Ed Rendell just doesn’t get it.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor has always had a long history of sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, but an article in the Aug. 24 New Yorker magazine confirms that Rendell either doesn’t know about the line between government and the media — or just doesn’t care.
It was reported that Rendell had approached billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year to buy the financially ailing Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Mr. Rendell was quoted as saying, "We discussed a few things, and I tried to convince him to come down and buy The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News."
After being questioned on his statement, a Rendell spokesman said the governor was just kidding.
Sure he was.
After all, joking about the Inquirer’s demise ranks among the funniest things in the world.
If Fast Eddie didn’t have a track record of wildly overstepping his boundaries, maybe his "joke" excuse would be believable.
Earlier this year, Rendell publicly scolded the Sunoco oil company for its decision to lay off 750 workers, calling the company’s action "unconscionable." Yet he didn’t say a word about the 3,000 layoffs — four times the number at Sunoco — that Comcast has executed in the past year.
Could that disparity have something to do with the amount of campaign money both entities contributed to the governor?
Since the 2002 election, Sunoco’s political action committee (PAC) contributed $55,000 to Rendell.
During that same time period, Comcast’s PAC, its employees, and the spouses of its top executives, have donated $634,350, with Comcast spending an additional $100,000 on the gov’s inauguration festivities in 2007.
But beyond the money trail, the larger question is why a governor is budding into the business affairs of a private-sector company. One of the fundamental principles of this country – at least until recently – is that businesses be allowed to operate free of government interference. Public officials and bureaucrats have no right to force their way into affecting corporate policy because they happen to disagree with a company’s internal business decisions.
Worse than that, however, has been Rendell’s foray into the news media.
The Fourth Estate, as the media is known, is afforded constitutional protections that allow it to be the independent watchdog for America. Once the line is crossed between a media entity and a government official discussing a partnership, all credibility is irreparably lost, on both sides. Attempting to say that such a close relationship would not affect unbiased and objective reporting is simply ludicrous.
But that’s exactly what Rendell has been doing.
Before the current owners of the Inquirer and Daily News bought the papers in 2006, the governor had approached billionaire Ron Burkle, urging him to make a bid. Burkle, a huge player in Democratic politics, contributed $10,000 to Rendell, and another $100,000 to the state Democratic Party. Additionally, he had raised over $1 million for Hillary Clinton.
Oh, and he also contributed $20,000 to the Philadelphia Future PAC, which makes this deplorable situation come full circle.
The Philadelphia Future PAC pumped $471,000 into the Rendell coffers, and is registered at the offices of the Ballard Spahr— the law firm where Rendell worked before being elected governor.
The PAC’s treasurer is David Cohen, arguably the governor’s closest ally, and Executive Vice President at Comcast. Cohen, who has contributed $80,000 to Mr. Rendell, is a longtime Rendell confidant and fundraiser, serving as chief of staff when Mr. Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia. Prior to joining Comcast, Mr. Cohen served as chairman of Ballard Spahr. Cohen’s wife Rhonda donated $156,000 to the governor.
Ballard, which provides legal counsel to Comcast, has come under intense media and legislative scrutiny for the frequency and amount of the secretive no-bid contracts it has received under the Rendell administration. The firm has contributed $481,000 to the governor’s campaigns, with its attorneys donating an additional half million dollars. The address on Gov. Rendell’s campaign finance reports is the 51st floor of 1735 Market Street in Philadelphia — where Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.
Mr. Cohen also serves as chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Despite Mr. Rendell’s unprecedented intrusion into the private business sector by his attack on Sunoco, a major Philadelphia employer and chamber member, no action was taken by the chamber to defend the company.
See a pattern here?
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when yours truly broke the story earlier this year that Rendell was engaged in talks with Brian Tierney, publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, for a taxpayer-funded bailout for the papers. At Gov. Rendell’s request, meetings also took place that explored the two largest state pension funds bailing out the newspapers.
After a public uproar, Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns the papers, filed for bankruptcy.
Despite criticism from the Wall Street Journal, which called taxpayer-bailouts for newspapers "the worst bailout idea so far," George Will’s syndicated column, and the Dick Morris’ New York Times bestseller Catastrophe, Mr. Rendell still doesn’t see anything wrong with exerting his influence in the private sector.
Undoubtedly, he would have been better off focusing on the duties for which he was elected. If he had, Pennsylvania wouldn’t be facing a $3.2 billion deficit, and his approval rating wouldn’t stand at a dismal 39%.
The governor’s repeated efforts to be an integral part of the very media charged with covering his performance is repugnant. If he wants to be part of a newspaper upon leaving office, good for him. But until that time, he needs to do his job— and hopefully the rest of the media will do the same.
Chris Freind, author of "Freindly Fire," is an independent newspaper columnist whose readers hail from six continents, thirty countries, and all fifty states. His home publication is The Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at [email protected]