Groping for Stories at The Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted: August 24, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary

“We’ll Serve No Swine/Before Its Time” says the bright winking pink and blue neon sign of my favorite barbecue juke joint on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Would it be that my friends at The Philadelphia Inquirer had eaten there and learned the wisdom of those words before serving up a heaping dose of journalistic trichinosis to its readers last week.

Make no mistake. I continue to be a big Inquirer fan. It’s fine dinin’ 99 percent of the time.

But having defended the bunch of them earlier this year, and waxed semi-eloquently about the need for great journalism, I do have the need to point out when the meat of a story is, well, a tad undercooked.

Such was the case with a piece headlined broadly, Why an Accused Philadelphia Police Officer is Still on the Force.

The top of the piece has the feel of one of those August thumbsuckers where editors used to say, “Kid, go through some files make a couple of calls and update this case, will ya. Things are slow.”

The resulting 800 word story would be headlined, “Hoffa, Still Dead, Missing.”

But here there is news — albeit buried 372 painfully constructed words down from the lede. It takes that long for the Inky to accuse two reporters from The Philadelphia Daily News of “complicating a federal investigation.”

The Inquirer does this based on a leaked task force report that says a victim of an officer’s groping attempts told FBI agents the reporters gave her some money among other bad things. The Daily News reporters deny they did anything wrong, but the impression left by the story, indeed the whole reason for the story, seems to be to raise the question of impropriety of the reporters and suggest their actions obstructed justice in the case.

In this, there is nothing wrong. The news media does not get a pass from criticism.

Except that the controversy here is old. It already had been aired in public through charges by the Fraternal Order of Police and the police commissioner in July

So why wind up the clock stem of this story so tightly as if there was something new? When there was not except for The Inquirer’s access to the records and the investigation?

None, really, except that the police through selective media leaks, get a chance to smear their accusers and blame “the media” for its problem of enabling a guy who for at least a decade, it appears, groped women routinely.

The Inky, after an exhaustive trek through police leaked files, does not in its grandly headlined story actually examine why the guy remains on the force.  That would involve a thorough look at  the police administrative code, union rules, police culture, or mis-steps by the initial investigators or any of the policeman’s superiors.

Nor does it stress with any passion or importance the changing stories of an unsettled woman who seems to have undone her own case and whose mother says actually blames herself for the groping.

Instead, it burns through 4,896 painfully vivisected words to note that The Inquirer in “taped interviews” confronted the two Daily News reporters.

(Journ students take note:  A “taped interview” is always recommended when you are investigating journalistic colleagues for “complicating a federal investigation.”  It shows that you are serious about your work and know technology.)

Well, good for them. I guess. As said, reporters are not immune from criticism.

On the other hand, neither should media criticism deviate from the rules of common sense and good journalism.

The Gene Roberts “Golden Era” of journalism was famous for printing stories that won Pulitzer Prizes, but less obviously it was famous for the numbers of stories it did not print. Legends who have walked Inquirer halls can tell you about that. How a task force worked a story for two years about the corruption of a major national candidate  (Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s vice presidential candidate) only to conclude that there were only smears there, not hard facts and firm links.  The story never ran and no one felt any sense of a “cover up.”  “Chief-dammit-I-know-there’s-something-in-here-somewhere” journalism never played large on the Inky marquee.

My suggestion is that such wise counsel might have come into play here. My own gut feeling is that The Inquirer did not run the piece to spite the competition, but out of its own perplexity about what to do with the story. Given the information, what choices did it have? Spike the story entirely and it runs the risk of a cover up.

The right move might have been a 500 word story on Page 43 of the Metro section, below the fold with the lede as this:

“A special task force raised the question of whether two reporters for The Daily News influenced the testimony of a witness in a high profile police abuse case, but both reporters explicitly denied the charges, citing a pattern of police leaks aimed at discrediting criticism of police corruption.”

But by going with it large, by inflating the context, by suggesting the rival reporters, not the police, were responsible for the blown prosecution, The Inky has done something I never thought I would see happen.

It got played by the cops.

The Philadelphia Police Department and its union, unable to explain how they can protect, nurture and serve a serial groper and a culture of corruption, did what comes naturally. They dissembled.

But they were smart about it. Through the new communication science of “really sneaky selective leaking,” they also managed to discredit those who criticized them.

But here is the truly wicked twist that racks up the points on the public relations communications pin ball machine for the police.

The police not only groped the reporters who wrote about the gropings.

They got The Inquirer to do the groping for them.

  1. Richard Aregood says:

    You are too kind to incompetents, my old friend. I’m not that charitable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Frump says:

      Kind? Trichinosis is kind?
      Not sure we are that far apart though I think the flaw here is more interesting than incompetence (perhaps it all boils down to that sauce in the end.)
      Ethical behavior, piety and zealotry can be confused, and perhaps that is what happened here.
      Still not sure. I’ve read the story ten times through trying to find a saving grace, and I cannot get through the top even and the story’s failure to question the task force conclusions with experts commenting on best practices of the police. Forget the Daily News for a moment. The story is a floater for that reason only. It accepts without any critique or criticism or comment from any community group, any sex-crime specialists, any civil rights group, a task force report that finds fault with everything but… the task force.
      Of course, we can’t forget the Daily News. The structure of the story, starting off one way, and then so radically lurching into Daily News land — yadda, yadda, cops, yadda, yadda groping, yadda, yadda, source bribing! — is bizarre.
      Reminds me of the scene in American Graffiti where the underage Richard Dreyfus character attempts to score some booze by going into a convenience store and says something like, “I’ll have a can of beans, a loaf of bread, three jars of olives, some toilet paper, a dozen eggs, a case of beer and some kleenex.” The real topic is buried in the middle of another conversation, and that in itself makes the examination of the real topic circumspect and suspicious.


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