An Ethical Stumble in Philadelphia  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2013

An Ethical Stumble in Philadelphia   

Philly.com adds Gov. Tom Corbett and one of his rivals to its roster of columnists. Fri., May 31, 2013.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's a staggeringly bad idea.

Philly.com, a Web site owned by the company that publishes the Inquirer and Daily News, has given a column to Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Corbett.

That's right, the popularity-challenged governor that the two papers cover. And a governor who's running for reelection.

The Web site made things bipartisan by also offering a column to one of Corbett's Democratic challengers, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz. But that just compounds the problem, since it didn't offer the same opportunity to the other Democratic contenders.

You don't have to be an expert on journalism ethics to realize that you just don't give a regular column to sitting public officials. You're supposed to cover them skeptically, not offer them megaphones. It doesn't merely create a perception of unfairness. It actually is unfair to give a politician all of that free advertising. And by giving a column to just one Democrat in a contested race, the Web site is picking sides.

So how does management defend such, shall we say, unusual behavior? By angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin parsing that would do a Philadelphia lawyer proud.

Robert Hall is the CEO of Interstate General Media, the parent company of philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News. He explains that the arrangement is fine because philly.com is not a newspaper or a newspaper Web site. Since it publishes blogs, which are apt to express opinions, it's not bound by traditional journalism ethics, he told the Inquirer.

Which is complete nonsense. Yes, it's true, the Inquirer and Daily News now have their own Web sites, both lurking behind paywalls. But for years philly.com, which is free, has been the way that you access news online from the two papers. Its content comes overwhelmingly from the Inquirer and Daily News. It's safe to say that no reader would make the distinction made by Hall.

To the paper's credit, the Inquirer story announcing Corbett's arrival included quotes from journalism ethicists raising questions about the arrangement, and from Democratic gubernatorial candidates protesting it. Corbett's column, which is unpaid, debuted last week.

Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the Committee of Seventy, a civic watchdog organization in Philadelphia, raised the question of whether granting the two candidates columns represented "an in-kind contribution to their gubernatorial campaigns."

"It certainly gives them more exposure to the voters than other candidates, without their campaigns having to pay for that exposure," Kaplan told NewsWorks, the online home of WHYY-FM and WHYY-TV, Philadelphia's public radio and televisions outlets. "As we know, often in elections, people go into the voting booth and they may see a name they're familiar with, and that could impact their voting, irrespective of the actual platforms of any of the candidates."

I asked Mark Block, a spokesman for Interstate General Media, if he thought there was any validity to the criticism and if the company was having second thoughts. He answered with a resounding "No."

Corbett, he says, is part of philly.com's New Voices initiative, whose contributors include "Philadelphia sound" impresario Kenny Gamble and legendary Flyers goalie Bernie Parent.

"He's not on there as a candidate," Block says. "He's on there in his official capacity as governor." Similarly, he adds, Schwartz was signed up because she's a member of Congress, not because she's running for governor.

As for other gubernatorial hopefuls, he says, they'll have an opportunity to weigh in in the future on a forum identified as a campaign venue. The election takes place next year.

The recent years have been wrenching for Philadelphia's newspapers. Their staffs have shrunk dramatically as they have been tossed from one ownership group to another.

They certainly didn't need this unforced error.

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