Corbett to write column for Philly.com

Gov. Corbett's Web column launched Thursday, an interview with him and his wife, Susan.
Gov. Corbett's Web column launched Thursday, an interview with him and his wife, Susan. (AP)
Posted: May 25, 2013

The New Voices of Philly.com include a gay leader, a stoner, a sexologist, a libertarian-leaning Realtor - even the legendary Flyers goalie Bernie Parent, dispensing advice on relationships.

Now add to that roster of columnists the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett.

"There is no political bias or intent, other than providing content that is interesting to our readers," said Robert J. Hall, chief executive officer of Interstate General Media, parent company of Philly.com, The Inquirer, and Philadelphia Daily News.

The decision by Philly.com to give regular space to Corbett, a Republican running for reelection in 2014, sparked criticism from several Democratic challengers who said they had not been afforded a similar platform. Experts on journalism ethics said the appearance of a news organization playing favorites so close to a campaign environment could raise questions of fairness.

Corbett's first offering, a playful getting-to-know-you interview with him and his wife, Susan, made its debut Thursday, one day after the governor's reelection campaign website went live. It also came amid criticism over an offhand Corbett comment - about the lack of Latinos on his staff - made last week at a forum held by the newspaper Al Dia.

"Considering that The Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day, I think it's actually equal, giving him a chance to speak," said Alessandra T. Norcross, vice president for digital operations at IGM.

Hall said a similar offer had been extended to Democratic U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, an announced candidate for governor who is viewed as a front-runner for her party's 2014 nomination.

Schwartz's office said Thursday night she was looking forward to engaging Philly.com readers on issues.

Hall stressed that Philly.com is not a newspaper or newspaper website. It and Philadelphia's two dailies, each of which now has its own website, are editorially independent of one another - though Philly.com publishes news articles from both papers.

Philly.com, Hall said, offers content from various media sources, including blogs, many of which express opinions. As a result, he said, it is not bound by traditional newspaper conventions such as the need for a clear distinction between those who write the news and those who make it.

Asked whether there would be a note to readers above Corbett's column explaining the difference, Hall said no, adding that extensive market research had shown Philly.com readers did not believe it was an Inquirer product.

Journalism ethicists said the website's offering of free space to a political leader nonetheless raised troubling questions.

"Obviously, there's a lot of room for confusion among your audience. You have split Philly.com and the newspaper, but the audience still sees it as the same site," said Kelly McBride, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. "What about The Inquirer's watchdog coverage of the governor? . . . Or are you going to be partners with the sitting governor and carry his agenda?"

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said that Philly.com executives had first approached the governor about a column several months ago and that the details were worked out over the last few months.

The governor, Harley said, will not be paid for his work, which could take the form of a column on an issue he is advocating - liquor privatization, for example - or a video essay that would show "different sides of the governor, talking from home, or talking from his office, about things and issues that are important to him."

Harley said the Governor's Office did not see the arrangement as especially unusual. He noted that Corbett already appears monthly on Dom Giordano's radio show on 1210 WPHT-AM in Philadelphia and on other TV and radio shows.

The partisan opposition was not convinced.

"We're really entering into the reelection campaign, so this timing is inappropriate," said Mark Nevins, political adviser to state Treasurer Rob McCord, a likely candidate for governor. Nevins said McCord had not been asked to become a Philly.com contributor.

Democratic gubernatorial contender Kate McGinty, a former state environmental secretary, said, "If this does become a regular feature, we'd expect equal time to share our own views."

Company officials cited a legal opinion asserting that websites such as Philly.com have no obligation to give equal time to other candidates.

Even so, "I think a news organization has to respond to a higher goal than simply conforming to a law or an FCC order - we're talking about innate fairness," said Gene Foreman, a former Inquirer managing editor and Pennsylvania State University journalism professor who wrote The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News.

Foreman said he considered Philly.com a news organization and believed readers did, too.

Democrat John Hanger, another former environmental secretary who is running for governor, said: "Corbett's reelection website went live yesterday. He is a candidate. He should be treated like me and other candidates."

Hanger said Corbett should not use state resources in preparing his columns. "Corbett sent people to jail for campaigning with taxpayer funds," he said, referring to the Bonusgate scandal.

Patrick McNally, campaign manager for Democratic candidate Max Myers, a Pentecostal minister, said Myers had not been approached by Philly.com.

Harley said there was no agreement on how often Corbett's column would appear.

"It's just another opportunity for the governor to communicate with the public," Harley said. "It's a good fit for Philly.com and for the governor. We are excited about it."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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