Friday, November 22, 2013

Judge Reinstates Inquirer Editor

By Ralph Cipriano

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Patricia McInerney today granted an injunction to immediately reinstate Bill Marimow as editor of the Inquirer.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Marimow returned to the newsroom on Market Street where he was fired Oct. 7 by Publisher Bob Hall. The editor was greeted by a standing ovation from staffers. He made no speeches, but walked around shaking hands and accepting congratulations.

Condolences may have been more appropriate. Marimow is returning to a hostile work environment at what may be the most dysfunctional newspaper in America. Just last week, the judge granted a separate injunction to reinstate Publisher Hall, so now he and Marimow can resume their daily wrestling over who's in control of the Inky newsroom.

Both Hall and Marimow are lame ducks. Hall was reinstated by the judge until Dec. 31; Marimow's contract expires April 30th.

So welcome back, Bill. The publisher who fired you last month is still here. He'll be watching your every move. So will George Norcross, who heads up the majority slate of owners, and who's already said that hiring you was the biggest mistake he ever made.

Have a nice day.

The judge's decision didn't make any sense from a practical viewpoint.

After four days of hearings in Judge McInerney's courtroom, the combatants are back to square one.

Rival owners Lew Katz and George Norcross are still at each other's throats.

Publisher Hall and Editor Marimow still disagree on everything.

The Inky city editor, who happens to be Katz's longtime companion, doesn't exactly see eye to eye with the VP of digital operations who oversees, the newspaper's free website, and happens to be Norcross's daughter.

Last night, Norcross announced he would seek an expedited appeal of the judge's decision, because it leaves the feuding owners in a continued stalemate. The judge's decision invites more "chaos" in the daily operation of the Inquirer, as well as "paralysis," Norcross said through a statement issued by a spokesperson. The judge's decision also gives owners who have taken a "non-interference" pledge when it comes to the editorial operations of the Inquirer a green light to continue meddling.

Judge McInerney's five-page order stated that the "key issue before this court" was whether the firing of Marmiow was an editorial decision or a business decision.

Apparently, it's both.

The limited liability agreement for Interstate General Media, the Inquirer's parent company, states that a management committee composed of just two members, Katz and Norcross, has the "right, power and authority" to make "decisions with respect to all business and operational matters." The authority of the management committee is supposed to be "confined to the business and operational aspects of the company." The management committee is supposed to have "no authority with respect to editorial or journalistic policies and decisions of the company."

The judge concluded that the hiring and firing of the editor could be viewed as an editorial or journalistic decision, as well as a "business and operational matter."

"Since two reasonable interpretations exist," the judge wrote, the issue, as far as she was concerned, was ambiguous.

So the judge said her next step to resolve the dispute was to look at the parties' intentions at the time they entered into the limited liability agreement. She also looked at customary practices in the newspaper industry.

The judge found more ambiguity.

Testimony offered in the case showed that the "hiring and firing of an editor is traditionally an 'editorial or journalistic' decision left to the discretion of the publisher in the newspaper industry," the judge wrote. The judge also heard testimony that the Inquirer is governed by a limited liability agreement wherein the management committee "clearly views the hiring and firing of the editor and the publisher as a 'business and operational' matter."

"Indeed, the testimony established that the management committee hired Mr. Marimow as editor," the judge wrote. "Moreover, the former publisher of the Inquirer, Mr. [Greg] Osberg, testified that since he did not hire Mr. Marimow, he believed he could not fire Mr. Marimow."

The judge decided that the limited liability agreement trumped customary practices in the newspaper business. Under he limited liability agreement, the judge wrote, "the management committee possesses the authority to hire and fire the editor as part of its 'business and operational' duties."

Since Marimow was not fired by the management committee, the judge wrote, "Mr. Katz was deprived of his voting right granted to him under the limited liability agreement and suffered irreparable harm ... Mr. Katz had a clear right to vote on the firing of Mr. Marimow."

In making her decision, the judge realized she was only resolving "the discrete and narrow issue pending before this court," namely whether Marimow should be reinstated. The judge wrote that her decision "does not resolve nor necessarily advance the likelihood of resolution of any other issues in the operation of the Inquirer."

That's for sure.

In other words, all the warring parties who came to Judge McInerney's courtroom seeking a resolution of their conflict are now free to keep on fighting.

Note exactly the wisdom of Solomon.

In response, the Norcross team issued a statement that said Norcross would file an appeal on an expedited basis of the judge's decision to reinstate Marimow.

"The decision to return Marimow to the Inquirer as a lame duck editor -- his contract ends April 30th -- will have the effect of risking chaos in company," said the statement from Dan Fee, a spokesman for the majority owners headed up by Norcross. The statement noted that the judge was restoring "an editor who consistently resisted needed changes to the paper and who is in open conflict with the publisher."

In their lawsuit, the Katz team sought to resolve the war at the Inquirer by reinstating Marimow and terminating publisher Hall. But instead of resolving the dispute, the judge, in separate orders, just returned both Hall and Marimow to office.

"The ruling ensures that every newsroom decision will require the joint agreement of the managing members, subjecting the company to paralysis," the Norcross statement said.

Then, in the true spirit of the judge's decision, the Norcross team took a swipe at Katz, as well as his "girlfriend," the city editor of the Inquirer.

The bell had rung. Round Two of the Inky Death Match was now officially under way.

"Minority owner Lewis Katz, who brought the lawsuit, testified under oath that he believed it appropriate for an owner to be able to influence the operations of the newsroom," the statement said. That includes "the hiring and firing of journalists, with no set standards for how far or how often they [the owners] can reach in to influence coverage."

"That would render the non-interference pledge meaningless because the power to fire is the power to influence coverage," the statement said. "Given that Nancy Phillips, Katz's girlfriend, testified under oath that she created an 'official version' of how Marimow was hired, it is difficult to understand how they [presumably Katz, Marimow and Phillips] can continue to assert they are protecting the 'integrity' of journalism."

"In newspapers across the country, it is the publisher who has the right to make personnel decisions, including the hiring and firing of the editor," the statement said. "The court affirmed that Hall was the publisher and his authority to remove Marimow should have likewise been affirmed."

But that's not what happened.

And now, both sides are free to resume fighting.

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