Inky Mess: Karen Heller Vs. George Norcross’s Spokesman

Was a critical tweet a back-door attempt to influence news coverage? Daniel Fee says no.

Another week, another rumpus in the Inquirer newsroom.

This time, it involves longtime Inky columnist Karen Heller and Daniel Fee, whose strategic communications firm, The Echo Group, handles public relations for George Norcross, the South Jersey political boss and part-owner of the company which owns the Inquirer. When Norcross has communicated with the newsroom, it has often been through emails that have gone out under Fee’s name.

On Sunday, Heller wrote about the rise of gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, whose surge to the top of the polls has been mostly attributed to his flooding the airwaves with commercials — which in turn has been attributed to Wolf’s decision to spend millions of dollars of his own money on the campaign. Heller wrote that “the leading Democratic candidate’s principal distinctions are being a former secretary of revenue and a longtime holder of a healthy bank account.”

Fee wasn’t a fan. “Shockingly shallow analysis” he wrote from The Echo Group’s Twitter account. (The account doesn’t have a large audience — just 179 followers as of this writing — but a large portion of it appears to be Inquirer reporters and other members of the Philadelphia journalism community.)

The tweet raised ire in the Inquirer newsroom, where colleagues often tweet each other’s work only to praise it. And it raised concerns among some of the journalists that Norcross, Fee’s boss and well-known for his dislike of newspaper columnists, was attempting to influence and interfere in newsroom content decisions via a backdoor channel. (Norcross and other owners have promised not to interfere with journalism decisions.)

“I thought it was unprofessional,” Heller told Philly Mag. “And I was shocked.”

Fee said Norcross played no part in his tweet and hadn’t even known about it. He pointed out that he often tweets about news articles from The Echo Group’s account, and even occasionally offers praise for reporting at Philadelphia’s major newspapers.

But he was hardly apologetic about his criticism of Heller’s column.

“Anyone who is upset about my tweet should read Mark Leibovich’s new column about the manufacture of fake outrage. There’s a link to it on my Twitter page,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But I admit, I believe accusations should be backed up, facts should be checked, and commentary should be insightful.”

Which probably means: More rumpuses to come.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.