Maybe not interference but self-censorship?

In a previous post (see below) I raised questions about whether the new lead investor in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Brian Tierney, would be able to suppress his PR-man urge to meddle in the editorial content of the papers if his former clients and business associates complained to him about negative coverage.

Part of my comments appeared in a summary of blogosphere reaction to the new owners that appeared in Dan Rubin’s Blinq blog that is part of the Inquirer’s web product. Unfortunately, of the blog entries that Dan quoted online, only the blandest ones made it into the print version of his observations about the new owners.

Pardon me for thinking my line about “channelling Walter Annenberg” would be snarky enough to get picked up somewhere…readers old enough to remember the last time the Inquirer was in local hands will also recall Annenberg’s dictum to the newsroom that Democratic Gov. Milton Schapp’s name was not to be mentioned in the Inquirer, which led to some outrageous efforts to cover a sitting governor without naming him.

I like Dan very much, and he has quoted me approvingly in the past on several occasions.

And maybe I shouldn’t bite the hand that fed me a page one photo with photo credit last week (Amtrak power outage, see images 5 and 6 in the flash album at http://inquirer.philly.com/slideshows/news/060525train/index.html — #6 made the front page), but now I’m wondering if fully transparent blogging can coexist with local owners at a major media outlet.

It’s easy for columnists to fire potshots when the corporate fathers are in California or Miami, but will they still be comfortable printing harsh criticism, even by someone other than themselves, when the boss/owner can walk right over to your desk, maybe you start thinking about whether you really want to put the tough-edged stuff in the column.

I know, I know all about news holes and word counts, and the need to prune and edit to fit the allotted space…I have been writing a technology column local to Cherry Hill for ten years, and it’s hard to fit it all in in 650 words or less. But when I look at the blog entries that made the print column, vs. the ones that appeared in the online blog, I can’t help but think Dan went a little to the soft side. Here are other examples.

Dan used the funny comment about Brian’s hair looking vaguely like Donald Trump, from Philebrity, but he carefully excised the part where Philebrity opines that Brian is “cuckoo for Jesus and the Republican party,” and then goes on to comment cynically on Brian’s hands-off pledge, adding “but like all good Rebublicans [sic] do, Bri-Bri promises to retire from political life if the deal goes through to avoid potential conflicts in interests. How quaint.”

Dan also omits from the print version the comment from Kiko’s House: “The buyers have zero publishing experience and while they promise to keep their mitts off of the editorial content and have even signed so-called ‘no interference’ pledges, I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

Intentional self-censorship? Probably not, but it’s awfully hard to reconcile publishing the unvarnished entries on the web, and ignoring them completely in the printed column. Is it because the new owners read the paper but not the blog?

This is not the only place I’m noticing self-censorship, or maybe just confusion and trepidation, about how to cover the new owners. A big Inquirer Sunday story by Jane Von Bergen about corporate executives and their high salaries this weekend mentioned that among the top five highest paid executives in the Philadelphia area is “an executive at home builder Toll Bros.” He’s not even mentioned by name in the article; you have to go to the table of executive pay to find out which one it is. It’s not Bruce Toll, the head of the company, but nowhere in the article are we reminded that Bruce Toll is chairman of the investor group that just bought the Inquirer.

Back when a former president of Mexico was being investigated for corruption, every single time he was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of that investigation, the paper reminded readers that he was a member of the Dow Jones board of directors, and that Dow Jones owned the Wall Street Journal.

Every time BusinessWeek magazine quotes a bond analyst from Standard & Poor’s, the article reminds readers that S&P, like BusinessWeek, is “owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies.”

This is pretty routine for publications to avoid any appearance of failing to disclose. Hope the Inquirer figures out how it wants to handle those disclosures in the future. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but the initial signs I’m seeing don’t give me a strong feeling that they are going to be tough on the new owners in the paper…

CORRECTIONS DEPARTMENT — Looks like my memory isn’t as good as I think it is. All these years I thought that Brian’s first profile in the Inquirer was written by Peter Binzen, but it appears that I may be thinking of a February 1985 profile by Ewart Rouse. Oh, well, sorry about that, Peter and Ewart. The main point, though, is that all my PR colleagues and I at Conrail thought it was odd that the first visible pitch Brian threw to the Inquirer was about himself, not about his client. We grew up in a kinder, gentler PR world in which the client’s interests came first.

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