More than 70 years ago, Charles Lederer adapted the Ben Hecht classic The Front Page to place a woman in the role of Hildy, the best reporter in Chicago. Rosalind Russell burst into the newsroom opposite editor Cary Grant and what was not to like? She was smarter than the guys and so career focused she couldn’t leave the job. Her wisecracks get incorporated into modern day news dramas like HBO’s Newsroom. Would it be that all men writing about news women would have done so well.
Two notable news stories about Philadelphia news women and their love lives emerged this month, and they illustrate the gulf separating the good, the bad and the stupidly ugly. One is the most remarkable nonfiction piece I’ve read in years. The other marks another low tide in the coverage of The Philadelphia Inquirer ownership squabble, where the boys on the bus can’t seem to focus on issues, so enamored are they with cheap scoops and tales of the boudoir. First the good news.
Sports Illustrated writer S.I. Price writes in the January 20 edition of the magazine one of the most moving non-fiction pieces I’ve read in a long time as he dissects the career of the late Richard Ben Cramer, and his relationship to Inquirer editor Carolyn White.
The “news hook” to A-Rod is tenuous, and no, I don’t think A-Rod “defeated” Richard Ben. Cancer did that. Still, the heart of the story catches the furious sweet energy of Richard Ben and the epic love affair and creative collaboration with Carolyn. And the author does it in a very short space with no words wasted. The story has far less to do with sports and everything to do with two champions of literary non-fiction and the tumultuous lives they led. It’s tender, triumphant, sad, respectful and invasive all at the same time. For me, it only places both Richard Ben and Carolyn on a higher pedestal These folks gave it their all, flat out, with no compromises. Comes now the bad news. And compromises. Boy, are there compromises.
Philadelphia Magazine’s Steve Volk falls for a leaked private email and seems intent on attaching a scarlet letter — again– to City Editor Nancy Phillips who has been the known companion to owner Lewis Katz for quite some time now. One assumes the email was obtained and leaked through the forces of or sympathizers with George Norcross III, an owner at war with Katz. Here’s how Volk reports the story:
Inquirer Ownership Battle: “Darling … Eliminate the Daily News”
“According to an email leaked to Philadelphia magazine, Nancy Phillips, as her long-time companion Lewis Katz was contemplating purchasing a controlling interest in the city’s biggest media company, made sweeping recommendations about strategies for turning around the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, including specific executive firings and the possible elimination of the Daily News.
“Darling,” the March 17, 2012 email, from Phillips to Katz, begins.
“Company needs a new publisher,” she writes.
“Paper needs a new editor.
“Philly.com needs a new leader.
“Daily News has to be seriously evaluated with a view toward possible elimination or curtailment as in a move to the website with pared down staff and a paper product one day a week if at all.”
So there may be nothing wrong factually in this email. Except that there’s nothing much right about it really in the context of the larger issues involved. If one were to fully report the conflict, rather than writing about the private email, one would write about the leak itself.
It is after all strictly out of the Norcross school of pay-back — a fact so obvious that the “comments” section of the article points it out clearly.
Steve, there’s no denying you’re a good writer and reporter. But I think, like a growing number of people out there you are succumbing to leaks and spins of the vicious New Jersey smear politics being applied to The Inquirer these days. Talk to investigative reporter Alan Guenther about how he and his father were smeared after he did a three part series on George Norcross or activist and former state senator Alene Ammond. South Jersey political boss George Norcross 3d is known to be a past master at “destroying” opponents. He now seems to be skillfully applying machine politics techniques to Inquirer/Daily News internal politics.
The lede, even this reader knows, is more like this: “Norcross Continues Smears of Inquirer Journalists.” Instead Philly Mag chooses to go with the titillating but not terribly insightful emphasis on the Katz-Phillips companionship. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little tabloid sleaziness here and there. In moderation. Even the great A.J. Liebling noted there’s always a “little con” in even the best news articles.
The operative words are “little con.” And the problem with coverage of the Inquirer conflict is that much of the media coverage of the squabble seems to have been written by a cartoon wolf who hears that Phillips and Katz are companions. The reporters gets as far as the word “Darling” — and the wolf-reporter’s eyes and tongue shoot out, followed by a 360 degree head spin, and steam pours out the ears. Stop the presses. We got a scandal!
You could call such a practice chauvinistic. You could call it sexist.
But mostly it’s just stupid. It’s stupid because the fascination with the boudoir misses the true story. That real story continues to be that George Norcross III is running a campaign against editorial independence at The Inquirer. He sought to fire Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer winning editor of great skill and integrity, and he has sought to smear Phillips. He has done this through behind the scene leaks, and he’s done it by enlisting formally or informally the other respectable news media in Philadelphia.
The bigger, more meaningful story is of course that campaign. It is not the leaked information that is substantive news, it is the fact that the leak was made and the Email obtained.
But here’s why that doesn’t happen. Call it “Leak Club.”
When the reporter agrees to take the cheap story and the cheap leak, he also joins “Leak Club.” And the first rule of Leak Club is, you don’t talk about Leak Club.
In fact, you can’t. You’ve offered anonymity to the leaker. And on this slippery path of journalism, you no doubt are promised more cheap and routine scandals if you play your cards right and don’t examine the information in too much context.
In such a way do good reporters become part of the Norcross machine. In such way do “little cons” become one “big con” — on the reporter as well as the reader.
I’ll give it to him. Boss Norcross knows his news media moves. He’s tied up tough reporters who should be writing and blogging about Norcross drawing a noose around Bill Marimow and Nancy Phillips at The Inquirer. And instead, they’re wittingly or unwittingly helping Norcorss make the rope for two of the best news people in the business.
If Philadelphia Magazine had a broader and more noble purpose, it would forego the routine scoop and the cheap exclusive and go for the larger story.
In that version, here’s how it plays out. Nancy Phillips, an investigative reporter of unquestioned skill and integrity, actively promoted upgrading the quality of the editorship by hiring Bill Marimow. She strongly lobbied Katz to buy a major stake in the newspaper to support good journalism. She removed herself from any coverage of Katz.
In short, she’s done about everything a good journalist could do to save a good newspaper. (I think the Daily News idea is wrong, but any business owner would have to consider it. Otherwise, she is batting 900.)
What would have happened if genders were reversed? If a male editor were married to a companion of a rich benefactor, would there be such a fuss?
It’s hard for me to imagine. I’m not a big player in the gender equality wars, but I can’t imagine the pile-on of boudoir stories would be quite this heavy.
But I never quite get to that criticism in my mind, because at base the stories do not meet my first filter. They aren’t really news. They are titillations. News involves facts presented in a context where readers may act upon them with affect. It’s pretty clear that the writers at Phillymag.com their sights set on a lower form of pseudo-journalism, the kind that tracks Kim Kardashian and pines for some twerky gossip from starlets.
As for their news judgement? As an old city editor of mine once said, I think it may have be been shot off in the war.