Response to Buzz Bissinger’s New York Times Op/Ed

In yesterday’s New York Times, Friday Night Lights author and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter (as well as one of my favorite writers) Buzz Bissinger penned an op/ed that details the dangerous prospect that Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers–the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News–as well as are being bid on by a consortium led by Edward G. Rendell. Previously, Rendell has been the mayor of Philadelphia, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and, most recently, governor of Pennsylvania.

Having also written A Prayer for the City, a book about Rendell’s mayorality, Bissinger is acutely familiar with the politics at work in this bid. He describes the powerful group that Rendell has assembled:

The consortium Mr. Rendell has gathered includes Edward M. Snider, a legendary sports magnate in the city. It includes Lewis R. Katz, who made a fortune in the parking business and makes generous campaign contributions and expects something back. (I know because once, while covering Mr. Rendell for my book, I overheard Mr. Katz on a speakerphone complaining to the then-mayor that a law firm he had fancied had not gotten bond work.) And it includes George E. Norcross III, a Democratic kingpin who has basically owned South Jersey politics for years and yet is so thin-skinned that he has complained to reporters who called him a politico.

Bissinger describes the city’s daily newspapers as the public’s foremost defense against self-interested politicians and concludes:

These men want the papers because they crave power and will always crave power. They like to win and they have always liked to win. They can erect the biggest firewall they want between themselves and the papers. It won’t matter. As the owners of The Inquirer and The Daily News and the Web site, they will have successfully toppled the last enemy. The newspapers will become their personal Gutenberg press, which effectively means that the one city in the country that needs a newspaper the most will not have one.

It almost reads like Season 5 of The Wire, although not even David Simon conceived of a group led by Tommy Carcetti’s buying out The Baltimore Sun. But the story ended when Carcetti became governor.However, the prospect of a massive institutional cover-up, conspired upon between government officials and the city’s media, did play out when it was found out that Jimmy McNulty had fabricated the existence of a homeless serial killer. The truth would topple the institutions and was buried in an almost prophetic similarity to what would come out in the Penn State scandal– the same state in which Rendell is seeking to consolidate power.

That being said, the idea that city print newspapers are the only available watchdog for corrupt government is as outdated as city print newspapers. As web content marginalizes print media, investigative journalism has not vanished.

In Chicago, where I live, Chicago News Coop, a non-profit, non-partisan site founded in 2009 by James O’Shea, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times, replicates the functions of a daily newspaper and provides primary content investigating city politics.

Chicagoist, meanwhile, posts dozens of times a day on city politics, sports, bars, restaurants, events, and random diversions. While some of its content is primary, many of its stories are aggregated from a variety of sources–both print and web–and combined to produce pieces that investigate city graft. Last week, Chicagoist aggregated Chicago News Coop content that showed that former city aldermen magically wind up with lucrative offers in the private sector, without much of the stress that normally comes from job-seeking in a tough economy:

The perks of occupying the Chicago City Council never seem to end for present and past members. Former 36th Ward Ald. John Rice apparently got pretty lucky in today’s tough economy, scoring a new $84,420 a year job the same day he applied for it. The Chicago News Cooperative obtained state records that showed the position was never open and Rice filed his application the same day he began work, though Rice said he applied online. Little more than a month after Rice left City Council, the Illinois Department of Transportation began the process to fill the brand new position of Deputy Director of Traffic Safety, Rice’s current title.

I am not sure whether sites like like Chicagoist and Chicago News Coop do or don’t exist for Philadelphia (based on Bissinger’s disdain for the monopolization of city papers it’s fair to assume that they do not) but nothing is stopping Buzz Bissinger from creating one himself. He has the cache, knowledge, and local readership to get a project funded where he is editor-in-chief of a web page that reports and opinionizes and aggregates on all things Philadelphia.

To generate traffic for his op/ed, Bissinger tweeted, “We go crazy over Jeremy Lin. Let’s go crazy over something important.” If he truly feels that to be the case, he should be using his time and writing talents to fill the void he feels is being created by the monopolization of the government machine and city media instead of writing twice about Jeremy Lin. If he won’t, who will?


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