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Sale of Philadelphia newspapers raises bias concerns

One group led by ex-governor Rendell

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Philadelphia's two daily newspapers have long been accused of liberal bias, but critics say a group of potential buyers led by former Gov. Ed Rendell would turn the papers into mere mouthpieces of the Democratic Party in a 2012 swing state.

Mr. Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is teaming with George Norcross, the Democratic Party boss of southern New Jersey, and others in an effort to purchase the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and the company's website, philly.com.

There is reportedly at least one other bidder for the media company, the most influential in Pennsylvania, though that party has not publicly identified itself.

"The prospect of Rendell's group owning the newspapers is like the foxes watching the henhouse and all of the sacred cows," said Paul Davies, former deputy editorial page editor at the Inquirer. "Essentially, the Inquirer will cease to exist as a legitimate newspaper. It will become the insiders' house organ."

Mr. Rendell said on a talk-radio show this week that this deal would not be the first time powerful people with an "ideological bent," such as Rupert Murdoch, have tried to purchase a media company. He also noted that the 183-year-old Inquirer was owned for decades by Republican businessman Walter Annenberg, and said his group is simply trying to save the financially troubled papers.

"Nobody wants to stifle news," said Mr. Rendell, a two-term mayor of Philadelphia in the 1990s.

Journalists at both papers are so concerned that nearly 300 of them signed a public statement last week calling on the current and any future owners to protect the integrity of their reporting. They said the current owner, Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), has censored their coverage of the sale.

"As The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com have gone up for sale once again, we watched with dismay as our own coverage of the process was compromised and censored," the statement says.

PMN Publisher Greg Osberg denied any censorship.

PMN acquired the papers in bankruptcy proceedings in 2010 from a local group of owners led by Republican businessman Brian Tierney.

During his turbulent tenure as publisher in the heavily Democratic city, Mr. Tierney came under fire for bringing aboard conservative columnists at the Inquirer such as Rick Santorum, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and John Yoo, a Bush administration official who helped write the legal justification for "enhanced interrogation techniques" against terrorism suspects.

Enhanced interrogation was on the mind of the loquacious Mr. Rendell, who became so exasperated at the uproar about his potential ownership of the papers that he pledged not to talk about it anymore.

"You're going to have to waterboard me," he told a reporter.

His vow of silence ended two days later, when he told WPHT-AM in Philadelphia that his group of investors would consider a pledge of noninterference with the newspapers' coverage.

"Our group, I'm certain, would be willing to enter into some agreement with the reportorial staff that we wouldn't influence any of their news reporting," Mr. Rendell said.

Observers say Democratic ownership of the papers probably wouldn't alter their track records in endorsing candidates. The Inquirer, for example, hasn't endorsed a Republican for president since at least the 1960s, with the exception of 2008. Four years ago, under Mr. Tierney, the paper took the unusual step of endorsing both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain for president in the general election.

Mr. Obama carried Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Journalists say potential conflicts abound with the prospective owners. For example, Mr. Norcross is a kingmaker in New Jersey Democratic politics whose brother, Donald, is a state senator. Other investors in Mr. Rendell's group include parking magnate Lewis Katz and Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor and owner of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.

"It's just a mess right now," said a member of one of the papers' staffs, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, who led the paper when it was owned by Knight-Ridder Inc., said the turmoil at the papers makes him "nostalgic for chain journalism."

"Certainly there's cause for concern when you have highly opinionated and well-connected people in the deal," Mr. Stalberg said. "It comes down to how they behave and who they put in management positions."

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