Amateur hour, or:♦
The Inquirer’s new owner and his opinions
When the Inquirer and Daily News were sold in May to a local consortium headed by publicist Brian Tierney and auto dealer Bruce Toll, the new owners sought to reassure nervous readers and journalists alike that they’d to keep their amateur hands off the papers’ professional news coverage.
“The editorial function of the business,” they declared in a solemn pledge, “shall at all times remain independent of the ownership and control of the company, and no member [of the consortium] shall attempt to influence or interfere with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.”
Did this promise apply to the editorial pages too? That was unclear. And the question grew even murkier this month, when publisher Joe Natoli resigned and chief executive Tierney himself became the de facto publisher, at least for the moment.
One clue as to the future of the Inquirer editorial page surfaced July 12th in a brief introductory box by Bruce Toll, the new consortium’s chairman. “Other journalists have pointed out that it is the owners’ prerogative to express their views on the opinion pages,” Toll wrote, “and future political issues may inspire me to occasionally take a stand in bylined commentaries such as this one.”
So if I follow that logic....
As a homeowner, that logic got me to thinking. Real estate authorities have pointed out that it is an owner’s prerogative to burn down his house if he chooses to do so, and future realty issues may inspire me to occasionally assert my prerogative by waving sticks of dynamite and threatening to blow the place up.
Of course a newspaper owner has the right to do whatever he pleases with his property. But the critical question, which Toll ignores, is: Why would he want to undermine his property’s most valuable asset: its credibility?
“You can get opinions from any cab driver,” the late and much-lamented Wall Street Journal editor Vermont Royster used to tell young reporters like me. “What matters is the insight you can bring to the reader.” In fact there are only two valid reasons for an owner to inject his opinions into an editorial page: (1) If he possesses some valuable insight into a given subject, or (2) if he really is interfering with his paper’s news coverage, in which case he owes it to his readers to disclose his agenda up-front.
Susan Seiderman’s example at the Welcomat
It’s too bad Bruce Toll’s conversations with “other journalists” didn’t expose him to Susan Seiderman, my late and equally lamented publisher at the Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly) and Philadelphia Forum. When I was editor, those papers’ philosophy was quite simple, and quite different from Toll’s, to wit:
Anyone (tobacco companies, gun merchants, liquor distillers, massage parlors, pornographers) can buy advertising space. But nobody— not advertisers, not investors, not even owners— can buy his way into our editorial space. The editor’s implied contract with his readers says, in effect: “Anything that’s not an advertisement is subject to my judgment. If it appears within my jurisdiction, you can rest assured that I think it’s worth your attention.” If Bruce Toll’s opinions fail to meet that test, the honest solution is to buy an ad and publish his opinions there, as various special pleaders do on, say, the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Consider the New York Observer
To be sure, Vermont Royster and Susan Seiderman are long gone. So where can a novice newspaper owner like Bruce Toll turn for such wisdom? As it happens, just the other day the weekly New York Observer was sold to Jared Kushner , the 25-year-old son of a New Jersey developer whose conviction last year for illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering was extensively covered by the Observer. Kushner (like Tierney and Toll) insisted he has no designs on his new paper’s editorial content. When a reporter asked the obvious question— “Why buy such a powerful toy if you don’t plan on playing with it?”— Kushner replied:
“It is very simple: The second I play with the toy, it breaks. If I were to get involved in editorial decisions, the paper would not have the value it has.” Out of the mouth of a 25-year-old son of a convicted influence peddler, hope for the future of journalism.
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