The Real Trouble With Philly.com’s Tom Corbett Column
In 2007, the Inquirer hired Rick Santorum to write a bimonthly column. The former senator, earning $1,750 a pop, was accused of making things up in his very first piece. A couple years later, the Inky was lambasted again, this time for handing John Yoo, the author of George W. Bush’s infamous “torture memos,” a similar gig. Neither hire, however, was as journalistically problematic as Philly.com’s recent decision to offer Tom Corbett a regular unpaid column on the site’s, er, eclectic, “New Voices” section.
Like Santorum and Yoo, Corbett is a conservative political figure. Unlike them, he’s still serving in government. In Pennsylvania. In the Governor’s mansion. Put another way, he doesn’t lack a bully pulpit. Barack Obama, for instance, issues a weekly video address that his staff uploads to YouTube and publishes on the White House website. When you’re a chief executive, as Corbett is, that’s the sort of thing you can do. It’s gratuitous, in other words, for one of the widest-read news sites in the state to offer generous word space to the state’s most powerful public official.
Interstate General Media’s 25-year-old VP Lexie Norcross, who runs Philly.com, justified the hire thusly: “Considering that The Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day, I think it’s actually equal, giving him a chance to speak.” Since when are newspapers obligated, in their own pages, to offer politicians the opportunity to rattle off formulaic talking points? Should IGM take the extra step and add an all-government publication—Pravda, Harrisburg—to its roster of news outlets? We get the press releases already, thanks. By giving Corbett space to spar with his critics at the Inky and the People Paper, Norcross and IGM are undercutting their own opinion columnists and editorial writers; they’re implying that their professional perspectives are no more valuable than Corbett’s speechwriter-written prattle.
But if Philly.com wants to treat Corbett like just another conservative columnist, then it should do so. I don’t recall Santorum’s inaugural column taking the shape of a gauzy Q&A with his wife. All Philly.com accomplished by having Corbett answer questions like “Where Is Your Happy Place?” was to help launch his re-election campaign.
Right, the election. In a wonderful turn of fortune for the governor, Philly.com handed Corbett his column the very same week he debuted his campaign website. So, to appear impartial, it also gave a “Voices” column to Corbett’s leading Democratic challenger Allyson Schwartz. All fair? Not quite. Why doesn’t Kathleen McGinty get a column? Not a big enough name? What if Rob McCord throws his hat in the ring? Then what? From here on out, depending on what Philly.com does, we’re either going to see an absurd race to the bottom in which otherwise distinguished people are actually vying for real estate on “New Voices,” or an inequitable situation in which a bunch of Democratic challengers aren’t getting the same airtime as their heavyweight opponents.
But as ill-advised as Philly.com’s decision was, it’s also instructive in understanding the bizarre relationship between the website and the two newspapers that yield most of its content. In an interview with the Inquirer after the “Voices” story broke, IGM Publisher Robert Hall made the case that Philly.com was so obviously independent from the Inquirer and the Daily News that it was not bound by the same standards of objectivity that would have precluded those papers from reaching a similar arrangement with Corbett.
That might have been a convincing argument if most of Philly.com’s content was at all editorially distinguishable from what appears in the two papers. Despite the appearance of their independent paywalled websites this spring, every single article published in the Inky and the Daily News can easily be tracked down and read for free on Philly.com. Add Tom Corbett to the laughable jumble of unpaid “voices” already competing for space with paid, professional writers from three distinct editorial teams, and you’re nearing the platonic ideal of disaggregated digital age content, in which a media outlet doesn’t cater to a specific audience or cultivate any sort of an editorial persona, but exists as a clearinghouse for various items it hopes might summon passing interest in a reader. IGM, in other words, appears to be moving further away from the fully paywalled newspapers we were promised, and doubling down on the morass that Philly.com has always been.
But if you must host Corbett, Philly.com, promise us one thing: Don’t turn off the comments.
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