Pot Calls Kettle: Inky’s Satullo Responds To PW Story Calling Inky Casino Coverage Shoddy; Calls PW Story ‘Shoddy’

Because it’s infinitely more fun to stage these media cockfights instead of being in them, and because this issue is too damn important to be left to the pros, we thought we’d throw a little fuel on a dimming fire. To recap, two weeks ago, PW‘s Steve Volk debuted a new media-watchdog column called Tierney Watch, wherein he wrote a piece about the Inky’s coverage of the casino issue, with all the manifold complications, shortcomings and conflict-of-interest duly noted, and gave the anti-casino activists a chance to weigh in and then let various Inky bigwigs respond. You can read it here, and here’s a taste:

Most anticasino activists agree: What?s wrong with the Inquirer?s coverage is less about [Brian] Tierney than the choice of assignments.

The Inquirer’s Chris Satullo attended a forum over the summer where, according to activists Ed Goppelt, Vern Anastasio and Matt Pappajohn, he admitted his paper?s coverage of the casinos was ?disappointing.?

“I don’t remember every word I said,” says Satullo now. “If coverage of the city was disappointing, then the casinos would be a part of that. And I don’t take that as a criticism of the news staff. But if anyone wants to see it as criticism of Knight Ridder, then I suppose that’s all right.”

In the PW story, Volk mentions a Sep. 17th column called That Train Done Left The Station penned by Satullo, who is the Inquirer’s Editorial Page Editor. You can read it here, and here’s a taste:

The sad fact, folks, is that the constituency for casinos is way bigger than yours. Outside of your neighborhoods, even inside them, the reaction of many fellow Philadelphians to casinos is: “Cool, I won’t have to truck all the way to AC to gamble.”

You talk vaguely of tossing out the rascals who did this to you. But they weren’t some upstate Philly-bashers. They were Philadelphians: Ed Rendell, Vincent Fumo, John Perzel.

The casino deal is classic Ed: a clever dance with the dark side to get something useful done. As governor, Rendell used the promise of easy casino loot to lubricate Harrisburg’s balky machinery, to get it finally to address two huge issues: tax reform and equitable school funding. Inside the city, casino revenues will help bigtime with two priorities: cutting the wage tax and expanding the very Convention Center where Wednesday’s rally was held.

In other words, a huge crowd of people now has a stake in slots gaming. That makes it hard to drive a stake through its heart.

But, threatened residents, you do have one chance to defend your interests. It’s what DiCicco urged you to rally around: Stop zoning preemption.

To explain: One of Act 71’s dirty tricks was a stunning slap at local control. It denied municipalities any zoning or planning say on casinos within their borders.

You see, state pols needed those casino revenues right fast, to placate constituents riled about property taxes. They couldn’t let pesky local officials slow things down over trifles such as traffic gridlock, ugly designs, petty crime or drunken drivers.

What’s more, casinos mean revenue opportunities for people with juice. So state lawmakers hoarded the juice. With its pay-to-play scandal, our City Hall made it all too easy to make snubbing Philly look like a good-government imperative.

Thankfully, the usually compliant state Supreme Court thwarted the pols for once. It tossed out zoning preemption in 2005. Now, Perzel’s House has passed a bill to restore it; the Senate is laboring on its own version.

So far, people who live near casino sites have been well and truly jobbed by their elected officials. Passing this bill would be the final shiv in the back.

If it passes, Ed Rendell owes it to the city that loves him back to veto it. The rush to issue slots licenses has succeeded; the governor should ensure his city has some power to limit the corollary damage.

If he doesn’t, why should anyone from Fishtown down to Pennsport vote for him on Nov. 7?

First, Satullo’s column is REALLY well written. Credit where credit is due. And despite our personal displeasure with the slots-in-our-backyard, we think he’s right. At this late stage, barring some Hail Mary legal challenge, the protest energy should be focused on harm reduction and making sure Philadelphians not Harrisburg hacks decide the zoning specifics. And if the State House passes a bill to give control to Harrisburg, Rendell should veto it and Philadelphia voters should be making him promise that out loud BEFORE the election. On the other hand, if the Inky had been giving a substantive voice to the casiNO crowd from the get-go and airing their points every time they make a public demonstration, maybe there would be a little more outrage citywide and the kind of momentum that could re-open the debate in a meaningful way, a way the pols couldn’t ignore. That the public is largely ignorant of the basic realities of having a casino in their town is nothing to be proud of, least of all when you are the paper of record. Over to you, Chris.

Satullo responds after the jump…

Satullo Says:

I’m the editorial page editor. So I’m really not the best person to talk
to for a detailed response re: news coverage, but I’ll give it a crack.

I will say this about the PW article: It’s hard to take seriously a
piece of journalism criticism that was as shoddy journalistically as
that was.

Here’s the point I made to Volk about casino coverage, and Philadelphia
coverage in general, which he either didn’t hear or willfully

We all wish we had done a better job on any number of important
Philadelphia stories over the last few years. This is not to say that we
never did a good job. Nor is to agree we did as bad a job as the
habitual carpers claim.

It’s to say that we had a real problem when we were a Knight Ridder
paper: The people who owned us, and haunted our days and nights, didn’t
care about covering the city right. They criticized us when we devoted
appropriate resources to covering city issues. We as editors had to
fight tooth and nail to keep reporters in our home city.

Then, in the last year, as the casino story heated up, the paper’s staff
went through the much chronicled traumas of the buyouts and the sale.
Energy that all of us would much rather devote to doing the journalism
that Philadelphians deserve got spent on the grim tasks of cutting staff
and trying to save the paper from extinction. Those events also led to
some unhelpful turnover on the casino beat.

That’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation. We kept charging 50 cents
for the paper, so people had every right to expect us to do our jobs

I do agree that the story of the advent of casinos to the state and city
was worthy of persistent swarm coverage.
We missed some angles, but we developed others very strongly. Go to the
special package page on philly.com devoted to Slots.

You’ll see a lot of very good coverage, including Inga Saffron‘s
marvelous, pungent critiques of the five casino designs. (Don’t forget
the Daily News/Penn Praxis forums on casino design either.) We focused a
lot of our attention on the potential for corruption and ethical
problems in the casino licensing process, and did good, solid reporting
on those issues, stories that had an impact.

On the editorial page, we wrote literally dozens of editorials on ethics
issues and advocating for groups such as NABR to have more, more timely,
and more meaningful opportunities to give input.

Should we have had a photo of the anti-Foxwoods casino rally? Sure. But
people put way too much value on having a protest covered. We have to
choose how to use reporters’ time; if my choice is between having
someone do enterprise reporting on what’s really going on behind the
scenes, or filing obvious stories about photo-op protests, I’ll choose
the enterprise reporting every time. The real issue is not whether we
showed up at a photo-op; it’s whether we covered the issues that spurred
the protest.

We did do a good, sympathetic story on NABR in May; I invited the group
in to meet with the editorial board in September. Could we have done a
better job overall of keeping close tabs on the neighborhood groups and
their activities and issues? That’s a fair criticism.

I do question the notion, which drives the PW article, that somehow
activists with a very personal, emotional stake in a story are the sole
arbiters of whether the story was covered well.

What the riverfront residents want _ and I get why they feel this way,
given how badly the powers-that-be have screwed them _ is for the paper
to redress the balance by taking their side completely. That’s an
understandable desire, but they are asking a newspaper to do something
it should not do.

The news operation’s job is to cover the story, not take sides; The
Inquirer is bought and read by plenty of people who are happy casinos
are coming.

On the editorial page, we made a decision to hold our fire on siting, to
advocate for aboveboard ethics and good process, rather than trying to
pick sites early. Maybe some think it was the wrong call, but I just
didn’t think that out of the box we were qualified to decide which site
was better, based on fancy powerpoint presentations by the developers.
Better to let the gaming board do its due diligence and for final, real
plans to be submitted.

As for opposing the whole casino law, however patronizing or
condescending some folks find it to be reminded of the fact, that train
has indeed done and gone. We tilt at a lot of windmills on the
editorial page, but that one seems awfully futile at this point.