Rendell’s First Inquirer Bailout Didn’t Work

Why would this latest dealmaking save Philly's Fourth Estate?

Famed political strategist James Carville once referred to Pennsylvania as two major cities with Alabama in between. What an insult to Alabama.

From Ed Rendell to Tom Corbett (is there a difference?), a lack of leadership has left the nation’s fifth-largest state on the precipice, its citizens staring into the abyss of permanent mediocrity, paralyzed by fear to take the risks necessary to forge ahead. Such a malaise is anathema to employers looking for economic stability, a less hostile atmosphere and a better educational system.

While that lack of leadership is inexcusable, there is another, even more important factor as to why the state finds itself in such a precarious situation: a media that has sold its soul, forsaking its most basic mission of holding everyone accountable, with a “no sacred cows” approach. For far too long, stories that needed to be told were relegated to the dustbin. And unsavory politicians and business leaders counted on that. Without an aggressive press, it was, and remains, the Wild West where bad guys operate with impunity.

There is no better example of the media’s fall from grace than that of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Once a paper of national significance that took a bulldog approach to its reporting, it has since become a shell of its former self, an also-ran full of AP feeds and local fluff stories of virtually no interest.

The Inky really jumped the tracks when it was “led” by Brian Tierney, who, along with investors, paid more than half a billion for the paper (and the Daily News) in 2006.

Mired in debt, Tierney did the unthinkable—he approached then-Governor Rendell for a taxpayer-funded bailout to keep the papers afloat in 2009, a story that my site Freindly Fire broke and was picked up by the Wall Street Journal in its harshly worded editorial, “Bad News In Philadelphia.”

Predictably, Rendell was ready and willing to lend that helping hand. But as negative fallout for the bailout plan grew, the deal fell apart and the papers filed for bankruptcy.

Despite what common sense unquestionably tells us—that a taxpayer-funded newspaper would, in fact, be an “adjunct of the state,” as the WSJ so adroitly described it—the players in that ill-fated bailout attempt saw nothing wrong with their actions.

Tierney is out of the picture now but, incomprehensibly, the situation has come full circle. Now the current owners want out, and it has been reported that none other than Ed Rendell has been approached to put together an investor group to possibly buy the papers.

Really? Ed Rendell? How is that even remotely possible?

Where is the journalistic integrity in working with the very man who stood cocked, ready to unleash millions in taxpayer funds to bail out an “independent” media entity? It’s no secret that it has become increasingly difficult for papers to make a profit these days, but having Rendell as your go-to man underscores just how desperate the situation has become.

Taking marching orders from elected officials destroys the very essence of being a journalist and jeopardizes the unique constitutional protections afforded to media members. Sure, Ed Rendell is a private citizen now, but his mentality—how he sees the role of the government working hand-in-hand with the media—has undoubtedly not changed.

But the behavior of the Inquirer’s ownership should come as no surprise, given that it recently accepted a $2.9 million loan from the City of Philadelphia to assist the company move to a new headquarters. Yes, from the same city, the same mayor and the same city council that the newspapers are supposed to be objectively covering. Is nothing sacred anymore?

The last thing the region needs is an investor group led by political insiders and ideologically supercharged individuals with aggressive personal agendas. As painful as it would be for the thousands of hard-working folks at the those newspapers, it would be better for the entire entity to close its doors than to be associated with folks who may, at any given time, make a pitch for public financing.

And while past performance is not indicative of future results, it’s a damn good bet.

The sad reality is that the Fourth Estate in the U.S. has abdicated its sacred responsibility of keeping American institutions honest and true. No longer respected as the entity that holds feet to the fire and follows investigations wherever they may lead, the American media has instead become part and parcel of the Establishment. Too many journalists play the “go-along, get-along” game—some because it’s easy, others because they want to be liked, still others who are afraid they will lose “access” if they ask the tough questions.

No medium is immune from this malady. Those in television, radio, newspaper and on the Internet are all complicit. As an entity, the media has fallen down on its most basic journalistic responsibilities, losing its integrity, and ultimately its credibility, along the way.

Consequently, the public’s view of the media is at an historic low. And while complaints abound that the media is biased, which to a certain extent it is, this is but a symptom of a much greater illness. A slant towards liberalism or conservatism is wrong, to be sure, but inherent laziness and, by extension, incompetence, are the first problems that must be rectified. Competence and vision will trump bias every time.

Whether it’s nauseating nonstop coverage of Kim Kardashian’s love life or feel-good fluff stories in our nation’s pre-eminent newspapers, the lack of hard-hitting investigative reporting and aggressive interviews with top national and international leaders is appalling.

There is a certain irony here. If media executives produced the quality work that the American people expect, their ratings would skyrocket, and advertisers would pay a premium. The biggest myth being propagated about the bankruptcy of media companies is that they are victims of the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

They are victims of their own ineptitude.

Americans still have an unquenchable thirst for the news, but they are increasingly tuning out the mainstream media because the content is utterly lacking of substance.

The solution is simple; it’s just not easy. Nothing and no one should be off the table—not politicians, government officials, businessmen, media personalities, sports stars or celebrities. Americans don’t gravitate to question marks, but exclamation points. It’s time to put the exclamation point back in the American press, not through new technologies and gimmicks, but by pursuing the only thing that matters: the truth.