Out Of Control
Second half of article
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
W HAT FINALLY RAN IN THE INQUIRER on April 14, 1997, after about eight months of reporting, was a relatively short story (167 lines) by Cipriano on the bottom of the Metro section front. The headline and deck: ``Archdiocese's Center Gets Little Use. More Than $500,000 Went into `Multimedia' Project. Its Envisioned Function Wasn't Fully Realized."
The article zeroed in on the actual cost of the $500,000 ``multimedia conference center" built in 1991 and 1992 on the 12th floor. But there was no mention of parish closings. It also reported that the cardinal had bypassed established review processes for large spending and some work had been carried out without required permits. Rossi says failure to get the permits was due to ``honest mistakes."
The story infuriated the archdiocese. Bevilacqua denounced it as ``fallacious" in a church bulletin mailed to every member, and an official wrote a letter to the editor, saying the story contained ``numerous inaccuracies and distortions." The letter was sent, according to Neumann's memo, with the proviso that it be printed in its entirety or not at all.
Neumann wrote a strong rebuttal to then-Editor King, suggesting the archdiocese was trying to ``once again bully the Inquirer" and that the paper shouldn't print the entire letter. ``The primary point of the letter is false," Neumann wrote. ``The letter says the archdiocese did not spend $500,000 on the multimedia center. In fact...Brother Joseph [of the archdiocese] confirmed that in a meeting with Ralph Cipriano and two Inquirer editors.... In addition, the former archdiocese building supervisor, Bill Scarborough, said on the record that the actual cost, with overruns, was $575,000."
The Inquirer printed the church's letter as written, along with an editor's note rebutting each point of criticism. ``Ralph Cipriano," King wrote, ``has been objective and ethical in his reporting."
The archdiocese's harsh reaction to the story stems in part from the profound contrast in its views and those of Cipriano as to the appropriate level of scrutiny for the finances of a religious institution.
Its leaders think the archdiocese, as a religious body rather than an arm of government, is not required to open its books to anyone. ``They have a responsibility to their members to use donations wisely," says Gibbs, the former archdiocese spokeswoman who now works for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. ``At the same time, the church is not a government entity and doesn't have the same reporting requirements."
In addition, the archdiocese and Bevilacqua resented Cipriano's aggressive style, and they weren't bashful about letting the newspaper know it. ``There were in my experience in Philadelphia two organizations that were the most energetic and active in criticizing almost any coverage of them," Naughton says. ``They would find fault with everything. One was the Philadelphia Electric Co. and the other was the Catholic Archdiocese. For their part, the archdiocese was suspicious of the motivation of the paper, the editors, the reporters. There was a fairly substantial gulf."
M EANWHILE, CIPRIANO WAS FRUSTRATED that all he had unearthed in his investigation of the archdiocese hadn't appeared in his paper. So in the summer of 1997, the reporter shopped the story to the National Catholic Reporter. Under the Guild contract, Inquirer reporters may freelance for non-competing publications, and the 50,000-circulation, independent National Catholic Reporter is not considered a competitor.
``The thing that made this story particularly distinctive is Ralph had a lot of information and documents showing how the archdiocese money was spent," says Tom Roberts, managing editor of the Kansas City-based Reporter. ``It's difficult to get any kind of reliable information on how Catholic dioceses spend their money. They collect an awful lot of money, and a great deal of trust is placed on the managers of that money. Yet there's very little opening of the books."
But Roberts felt the story needed more reporting. ``It wasn't something he handed us that happened to be a whole-cloth story that the Inquirer rejected and we decided to print. He showed me some of his research and had written a query of what he thought the story was. I went to Philadelphia. I met him. I met a few of the sources. I looked through his documentation. I looked at a lot of significant front-page matter he'd done for the Inquirer. I determined he was a very good reporter for a very good newspaper offering us a very good story."
Meanwhile, Cipriano says he was feeling like an outcast at his own newspaper. Against his wishes, he was assigned to cover West Philadelphia. In September, Cipriano went to Gillin because he'd been told by top editors to get a shop steward. The union contract calls for progressive stages of discipline if management wants to make a case for firing an employee. Dixon and two other editors met with Gillin and Cipriano. They gave Cipriano a warning, Gillin says.
``They didn't think Ralph was being productive enough," she says. ``They said they often didn't know where he was. They wanted him to call in and report where he was." A September 29, 1997, letter to that effect was placed in his file, Gillin says. ``Ralph took it to heart and worked his buns off," she recalls. ``A couple months later, Phil Dixon calls me over and says, `We are really pleased with Ralph. He's been writing a lot of stories.' " Gillin asked Dixon to take the letter out of the file, but Dixon refused.
Among the stories Cipriano wrote that fall that won praise was the one about the University of Pennsylvania football scandal. ``That officially got me out of the dog house," says Cipriano. ``They moved me to my old beat, South Philadelphia, and I started writing for the magazine again. Life is good."
Meanwhile, Cipriano continued working on his story for the National Catholic Reporter. ``We sent the archdiocese a letter asking for an interview," says Roberts, ``and they refused because Ralph Cipriano is working on the story."
In late 1997 Frank Lewis of the City Paper began reporting a story about Cipriano and the Catholic Church, a 5,400-word piece that would run under the headline ``Holy War" (www.citypaper.net). The article, which included Cipriano's allegation that the Inquirer treated the Catholic Church as a sacred cow, ran on June 11, 1998--eight days before the 9,152-word NCR story (www.natcath.com).
Much of the information in Cipriano's NCR story had already been reported in the Inquirer. But the new article framed the reporting on archdiocesan spending in the context of the church closings, and it was laden with detail. Overall, the piece was an unflattering portrait of the 75-year-old Bevilacqua, and it included no response from the archdiocese.
(Even though the archdiocese thought the article was ``not a fair representation of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua nor his work over the last 10 years," Rossi says, it has decided not to write another letter of complaint because of the Cipriano libel suit.)
The tangled situation was exacerbated by some intemperate comments Cipriano made in the City Paper article. ``The Jesus I read about in the Bible is the opposite of what Cardinal Tony Bevilacqua is," Cipriano was quoted as saying. ``Jesus ate with the Pharisees and tax collectors, and this guy has condemned me in every house in the archdiocese. He's a poor advocate for his faith. Actually, he's a Pharisee."
``That wasn't too smart," Cipriano acknowledges. ``Basically I got angry. I've been attacked for over a five- or six-year period, and I said something I shouldn't have."
As the war of words escalated, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz began looking into the dispute. He called Rosenthal, who by then had become the Inquirer's editor. He hadn't seen the NCR piece. He promised to get back to Kurtz after he read it, and he did. He might not have liked several passages in the article, such as: ``Since 1993, the Tierney firm has managed to keep negative articles about Bevilacqua out of the press;" or ``Still unreported in Philadelphia is the $500,200 price tag for renovation of the cardinal's summer vacation home."
In any event, Rosenthal told Kurtz that Cipriano ``has a very strong personal point of view and an agenda.... There were things we didn't publish that Ralph wrote that we didn't think were truthful. He could never prove them."
Kurtz's story ran Saturday, June 13. Cipriano went into the office to read it on the Internet. ``I was quite stunned," he recalls. On Monday morning, Cipriano says, he walked into Rosenthal's office. ``How could you do this to me?" Cipriano says he asked his boss. ``He said I trashed the newspaper and trashing the newspaper is trashing him."
Not surprisingly, Rosenthal's personal attack on one of his staffers caused a wave of concern inside and outside the newsroom. Sal Paolantonio, who reported for the paper from 1985 to 1995, is a friend and fan of both Cipriano and Rosenthal. But this time he thought Rosenthal, a man noted for his exuberance and enthusiasm, had gone too far.
``I did work for Bob and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," says Paolantonio, now an on-air reporter for ESPN. ``He's got great energy. Great instincts. I'd go on point for Bob Rosenthal any time, any day. I'd be the first guy over the wall. That's how much I think of him. But in the case of Ralph, he violated the first commandment of leadership, which is: Praise in public, criticize in private. Maybe it was just in a moment of passion that Rosenthal said that, which I think it was. Rosey's a passionate guy. But as executive editor, his rational thoughts should have taken over."
Rosenthal, who joined the paper in 1979 as a reporter, assumed the editorship in January. He was a popular choice among the rank-and-file. But his unrestrained public comments about one of his own gave many pause. How many other people in the newsroom, reporters wonder, does Rosenthal think are untruthful or have an agenda? Says Paolantonio: ``If you are a reader of the Inquirer, what kind of confidence do you have in the Inquirer if the editor goes around talking about how his reporters are untruthful? That's the ultimate violation of trust between the newspaper and its readers."
Concerns were raised at a staff meeting called on June 30 to discuss, among other things, ``sacred cows." Cipriano wasn't in attendance. ``Rosey walked into the room, and it was a tense moment," says health care reporter Karl Stark, who was there. ``He was ready for a hard time. I felt sick to my stomach because of the way it started. The first half of the meeting had a nasty tone, like watching your parents fight. It was painful."
At some points the session was confrontational. ``People asked whether the quote was accurate," says reporter Peter Dobrin. Rosenthal ``said it was out of context. He didn't mean to question whether any things Ralph wrote were true, but to question certain things Ralph said in conversation, which I think left some of us worrying whether our private conversations with our editor would somehow end up in another newspaper."
People wanted to know whether Rosenthal was going to apologize to Cipriano. He wouldn't go that far.
On July 22, a letter from Rosenthal to the Post appeared under the headline, ``Admitting a Mistake": ``The [Kurtz] article left the impression that the Inquirer has shied away from publishing stories about the archdiocese and did not reflect my statement that much of what reporter Ralph Cipriano included in his article in the National Catholic Reporter already had been published in articles he wrote for the Inquirer.... I should not, however, have described as untruthful some of the material Mr. Cipriano wrote that we did not publish. I should have said he told us things as he was reporting that he had not substantiated."
But that wasn't strong enough for Cipriano: He wanted an apology, and he wanted it in writing. He wanted to protect himself against a day when he might be in court, says Cipriano, and an opposing lawyer questions his veracity, saying something like, ``Well, Mr. Cipriano, even your own editor does not think your stories are truthful." But Rosenthal wouldn't apologize.
``My sense of what happened is that the differences and long struggle between Ralph and Rosey were like two grade school kids acting somewhat immaturely in the schoolyard," says an Inquirer editor familiar with the dispute. ``Rosey failed to realize that he was no longer the kid in the schoolyard. He was the principal.... He shouldn't have continued a petty fight with a reporter and staked the reputation of the Inquirer on it."
D ESPITE OBVIOUS TENSION, CIPRIANO continued writing stories for the Inquirer's Metro section until August 7. But there were rumblings. Gillin says City Editor Marc Duvoisin told Cipriano that management thought he was having a hard time focusing and that he was spending too much time on the phone. About the same time, Cipriano learned that Arlene Morgan, the paper's assistant managing editor/readership, had written a column mentioning his coverage of the Catholic Church. Cipriano got a copy of it before it ran. The reporter, who felt he was being unfairly attacked in the column, contacted the Guild. The column was modified, although Morgan says what Cipriano saw was an unedited draft. ###
``On August 6, Ralph finds out that Arlene's column is going to run in a much watered-down version," Gillin says. ``But there's one paragraph in there he doesn't like. Ralph is very upset that his name is being brought up once again."
At that point, Cipriano felt he had no choice but to take legal action. ``I figured between my city editor saying I had a focus problem and Rosenthal telling me I wasn't going to get any good assignments and Arlene writing a column," says Cipriano, ``this was a message that the newspaper had set things in motion to get me. I had two simple choices: live with the stain on my reputation or do something. The consequences are really obvious: Who wants to hire a reporter who sues his editor? But who wants to hire a reporter whose editor says he's untruthful? I had to figure I was at the end of my career. It's just a sad way to end a career."
Yet filing a suit was also a hostile way to end a career. The choice of Beasley, who appears to relish suing the Inquirer, as an attorney was lost on no one. ``It's one thing to decide to sue your paper," says Inquirer reporter L. Stuart Ditzen, ``but in this atmosphere we have in Philadelphia, to choose Jim Beasley has a very significant meaning. For an obvious reason, it heightens the stakes. In terms of an aggressive act, it's about as aggressive as you can get. Many people here feel it's the ultimate act of betrayal."
Three days after filing the suit on August 7, Cipriano got a call at home at 10 p.m. He was being suspended with pay and was told not to come on Inquirer property and to turn over all his notes, memos, rejected stories and information on Bevilacqua. He refused to turn over his notes, on the advice of his attorney.
Cipriano's turbulent stint at the Inquirer was about to come to an end. On August 21, two of the paper's editors, Dixon and Assistant Managing Editor/Regional Matt Golas, showed up at Cipriano's home to hand-deliver a letter firing him, effective September 8. Wrote Dixon, ``The reasons for the dismissal are breach of duty of loyalty to the Philadelphia Inquirer; use of your connection to the Inquirer to exploit your outside work; insubordination; and actions which have both adversely affected your ability to function as a representative of the Inquirer and affronted and irrevocably impaired managerial authority in such a manner and to such as degree as to make untenable your continued employment for the Inquirer."
On August 29, the national Newspaper Guild voted to demand that the Inquirer reinstate Cipriano and apologize ``for damaging his reputation." Beasley, Cipriano's lawyer, maintains the firing was retaliatory and has amended Cipriano's suit. What lies ahead is unknown, except that everyone involved is awaiting subpoenas, and the matter has ripped apart a once tightly knit newsroom, forcing everyone to choose sides.
``This tears at the fabric of relationships in the newsroom," says Paolantonio. ``It pits people against one another in the newsroom that has been among the tightest in the business." Both Rosenthal and Cipriano are well-liked and, by most, well-respected. The word ``tragedy" is used repeatedly to describe what has transpired.
``This is one of those situations that lurched out of control," says William K. Marimow, managing editor at the Baltimore Sun and a former Inquirer editor. ``Now it has all the makings of a true tragedy. It's bad for Ralph, bad for Bob, bad for the Inquirer and bad for newspapering in general."