11/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Behind The Philadelphia Inquirer 's Split Decision On Endorsement

In making their endorsement for President, the Philadelphia Inquirer said:

These times demand steady, focused leadership. Leadership that takes America far from the policies that have created so much fear. Leadership that says it's OK to hope, because hope properly directed yields results. Barack Obama is ready to provide that leadership.

Huh! Because they also said, on the same day:

America needs an honest president with experience, common sense, sound temperament and good judgment in the Oval Office. Those qualities will make it easy for many to vote for McCain.

That's right, the editorial page ran both an "official" endorsement (of Obama) and a "dissenting" endorsement (of McCain), which kind of takes the wind out of doing an endorsement in the first place, and only helps to diminish their importance. So why's everything so hinky at the Inky? In all probability, the answer is probably owner/published Brian Tierney, whose fingerprints -- if not his actual signature -- are all over the dissenting editorial.

To be fair, it's hardly surprising that the Inquirer's "official" endorsement was of Obama. The Inquirer's subscriber base is deep, azure-blue Obama turf, poised to make their preference for the Illinois Senator by a wide margin -- wide enough that there's no harm done in making a lockstep, economic decision to endorse. Their endorsement reads as standard Democratic party boilerplate, touching on a slew of policy preferences, a paean to Obama's eloquence and diverse background, a typical potshot at Palin, and the usual "Bush third term" thrown in for good measure.

But Tierney, who ended up with the Inquirer in 2006 after years of sparring with the paper, runs with a different sort of crowd -- a predominantly Republican one. While Tierney isn't the axe-wielding, partisan whack-job that his fellow Pennsylvania media magnate Richard Mellon Scaife is known for being, his career in the GOP trenches is long and not without distinction. Tierney joined up with the Republican National Committee right at the start of the Reagan era, and was appointed by President Reagan to a post at the Small Business Administration in Philadelphia. In the 2000 election, Tierney was in charge of running George W. Bush's outreach operation to Catholic voters. Tierney's political leanings have had a discernible impact on the Inky as well: at a time when voter interest in Republican Congressman Rick Santorum was at a low ebb, the Inquirer stepped up to give the defeated Representative a column, ensuring that readers would continue to be subjected to his opinion.

Tom Ferrick, a former columnist and reporter for the Inquirer, sees the split endorsement as Tierney's handiwork as well, and says that "insiders at the paper" confirm this. From Ferrick's perspective, the decision was a bit unprecedented. He notes that there was dissension at the paper back in 2007 over whether the paper should endorse Michael Nutter as Mayor of Philadelphia, but that ultimately, "the majority rule[d]." Ferrick goes on to offer the following insight:

As to the Obama endorsement and the McCain dissent, I can see why it may have tortured Tierney. He runs in Republican circles. Probably most of his partners in ownership of the papers are Republicans. So, the temptation would be to please them and go for McCain.

On the other hand, Tierney is also a marketing and public relations guy. He knows that southeastern Pennsylvania is a deep-blue area that Obama is going to win by 500,000-votes plus. A McCain endorsement would royally tick off thousands of readers -- and represent a 180-degree turn for the editorial board, which has been generally supportive of Obama's candidacy.

So, what do you do?

Cut the baby in two, as King Solomon suggested. Do an Obama endorsement and a McCain dissent -- and probably tick off both sides.

Of course, none of this confirms whether or not Tierney actually authored, or personally ordered up the dissenting endorsement. But there's one clue from Tierney's past that seems to point that way. In 2003, Tierney headed up Sam Katz's second, and last, failed attempt to unseat Democrat John Street as Mayor of Philadelphia. Katz's chances more or less blew up in the wake if the discovery that the FBI had placed a wiretap in Street's office. Street worked this news to his favor:

From the November 5, 2003 New York Times:

Mr. Street may owe his victory, at least in part, to a scandal that many Philadelphians believed, just four weeks ago, would end his 25-year political career. A listening device was discovered in the mayor's City Hall office early last month, and investigators from the F.B.I. then disclosed that Mr. Street was a subject in a corruption investigation.

The mayor and his allies deftly turned the incident to their advantage by suggesting that the investigation was engineered by the Republican Party in an effort to discredit a black Democrat. The accusations, which fueled widespread racial and partisan rancor, energized voters in this heavily Democratic city, whose black population is roughly equal to that of whites.


Mr. Street narrowly trailed Mr. Katz in some polls in September, but heading into the election, he held a double-digit lead, having gained support from blacks, who believed the investigation was racially motivated, as well as from white Democrats determined to take an early stand against Republicans before next fall's presidential election.

The acrimony that has built over the past few weeks boiled over on on Tuesday. On the streets near City Hall throngs of people wearing Sam Katz T-shirts chanted campaign slogans at passing drivers while waving posters that read ''Honk for Sam Katz.'' Nearby a group of young men, who had parked their black pickup truck on a median in the road, held up a sign that read, ''Katz=Bush=Ashcroft.''

It's Tierney's involvement in the Katz-Street election that surfaces in my mind as I read the "dissenting" endorsement for McCain, which, like the Obama endorsement, reads as standard GOP boilerplate, save for the penultimate paragraph, which seems inserted as an afterthought:

And McCain didn't hire as a strategist David Axelrod, who helped lead Mayor John Street's race-baiting reelection campaign.

Sort of reads like someone's harboring an old grudge, no?