphia papers. Rendell was quoted as saying, “We discussed a few things, and I tried to convince him to come down and buy the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News.”

And before Tierney bought the papers in 2006, the governor had approached billionaire Ron Burkle, urging him to make a bid. Burkle, a huge player in Democratic politics, had contributed $10,000 to Rendell’s campaign, and another $100,000 to the state Democratic Party. Additionally, he had raised over $1 million for Hillary Clinton.

Recently Rendell and Tierney teamed up again, securing the financial backing of Burkle for a bid by local investors (with close ties to Tierney) to gain control of the newspaper.

According to the Inquirer, “The involvement of Burkle came after he was contacted by Gov. Rendell at the request of Brian P. Tierney,” and that “Burkle agreed to join the group after the intervention of Rendell, who reached out to Burkle…at the request of Tierney.”

It was only on Monday, after  Ron and Ray Perelman became part of the local investors group, that Burkle stepped out of the deal. But the fact that Burkle’s no longer in the equation is irrelevant.  The irreparable damage is done.

The governor’s repeated efforts to be an integral part of the very media charged with covering his performance is repugnant. If he wishes to associate with a newspaper upon leaving office, well and fine. But until that time, he should honor the separation that must exist between an independent newspaper and political leaders.

Let’s hope that during this week’s auction, the investor group led by Tierney and Burkle get what they so richly deserve.

Absolutely nothing.

Anything more would be the final stake in the heart of Philadelphia’s once great newspapers.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”
Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at [email protected]