Decline of the Philadelphia Inquirer Part 4: Burning a source

Coverage of Kathleen Kane case brings more hard questions for Philadelphia newspapers

by Bill Keisling

This is Part 4 in our series: The moral and ethical decline of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 here.

Imagine if Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, instead of exposing wrongs in Watergate, telephoned the Justice Department to report that Associate FBI Director Mark Felt, code-named Deep Throat, was giving away national secrets in a Washington DC parking garage.

That’s about what you’d have with the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer’s unusual and unexplained handling of secret source material they say they received in the current criminal case against state Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Rather than go to jail to protect a source as most newspaper reporters would do, the Inquirer and Daily News seem satisfied to work with court officials to expose a source, and punish the source for giving them information.

Frank Fina and Kathleen Kane

Frank Fina and Kathleen Kane

An article published by the Inquirer on March 12 drives home this strange reality.

It begs the question: Did the Inquirer and Daily News burn a source — Kane — and are they continuing to help prosecutors put their own source in criminal trouble?

The Inquirer’s article, “How the perjury case against Kane was built,” was written by reporters Craig R. McCoy and Angela Couloumbis.

In the article, reporters McCoy and Couloumbis hide behind a legalistic explanation of how “secret” grand jury material from the attorney general’s office ended up in the hands of Philadelphia Daily News reporter Chris Brennan, a colleague of the Inquirer reporters.

But reporter Brennan’s name, and how he came by the material and what he did with it, is never mentioned in the article, nor explained.

The Inquirer’s article as such offers a legalistic explanation of what the lawyers and prosecutors are up to.

What’s lacking is a journalistic explanation of the roles of the Inquirer and Daily News’ reporters, what they are doing, and have done, to help bring the case against the state attorney general.

Who gave us this secret stuff?

The Inquirer reports that an individual or individuals in the attorney general’s office in May 2014 conspired to break the law by delivering a “sealed” envelope containing secret grand jury material to unwashed outsiders working for, not the Soviet Embassy, but the Inquirer’s sister publication, the Daily News — using an insulated, protective, and mysterious means to do so, no less.

The Inquirer spends more than a dozen paragraphs summarizing a supposed long-running debate in Kane’s AG’s office about whether officials could share information about the case; information that was meant for, and ends up in, the Inquirer’s own corporate hands.

According to the Inquirer, Kane at first wants to share the case’s grand jury information with her outside lawyer. Kane’s then-chief of staff, Adrian King, writes a smart, cover-your-ass email to Kane late in March 2014, stating the obvious: they can’t share internal criminal material with outsiders.

Adrian King is a former top aide to governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell.

But soon Chief of Staff Adrian King not only ignores his own sound, carefully documented advice; he ends up helping to surreptitiously deliver an envelope stuffed with — not cash — but information to the Daily News.

After a meeting of Kane’s top staffers in late March 2014, where the matter is kicked around, the Inquirer tells us, Kane says Chief of Staff King agrees to take a sealed envelope, apparently for the purpose of delivery to the Daily News.

(To hear the Inquirer tell it, by the way, Kane and King must be Philly’s own Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

Soon after talking things over with AG Kane, Adrian King “found the sealed envelope on his desk.”

King in turn passed the envelope “to Josh Morrow, a veteran political operative from Philadelphia, to get it to the Daily News.”

After this all blows up, Adrian King tells the grand jury he thought the envelope was stuffed with campaign material, and never opened it, the Inquirer says.

Burning a source?

Among the many things left unsaid in the Inquirer’s March 12 account is the obvious: why use such an insulated and roundabout method to deliver information to reporter Brennan at the Daily News?

Other unanswered questions come to mind. How does a package land on the desk of a reporter without anyone knowing who delivered it, or why? It isn’t like it came on the door step with the morning paper.

We know, from what happened next, that the fear of being burned by the newspaper(s) was justified.

In a letter released by the state Supreme Court in February, written by Kane’s political foe Frank Fina to grand jury judge William Carpenter, Fina states that Daily News reporter Brennan soon thereafter read verbatim the contents of an email, apparently contained in the sealed envelope delivered by way of Adrian King, to prosecutor Fina, and two other prosecutors, of all people.

As I wrote last week, Fina complained to Judge Carpenter that “the email contained extensive evidence and information that clearly fall within the ambit of Grand Jury secrecy. The reporter also stated that he had a copy of the email and even recited from it when questioned about the contents.”

What else did reporter Brennan tell the prosecutors about his source material? We don’t get that from the Inquirer’s article.

Brennan’s role of running to a prosecutor is a curious one for a newspaper reporter, to be sure.

DNA: for the prosecution?

The Inquirer and Daily News, owned by Interstate General Media, have been criticized over the years, as in this case, for being too close to court officials, and even acting in concert with lawyers and prosecutors at the expense of objective reporting.

Although ownership of the two newspapers has changed hands numerous times over the last few years, working with court insiders and prosecutors is apparently in the newspapers’ DNA.

What’s important to fellow journalists and some readers is whether the Inquirer and Daily reporters violated journalistic ethics this time around, why they would do this, and whether they continue to do so?

The March 12 Inquirer article, which is prosecutorial in tone, is just as evasive and non-forthcoming as the cloaked behavior the Inquirer laments in the AG’s office.

The Inquirer’s legalistic arguments serve to divert attention away from the journalistic practices of the reporters, editors, and publishers working under the roof of the Inquirer’s own corporate headquarters.

The article, for example, claims to explain recent grand jury findings against Kane, based on interviews with lawyers and court insiders:

“The story is based on interviews, recent court filings, and other official documents.”

But Interstate General Media’s own reporter, Brennan, who played a central role in all this, is not quoted. Nor are his editors. Can they be that hard for the Inquirer to track down for comment?

Readers are left to read between the lines to surmise what happened, and continues to happen — in the editorial offices, not the law offices.

The Inquirer, in a similar fashion, sticks to a legalistic explanation for Kane’s supposed motivation for giving information to its sister newspaper.

“Kane leaked that information, the grand jury found,” says the Inquirer, “to retaliate against Fina.” And, “The panel contends that Kane unlawfully released confidential information to the Philadelphia Daily News in a bid to punish a rival prosecutor.”

But is that true?

One goes to a newspaper to tell one’s side of a story, and to contribute to a broader story.

And one expects protection as a source when one does so.

Of relevance, other national newspapers of late have had reason to abandon the prosecutorial approach and tone we see from the Inquirer and Daily News in this case.

In the 1990s, The New York Times had to back peddle from a series of articles it published about nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Times ran articles about Lee that were prosecutorial in tone, and written with the help of unnamed government sources, accusing the physicist of spying. Lee eventually was cleared of wrongdoing. In 2006 the government and five media organizations, including the Times and the Washington Post, agreed to pay Lee $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit and to protect their sources.

But, in the Kane case, the Inquirer and Daily News remain prosecutorial.

“In its seven months of investigation, the grand jury was unable to answer a key question,” the Inquirer relates. “While it blames Kane for the material given to the Daily News, the grand jury could not obtain any eyewitness testimony about who actually stuffed the envelope before it was sealed.”

More to the point, and left unaddressed by the Inquirer, is this key journalistic question: what happened when the sealed envelope from the attorney general’s office was opened at the Daily News?

NewsLanc has reached out to reporters Brennan, McCoy and Couloumbis. To date they have not responded, but are welcome to do so.

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Updated: August 6, 2016 — 12:31 am

1 Comment

  1. The corruption of the Philly press and complicity of the MontCo courts was on complete display in the Barnes theft, so
    this is not at all surprising.

    Great analogy to the WashPo and Deep Throat, though I don’t think that publication is capable of the same commitment
    today.

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