Ed Rendell Didn’t Think He Was Talking to a Reporter

New rules of journalism: Anyone can quote you. Anyone.

When I was managing editor of Philadelphia Weekly in the largely predigital 1990s, readers frequently came by the office to give us tips. Some panned out; others didn’t. Many times you knew from a person’s pressured speech or glittering eyes that the “tips” would take you nowhere. But we never made any assumptions. We simply followed up after they left. Sometimes we got really great scoops that would seem, from the outside, to be impossible not to use. But to tell you the truth, it never occurred to us to use a tip without doing due diligence. Vetting sources was serious business then, even at an alternative paper.

Something happened this week that made me think back to those days with nostalgia. Former Governor Ed Rendell ran into an acquaintance, Laura Goldman, on the street. They had a chat about whether he was going to buy the Inky et al. She posted the chat on her blog, Naked Philadelphian. The blog post was picked up and relinked, landing even in august quarters like Poynter.org, the website of the noted journalism institute. Then Rendell got really pissed and told the Daily News‘s David Gambacorta that he’s not commenting to anyone anymore. (This being Ed, however, we didn’t have long to wait.)

When I saw the link at Poynter, that’s when the nostalgia really kicked in. Doesn’t anyone vet sources anymore? Even fellow journalists?

Basically, if I translated the chain of events into the print world, it might have looked something like this: A guy comes into the PW offices to offer us a hot scoop. I go out to meet him. We sit down. He says, “I just ran into the mayor—we’ve known each other for years—and he told me he’s going to end the Safe Streets program.” Then he hands me a crinkled copy of a newsletter he publishes—lousy graphics, numerous typos, but quotes from well-known politicians and community figures who I’ll bet this guy absolutely knows. “I started the newsletter after I was convicted of extortion, fled the country and had to be extradited back to the U.S. for prosecution. But it’s okay. I’m just on probation now. And I’ve written articles for a few other papers.” Where we are on deadline, I could squeeze in a story titled “Mayor Says Safe Streets Is Through.” But would I? No way. Even if I had a hunch he was telling the truth.

Laura Goldman has a complex criminal history. That doesn’t mean she can’t be a journalist. There must be tons of boomer journalists out there who were busted for weed or protesting or free love. People make mistakes, and then they move on. But sometimes the history can be pertinent. In employment law, it’s not discriminatory to turn down a convicted embezzler for the position as your firm’s chief financial officer. And in the case of Goldman, it’s not irrelevant that the charges against her specifically pertained to her honesty and integrity—including her ability to report incidents accurately.

Not only that, but her blog, Naked Philadelphian, is little more than a crinkled newsletter for the digital age. It’s a blogspot blog without its own domain. It has seven members. The content has numerous typos, and it’s not even an every-other-day blog. Since it began in September 2010, she’s posted just over 100 times. To be sure, it’s filled with quotes from Rendell and Arlen Specter and “sources in the White House.” But so what? Everyone knows everyone in Philly. Naked Philadelphian may one day turn into something, but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine it’ll have Attytood’s Will Bunch crying into his beer anytime soon. Yet it keeps getting quoted.

Last year another of her posts was uncritically hoovered up and reposted by the national sports blog Deadspin [Editor’s Note: The Philly Post also linked to the piece]—despite the fact that its subject, Sarah Madson, claimed Goldman misrepresented her. Sarah, wife of Phillie Ryan Madson, said she felt she’d been ambushed. From the statement the Phillies released after the scuffle last year: “Sarah did not consent to an interview, but rather was approached by Ms. Goldman who did not identify herself as a reporter.”

Hmm. That’s what Gambacorta wrote yesterday: “Rendell said that he didn’t know Goldman was a reporter … ”

Is she a reporter? She has a blogspot account, knows a lot of people and is good at shmoozing and getting people to say things they might not want to say. Is that what a reporter is these days?

Information idealists like to imagine the web is a space unfettered by hierarchies and exclusivity; anyone, in this space, can be a reporter. But there are still the same old cliques and clubs: That’s why MuckRack exists now along with the Pen and Pencil. Determinations get made every day as to who belongs and who doesn’t—whose blog is credible, who’s got appropriate access to sources, whose behavior is trustworthy, whose information reliably serves the dialogue. Taking a minute to consider factors even beyond these before linking to a post is so much less than an old-school print editor would do, but so much more than most of us are doing now.