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Guest Commentary: Local News Matters

What do a historic muckraker, the corruption trial of Johnny Doc, and the long arc of justice in Philadelphia have in common? A robust local newspaper

Guest Commentary: Local News Matters

What do a historic muckraker, the corruption trial of Johnny Doc, and the long arc of justice in Philadelphia have in common? A robust local newspaper

As we watch the (imaginary) revolving door of the federal courthouse on Market Street suck in and spit out public corruption defendants — as it just did with former union boss John Dougherty — we wonder: Is Philadelphia perhaps the most corrupt city in the country?

That’s what a brilliant journalist who studied grift in America in the earliest days of the 1900s, Lincoln Steffens implied when he said we were “corrupt and contented.” John Dougherty, known as “Doc,” was so outrageous in his abuse of power that, when he headed the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he sought to block the installation of kid-friendly MRI machines at CHOP by insisting that members of his union do the work, rather than the technicians of the makers of the highly technical, child life-saving equipment.

When he must have felt the heat of the overwhelming investigation coming at him, his arrogance mixed with some well-founded paranoia, only intensified. Maybe there were microphones surrounding him, everywhere he went, but he and his balls must have thought, “fuck ’em.”

Before a group of union members, he warned what would happen to the people conspiring against him. After Doc’s indictment in 2019, he was specific, saying he’d “beat up,” or “run over” potential witnesses against him. In one case, he urged loyal members of his union to dump a suspected rat “under the water.” He thought he knew the identity of a rat and said, “One of you guys gotta choke” that person, “Put him under the fucking water.” Dougherty, the father of three, was most menacing when he said, “I’m going to make sure everybody, everywhere — everybody at your kids’ school — knows that you’re a punk and a rat and a creep.” Those who knew Doc well could have found his threats absolutely conceivable.

 “Corruption festers when people aren’t looking,” wrote journalists with the South Carolina’s Post and Courier, “when the spotlight doesn’t shine.”

Starting on November 6, jurors heard 33 witnesses over 15 trial days. And, on December 6, the jury came in saying Doc was guilty on 76 counts involving the uber-expense account that Johnny Doc used to sweeten his lifestyle and those of his posse. The expense account came out of the pockets of the hard-working members of the IBEW.

The corruption case against Doc was so expansive that it had to be divided up into two trials. In 2021, the first trial’s jury found him guilty in a case involving the bribery of former IBEW lobbyist and then-City Councilman Bobby Henon — also a defendant in the case — with a no-show or little-show job with the IBEW. And there’s a third trial over threats Dougherty made to force a contractor to continue to retain his nephew, threatening “violence and economic harm,” and pay him for hours even if he didn’t work.

The U.S. Justice Department, FBI and other investigative agencies deserve credit for putting together overwhelming cases against Doc this year and in 2021. But the fed was not alone. It had a fully pumped-up partner: the relentless investigative reporters of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the paper’s editorial board. This was the formula in the exposure, investigation, prosecution and imprisonment of Philadelphia grafters for decades, ranging from Buddy Cianfrani and Vince Fumo, to Seth Williams and Jimmy Tayoun, and many more.

After the verdict in the second trial, the editorial board did a well-deserved victory lap:

The evidence showed Dougherty essentially used union funds as his personal piggy bank as greed and arrogance set in. . . . Dougherty is not the first corrupt leader in Philadelphia and likely won’t be the last. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have convicted more than 1,000 people of public corruption charges over the last 40 years, an analysis found.

A lesson in local media

There’s a lesson to be learned from these cases: What would happen if the Inquirer weren’t around? Or if it was so reduced in size and capacity that it couldn’t sustain an investigation that endured for more than 17 years?

The term to describe what happens when a city or town loses effective journalism that includes an investigative capacity is “news desert.” While the saga of the Inquirer’s survival has lasted perhaps longer than the Dougherty case, Philadelphia has not reached desert status. But it could. In 2019, a memo was circulated around the newspaper in which corporate leadership said that in five years, it’s possible Philadelphia could exist without a hometown newspaper. That was four years ago and we’re not there yet — but this fate still looms.

What would a place diagnosed as being “corrupt and contented” look like if it attained news desert status? The question deserves our attention.

The man Behind “corrupt and contented”

Lincoln Steffens reveled at being described as a “muckraker.” It sounds so ugly today, but it’s really not a negative description. Rather, it describes the best observers of history in real time. The best muckraking of Steffens’ day exposed the exploitation of children in sweatshops, unsafe and crowded housing, and government theft and waste. With that definition, I’ll take the title for the years I wrote for Philadelphia magazine in the 1970s.

Starting in the turn of the century from the 1800’s, Lincoln Steffens was a big deal. He learned how to sniff out the implications of government crooks by hanging out with everyone from Teddy Roosevelt and Earnest Hemingway to cads with nicknames like “Hinky Dick” and “Bathhouse John.” Steffens contacts were legendary. To William Randolph Hearst he was the best interviewer he ever met. From President Roosevelt, Steffens received a card addressed to all U.S. government officials saying he was entitled to any information he sought. He struck out at corruption in statehouses, the federal bureaucracy, and covered the revolution that turned Russia red, spending time with Vladimir Lenin who, some suggested, seduced him. He held himself out as more than a mere journalist; rather he was a “thinker,” a philosopher king.

But before all that, from 1901 to 1904, he pursued a project in which he toured America looking at corruption in six of the top cities in America. His goal was to demonstrate how venality handicapped those cities and concluded it was not necessarily the sleaze of the individual politicians but rather the institutions of grift that they created. For example, he believed that the entrenched tradition of money in politics was the evil, not the politicians who took the money. The seven chapters he wrote about six cities (he visited St. Louis twice) resulted in articles in McLure’s Magazine and collected together in a small book called, The Shame of the Cities.

 “The honest citizens of Philadelphia have no more rights at the polls than the negroes down South,” wrote Steffens. “Nor do they fight very hard for this basic privilege.” 

What was the shame of Philadelphia? Steffens concluded that all of the cities were pretty dirty, but our city was the very worst, most corrupt, of the six cities he studied. On top of being the most corrupt, its citizens were complicit because they were “content” with the crooked state of things. We were “know-nothings” who didn’t know because we didn’t want to know. He concluded Philadelphians were “supine,” “asleep,” “complacent;” the city itself was a “disgrace.” Other cities, like New York, endorsed the grift through their votes. Not Philadelphia. We were disenfranchised. “The honest citizens of Philadelphia have no more rights at the polls than the negroes down South,” wrote Steffens. “Nor do they fight very hard for this basic privilege.”

Relentless muckraking in the Philadelphia of today shows that the city remains “corrupt and contented.” The courthouse on Market Street rolls out the history of today.

Measuring the sand in news deserts

The ownership of the Inquirer changed hands several times. The editorial leadership of the paper was also a game of musical chairs. In November 2006, Bill Marimow, a star former investigative reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner with the paper, returned as top editor. At that time, there were 415 editorial jobs at the paper, but Marimow walked back in the door with the threat of a 150-position job cut on the table, 30 percent of the editorial team. It must have been a challenge, but he defended the need for cuts at the Inquirer because its profit margin was so meager and because the new owners had to borrow $300 million to buy the paper. He pledged to deliver “indispensable” competitive journalism.

But, looking at a 30 percent cut in the newsroom, would that be possible? Fact is, if anyone could do it, Marimow could. Until he couldn’t. He was fired in 2013 because of his refusal to reduce the newsroom even further. It was a small cut compared to others, involving five senior newsroom staff members. One was investigative reporter Dan Biddle who stuck with the paper for 26 years. With two other star reporters, he won a Pulitzer for a series on corruption in the Philadelphia court system which led to federal and state prosecutions.

There are several metrics we have to measure the depth of the sand of a community’s news desert.

Nationally, newspapers have seen astonishing reductions in force. According to one study by the Poynter Institute, 360 more newspapers have closed down since 2019. That’s on top of the 2,500 closures between 2004 and 2014. True enough, many of them were weekly newspapers. The same study reported that the overall size of newspaper staffs declined from 75,000 in 2001 to 29,700 in 2021. This is a hard number to harden, because it’s not tracked anywhere in an official or business sense. The Inquirer once employed some 680 news side staff (including reporters, editors, and other editorial staff). Today, that number is down to about 200.

Circulation numbers are easier to track because they need to be made available for the papers to sell advertising. Of the top 25 papers in the nation, some of them national papers like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, the average circulation decline in 2023 (six months from March 2023) was 12 percent. Philadelphia is the seventh largest city in the United States, but in 2023, the circulation diminished to 51,000 newspapers sold. That’s a 16 percent decline since the past year and four percent higher than the national average.

Of the top four national papers experienced slightly smaller declines: Wall Street Journal 13 percent, New York Times 10 percent, Washington Post 12 percent, but USA Today sustained a 17 percent decline. Looking farther back leads to a much more depressing result: In 1936, the paper sold 280,093 papers; in 1968, up to 648,000, but then in 2007, numbers started to go down again when it was 338,000 papers. Sunday papers were about double the daily circulation.

There are signs of growth in digital subscriptions. Lee is the fifth-largest newspaper chain in the country, with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Buffalo News as its top properties, reported at 57 percent growth in digital subscribers with 450,000 subscribers, half-way to its goal of 900,000 by 2026. Gannett says it has 1.5 million on-line subscribers. (This includes USA Today.) Today, estimates of Inquirer digital subscriptions may be as many as 90,000. This is by no means an insignificant metric. The world is getting used to learning the news online, at least those who want to learn it.

“The next 10 to 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption,” The Wire creator David Simon testified to Congress. “It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them.”

Another way to measure effectiveness of papers is to look at prize winning. Pulitzer Prizes are the gold standard and the Golden Years of the Inquirerwhen the paper won 17 Pulitzers over 18 years — happened when Eugene Roberts took over as editor in 1972. Nicknamed the “Frog’s,” his goal was to enhance the quality of the paper and show it by aggressively winning Pulitzers. Though it is the third oldest newspaper still in publication, before Roberts, it had never won a Pulitzer. After he started, it won 11 awards over 6 years. Two of those Pulitzers went to Marimow (and other Inquirer reporters) one in 1978 during the second term of top cop Frank Rizzo for violence perpetrated by city police officers and one in 1985 for an investigation of the police department’s K-9 unit. Upon Robert’s departure, the Inquirer won 12 more, but it hasn’t won a Pulitzer since 2014 when Inga Saffron received the criticism award.

Sunlight disinfects?

There has been a scholarly examination of the “news desert” problem. However, many of the scholarly studies focus on smaller towns with their smaller newspapers, and how community watchdogs continue to disappear. Some believe that digital watchdogs can be the cure to replace or supplement to disappearing and shrinking traditional news outlets, but according to a study cited in an essay by Boston’s WGBH, such assets serve “affluent areas rather than poorer communities.”

Even where local news outlets survive, larger, traditional news sources ignore the local news outlets. A very recent example involves the corruption case of recently expelled Congressman George Santos of New York. Before he was elected, there were stories about how he recreated himself as gay and his own peculiar version of faux Judaism, calling himself “Jew-ish.” He portrayed himself as a Trump lover whose finances, education, charity work, address and past positions were all fake. Some of Santos’s reinvention was revealed by a 20,000-circulation newspaper on largely affluent Long Island, The New Shore Leader, before the election. But the word didn’t get farther.

The result was that Santos won his election against an incumbent Democrat. Another result was that the people of New York’s third congressional district went unrepresented. In other words, democratic choice in an election was sacrificed by the news desert.

Writers of a paper for the Academy of Management expressed worry that the deterrent effect of aggressive newspapers will disappear: “It is therefore possible that the decline of local media will embolden corrupt actors who believe they are less likely to be detected, and create the potential for substantial deadweight loss in the economy. To examine these relationships, we leverage a novel dataset of federal charging documents of corruption and daily newspaper closures using a difference in difference approach.”

If fewer people and institutions are looking for public corruption, it stands to reason that it’s not being detected, deterred or punished. “Corruption festers when people aren’t looking,” wrote journalists with the South Carolina’s Post and Courier, “when the spotlight doesn’t shine.” The term “sunlight disinfects” comes from a 1913 article in Harper’s Weekly called What Publicity Can Do by Louis Brandeis, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Simon, creator of HBO’s hit series The Wire about corruption in the Baltimore police force, sounded pretty certain that corruption would go unpunished. He testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Future of Journalism in 2009. “The next 10 to 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption,” he testified. “It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them.” Simon was also a former reporter with the Baltimore Sun.

After Doc’s second conviction, The Inquirer’s editorial board said that the choice for Philadelphia was either systemic change or more “corrupt and contented.”

“But will tomorrow’s union and political leaders learn from the past,” it asked. “Or continue the city’s century-old reputation of being corrupt and contented?”

That calculus is right, but there’s another piece of the formula that’s essential: Here in Philadelphia, without an aggressive Inquirer, without journalists continuing to be locked and loaded to root out political corruption leading to prosecutions and prison, “corrupt and contented” will endure, and possibly emerge on steroids.

Anthony Green was an associate editor at Philadelphia magazine in the 1970’s and wrote about politics and corruption.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.


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