Hardly had the dust cleared from editor Bill Marimow’s triumphant return to the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, than a contrarian story arose from bigtrial.net and one of its ace bloggers, Ralph Cipriano.
Cipriano, a former Inquirer reporter who was fired several years back and eventually sued and settled with the company, played out a “Sixth Sense” or “Usual Suspects” twist in the final frame of the court room drama.
The bad guys were not South Jersey Pol and businessman George Norcross III and his webmaster daughter Lexie and Publisher Bob Hall – the people who collectively fired Marimow, considered one of the best and most ethical editors in America today.
Instead, it was Marimow, who was suppressing the newsroom with an iron hand in support of owner Lew Katz.
City editor, Nancy Phillips, also an award-winning journalist whose work is highlighted positively in journalistic ethics textbooks, was Marimow’s right hand and hench woman on the job.
Together, the two editors had created a state of utter newsroom fear of Katz and his dealings in Philadelphia development projects. He suggested:
- Reporters cringed as Marimow and Phillips patrolled the newsroom looking for anti-Katz stories.
- Katz even sat in on news meetings and ordered reporters to write favorable stories.
- City Editor Phillips coerced newsroom reporters to stage a standing ovation when Marimow returned to the newsroom.
- And at one point, Katz called up reporters on stories and even forced an obit writer to print the obit of a Katz friend.
- Marimow meanwhile ignored clear and incriminating tips from Ralph that would have ripped the citywide open.
- The city editor held such power over Marimow that she even recruited him back to the paper.
- That is why Marimow strove to cover up the fact that Phillips and owner Katz had a personal relationship.
- And while it is not completely clear quite yet, Marimow probably was the second gunman in Dallas firing from the grassy knoll as Phillips handed him a never-ending supply of high capacity magazines of poison bullets hidden in a secret garter bag.
Well, all but the last of these (to date) are the takeaways from Cipriano’s revelations.
It’s a fine story.
If you’re in a long line at the grocery store.
And you don’t mind getting slimed by the stuff of supermarket tabloid gossip journalism as it composts and just gets smellier and smellier.
The truth is that Ralph’s blog is among the worst examples I’ve seen of how one-sided “journalism” can smear the name of a good man. And from most all accounts other than Ralph’s, an excellent city editor and one of the best newswomen working in the country.
Because there is no sense of fairness within the blog itself and because Ralph dismisses contrary views, the one alternative of one seeking responsible journalism is to ‘counter-blog’ the smear.
But first some background about the real people involved here.
Nancy Phillips is a journalist whose work is featured in college-level journalistic textbooks on ethics. On the plus side.
This is so in part because of an incredible case involving source confidentiality and the value of the bond of her word with a source.
A suspect in a murder case had established himself as her confidential source some years ago and talked at length with her about the murder of a rabbi’s wife in New Jersey. Eventually, to Phillips’ shock, the man admitted to her that he aided in the murder.
Phillips’ instincts no doubt were twofold: print the story, go to the police.
She did neither because of her devotion to journalistic ethics that say your word is your bond and you do not give up sources or information given to you as confidential. Under that code, unless you know that a crime will be committed in the future, you keep your sources confidential.
Her loyalty to that commitment did nothing for her. She had no story, just a constant reminder that she was dealing with a murderer who was escaping justice.
And on the far side of any outcome, she also knew she would be criticized for not turning the man in immediately.
What she did instead was work tirelessly to have the man freely confess the crime, which he did four months later.
So questions of ethics and professional responsibility are not new to her. She held true to a journalistic code few of us could have had fun with and that I would have found damned right frightening.
And she seems to have done the same with her relationship with Lew Katz, begun several years ago before he became an owner of The Inquirer.
Her response to a potential conflict of interest has to been to disclose the relationship in the newsroom – and avoid covering Katz or his companies when they cross paths with public issues.
Love affairs with potential conflicts are not great in any business, particularly news. But they also are inevitable and with guidelines, accepted. Potential conflicts of interest in journalism among husbands, wives, lovers, boyfriends and girlfriends are not new. The most visible include Philadelphia’s own Andrea Mitchell, married to ex Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said the news allowed Mitchell to cover the last presidential election, and then decided on a day-by-day basis what stories are not appropriate.
“To me it’s a pretty easy balancing act,” he said. “She knows where to draw the line.”
Sources at The Inquirer say Phillips has managed the potential conflict without controversy in a similar manner. She recuses herself from anything where Katz might be involved. For example, she took herself off the Temple University coverage of slashed sports programs because she knew Katz was a Temple board director and this could provide some conflict.
The American Journalism Review says the problem of conflicting couples in journalism is a pretty natural part of real world life.
|The dilemma of whether a politically connected spouse or Saturday night date has a bearing on a Washington journalist’s job comes up again and again…. Matt Cooper, now Time magazine deputy Washington bureau chief and then Newsweek deputy bureau chief, wed former Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald. And in what appears to be the year of love–1997–the dating life of CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Jamie Rubin, then assistant secretary of state for public affairs, appeared in the pages of the press, along with some journalistic grumbling that Rubin might be passing along tips to his girlfriend. The two were married the next year, and with time (and Rubin’s departure from the State Department) conflict questions faded.It’s not unusual that a person’s love interest will have something to do with his or her work. What should a couple do about such situations?It depends. Deni Elliott, of the Practical Ethics Center, says if a longtime relationship is known and predates a reporting conflict, there’s not necessarily a problem. …Such couples begin the relationship knowing that some topics are off-limits. In the case of journalists, it’s then “up to the reporter and his editor to help that person steer clear of situations where he might end up covering his life partner,” Elliott says.|
In other words, pretty much what Phillips did. Her relationship was widely known in the newsroom, as was her habit of recusing herself.
One of course can be doubtful about this. But if someone were ethical enough to hold off a sensational story about a murder confession, I’d have to give that someone the benefit of the doubt.
Ralph does not. His instinct is toward the lurid and with a constant reminder of the boudoir. And the assumption one makes a decision in favor of personal power versus ethics and standards.
His response to all critics is simple. We’re either blind. Or we are liars. In most cases, we are probably both.
As he told a Philadelphia Magazine writer a few years back, he’s always had a strong feeling of what is right and wrong – ever since he was a kid. In modern day terms, in my case, this means to him that I am “blind” because I am “of the realm” and not capable of understanding his points.
If I am, it is indeed a distant realm. I have not worked at The Inquirer since 1986 and I’ve not talked with Bill Marimow since 2007.
I do keep closely in touch with news ethics and their equivalent in the blogosphere, however, and before he slimed me, I tried to make a few simple points.
Ralph may be a great local character and those who read Big Trial are informed and forewarned that a fool is at play.
But if Ralph gets picked up by national blogs such as Romensko.com, he and BigTrial.net – or the national blogs themselves — should disclose that both Ralph and the website’s sponsor, Beasley Trial Lawyers, have frequently tangled with the Inky.
The Firm says they just put up Big Trial as a public service and do not influence their writers – some of whom are pretty distinguished, true journalists. Good for them. There are well done stories on Big Trial. As to Ralph, well, Big Trial says the more voices the better.
Ralph says he long ago tucked away any thought of reprisal against the Inquirer and bears no grudge against the newspaper – which essentially said he was not a trustworthy reporter and then fired him. (He then sued and settled for $7 million.)
Perhaps he is capable of such nobility.
In my own case, this would require a saintly sort of behavior that I would be incapable of even faking. I’ve tried writing about past employers who have slighted me in far softer ways than Ralph’s experience.
I find I’m incapable of writing fairly about those companies. At some level, I want to settle scores. So I do not. I believe journalists should be fair. I could not write about these companies fairly and to write about them unfairly because of a personal grudge would not be journalism.
But then while Ralph has been called many things, “self aware” is not among the names slung his way. In fact, he tells me that by even mentioning his background, I am attacking him, not his facts.
Which brings us in a half-gainer back to what Ralph has written. How do those facts hold up?
There is an old saying among hacks, “Let’s throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.”
Ralph’s come sliding down the wall in a fecund ooze seconds after they hit.
Let’s start from step one: Marimow’s corrupt recruitment via an Inquirer woman newsperson, Nancy Phillips, who has a personal relationship with owner Katz. (Ralph’s headline was, The Editor Who Hired Her Own Boss.)
There is no doubt she helped bring Marimow back to the newspaper. She reached out to Marimow, who had a good job in Arizona running a university digital journalism op, and asked if he was interested and then brokered the deal with the new owners.The thought was then – and now – that Marimow’s reputation and skills would be able to answer any critique of the new owners, who all had varying interests in the community.
But how does Ralph interpret it?
Ralph doesn’t just go for sinister – he goes for Kiss of the Spiderwoman crossed with Dame Noir.
Nancy Phillips is a manipulator and wheeler-dealer, exercising undue power bestowed on her because of the relationship with Katz.
He stops short of stiletto heals, a trench coat, blood red lipstick and a cigarette holder, but otherwise, the portrait he paints is of corruption by Dame Noir Phillips.
In the real world, Nancy Phillips is seen as one of the most talented and ethical journalists on the newspaper. She and Marimow had worked together as long ago as 1987 and the respect was mutual.
Still, Cipriano caught her red-handed “hiring her own boss.” Whoever heard of that?
All of us. In the real world such efforts to bring talented people on board at your company are known by another word.
At most corporations, if your respect for a colleague at another company helps bring talent to the company, not only is that allowed, it’s rewarded. Ralph does not know this, did not think to ask, or knowing, chose to print his incriminating version without the obvious explanation.Also never mind that Phillips, is pretty universally considered an excellent journalist by her peers. The title of “companion” is reductive to an insulting and hugely misogynistic degree. (Editors Note: An earlier version of this entry stated Phillips was referred to as “Friend of Lew.” The caption appeared beneath the picture of another woman, not Phillips.)
The second sin Ralph finds in Marimow is that in a press release he helps Phillips try to “cover up” the fact that she has a relationship with Katz.
This occurred during the writing of a press release announcing Marimow’s hiring.
The editor of the paper at the time thought the reporters’ relationship should go in the press release. It was widely known within the newspaper. She asked if it needed to go in and Marimow wondered as well. The editor won what seems to have been a not too hard argument and the relationship was noted in the press release and story.
So the “cover up” was a pretty normal discussion among writers and editors as to what belonged in the story. And the acting editor won with no interference from Marimow, the owners or the alleged Spider Woman.
There’s more, of course. Katz supposedly ordered an obituary run in the paper.
Only he did not. The funeral director just said he did. A fact of life on the obit desk that kid reporters encounter their first day on the job is this: funeral directors know your owner, editor, brother, mother and the publisher, if they can get away from it.
And Katz took over an editorial meeting the other day.
Only he did not.
People in the newsroom – who can’t talk on the record – said Katz’s visit was impromptu and innocent. He had stopped by to see Marimow and Marimow invited him in to see how the meeting was run.
Editors say he does that frequently for other visiting dignitaries – a Philadelphia Eagles exec, for example – as well as a few high school journalism classes, and also Inky owner Gerry Lenfest.
“Marimow has always invited outsiders into the newsroom and into editorial meetings to glimpse how a newspaper and website gather and create the news,” an editor said. “It’s observation only and a good educational tool. Nothing more. Katz does not hold court.”
Perhaps the most ridiculous charge Ralph has made is that Marimow’s return to the newsroom was somehow stage-managed with the iron hand of Nancy Phillips – that she suggested that everyone by god better give Bill a standing ovation or pay the consequences.
Says an Inquirer staffer:
I was in the newsroom when Marimow returned. He no longer had a pass to operate the elevator and called an editorial assistant to get him in. Everyone near me was surprised he was returning so quickly after the judges decision. Word spread quickly and he was upstairs in just a couple minutes from the time of the call. I did not see Nancy Phillips or anyone else circulating to encourage a standing ovation nor would there have been time to organize one. Besides, there was never the slightest doubt he would get one…
So if Phillips rigged the show, she did one of the greatest jobs of choreography ever. Because pictures of the return show people hugging Marimow and cheering him. Truly she is a master manipulator.
Or Ralph is just full of crap.
It’s hard to say what motivates someone once a journalist to report in such a manner. The other side of the story is obvious, but ignored. Why did Norcross and Hall fire Marimow? Was it because Norcross had moved to give the Pennsylvania governor a free column? Had Lexie Norcross, the COO of Philly.com, made an editorial power grab, tweeting approval of Norcross backed candidates? Ralph’s response to that question is that he’s open to anyone presenting that “other side.” Here’s my email, Jack. Send me a tip.
But of course, reporting is not about aggressively pursuing one side of the story — and waiting for tips on the other.
I can’t speak for his motivation though others suggest that he is “flacking for Norcross” – even that he is shooting for the editor’s job by carrying Norcross’s water. I don’t know Ralph.
I do know Marimow.
I worked with him in close quarters for several years many years ago. He is a journalist who as a younger man out-reported just about anyone I know in the business – including and particularly Ralph. I watched him as a young man earn two Pulitzer Prizes through the most meticulous and fairest reporting I’ve witnessed. Matters I investigated, Marimow took to a second and third level of detail. Incriminating evidence I found against a pol, Marimow would actively work to look at any chance of the pol’s innocence as a routine part of his research.
He walks the talk on the most important issues of journalism. He is an independent journalist, a member of the Fourth Estate, someone who will most certainly stand up to a pol like George Norcross and his daughter, Lexie.
And if you value the concept of a Fourth Estate, you’ll value Bill Marimow and Nancy Phillips (who I do not know, alas.)
Journalists like these are not popular today. They should be. Other reports state Marimow was offered well over $1 Million to walk away from the editorship; he stayed, not for the concept of more money but for the concept of a free and fair press upon which he has based his life.
A journalist is someone who seeks the truth and gives you a version of the world upon which you can act with affect.
Ralph is someone who writes what he believes because he has strong feelings, facts and half-facts be damned. Or, because, despite what he believes, he maintains a deep and lingering hurt and grudge against the newspaper that rejected him so long ago.
So you can choose to believe what you’d like.
Journalists. Or Ralph.