In a stunning decision, a Common Pleas Judge has concluded that Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow’s firing on Oct. 7 violated the operating agreement among owners, and has ordered Marimow returned to his job.
Marimow returned to the Inquirer newsroom late yesterday to a standing ovation.
“At heart, I’m a reporter and an editor, and it felt really good to be in a newsroom rather than a courtroom,” Marimow told me. “It felt like I was home.”
It’s not clear how long it will be home.
The owners on the other side, led by New Jersey businessman and powerful Democrat George Norcross, promised to appeal.
“The decision to return Marimow to the Inquirer as a lame duck editor — his contract ends April 30th — will have the effect of risking chaos in the company,” the Norcross group said in a statement, “restoring an editor who consistently resisted needed changes to the paper and who is in open conflict with the Publisher.”
How did we get here?
It’s a shock to see a judge order a newspaper to take a jilted editor back, but I have to say that if you sat through the four days of hearings on this dispute, you could kind of see this coming.
Judge Patricia McInerney is a smart and focused jurist who clearly had no appetite for getting into the workings of the company that owns the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com.
She wanted the warring owners to work this thing out. But when they didn’t and she chose to hear testimony, you could see she was taking the Marimow claim seriously.
To Marimow’s partisans, the fight is about integrity and independence in journalism. They see Norcross as a malevolent force determined to jettison Marimow and use the company for his own purposes.
We didn’t hear enough in the testimony to prove or disprove that assertion.
But the legal issue the judge had to consider was simpler: under the partnership agreement among the investors who bought the company last year, who has the power to hire and fire the editor?
Co-owner Lewis Katz argued it was the prerogative of the two-person management committee, consisting of himself and Norcross. Norcross’s lawyers said it was up the publisher, Bob Hall, who chose to fire Marimow.
The judge concluded (as I did) that the written partnership agreement wasn’t clear on the matter, so she took testimony on exactly what the understanding was among the owners. She decided the two person committee had the authority, and since Katz wasn’t consulted, the firing was improper and Marimow was back.
Back to the trenches.
Marimow said he’s especially grateful to Katz and Lenfest for taking the case to court, and for Philly legal titan Dick Sprague’s work.
But it’s clear from the heated language of the Norcross statement that this fight isn’t over, and as long as the two principal owners are at odds, the paper and the company can’t really proceed with stability and purpose.
I asked Marimow about that.
“I think this is an issue that needs to be decided by the owners, perhaps with the help of the court,” Marimow said. “But I’m a journalist, not an attorney, not a business leader, and I’m going to leave that in their capable hands.
You can read the judge’s order here.
The statement by Norcross and his allied owners follows:
“Interstate General Media and General American Holdings, representing George E. Norcross, III, will be filing an appeal on an expedited basis of today’s decision to reinstate Bill Marimow.
The decision to return Marimow to the Inquirer as a lame duck editor — his contract ends April 30th — will have the effect of risking chaos in the company, restoring an editor who consistently resisted needed changes to the paper and who is in open conflict with the Publisher, Bob Hall, who the court decreed will remain in his position. The ruling ensures that every newsroom decision will require the joint agreement of the Managing Members, subjecting the company to paralysis.
Minority owner Lewis Katz, who brought the lawsuit, testified under oath that he believed it appropriate for an owner to be able to influence the operations of the newsroom, including the hiring and firing of journalists, with no set standards for how far or how often they can reach in to influence coverage. That would render the non-interference pledge meaningless because the power to fire is the power to influence coverage. Given that Nancy Phillips, Katz’girlfriend, testified under oath that she created an “official version” of how Marimow was hired, it is difficult to understand how they can continue to assert they are protecting the ‘integrity’ of journalism.
We believe today’s decision is wrong and will harm the journalistic independence and operations of the newsroom. In newspapers across the country, it is the Publisher who has the right to make personnel decisions, including the hiring and firing of the editor as Publisher Bob Hall did when he removed Bill Marimow as editor of the Inquirer.
The court affirmed that Hall was the Publisher and his authority to remove Marimow should have likewise been affirmed.”
Here’s a statement released by Katz and Lenfest’s attorney, Dick Sprague:
“Judge McInerney’s ruling today is a very important victory for journalistic independence and integrity. The ruling grants the preliminary injunction to reinstate Bill Marimow as editor in chief of The Philadelphia Inquirer, restoring the Pulitzer Prize-winning leadership for the daily newspaper in the country’s fifth largest market. We were resolute about standing up for journalistic independence in this matter and about ending the attempts to erode that independence by certain members of the current ownership group. We applaud Judge McInerney for upholding the voting rights as set out in IGM’s ownership agreement, and we are hopeful that the great reporters and staff of a truly great newspaper can again move beyond distraction and focus on the work they love to do on behalf of the people of Philadelphia and beyond.”