It was an interesting dichotomy in Judge Patricia McInerney’s sixth-floor
courtroom at Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday, as veteran newspapermen and women sat near high-profile attorneys and the politically connected, with many of the latter serving as subjects in the journalists’ past news stories.
What brought everyone together on this day, however, was a lawsuit initiated last month by two members of the parent company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer who are suing other controlling members over the firing of editor William Marimow.
Lewis Katz, who made his money in parking lots, and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a well-known philanthropist, are two members of Interstate General Media, an investors’ group that last April purchased the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and the website Philly.com.
They are suing their counterpart, George Norcross, and the limited liability company itself over allegations that they were left out of the decision to terminate Marimow’s employment.
Katz in particular takes issue with the firing since he and Norcross are supposedly equals, with each having ponied up the same amount of money to buy the newspapers and website, and each serving as members on a management committee that have equal say on hiring’s and firings.
On Wednesday, what began as a mere procedural hearing turned into a daylong event, as witness after witness took the stand to offer testimony in the case.
McInerney, who late last month ruled the litigation could proceed at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, despite the fact that Interstate General Media was incorporated in the State of Delaware, is proceeding over an injunction request in which the plaintiffs seek Marimow’s reinstatement as editor.
The plaintiffs also seek declaratory judgment that Robert Hall, the man who canned Marimow, is no longer publisher of the Inquirer.
(Hall’s name still appears as publisher on the Inquirer’s masthead).
At the heart of the lawsuit is the contention by Katz and Lenfest that Norcross and his camp breached a partnership agreement in not informing the plaintiffs of the decision to fire Marimow, who, despite not being a party to the litigation, testified during Wednesday’s proceeding.
The plaintiffs, who are being represented by veteran Philadelphia attorney and octogenarian Richard Sprague, also both testified Wednesday about their involvement with the Inquirer’s still fledgling parent company.
“Our pledge was we would not interfere,” Katz testified.
Katz and Lenfest claim that Norcross broke that pledge to not get involved in the editorial operations of the newspaper.
Norcross says Hall singlehandedly made the decision to fire Marimow.
The defense claims the plaintiffs are the ones who stuck their noses in newsroom business.
On the stand, Lenfest said he never approved of Marimow’s termination.
“I objected to the termination of Bill Marimow,” Lenfest testified.
Lenfest maintains that his colleague, Katz, needed to approve of the firing as per the terms of the management agreement because of Katz’s seat alongside Norcross on the management committee.
(Norcross, who didn’t testify on Wednesday, was accompanied to court by former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The relationship between the two was unclear, although one individual in court said Chertoff is part of Norcross’s inner circle).
Norcross is perhaps best known for his strong political ties to the Democratic Party in South Jersey.
His brother is New Jersey State Sen. Donald Norcross.
On the stand, Katz said he always wanted to ensure that he and Norcross shared equal power because both had shucked out the same number of dollars to purchase the newspapers and Philly.com.
Katz testified that the reason behind the decision to institute a hands-off approach when it came to newsroom operations and editorial decisions was that some in the community, including reporters themselves, shared concerns that Interstate General Media members would influence news stories because of their political ties.
Katz testified that he had wanted to hire the best editor he could find to help alleviate some of those concerns.
And that man was Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was teaching at Arizona State University when he got the call about returning to Philadelphia in the spring of 2012 to run its newsroom.
Hall, the publisher, who ended up firing Marimow on Oct. 7, had told Marimow that 60 to 70 percent of the newsroom staff had opposed the editor’s return to the paper, Marimow testified.
“I wondered whether I made a mistake in accepting the job,” he said on the witness stand.
Marimow said he was assured by Katz that Katz and Norcross had power over hiring and firing, not Hall.
At the time of his termination, Marimow said he told Hall, “I don’t think that what you’re doing is legal or proper.
“He said, ‘I have my legal opinion and you have your legal opinion,’” Marimow testified.
Marimow said he initially agreed to return to the newspaper to help alleviate some of the tension.
“I care deeply about the Inquirer and this community,” he said. “I knew I could be effective in returning.”
It has been alleged that Hall fired Marimow because of the editor’s refusal to fire top newsroom staff.
In court on Wednesday, Marimow said he believed that the firings were unnecessary to make room for new hires, which is what the publisher gave as the reason for terminating three deputy editors in particular.
It has been said that Hall fired Marimow because Marimow was not on board with the company’s goal of focusing more on local news coverage, rather than something like investigative reporting, which is what the paper is perhaps best known for.
Marimow disputed the notion that he was not on board with the local news focus goal, testifying that he “treasured local news.
“Mr. Hall, I think, knows I love local news,” he said.
Nevertheless, Marimow testified, Hall continued to press the editorial firings.
It was not immediately clear when McInerney, the judge, would rule on the injunction request seeking Marimow’s reinstatement and Hall’s ouster.