PHILADELPHIA, PA — This city’s two rival dailies, the broadsheet Inquirer and tabloid Daily News, share an owner, a website, and now more than ever, mutual enmity and distrust.
Last month, the papers’ owner and publisher, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, overruled Inquirer editor Bill Marimow and killed a major page-one story at the behest of Daily News editor Michael Days. The Inquirer story explored why federal prosecutors did not bring charges against police officer Thomas Tolstoy, accused of sexual assault by three women in “Tainted Justice,” the Daily News’ 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. The spiked Inquirer story also conveyed allegations, however, that Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker had acted unethically in their interactions with one of Tolstoy’s alleged victims.
Ruderman and Laker had been confronted with those allegations not long before the story was spiked, when Inquirer reporters walked across the hallway separating the two newsrooms for an interview. “Our eyes popped out of our head because we were stunned,” says Ruderman. “The allegations were just wild and crazy.”
The killing of the story, reported soon after it happened by former Inquirer journalist Ralph Cipriano, set off recriminations in the newsrooms—and beyond.
“Tainted Justice” is the Daily News’ most celebrated achievement in recent years, and a major shot in the arm for a paper that lives in perpetual fear of being shut down. The series offered evidence of widespread misconduct in a police narcotics squad, including fraudulent search warrant applications and the looting of immigrant-owned bodegas in addition to the alleged sexual assaults. The articles became the foundation of a book by Laker and Ruderman, published this year to favorable reviews and slated to become a TV series starring Sarah Jessica Parker.
Now, the series is at the center of controversy. Exactly what the reporters are alleged to have done remains unclear and in dispute, but public discussion has focused on claims that they paid for utility bills, food, and other items for one of Tolstoy’s alleged victims. The two Daily News journalists, who deny any wrongdoing, say they were confronted with those and also more serious allegations by Inquirer reporters. (UPDATE, 8/22/14: The Inquirer today published the killed story. In an email to CJR, Lenfest said the story ran “partially because of your article and the overall controversy on the article not being published.”)
What the Inquirer has not done, apparently, is question the Daily News’ main finding that there was misconduct in the squad. But the local police union, which has campaigned against “Tainted Justice” for years, seized on news of the spiked story to attack the reporters’ credibility. And the police commissioner, who initially had backed the investigation of his officers, has also begun raising questions about the paper’s ethics. The controversy comes as the local district attorney—who, like federal prosecutors, chose not to bring charges against police in connection to the searches or bodega raids—has not yet announced whether his office will bring sexual-assault charges against Tolstoy.
The conflict is another bruising battle at a newspaper company that has in recent years suffered through perhaps more persistent dysfunction than any other, accompanied by one of the steepest financial declines in the industry. Lenfest’s decision to kill the story came just months after he and billionaire Lewis Katz won a bitter ownership struggle, wresting the papers’ parent company from former co-owner and political boss George Norcross—only to have Katz die in an airplane crash soon after. Now Lenfest faces a high-profile, high-stakes feud between his two newsrooms—one in which the Daily News seems ready to believe the worst about motives at the Inquirer, which says it is just trying to do a thorough job covering one of the city’s most important stories.
Lenfest, who has publicly stood by the Daily News’ reporting in the ensuing controversy, sent a brief statement but declined to be interviewed for this story. Several journalists at the Daily News—Laker, Ruderman, editor Michael Days, and news editor Gar Joseph—agreed to an on-the-record interview. Marimow declined an interview request, but CJR spoke to a number of Inquirer newsroom sources who requested anonymity because they said they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Fully reinvestigating the allegedly rogue narcotics squad and the Daily News’ reporting was beyond the scope of this story, and the conversations with newsroom sources did not resolve definitively whether Laker and Ruderman did anything improper in their relationship with the woman, why no criminal charges have been brought, or what was in the spiked Inquirer story, which CJR has not seen. However, they do shed some light on what’s in dispute—and what’s at stake.
A key interview becomes heated
To follow what happened here, it’s helpful to understand that while all the alleged police corruption involved one squad, there are two sets of allegations and investigations.