Karen Heller: To report, without restraint

The Inquirer and Daily News, and Philly.com, are up for sale for the fourth time in six years.
The Inquirer and Daily News, and Philly.com, are up for sale for the fourth time in six years. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: February 19, 2012

The newspaper you're reading began life in 1829, and was delivered by horseback to the battlefield of Gettysburg, where both sides of the Civil War read it avidly. Founded in the birthplace of democracy, The Inquirer has uncovered malfeasance in myriad administrations and continues to hold the powerful to account.

The last two weeks have been among the most trying in the paper's history. The company is on the block for the fourth time in six years. In the coverage of the sale and possible bidders, our integrity and reputation were called into question more than once.

The New York Times reported Thursday on these actions and the potential change of ownership in a business article and an opinion piece.

A staff petition circulated last week through the newsrooms - "I'm in," a chorus of e-mails pinged - signed by the majority of the staff:

"As the only business mentioned in the Bill of Rights, newspapers serve more than private ends. The news we publish is crucial to civic life, to holding the powerful accountable, to democracy itself.

"That information must be gathered and printed without fear or favor. 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. Our employers promise this won't happen again. That must be the case.

"Top political and business leaders are now competing to buy Philadelphia Media Network. Regardless of who emerges as our new owners, they must guarantee that the integrity of our reporting will never be sacrificed to serve their private or political interests. One thing must be nonnegotiable in any sale: our bond of trust with our readers."

Philadelphia Media Network publisher Gregory J. Osberg responded by supporting journalists' "embracing the protection and promotion of free speech. We join all journalists in support of this mission, with an unwavering commitment to preserving a bond of continued trust and loyalty with our print and digital readers."

However, Osberg stated, "While we don't agree that censorship has taken place at PMN, we support our journalists in a unified pledge upholding the Bill of Rights."

A paper's mandate is to serve our readers, to report on the region, and do so without reservation or restraint.

One group bidding on the paper consists of political and business titans: Edward G. Rendell, former mayor, governor, and chair of the Democratic National Committee; George E. Norcross III, Democratic boss of Camden and Gloucester Counties, chairman of Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital; Comcast-Spectacor chair Edward M. Snider; Lewis R. Katz, a former parking magnate and owner of the Jersey Nets; William P. Hankowsky, chief executive of Liberty Property Trust; and Krishna "Kris" Singh, president and chief executive officer of the energy-technology company, Holtec International.

There's barely a commercial, cultural, or civic institution on either side of the Delaware that these men haven't had a role in building, stewarding, or sustaining. Their involvement and influence are everywhere.

Rich people have always owned newspapers. For three decades, The Inquirer was the property of Moses and then Walter Annenberg, the latter making his biases known throughout the paper. Publishers have a right to champion their interests on the editorial pages, and do. But readers must know that coverage in the news sections is independent and fair.

These are brutal times for many businesses, including newspapers. The Inquirer has been battered by cuts, layoffs, and buyouts. On Wednesday the company called for the elimination of 37 positions.

Still, the news staff remains the largest in the commonwealth, delivering informed reporting on government and cultural institutions, education, religion, health, and business developments and providing extensive sports coverage, smart arts criticism, and incisive commentary, while giving voice to the less powerful.

The newsroom is a sliver of its former size while our readership, due to the Web, is greater than ever, extending beyond the region to serve former residents invested in their hometown. Our challenge becomes more daunting, yet it remains essential.

So it's paramount that we serve the region, without intimidation and restriction, that our integrity is constant and not pressured by powerful interests. Our loyalty must always be to our readers. A free, unfettered, and fearless press disseminating the truth remains the best safeguard in preserving our liberty.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter.

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