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Bring on the Pom Poms

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Inquirer Building.bmpPaul Davies office at The Inquirer is empty these days, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Earlier this month, Davies, the deputy editor of the editorial page, was fired by Publisher Greg Osberg, though the paper's management would probably object to such a blunt-instrument word as "fired."

The stated reason was that Davies turned down a chance to transfer to the Daily News, where he was offered a job as a reporter, and that he decided instead to move on. Were his managers at the Inquirer unhappy with his performance and want him out of the job as deputy?  The official answer is no.

To be more accurate, the official answer is "No Comment." It's a personnel matter and we don't talk about these things in public.

(In fact, just about everyone involved in this case has retreated behind the door labeled "No Comment." And locked it.)

But, there are questions about the motives and the timing of Davies' departure.

Here is what is being said around the paper and around town about the incident:

Davies was fired after he wrote a March 5th column critical of the new $786-million addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.  He said, in so many words, that this expansion is unlikely to pan out unless the center solved its (long-standing) labor issues that have chased away convention bookers and organizers, who complain about restrictive work rules and labor costs.

In response, Nick DeBenedictis, chair of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, fired off a letter to the Inquirer seething over the Davies column, saying it was nasty and mean. He did not dispute any of the facts, but objected to its "speculative and unfair negativism."We should all be rooting for the home team, and encouraging customers to choose Philadelphia," DiBenedictis concluded.

According to sources within The Inquirer, the convention center board showed its displeasure by canceling a $400,000-to-$500,000 ad buy (I have heard both figures) it had booked in the paper to coincide with its official June opening.

The center board also scheduled a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board, presumably to complain about the column and tell their story.  On the day Davies was fired, they called to cancel that meeting.  Why bother to meet when the problem was solved? You could label it "Mission Accomplished."

Let me make a couple of points:

One is the issue of transparency.  The media demands it of everyone, except itself.  The issue raised here is important: Did the new ownership of the Inquirer cave to outside pressure and jettison a columnist because of it?  In reply, the paper offers only corporatespeak.

In the Inquirer newsroom, the belief is widespread that Davies was defenestrated because of that column, that management did cave and it makes them wonder if (or when) it will happen again --and if it will happen to them. This is known as the "chilling effect."

For another, as word gets around town that you can mau-mau the paper into muting its criticism, its critics or its columnists it can only result in more and more mau mauing. (If it worked once, why can't it work again?)  This will be especially true of people who lay down money for advertising.

Finally, with all due respect to Nick DeBenedictis, it is not the job of newspapers and columnists to be "rooting for the home team." We aren't on the team. We don't do pom poms. It's not in our job description.

What Davies was pointing out in his column -- in a blunt, brass-knuckled way -- was something that has been known and debated for years: Restrictive labor covenants jeopardize the center's competitiveness. The issue of the labor practices is a local political problem, but the center competes nationally -- against union and non-union centers -- who offer fewer hassles and lower prices

The center's management has been working (again, for years) to ameliorate the problem and has made progress.  But, as Davies pointed out, it has been incremental. Four inches of progress every two years won't cut it in a competitive national market.

That statement may be seen as yet another example of negativism, but it is the truth.

Now, let me state my clear prejudice.  I worked at The Inquirer for 31 years. During that time, I know there were powerful forces at work seeking to get the paper to kill stories, or mute critical columnists or scuttle investigations. The editors and the publishers took holy hell for things that were written. They never flinched. Now is not the time to start, even in its weakened financial condition.

As to the current situation, my advice to the paper is not to be mute.  It simply confirms all suspicions.

Someone in authority at the White Tower -- perhaps Harold Jackson, editor of the editorial page -- should do a column that explains why Davies was dumped, tell us if had anything to do the convention center piece or any other critical columns he wrote (about Mayor Nutter, for instance).

Another option would be to ignore this incident on the belief that it eventually will go away and hand out poms poms to the editorial staff.

So they can start practicing cheering for the home team.

 

-- Tom Ferrick

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