November 22, 2013
Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, right. (Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press)
Bill Marimow, right. (Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press)

When top Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was fired on Oct. 7, he resisted the action. Early reports on the drama indicated that the veteran journalist, who had a long history at the paper, felt the move was somehow unjustified and afoul of company policies.

Today he got vindication.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Patricia McInerney this afternoon issued a five-page ruling putting Marimow back in his office. The decision that ousted Marimow, reasoned McInerney, violated the swollen operating agreement under which the various part-owners of the Inquirer and two other Philadelphia media properties — the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com — do their business. That document leaves a “management committee” in charge of making critical decisions about the company. It consists of two part-owners: George E. Norcross III, a southern New Jersey political force and a prominent insurance executive, and wealthy entrepreneur Lewis Katz, a former owner of the New Jersey Nets.

From the beginning of the Marimow spat, Katz argued that the editor’s dismissal was improperly ordered without his say-so. The company’s operations agreement states that the management committee has the “right, power, and authority to make decisions with respect to all business and operational matters in the ordinary course of business and will oversee and advise the senior management of the company regarding the performance and execution of the business and strategic plans.”

If that’s not ambiguous enough, there’s more confusing language that follows: “The authority of the Management Committee shall be confined to the business and operational aspects of the Company and the members of the Management Committee shall have no authority with respect to editorial or journalistic policies and decisions of the Company and will not attempt to control or influence such policies and decisions.”

Simple question: Does that mean the management committee has the authority to hire and fire the editor?

That’s essentially what the two sides were fighting about in this case. The firing of Marimow was carried out by Inquirer Publisher Robert Hall, who is seen as close to Norcross. Throughout this conflict, Norcross and his allies in the ownership group held that Hall had full authority to take action against Marimow. Katz and allied part-owner H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a prominent Philadelphia philanthropist, countered that choosing editorial leadership was properly a matter for the management committee. Since Katz wasn’t consulted on Marimow’s ouster, they argued in court, his rights under the operating agreement were violated.

McInerney agreed. Crucial in returning Marimow to his perch was the testimony of Greg Osberg, who served as publisher when Marimow acceded to his job in the spring of 2012. The former publisher testified that he hadn’t hired Marimow and thus couldn’t fire him either. And it was the management committee, noted the judge in her ruling, that hired Marimow in the first place.

Marimow was back in the Inquirer newsroom this afternoon. “There were cheers and hugs and a lot of warmth,” said Marimow, who reported that his computer passwords and e-mail were up and running. “It feels great to be in a newsroom instead of a courtroom.” Marimow expressed his gratitude to Katz and Lenfest for undertaking the court battle, as well as the legal team that pushed for his return. McInerney’s ruling, he said, gives Katz and Lenfest “the right to participate in the management and operation of a company in which they’re owners.”

The Marimow-Katz-Lenfest alliance has held that Norcross, a fiery and powerful personality with a grand business and politics portfolio in southern New Jersey, had played a big-footed role in the management of the three news properties since the group took over in the spring of 2012. Norcross, in turn, has argued that it’s Katz who’s guilty of interfering in the operation of the Inquirer — by allying himself with Marimow and his companion, city editor Nancy Phillips.

And far from ending such infighting, McInerney’s decision essentially reinstates it, along with Marimow. Indeed, the court has returned the Inquirer to the status quo of … Oct. 6. In the weeks leading up to the Marimow dismissal, the owners bickered over the reduction of the Inquirer’s opinion offerings, among other matters. When asked if he was prepared to dive into such an abyss, Marimow cited the position already announced by Katz: “It’s really time now to come up with the best way to bring the partnership together or break it apart.”

McInerney surely wouldn’t dispute that assessment. In her opinion, she divulged her view on the possibility of harmonious management relations at the three Philadelphia properties: “The court further recognizes that the granting of said petition solely resolves the discrete and narrow issue that is pending before the court and does not resolve nor necessarily advance the likelihood of resolution of any other issues in the operation of the Inquirer.”

When asked if he’d exercise more caution in discussing the news operation with his unruly ownership, Marimow responded that he has no concerns about addressing “the company and journalistic philosophy” with the partners. The editorial non-interference pledge binding on the owners, said Marimow, means that “you can’t tell the editor to endorse President Obama. … To me, that pledge is a promise not to interfere with content.”

In a sure sign that the troubles aren’t done, the Norcross squad is already signaling it’ll appeal the ruling on an “expedited basis”:

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.

More from Norcross & Co.:

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.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.