“The Big Trial Net’s” Big Undisclosed Ironies in Philadelphia Inquirer Trial Coverage

Posted: December 6, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary
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Amid The Philadelphia Inquirer’s battles over editorial integrity, “Big Trial Net” has scored big ink with some of the national news media blogs with coverage that seems to many to be pro George Norcross III and anti-editor Bill Marimow.

Alls well in two sides of a story of course, but it’s not so well that those bloggers like Jim Romenesko who pick up these stories leave out two major facts:

Romenesko

  • The blog is sponsored by one of the most prominent and litigious law firms in the city, one that has sued the Inquirer a number of times.
  • The writer of the blogs, Ralph Cipriano  sued The Inquirer and received a settlement reported in the $3 to $7 million range a few years back.

Is it possible for a blog sponsored by a law firm that sues newspapers written by a writer who actually sued the newspaper to write a fair account of the ongoing affair?
Well, of course, all things are possible.  But for those who pick up this commentary, transparency as to origins of possible points of view and conflicts of interest, would of course be very useful to the reader. Everyone of course can come to his own opinion that way.
Mine?
Even without knowing of the potential conflicts, there seemed something slanted in the reporting to me.
Much of Cipriano’s writing seems to be about settling scores and the relentless selective reporting and observations seems like ax grinding.
For example, when Bill Marimow returns to the newsroom and is greeted with what others news outlets reported was “spontaneous applause,” Cipriano writes:

The memorandum of law said that after Judge McInerney ruled that Marimow had to be immediately reinstated, “Marimow returned to applause and a strong showing of support from the Inquirer’s newsroom.”
Did they expect his underlings to boo him? (Emphasis mine.)

What Cirpriano is writing, in my opinion, is the classic “knockdown” story — the piece that goes against the grain and attempts to show there really is no story here about editorial independence and freedom, that in fact a South New Jersey political boss named George Norcross III, is the real victim and Bill Marimow, a conscientious journalist who has twice won Pulitzers, is the one interfering with the newsroom.  Even applause from his staff is suspect and probably forced somehow by Marimow’s reign of terror (a prospect that is laughable if one has worked with Marimow.)
It is of course a dog bites man story and I’ll give it to Ralph that he is single minded in pursuing such a story, gathering every bit of grist to support his point of view and ignoring or downplaying facts that run counter to his point of view.
For example, the horrid strategy of the Philly.com website, advocated by Norcross and his daughter, Lexie, gets a complete pass, even though it flies in the face of successful trends elsewhere to erect metered, paid sites such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal has done, and even though it seems central to news room interference with actions Philly.com has taken to promote politicians.
Big Trial Net proclaims boldly on its website,

We believe in putting the power of law back in the hands of the people, and that starts with letting the people see inside in their courtrooms. In 2012, we launched BigTrial.net with two award-winning veteran journalists to provide full gavel-to-gavel coverage of the biggest trials in Philadelphia — the best coverage of these cases anywhere, with no editorial restrictions, all free for the public to read. (Emphasis again mine.)

What the law firm, which has specialized in suing The Inquirer in the past, needs to know of course is that “no editorial restrictions” is not the same as good editing.  Sometimes editorial restrictions are good.
When your writer and your sponsoring law firm has a dog in the fight, you might for example give some hints to the reader as to where the barking comes from.

(Disclosures: I worked with Bill Marimow years ago in the City Hall Bureau and for The Inquirer for 10 years.  I am a former investigative reporter, the author of three books, and former Knight Ridder and McGraw Hill Publisher. I am the president and founder of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News Alumni Society.) 

Comments
  1. […] “The Big Trial Net’s” Big Undisclosed Ironies in Philadelphia Inquirer Trial Cover…. […]

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  2. Mr. Frump, I have presented an avalanche of facts that show it’s a mess down there at the Inky, and all is not well with the city’s paper of record. You never deal with any of those facts. Your mission, as a defender of the realm, is to attack my motives and cast doubt on what I’m doing. You mention my lawsuit against the Inky, but never delve into what really happened there. Basically, they censored me for writing honestly about a sacred cow, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. And now, after the Inky has gotten to bed with so many others, there are more sacred cows than ever grazing in that newsroom. It all flows together. But to people who are blind like yourself, the messenger must be to blame. You are transparent, sir, and it’s not working.

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  3. Robert Frump says:

    Hi Ralph. I admire your writing and reporting and to a great degree sympathize with your dilemma in your law suit and admire your pugnacious stand. Your natural calling, my two cents, would be as a metro columnist covering the city, which in a sense you are doing now in this new age. Godspeed. My biggest point here is that Romenesko should disclose the facts I mention. I think everyone in Philadelphia pretty much knows though it would not hurt for you and the Firm to put a little boiler plate on stories when they involve the Inkie. In the meantime, I promise to be open to your points. Please consider delving into the web stuff?

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  4. Robert Frump says:

    Ralph rightly called me out for not acknowledging some of these points, and I’ll concede he was right. Those aren’t good developments and if I ignore them, I’m no better than… well, no better than other blogs that state one side of an issue and ignore the other. (See Frumped.org “What Ralph Got Right….”

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  5. Max Kennerly says:

    Hello Bob,

    I was going to write “hell, I don’t think Ralph would listen to us if we tried,” but you raise a couple other points that I suppose should be addressed. Pardon the length.

    We don’t “specialize” in suing the Inquirer, and defamation work in general is a tiny fraction of our overall time and caseload. I think in the last decade we’ve had less than a half-dozen cases against The Inquirer, and there’s no overarching animus between us and them. I know some of the current reporters well, professionally and personally. In contrast, off the top of my head I can think of only one person still there that we previously sued, a case resolved years ago, and they have no role in the ownership dispute.

    You mention it wouldn’t “hurt for [Ralph] and the Firm to put a little boiler plate on stories when they involve the Inkie.” Credibility’s important for Ralph and for us, so I do think it would “hurt” for his stories to be hyperbolic. In contrast, I don’t see how such “boiler plate” could help us. If we just wanted to use Big Trial to badmouth potential defendants in future cases, there’s dozens of companies we’d put way ahead of the Inky, companies that are killing people with their greed, companies against whom we have numerous pending cases.

    Big Trial is exactly what it says it is: we didn’t think the trials in Philly got the in-depth, long-form, detail-rich reporting they deserved. Consider George Anastasia, whose reports on mob trials have diddley-squat to do with our work, but we sponsor him just the same. If you have some idea how we can make a buck off it, we’re all ears, but for the moment we’re just trying to fill a gap in an area we care about. Big Trial didn’t have a word about the Inquirer until they landed in court in one of the most-watched cases in Philly.

    IMHO, adequate disclosure doesn’t mean repeating every last arguably relevant fact about the writer and the subject in every article. (Could you imagine how long Bob Woodward’s stock disclosure would be?) Case in point: earlier this week, the Inquirer wrote about one of our wrongful death cases. By your reasoning, the Inquirer should have disclosed our firm’s past litigation with them and Ralph’s blog in the middle of an article about something else. They didn’t, and I don’t think they should have: the two had nothing to do with each other, and the disclosure would have mislead readers into assuming there’s an issue where there wasn’t one.

    I personally think too many journalistic outfits and journalists conceal their bias under a veneer of objectivity. Ralph is who he is, his history is public and well-known, and he gives the reader both the facts (usually far more facts than typical reporting, both good and bad facts for both sides) and his analysis, so they can make up their own mind.

    The part you quote about the applause is one example: Ralph shares the facts with the readers (quoting directly from Katz/Lenfest’s filing) and then raises a sensible question. I didn’t read Ralph’s post as implying that Marimow intimidated the employees into cheering for him. I think he was just pointing out that, well, it was indeed a boss returning to his workplace, presumably some people would clap regardless of their personal views. I’d rather than type of reporting — which shows the full information and its source, and adds the writer’s analysis — than the type of “fair and balanced” faux-objective reporting we see all day long throughout the major media.

    Personally, I’m rooting for Marimow because he’s a supporter of in-depth, multiple-story journalism (like, hint hint, a certain site we’re discussing). I also think the philly.com / inquirer.com / dailynews.com is a serious contender in the highly-competitive world of terrible newspaper website strategies.

    But so what? What kind of editorial restrictions do you suggest? Should we tell Ralph to “balance” every negative thing he writes about one side with something negative about the other, or to not mention anything that could be negative for Katz/Lenfest/Marimow? I don’t see how that would be good for the public or for journalism in general.

    Finally: hell, I don’t think Ralph would listen to us if we tried. That’s why we like him. Like Seymour Hersh said not too long ago, if you want good journalism, you need people you can’t control.

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