By Ralph Cipriano
When I used to work at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a couple of reporters there had a routine that always made me laugh.
They were relatively new hires. Whenever they were around the old-timers too long, and heard too many stories about Gene Roberts and the Golden Age of Journalism, they would hum a few bars of "Tara's Theme," from Gone With The Wind.
The Inky had a lot in common with the movie that lamented the lost Confederacy. Staffers at the city's paper of record were always reminiscing about the glory days under legendary editor Gene Roberts; now they're pining for the return of Bill Marimow.
Marimow is the Gene Roberts disciple who's done a couple stints as Inky editor. Last week, Inky Publisher Bob Hall fired Marimow for not being enough of a "change agent." That's funny because Hall's been the Inky publisher since I was there back in the 1990s. Two new owners of the paper, represented by Richard A. Sprague, a former Inky blood enemy, then filed suit in Common Pleas Court to bring Marimow back and fire Hall.
Meanwhile, former Inquirer heavyweights such as Steve Lopez, Mark Bowden and Maxwell King are leading a petition drive to bring back Billy. Cue Tara's Theme.
I used to work for Marimow. I like and respect him, but I won't be signing that petition.
Sadly, it doesn't matter who runs that paper. Maybe the Inky under a succession of new owners is just too cowed or ethically compromised. Or the staff that remains there is just too beaten down or just plain spent. Whatever, it's been obvious for a long time that the city's paper of record is not up to doing what's needed in this town.
I know from my own personal experiences. Even when the guy at at the top had the best intentions, the troops under him were too lame to deliver.
Especially that City Hall bureau.
A decade after an editor at the Inky showed me to the door, I ran into Bill Marimow on the street in 2009.
He looked exactly like I remembered. Same mustache, same button-down blue dress shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. And in his conversation, the same repeated and enthusiastic use of the word "excellent."
Bill couldn't have been nicer. He invited me to lunch and asked me to send him some story ideas. My mistake was taking him seriously. So I sent him a detailed memo about DROP.
DROP is the pension perk at City Hall that pays workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bonuses just for showing up during their last four years on the job. Taxpayers have already spent more than a billion dollars on this worthless program that does nothing more than line the pockets of already over-compensated municipal workers. A few City Council members really abused DROP by retiring for a day, banking their fat checks, and then going right back to work.
I sent Marimow a road map on how to do the story. He was enthusiastic, but soon, he was getting push back from his City Hall bureau. You know, those insiders who think and write like they're deputy mayors.
When the Inky story on DROP finally came out, it was the lamest piece of dog crap I've ever seen. It read like an incomplete book report. And it had zero effect.
I was so angry, I took the road map I sent Bill, and wrote the story for the Philadelphia City Paper in 2010. To my surprise, DROP became a crusade, and in the end, it took out more City Council members than Abscam.
The credit, however, doesn't belong to me, but to a former Inky editorial writer named Paul Davies. The normal posture at the Inquirer, was if they didn't write about it, it didn't happen. If Davies hadn't gone against the grain and editorialized about my DROP story, and Kingsley Smith, the former news director at Fox 29, hadn't turned DROP into an evangelical crusade, nobody would have known or cared.
That's what an aroused press corps can do. Sadly, Davies and Smith are gone, and DROP is still with us.
Around the time of DROP, the Inky was on the auction block, and in and out of bankruptcy court. One of the Inky's many owners was the pension fund of the Carpenters Union. The Inky story back in 2006 announcing the sale of the paper said the Carpenters were "reportedly investing more than $20 million." Reportedly? The paper of record reporting on the sale of the paper of record, and they said "reportedly?"
But when the Inky filed for bankruptcy in 2009, public documents revealed the Carpenters' investment was more than twice that size. The Carpenters actually invested $47 million in the Inky and Daily News, $45 million of which came from the union pension fund. None of the rank and file at the Carpenters Union knew about it. When the paper went bankrupt, the Carpenters lost every cent.
It was all spelled out in public documents that had been lying around for 18 months. But the Inky wouldn't print it.
I wrote about the Carpenters' bad investments for the City Paper. In the course of reporting that story, I called an Inky reporter who had covered the sale of the paper. I asked him if he had seen those documents outlining the Carpenters' true investments and losses. Yep, he said he had the same documents I did. But he wouldn't tell me why it never ran, except to say that he wasn't as crazy as I was.
At the time, the Carpenters were part of a new group led by Brian Tierney that was trying to buy the papers back at auction. And the Carpenters were ready to blow another $10 million of pension money to keep the Inky and the Daily News.
I found it interesting that during the time the Carpenters owned our two dailies, virtually all public criticism ceased about a union that too often acts like a bunch of goons, and still maintains a tyrannical hold on the city's failing new Convention Center. Maybe the Carpenters did get something back on their investment.
Marimow got mad when I called to ask if the Inky was playing it straight with its coverage of the auction of the papers. "I take my reputation very seriously," Marimow told me. "The idea that I would try to tilt the local coverage to Brian Tierney is totally untrue."
I never found out whether the Inky's failure to print the Carpenters true investments and losses was the failure of the reporter, or the editors he worked for. But in the end, it didn't really matter. The result was the same, an uninformed public.
A couple of days after I called the Inquirer newsroom and raised a ruckus, the Inky finally ran a brief note on Dec. 26, 2010 about the Carpenters loss of $45 million in pension funds. It ran on page D-3 of the business section the day after Christmas. How's that for burying a story? It only took them 18 months.
Then I heard that former Philadelphia Newspapers LLC CEO Brian Tierney was getting a $300,000 golden parachute. Once again, it was laid out in public documents and the Inky wouldn't write about it. I only knew about it because people at the paper were calling me. So I wrote the story for City Paper, which printed it, despite repeated threats of a libel suit from Tierney.
Tierney's critics at the Inky then handed out the City Paper at Tierney's going away party.
By that time, I'd concluded too many people at the Inky were too concerned about self-preservation to stick their necks out. And too tied to the Democratic party to upend any apple carts.
We live in one of the most corrupt cities in North America. While we're going broke, our mayor has invented 31 new boards and commissions like the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. We have a financial oversight board, PICA, that slaps a rubber stamp on the city's irresponsible budgets. At L&I, they let contractors license themselves and watch while buildings fall down and kill people. Our city pension fund is so broke we're all going to have to bail it out. When our district attorney isn't sending innocent men to jail, he's comparing a murder victim to his dead dog.
Meanwhile, the Inky is making sure that Vince Fumo doesn't throw another party at his mansion.
Seymour Hersh, the legendary reporter who uncovered the My Lai massacre, gave an interview to the Guardian recently. He had an interesting prescription for what ails American newspapers. He said most editors were too cowardly and timid, and that 90 percent of them should be fired. He talked about how the media needed to promote more people who were outsiders, and didn't give a damn about what you told them.
There's a reason why I'm a blogger.
Bill Marimow, however is the opposite of timid and cowardly, but sadly, those two words apply to the paper he edits. It's hard to figure, especially if you know and admire Marimow.
And so when the AVI story hit earlier this year, I found myself hoping against hope. Once again, I reached out to my old editor to try and goad the Inky into action.
AVI, or the Actual Value Initiative was a story that had people riled up all over town. Under AVI, people in Fairmount and South Philly were getting new assessments that showed an increase of 300 to 500 percent. In my case, my new AVI assessment was five times what I paid for my old rowhouse in a fringe neighborhood.
I started poking around with online property records, and noticed that while some people were getting clobbered by AVI, others in Chestnut Hill were getting tax breaks. I found three properties on St. Martin's Lane that sold for between $1 and $1.9 million. On Google Earth, those properties featured spectacular stone houses and majestic estates, with large shade trees and swimming pools. Under AVI, their assessments were only 40 to 60 percent of sale prices.
Meanwhile, the Inky City Hall bureau was showing its usual lack of curiosity about reporting anything that wasn't handed to them by the mayor's PR guys.
I sent Bill an email telling him what I knew. Then I took a few shots at his City Hall bureau.
"Bill, where do you find these guys who cover City Hall for you?" I wrote. "Their copy reads like it came out of the mayor's press office. Your AVI coverage is an embarassment. Are your guys on the take?"
As always, Bill was polite.
"Good morning Ralph," he replied. "If you would ever like to talk about his subject or any others in person like the former colleagues that we are, you're welcome to stop by. I've always tried to treat you fairly, and I'll continue to do so. Period."
"As to whether our reporters are 'on the take,' that -- as you well know -- is, to put it politely, untrue."
"All the best,