From AJR, October 1998 issue
Out Of Control
An escalating dispute over coverage of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ends with a reporter suing his boss and losing his job.
By Alicia C. Shepard EVER SINCE HE WAS IN 10TH GRADE, RALPH CIPRIANO KNEW he wanted to be a newspaper reporter. He followed what he thought was the right path: working on the school newspaper, getting an undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Missouri, starting at a small paper and working his way up. Eleven years ago, he joined one of the nation's biggest and best newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
By many accounts, he flourished there. Last Thanksgiving, for example, Cipriano broke one of the biggest stories of his career: He discovered that the University of Pennsylvania had arranged a last-minute independent study for its star football player the day before the final game of the season to maintain his eligibility. As a result of Cipriano's story and a college investigation, the university had to forfeit every victory its ace defensive tackle had participated in during the season.
For the past few years Cipriano covered Philadelphia neighborhoods with a wise-guy flair that provided insight into the city's colorful ethnic enclaves without appearing condescending. Cipriano, 45, says he loves being a reporter. And yet on a Friday in early August, during his lunch hour, he left the Inquirer newsroom and walked 15 blocks to his lawyer's office. There he signed his name to a 17-page lawsuit that surely would end his career at the Inquirer and possibly in newspapering altogether.
He was taking the unusual action of suing his boss, Editor Robert J. Rosenthal, the paper and its parent, Knight Ridder, for libel, asking for $50,000 in damages. Cipriano believes Rosenthal libeled him in a quote that appeared in the Washington Post on June 13, regarding the reporter's coverage of the Roman Catholic Church. To show just how serious he was, Cipriano hired an attorney known as the Inquirer's archenemy. For two clients--a lawyer and a judge--James E. Beasley Sr. has won $30 million in libel judgments against the newspaper (although one, a $6 million verdict, was recently set aside).
Around 1 p.m. on August 7, without any road map showing where to go next, Cipriano returned to the paper to finish a follow-up story on a paint factory and await his fate. He stopped by Beth Gillin's desk. Gillin is media editor at the Inquirer, but, more important to Cipriano, she is a Newspaper Guild shop steward. Cipriano wasn't gloating; he was heartsick. He knew his future was uncertain. But, he says, he felt he had no choice. ``Well, I did it, Cipriano told Gillin. ``I filed a suit…. What happens now?"
Gillin had no answers. Cipriano had made his move. Nothing like this had ever happened at the paper, and there's no language in the union contract spelling out what to do if a reporter feels he has been libeled by his editor. Everyone involved--Cipriano, Rosenthal, other key editors, friends, the staff, the union, even Beasley--was entering uncharted waters. But on one point there is widespread agreement: Acrimony over Cipriano's coverage of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia had spun completely out of control. The conflict between editor and reporter had become far too personal, and it was ending where no one really wanted it to, in the hands of lawyers and a judge inside a courthouse.
CIPRIANO BEGAN WORKING FOR THE Inquirer in a suburban bureau in 1987 after leaving the Los Angeles Times. Like any ambitious journalist, his goal was to get into the Inquirer's main office. Writing obituaries was Cipriano's ticket to the city room. One day in 1991, then-City Editor Rosenthal came to him and asked if he wanted to cover religion. Rosenthal was looking for someone to liven up the beat. Cipriano did just that.
``I hung out with a voodoo group and watched them do a goat sacrifice," he says. ``I wrote about a gay hairdresser who helped men with AIDS plan their funerals. And then I wrote his obit. I wrote about a 300-pound former night watchman who was a Baptist preacher and would proselytize with prostitutes, a story about a rabbi who rap sings and a Mormon who spoke Vietnamese to get converts. I didn't want to do stories about anybody sitting around a table talking about theological stuff."
One of Cipriano's first religion stories, in November 1991, angered the Catholic hierarchy, he says. The church didn't like his piece about Dominic Bash, a former seminarian turned hairdresser who ran a church group for gay and lesbian Catholics. Cipriano wrote: ``Like many members of Dignity, Paul [a gay Catholic] feels anger toward the traditional Catholic Church. The church condemns homosexual acts. Dignity has been banned from the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and holds Sunday night services at St. Luke & The Epiphany Church, an Episcopal church in Center City." The archdiocese rejected the implication that it was not helping homosexuals, he says, and sent him a long fax outlining its objections.
It was the beginning of what would become an uncommonly tense relationship between a reporter and a religious body, and set off the chain of events that would culminate with Cipriano suing his boss and losing his job.
In 1992, Cipriano began writing stories about the archdiocese's plans to possibly close eight high schools and shut down several churches and parish elementary schools. This was a tough time for the archdiocese, which watches over a flock of 1.4 million Catholics in Philadelphia and its suburbs, making it the sixth largest archdiocese in the country.
At one time, when immigrants were flooding into the city, the church tried to accommodate them by establishing individual Catholic churches for Italians, Poles and other groups. ``Philadelphia is a place where there are three Catholic churches within two blocks, all on the same street," says Susan Gibbs, a former spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Between 1980 and 1995, 130,000 registered Catholics left the city.
That meant some churches and schools remained open but were largely deserted; some clearly needed to be shut down. The question became, which churches, which schools, in what neighborhoods?
Many of the facilities slated for possible closing were in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and some residents in those neighborhoods felt the archdiocese, and Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua in particular, were insensitive and unresponsive. Cipriano chronicled some parishioners wondering out loud why, when the archdiocese had raised $101 million in cash and pledges during a fundraising campaign, it was closing down high schools for lack of money. Then he got a tip, he says, about the cardinal's spending practices.
At this point, another reporter might have gone in a different direction than Cipriano did. Many religion writers--among them the Inquirer's current reporter on the beat, David O'Reilly--believe their basic mission is to fully understand religious faiths and explain them to readers.
``Newspapers in our democracy have a watchdog role in government, so we tend to have an adversarial relationship with government," says O'Reilly, who took over from Cipriano's successor in May 1995. ``Trying to do that same role with religion is much more delicate. The question is, `What is your job as religion writer?' I tend to see my job often as a transmitter, you might say, where somebody's ideas or beliefs are told to the readership."
But Cipriano saw himself as the watchdog for the Philadelphia metropolitan area's Catholics, who make up about 38 percent of the population. He believed what Bevilacqua and the archdiocese did with the money they collected was fair game. ``My whole pitch has always been that I wasn't out to get the cardinal," says Cipriano. ``I just thought he should be held accountable. Why would that be a taboo topic?" (In his suit, Cipriano alleges the paper went soft on archdiocesan coverage because it feared it might lose Catholic readers when circulation already was declining, a charge the paper denies.)
For much of 1993, Cipriano was writing stories about hard feelings caused by possible parish and school closings, and also covering the $118,000 renovation of a New Jersey shore vacation home for retired priests owned by the archdiocese. A June 30, 1993, Cipriano story had this headline and deck: ``Protesters Say Bevilacqua Has Abandoned the Poor. They Criticized Money Spent on the Cardinal's Shore Home. The Archdiocese Said It Needed Renovations."
Meanwhile, Cipriano found on-the-record sources willing to talk about what they portrayed as Bevilacqua's unrestrained spending habits when he headed the Pittsburgh Diocese before coming to Philadelphia in 1988. He also discovered that as parishes were being closed, the archdiocese was renovating the 12th floor of its office tower into a technologically advanced media center, complete with a custom-made black cherry conference table that listed for $58,000. Cipriano checked the blueprints on file with the city, which showed the estimated cost of wiring the media center at $48,000.
He wanted to do a story about the archdiocese's spending in the context of the closings. ``I go to Rosey [Rosenthal] and I say, `This is relevant,' " Cipriano says. `` `Questions about this guy's fiscal management are relevant. We've got to put this out there. People are giving lots of money.' I keep coming back to my editors. I'm annoying. I'm a pest." (Rosenthal's attorneys will not allow him to comment.)
So on February 7, 1993, a front-page profile of the cardinal appeared in the Inquirer under the headline, ``The Shepherd with a Briefcase." The story discussed the painful issue of school and church closings, the archdiocese's disagreements with the Catholic Teachers Union over money issues, Catholic Life 2000 (the $101 million fundraising effort), Bevilacqua's life, his spending in Pittsburgh and the renovations.
Cipriano wasn't happy with the final product, ``but I was really fatigued from fighting to get it in the paper," he says. An editor who worked on the story says it wasn't watered down, as Cipriano's suit charges, nor did Cipriano complain at the time.
The archdiocese said nothing after the story ran. But before it appeared, according to Cipriano, Brian Tierney--head of the largest advertising and public relations firm in Philadelphia and a friend of the cardinal's who had been retained by the archdiocese in 1990--threatened to ruin the reporter's reputation. Tierney says that simply isn't true.
``The strongest thing I ever said was: `If we can't reach an agreement, go ahead and print what you want but know the church is also free to go to other papers and use other media and its publications to get its message out.' I don't think that's a threat. That's clearly expressing that I'm not going to get hit over the head without responding."
Sometime in 1992, says Cipriano, ``I walked in on a meeting with editors, including Rosenthal, and Tierney and Jay Devine, the archdiocese's spokesman. They had copies of stories marked with yellow and green highlighters indicating the negative stories outweighed the positive."
Cathy Rossi, spokeswoman for the archdiocese since last December, suggests the church was unaccustomed to having to justify its decisions to lay people. ``There's been a feeling that they are making the best decisions and why should anyone question it?… Church leaders believe they are always working for good and find it difficult that anyone would believe otherwise. I think they become uncomfortable, perhaps sometimes even defensive, when their decisions are questioned."
CIPRIANO LEFT THE BEAT IN 1993 AND, as he says, ``happily began covering South Philadelphia." But three years later, in August 1996, editor Avery Rome asked Cipriano to write a piece on the cardinal for the paper's Sunday magazine. As soon as Tierney got word that Cipriano was once again asking questions about the archdiocese's finances, the campaign against the reporter revved up again. By this time, Cipriano had obtained more complete documentation about archdiocese spending practices in the early- and mid-1990s, some of which appeared lavish, around the same time the religious institution was closing schools and parishes in poor neighborhoods.
As far as Tierney was concerned, Cipriano was a biased reporter, out to get the cardinal and with an animus against the Catholic Church. ``We have the largest advertising and public relations firm in Pennsylvania. I deal with reporters all the time. And I've never seen anything like Ralph Cipriano," says Tierney. ``I've never seen a reporter who I felt showed such a clear and obvious ax to be ground."
Tierney figured prominently in the archdiocese's growing animosity toward the Inquirer and Cipriano. He has a reputation of being a very aggressive public relations executive who will use ad hominem attacks and is quick to call the paper when he has a beef. ``Tierney's style," says Frank Lewis, who writes for the Philadelphia City Paper, ``is that the media is the enemy."
Says an Inquirer editor: ``Tierney has made his reputation by representing the archdiocese and defending it against the Inquirer. His tactic is to be a bully. You go to a meeting with the archdiocese to ask legitimate questions and Tierney starts attacking the reporter."
When Inquirer reporter Peter Dobrin was covering the Philadelphia Orchestra, he went up against Tierney. ``Tierney didn't like the way we were covering the Philadelphia Orchestra," says Dobrin. The public relations executive complained, and in January 1995 he met at the paper with then-Editor Maxwell E. P. King, Publisher Robert Hall and two other editors. Dobrin was not invited. ``I'm not saying I received pressure from management to cover this issue one way or the other," says Dobrin. ``But just the fact he [Tierney] could pull together so many players in one meeting was creepy. It was intimidating."
And clearly Tierney was not happy to have Cipriano sniffing around again. Tierney told Rosenthal that the archdiocese would talk to any reporter at the paper with the exception of Cipriano. As ammunition, Tierney cited a first-person magazine piece in which Cipriano had written that he ``shuns organized religion." (In fact, Cipriano, who says he grew up a nominal Catholic, became a nondenominational Christian while covering the religion beat. He and his wife and two sons regularly attend church.)
Tierney says one of his chief complaints about Cipriano is what he sees as the reporter's loaded language. For example, when writing about the renovations of the cardinal's 30-room home, Cipriano called it a ``Main Line mansion." ``When you say `the Cardinal's Main Line mansion,' you wouldn't think it's actually in Philadelphia in a depressed area with home values of $120,000 and about four miles from what anybody would call the Main Line."
Tierney adds, ``We saw Ralph as somebody who just constantly tried--through rhetoric, not reporting-- to influence emotions when he couldn't do it with facts."
But Cipriano also was dealing in facts. Through Catholics discontented with the archdiocese, Cipriano got copies of a 44-page confidential archdiocesan capital budget for 1993 and paperwork detailing an $87,500 settlement with a former Bevilacqua employee who alleged, according to a claim filed with the state Bureau of Workers' Compensation, that he had been subject to ``rude and abusive treatment" by the cardinal. The reporter wanted to write a story saying the archdiocese was spending about $5 million on renovating the cardinal's mansion, three office buildings, a parking lot, the cathedral and the Jersey Shore home while closing or merging 15 parishes in North Philadelphia.
``This is the second time around for me," Cipriano recalls thinking. ``I know the newspaper is going to get resistance. I know I have to be prepared. But I've got all this stuff. I can't lose this time. Jonathan Neumann is behind me." Neumann, a well-respected figure at the paper, was the main editor on the story, which was no longer slated for the magazine.
But, Cipriano says, he was losing support from top editors, including Rosenthal and Phillip Dixon, now an associate managing editor. A source familiar with what happened says some ranking editors felt the archdiocese's side was not being told fairly. Some editors did not see a compelling new angle.
At least one top editor felt, as does the archdiocese's Rossi, that it was unfair to link the spending and the closings. Due to the large exodus of Catholics from the city, in their view, the archdiocese had to close or consolidate parishes because there were too many churches for the number of people attending them and fewer and fewer priests to staff them. At the same time, renovations were necessary at the archdiocese's 20-year-old headquarters as well as at the summer home.
``The spending and the closings are two separate issues," says Rossi. ``You can't let a building standing for 20 years just go without infrastructure improvements. The timing was such [that] it was necessary to do those improvements. Those improvements coincided with the start of a very painful procedure of evaluating the viability of parishes."
And, says Tierney, the archdiocese wasn't spending money only on sprucing up buildings. ``While Ralph was reporting about the renovations at the headquarters, he's not reporting on millions being spent on renovating schools in poor areas and subsidizing outreach programs, subsidizing schools and food shelters in poor areas."
Cipriano, however, believes the archdiocese's pressure was getting to the paper. Some say Cipriano, in his belief that he was onto a great story, found it difficult to distinguish between editors' genuine concerns and the church's influence. ``It's not as simple as the paper being afraid of the archdiocese," says an Inquirer source familiar with the situation. ``It had dragged on. There was a feeling of, `Enough, already.' But Ralph wasn't about to let it drop."
Neumann, whose memo defending the 1997 story is included in Cipriano's lawsuit, says he cannot talk because the dispute is in litigation. Neither can Rosenthal, nor can Dixon, for the same reason. James M. Naughton, who was executive editor while Cipriano was on the religion beat and is now president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, won't talk about specifics because he doesn't want to become a defendant in Cipriano's suit.
Dixon will say this: ``I'm really hurt and offended by the way my newspaper is being portrayed. Because we can't talk about the litigation and because it's a personnel matter, we can't talk about him as a person and as a reporter, and we can't tell our whole side of the story. But if people think our paper is timid, they are wrong. Look at the amount of space devoted to and the amount we've invested in enterprise reporting. There's no way you'd walk away saying the Philadelphia Inquirer is a timid newspaper walking around on tiptoes about anyone or anything."
There's little doubt that the personalities of the two main players had a great deal to do with how the saga played out. Cipriano, by all accounts, is an aggressive and sometimes stubborn reporter. Rosenthal, 50, a former hockey player, can also be aggressive and stubborn. In both cases, say many, their strengths can be their weaknesses. ``Ralph has all the best and worst qualities of an investigative reporter. He'll ask the same question over and over. He did it to me," says shop steward Gillin. ``I said to him: `No wonder you are such a good reporter. You're badgering me. You are asking me the same question four different ways.' "
Go To Part Two