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Brian Tierney Makes a Pledge

On the first day, the announcement was greeted with relief.More than a hundred people crammed into a conference room at 400 N. Broad St.-headquarters for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News-to meet the city’s unlikely new media king: Brian Tierney. For the occasion, Tierney…

Arm forces: Brian Tierney and PNI publisher Joe Natoli share a vigorous handshake
Arm forces: Brian Tierney and PNI publisher Joe Natoli share a vigorous handshake

Photographs by Jeff Fusco
Photographs by Jeff Fusco

On the first day, the announcement was greeted with relief.More than a hundred people crammed into a conference room at 400 N. Broad St.-headquarters for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News-to meet the city’s unlikely new media king: Brian Tierney.

For the occasion, Tierney didn’t wear the halo of a savior-though he’d just returned the city’s newspapers to local ownership after years under the crusty boot heel of Knight Ridder, in recent years a media monopoly that never met a reporter it didn’t want to lure into retirement.

Neither did he wear horns-though some remember him most for his aggressiveness as an ad man and public relations executive for some of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful institutions.

On this first day, Tierney ascended the dais in front of a phalanx of reporters, editors and business types and became something else entirely-namely, a Man Out of Time, an identifiable face to associate with newspapers in an age when print is most often governed by huge shapeless bureaucracies.

Tierney, the face, earned applause several times. He talked about plowing dollars into the business (cue applause!), about the importance of returning the papers to private hands safe from the whims of Wall Street (cue applause!), and then he declared, “The next great era of Philadelphia journalism begins today.” (Cue applause!)

Most notably he read a pledge he said each investor signed declaring they’ll “not interfere with editorial,” eliciting a sustained response, as if each pair of clapping hands found hope and encouragement in the other. And Tierney even got some laughs. He feigned a heart attack when the $562 million price tag for the company was announced. And he got into coy banter with former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker.

“Brian here, to my right,” said Schweiker, motioning to the Man Out of Time.

“No, Mark,” said Tierney, crossing to the other side of the podium. “Say I’m on your left.”

“Brian,” said Schweiker, playing along as the crowd laughed, “you’ve never been to my left on anything.”

It was a revealing moment-a little bit corny vaudeville, a little bit truth in advertising, and more than a little informative, since Schweiker himself is a pretty conservative guy. Give Tierney credit: He found a way to turn the elephant in the room-his Republican credentials-into a figure of fun.

Of course not everyone was laughing.

“I was standing there,” says former Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano, “listening to everyone applaud, and I was thinking, ‘I probably worked with this guy more than anyone else. He doesn’t understand what reporters do, and more important, he doesn’t think it should be done.'”

With these thoughts in mind, Cipriano says he approached Tierney after the press conference concluded. They spoke briefly and finished with a handshake (See “The Tierney I Saw Was a Bully,” p. 27). The moment will be remembered less for what happened than for its symbolic connotations, as the Man Out of Time stood on the brink of his great new future-and stared into the depths of his past.

 


Born in Upper Darby to a father who worked in the not-so-glamorous job of claims adjusting, Brian P. Tierney took rather easily to the life of a pitchman. A natural performer, he built a quarter-mile-long hoagie on Broad Street to promote the famous Wawa convenience store chain, a stunt that signified his rise to the top. The rest is history.

“I think Brian deserves a lot of credit for keeping advertising going in this city,” says Neil Oxman, himself a longtime political consultant. “The business here declined in the early ’80s when all the major clients started leaving for New York. But when everyone else was getting out, Brian got in and built a big successful company.”

Tierney graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979 and spent many of his early years laboring for the Republican Party.

At the tender age of 18 he sought the Republican nomination for township commissioner in Springfield, Delaware County. He lost but came back swinging the very next year, running the Penn Students for Gerald Ford campaign. He eventually worked as a field representative in the RNC in Washington, ascending the ladder there until 1983, while shuttling messages between the Reagan White House and Republican candidates nationwide.

He earned a law degree at Widener University in 1987, the hook he needed to start reeling in reporters when he launched his next set of endeavors. By his 29th birthday he’d risen to president and CEO of the PR division of Lewis Gilman & Kynett Public Relations, then the city’s largest PR firm. By 1989 he left to start his second in a series of self-named advertising agencies.

His father didn’t live to see his son’s greatest successes. But a couple years before his mother died in 1997, he took her to lunch at the Palm in the Bellevue, where she’d once worked as a waitress. For a kid whose parents sacrificed (his father once worked three jobs at a time to keep his sons enrolled at Waldron Academy), it was a great day.

“We’re the biggest tenant in the building,” he told his mother. “Fifty-six thousand square feet.”

PECO Energy. Verizon. The Pennsylvania Lottery. McDonald’s. IBM.

They all lined up for Tierney’s magic touch-his flair for the big spin. And Tierney loved them back. In fact, Tierney acted as an advocate for many of his clients in all things media-related. When reporters called his customers, he called the reporters-and their editors. And everyone soon learned that the little dude who was clownish enough to slap salami on a looong Wawa hoagie as a publicity stunt-well, that guy had another side. He could turn whirling dervish-a blur of flying knees, elbows and teeth.

He called Inky scribe Peter Dobrin on his coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra and columnist Monica Yant Kinney on behalf of a powerful banking executive. He rang Ralph Cipriano as the investigative reporter pursued the Catholic Church-a dustup that sparked national interest. He called more reporters and editors and accused them of bias and unethical behavior than anyone can remember. And sometimes he did his hockey enforcer routine when he wasn’t even getting paid.

The wars left scars so deep that the most disconcerting thing about his taking control of the Inquirer and Daily News may not even be Tierney’s noted conservative tilt, which is considerable: He helped Bush the Son attract Catholic voters, served as chairman for Republican Sam Katz’s failed 2003 bid for mayor, and for many years spun conservative on the Sunday Channel 6 chat show Inside Story. Even his hair-perhaps the most unique ‘do this side of Donald Trump-veritably cascades, riverlike, to the right.

But what really has some people quaking is Tierney’s unique diet, which for a time included journalists. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.

 


Belief squad: Former Inky scribe Sal Paolantonio is somewhat skeptical about Tierney.

The Cipriano affair remains Tierney’s most famous fight.

Belief squad: Former Inky scribe Sal Paolantonio is somewhat skeptical about Tierney.
Belief squad: Former Inky scribe Sal Paolantonio is somewhat skeptical about Tierney.

Cipriano had already served as the Inquirer‘s religion reporter for a year or so in ’93, knocking Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s pointy hat askew several times with stories about the closings of inner-city parishes and schools. Tierney, acting in his role as public relations mouthpiece for the church, called Cipriano on several occasions. But by ’97 Cipriano stood four years removed from the religion beat, leaving-of his own volition, he thought-for a post writing long stories for the paper’s Sunday magazine.

His editor there suggested he profile Bevilacqua. And Cipriano quickly landed a trove of documents detailing $5 million in questionable spending, including renovations to a church-owned seaside vacation spot and a fancy multimedia conference center.

In addition, the church’s capital budget, which Cipriano also obtained, listed more than $70 million in new suburban construction even as the church was cutting inner-city services. The story was quickly reclassified from a Sunday magazine piece to an investigative project.

Cipriano kept notes on his subsequent “conversations” with Tierney. We got rid of you once, Cipriano says Tierney told him. We’ll do it again.

According to Cipriano’s notes, Tierney even portrayed himself as the one guy honest enough to tell Cipriano the awful truth: His transfer from the religion beat had been “negotiated” with church officials.

“That’s news to me,” Cipriano said.

“Wake up,” Tierney replied.

When the pair hung up, Cipriano went to inform his editor, but Jonathan Neumann had already received a call from Tierney too. And so had editor Robert Rosenthal.

Tierney was helpful like that. If he thought a reporter had a bias-and to his mind that included pretty much any reporter who dared to investigate any of his clients-he started phoning that scribe’s higher-ups to let them know. And this time, according to Cipriano’s notes, Tierney had stepped up for the Catholic Church and really delivered the word: If Ralph Cipriano was involved in any way with a story about the archdiocese, Tierney would start a preemptive public relations campaign designed to ruin Cipriano and the newspaper-a claim the PR man called “absolutely false” in press accounts at the time.

The factual disagreements between the two sides are worth reviewing again.

Tierney claimed the $500,000 Cipriano ascribed to construction on a high-tech conference room actually covered renovations on the whole floor. Cipriano countered that the church documents he’d been given said otherwise.

In Cipriano’s old notes Tierney accuses the reporter of giving two people a ride so they could protest outside the church’s Ventnor, N.J., vacation home so the reporter could cover the event he’d helped create. Cipriano counters that his sources rode along merely because they knew where the home was located-and in fact no protest occurred that day.

Tierney then accuses Cipriano of climbing over a stone wall surrounding the property and trespassing, then changes tacks, saying Cipriano sat on a protester’s shoulders to see over the wall. “The wall is around 5 feet tall,” counters Cipriano. “I’m 6 foot 3.”

Why would he need to sit on anyone’s shoulders?

By now most everyone knows how this story ended. Cipriano was unable to get the story he envisioned published by an Inquirer he portrays as cowed by Tierney and the Catholic Church. Frustrated, he penned a 9,000-word opus on Cardinal Bevilacqua for The National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper by and for lay Catholics.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz called Inquirer editor Rosenthal, who issued him the following ill-advised quote: “There were things we didn’t publish that Ralph wrote that we didn’t think were truthful.”

Cipriano sued Rosenthal and the Inquirer for libel, got fired and eventually walked away with a cash settlement rumored to hover between $3 and $7 million.

Newsrooms are contentious places, but a fight of this magnitude was unprecedented. Viewed through the prism of the Inquirer‘s new ownership, it’s a piece of history worthy of attention.

 


Former DN editor Zack Stalberg is more optimistic.

In interviews today Tierney downplays the entire Cipriano episode, frequently referring to it as “ancient history.”

Cipriano counters that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Former DN editor Zack Stalberg is more optimistic
Former DN editor Zack Stalberg is more optimistic

In retrospect, Bevilacqua seemed to view the dispute as a showdown that the church won. In a February 2001 interview with Editor & Publisher the cardinal said Tierney “stopped the story.” He even credited Tierney with changing the tenor of the church’s dealings with the newspaper. “The Inquirer has been very positive in their stories,” he said, “much more than they have ever been.”

According to Jonathan Neumann, Tierney created “a whole new playbook” for the city’s public relations community. “Once Brian had some success mounting personal attacks on reporters,” he says, “we started getting those kinds of calls all the time.”

Neumann faced meetings with Tierney other than those involving Cipriano. He says the public relations exec once declared that two separate reporters working on two separate stories were biased against Tierney’s two separate clients-just like Cipriano.

Hey, if it worked once …

Neumann’s take on Tierney doesn’t sit well with some people, including Tierney himself.

“I think it’s a sad day that someone I’ve always considered an enemy of the First Amendment and an enemy of the Constitution now owns those newspapers,” says Neumann.

“I am a lawyer, and I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, which I love,” responds Tierney. “What he says is totally false.”

To this day, Tierney defends his methods. “I’m proud of my past,” he says. “The work I did for the church probably represented one-tenth of 1 percent of my business. But I believe in forceful advocacy. I believe advocacy is a contact sport.”

Perhaps because he played that sport so well, the image of Tierney as story-stopper tends to linger. And there is fear his mindset won’t change a bit. “I think the foxes just bought the henhouse,” says former Inquirer editor Lois Wark, who faced down Tierney herself in a meeting once. “And they’ll be dining on Chicken McNuggets for a long time to come.”

 


Daily views: Columnist and blogger Will Bunch says Tierney is “ready for his close-up.”

In these early days, though his ownership group won’t take over the papers until late June or early July, Tierney has already established momentum. It started with that opening press conference.

Daily views: Columnist and blogger Will Bunch says Tierney is "ready for his close-up."
Daily views: Columnist and blogger Will Bunch says Tierney is “ready for his close-up.”

Confronted with a room full of reporters, he scanned through his BlackBerry, joking from the stage with his brother Michael that the many emails he’d sent made it harder for him to find … yes … here it is … the pledge.

“The editorial function of the business shall at all times remain independent of the ownership and control of the company,” Tierney read aloud, “and no member shall attempt to influence or interfere with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.”

Cue applause!

“I knew this was going to be a big concern,” he says, “and that’s why it was important to me that we all take this pledge. Because I want to do this the right way.”

Tierney, a longtime financial contributor to Republican political campaigns, says those days are behind him now. “I want to take the high road on this,” he says. “The Sulzbergers, who own The New York Times, don’t refrain from making political contributions. I want to live by a higher standard. The highest possible standard.”

Thus far, the pitchman in him has made holding onto his sense of humor look easy. When told Neumann called him an “enemy of the Constitution,” for instance, Tierney refuted the claim and then, deadpan, asked: “Does this mean he won’t be a subscriber?”

Clearly, as DN columnist and blogger Will Bunch observes, Tierney is “49 years old and ready for his close-up.”

He has a signature move-clearing the rightward lank of hair from his eyes with a deft Cher-like toss of his head-and a talent for one-liners. Consider the time, several years ago, when he declared Ralph Cipriano a “low-grade virus that keeps coming back.”

In a city short on celebrities, this man has real potential. So let’s stop and consider for a moment the Tierney star ascendant. For starters let’s note there are seven other investors announced so far (in an interview with PW Tierney repeated his promise that anyone investing in the company will be announced publicly as they come on board).

Sources say Tierney made a midlevel investment in the new company of $10 million-more than some, less than others. But Tierney will work full-time at 400 N. Broad St. and take the title of CEO in Philadelphia Holdings Co. “Brian’s well-suited to it,” says one investor. “Marketing and advertising are his expertise, and that’s where the company needs help. He’s gonna be the guy who runs things on behalf of the group.”

For Tierney it’s an unrivaled opportunity-and perhaps a chance to rebrand himself. “Running that campaign for Sam Katz disabused me of the notion I would ever run for office,” he says. “But I’ve got a great office now. And it’s better because I’m not campaigning for anything but the newspaper. I’m not trying to serve any political agenda. And these two great newspapers, this website-if I can help them be great and serve the community, that will be my legacy.”

Oh, sweet words. The Man Out of Time is here, a complicated media mogul to remind us all, for good or ill, of old-time media figures whether beloved (John S. Knight) or bloated (William Randolph Hearst).

Rosebud!

 


Arm forces: Brian Tierney and PNI publisher Joe Natoli share a vigorous handshake.

In a sense, the conflicted greeting Tierney received as new CEO makes him all the more intriguing as public figures go.

Arm forces: Brian Tierney and PNI publisher Joe Natoli share a vigorous handshake
Arm forces: Brian Tierney and PNI publisher Joe Natoli share a vigorous handshake

On the morning after, we woke up to the DN‘s cover of a smiling Tierney in a Daily News jacket under the suck-up headline “Our Kind of People.” And of course both newspapers quite rightly noted that local ownership, divorced from the constant demand of a public company for ever-increasing profit, could prove a boon not only to Philadelphia’s papers but journalism as a whole.

Still, the news wasn’t all yippee-skippy.

DN staffers Chris Brennan and Will Bunch detailed the Tierney/Cipriano day-of-sale handshake as a means of recalling their new CEO’s disturbing past. And the Inquirer dug up a 2002 letter they say Tierney wrote on behalf of the archdiocese, calling a story they published on the priest sex abuse scandal “stupid and inaccurate,” accusing a reporter of “sneaky tactics” and citing the newspaper for a “continual, pervasive and corrosive hostility” to the church.

For the record, the Man Out of Time doesn’t specifically recall that letter. “I’m not trying to duck anything,” he says. “I just don’t remember writing that particular letter.”

Cue applause?

“I won’t interfere,” says Tierney. “That’s why I wanted to get out in front, and make this very public pledge. Because then I can tell old clients or friends or anybody, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I made this pledge.'”

Some believe Tierney won’t have any trouble honoring his new commitment. “The idea that he’s an ‘enemy of the Constitution,'” says former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, “is bullshit. I dealt with Brian quite a bit, and we didn’t always agree. But I never found him to be in any way manipulative or lying, nor did I feel he was trying to suppress the truth.”

Stalberg, who now heads up the civic watchdog group the Committee of Seventy, believes the current media environment allows for less chicanery. “All the bloggers watching them,” he says. “Other media in town, watchdogs, they’d never get away with it. And I think Brian, whose intentions are good, is also smart enough to realize he wouldn’t get away with it.”

Tierney agrees there’s some irony to his new position. He will enjoy, in a sense, less editorial control than he had in the days when he never hesitated to call a reporter or editor. But he says neither he nor any of his investors will interfere with a story for three reasons:

1) He has a variety of people on his board. Yes, he’s a Republican, and fellow investor Katherine D. Crothall made contributions to the Bush campaign in 2003 too. But Leslie Brun, CEO of Sarr Group, a private holding company, declares himself a staunch Democrat. And the Carpenter’s Pension Fund clearly leans left too. “The Philadelphia Holdings Co. was expressly created,” says Tierney, “so that it would have no clear constituency.”

2) A scandal involving control of news coverage would be “the quickest way to kill these papers” says Tierney. Readers and advertisers alike, already a dwindling commodity, could cut and run.

3) The pledge everyone signed not to interfere is actually written into the subscription agreement that governs the company. “When we have board meetings,” says Brun, “that agreement would give me the ability to call anyone on it if I thought something were going on. And I’m not a bashful guy.”

 


But what of Tierney’s deeply held Catholicism and his past professional support for the church? Did the church sex abuse scandal cause him to question his faith?

“Not a whit,” says Tierney. “I worship God. I’ve never put my faith in people-in priests or nuns or anyone.”

Does he believe, as he reportedly wrote, that the Inquirer was guilty of a “corrosive and pervasive hostility to the church”?

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I believe there was a time when some folks there may have been guilty of bias.”

Was he disappointed in the church’s leadership in the sex abuse scandal, when their response upon discovering a pedophile priest revolved around transferring the offender-often to posts where they could abuse more kids?

“In my limited experience with Cardinal Bevilacqua on those matters,” says Tierney, “any time I was in the room when something like this was mentioned, he had the kind of anger you would want to see on behalf of these children.”

Maybe that’s why Tierney found it in his heart when he appeared on Channel 6’s Inside Story to say the Philadelphia grand jury’s investigation of the priest sex abuse scandal was “taking a toll” on Bevilacqua. “He’s an 81-year-old man,” said Tierney. “I understand that he’s lost 20 pounds.”

Of course some people would reason that putting the cardinal through some rough questioning near the end of his life was too little, too late for all the children victimized by pedophile priests.

Did Tierney approve of the Inquirer‘s recent coverage of the scandal, which quoted from the district attorney’s report-a scathing account of Bevilacqua’s inaction-and included accounts of numerous sex abuse victims?

“I think everyone did what they were supposed to do,” says Tierney. “I think Lynne Abraham, the DA, she did what she was supposed to do. The Inquirer did what it was supposed to do, covering it. And the church in its most recent response, in kicking these guys out of there, they did what they were supposed to do.”

Rumor has it that since the sale some Inquirer staffers have kicked around fictitious Tierney-approved headlines: The winner?

“Area Needs More Homebuilding, Says Cardinal.”

This headline is choice, particularly because it reflects the “diverse constituency” of owners to whom the Inquirer and Daily News now belong.

“People are going to read those papers like the Rosetta stone,” comments former Inquirer business columnist B.J. Phillips. “People will be looking for any perceived connection between the owners and what’s in the paper.”

The danger does exist that readers will spot bias where there is none. But before either paper can worry about people’s false perceptions, they first need to conduct a reality check. Lead investor Bruce E. Toll, of the Toll Brothers homebuilding conglomerate, has already told the Inquirer: “I would not stop the paper from publishing bad things about somebody, if it’s the truth.”

The if it’s the truth qualifier chilled many in both newsrooms.

PW followed up late last week, asking Toll: “If a friend called you and said, ‘The Inquirer‘s breathing down my neck,’ what would you do?”

“That depends,” Toll said, “on what they’re breathing down their neck for and whether or not it’s true.”

And who would decide what’s true?

“I don’t know,” said Toll. “It depends on the story. I can’t answer that question. That’s a ridiculous question.”

Actually, it’s not a ridiculous question. (And the right answer, Bruce, is that you’d tell your friend you signed a pledge not to interfere with the editorial department.)

It’s also the kind of question reporters at the Inquirer and Daily News are concerned with right now, because their lives and livelihoods hinge, in part, on how well Bruce E. Toll, Katherine D. Crothall, Leslie Brun, William A. Graham, the Carpenter’s Pension and Annuity Fund, Michael Hagan, Patricia Harron Imbesi, Brian Tierney and every other investor who comes on board understands the importance of ethical journalism. And to a large extent, the quality of this city’s life depends on them too.

The Inquirer‘s current religion reporter David O’Reilly has never had any particularly noteworthy run-ins with Tierney the PR man. But he still felt compelled to ask that PW run the following statement for Tierney and the entire city to read: “I hope Brian understands,” says O’Reilly, “that his constituency now includes those sex abuse victims. He did a lot of work for the church. But those victims believed they could come to us, and that we would listen to them, and we did, and now those people are Brian’s responsibility too. That’s what it means to run a newspaper, and I hope he understands that.”

 


When hostages begin to identify with their captors, the phenomenon is called the Stockholm syndrome. The workplace is home to a similar phenomenon. If the boss believes in attending social functions, for instance, employees who usually keep working at their desks will start doing the same. And the boss doesn’t even have to say a word.

Newspapers aren’t immune to the phenomenon, which means that while most reporters just want to keep doing their jobs, a few people at the Inquirer and Daily News might consider writing a heartwarming story about a priest. Any priest. Others, the iconoclasts, are no doubt scanning through the financial records of their new owners. Count Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney as a charter member of the latter camp. In a roughly 600-word reveal of her own brass balls, Kinney sidled up to her new boss, looked him square in the eye and pulled his pants down.

Her column, headlined “Brian Tierney, Before the Pledge,” described Kinney’s tussle with Tierney over some coverage she’d done of Commerce Bank founder Vernon Hill. “The job of shutting me up,” writes Kinney, “fell to Brian Tierney, the local ad man and public-relations whiz who happens to be one of Hill’s dear friends. At lunch, Tierney made it clear he wasn’t being paid to bully me. This one, he was doing for free. He barked; I listened. I explained the role of a free press in a democratic society. He barked some more, complaining that I was picking on Hill.”

Kinney went on to divulge that her newspaper was never sued for its coverage, but one of her sources was sued for defamation over the article even though the supposedly offensive words were Kinney’s. The suit, Kinney writes, was a means of intimidation.

Kinney’s column reads a bit like a double whammy and maybe a couple of uppercut blows to the solar plexus and jaw of Brian Tierney and his oh-so-nice friends. “A lot of people around here are joking that I’m gonna be working at Starbucks soon,” Kinney said last week. But Tierney’s reaction was, sort of, what any journalist would hope.

“I’m not trying to duck anything,” he says. “But I never heard of any lawsuit. I had no involvement with that.”

And what did he think of the column? “I thought this is why we have a great newspaper,” says Tierney. “This is what it’s all about.”

On the first day, Tierney was greeted pretty warmly. And in his first week as a media mogul he’s said pretty much all the right things.

Of course it’s easy-even prudent-to be skeptical. “Why has he said all the right things?” asks former Inquirer political reporter and current ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio. “Because that’s been his job for so many years. That’s why. And because he’s good at it.”

And his old job is what cleaved the gulf that would seem to exist between Tierney and many of his new employees: Reporters at their best provide a voice for the voiceless. Brian Tierney for many, many years provided a voice for those who could afford his fee.

Faced with this line of reasoning recently, Tierney says, “I’ve never wanted any publicity for this sort of thing, but you should talk to some people who really know me.”

So this past weekend PW phoned Father Ed Hallinan and Sister Mary Scullion, both of whom have been the recipients of Tierney’s largesse. Scullion runs Project HOME, where due to Tierney’s help roughly a dozen families have a place to live.

Hallinan runs St. Martin De Pores elementary school in North Philadelphia, where 90 percent of the students aren’t Catholic. According to Hallinan, since 2000 Tierney’s been cutting the school checks and organizing a fundraising drive to the tune of $400,000 each year.

“Without Brian,” says Hallinan, “I’m not sure the school would be open at all. And that would be tragic.”

Tierney also once purchased a $53,000 customized van for a poor woman with two paralyzed children, says Hallinan.

It’s worth considering these stories as evidence that Tierney has on occasion provided a voice for the voiceless, or at least some dollars for the penniless-and that he understands the impulse to public service a good newspaper represents.

But Brian Tierney has just ascended to the biggest stage of his life. And until we see exactly what he’s going to do under these spotlights, we’d probably do best to just sit back for a while-a long, long while-and hold our applause.

 

Steve Volk (svolk@philadelphiaweekly.com) is PW’s senior writer.

 

 

“The Tierney I Saw Was a Bully”

A former Inquirer reporter recalls his battles with the public relations flack turned newspaper CEO.

By Ralph Cipriano; editmail@philadelphiaweekly.com


Ralph Cipriano sued The Philadelphia Inquirer and editor Robert Rosenthal in 1998 after Rosenthal spoke critically to The Washington Post about Cipriano’s reporting on the archdiocese. The case resulted in a public apology from Rosenthal, printed in the Inquirer in 2001, and a confidential settlement. At the time, Brian Tierney, who last week became the public face for the new owners of the Inquirer and Daily News, was handling public relations for the archdiocese.

Brian Tierney, the new frontman for the Inquirer and Daily News, made a name for himself in this town by fronting for Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. When I as a reporter tried to shine some light on what his eminence was doing with the church’s money, Tierney’s job was to attack me, bully my editors and make sure the truth didn’t come out. He was very good at his job.

More recently, when the topic was sex abuse in the church, Tierney’s role was to attack the messenger and spin the story so that Bevilacqua was the victim.

A grand jury, however, concluded that Bevilacqua and the archdiocese had committed acts so appalling they’d make Joey Merlino puke. A grand jury said in a 2005 report that the cardinal had orchestrated a systematic cover-up that managed to successfully shield from prosecution 63 pedophile priests who had committed “countless acts of depravity” against hundreds of innocent children. The grand jury was talking about serial pedophiles in collars who were allowed to orally and anally rape and molest hundreds of children.

It was all made possible, the grand jury said, by the “callous, calculating manner” of the cover-up orchestrated by Bevilacqua and others-a cover-up “at least as immoral as the abuse itself.” The grand jury cited “purposeful decisions, carefully implemented policies and calculated indifference.”

The grand jurors and investigators, many of whom were Catholics, were so sickened by what they saw that they described it as “not acts of God, but of men who acted in his name and defiled it.”

And where was Brian Tierney during this investigation? He was working not on behalf of the victims, but on behalf of the enablers. He attacked the messenger with a letter to the editor that accused an Inquirer reporter of being “stupid and inaccurate” and using “sneaky tactics,” and he accused the newspaper of “a continual, pervasive and corrosive hostility” to the church.

Tierney’s archdiocese PR machine was able to spin the story so that the grand jury looking into sex abuse was accused of abusing Cardinal Bevilacqua by repeatedly hauling his ass into court. In a Daily News story (“His Living Hell: Grand Jury Beating up on Bevilacqua”), Tierney was quoted as saying the repeated questioning had taken a physical toll on Bevilacqua, >who had lost some 20 pounds. In a report, district attorney Lynne Abraham had an answer for Tierney: She said that “any persistence in the questioning of Cardinal Bevilacqua may have resulted in part from his evasiveness and claimed forgetfulness on the witness stand.”

Then, after the grand jury report was issued, the church attack machine went after the district attorney and grand jury for being biased against Catholics.

 


When I knew Tierney, I was trying to write about what the archdiocese did with its money, and the cold and callous way his eminence treated his fellow Catholics while he eliminated 20 or so churches and schools in the poorest sections of town. Whether the churches should’ve been closed is a debate about money and resources; what can’t be debated is the un-Christian way the Catholics in these parishes were treated by the cardinal, and his paid mouthpiece, Brian Tierney.

I was a witness. Many of these churches were built and maintained by contributions from the poor people in the neighborhoods. But when the churches went down, everything from the bricks to the crucifixes remained the property of the archdiocese.

These were places where people were baptized, married and buried, and the Catholics who supported them for decades had no rights and no say when they were shut down. If the parishes had to be closed, the cardinal could’ve comforted the afflicted by holding the last mass, and leading the procession over to the new church. But his response was to refuse to meet with any of these people, including nuns and Catholic school kids who picketed his cathedral.

At the Inquirer I was trying to cover the turmoil and demonstrations the cardinal had incited. It was Bevilacqua’s fellow Catholics who gave me secret documents that showed that during a time when the church was going through an alleged financial crisis, and money was so tight that they had to close poor churches and schools, the cardinal secretly spent $5 million to renovate and redecorate archdiocese offices, his mansion and seaside villa.

And where was Brian Tierney during all this?

He was doing what he does best, working to suppress the truth by attacking me in several meetings with my editors. I was under orders from my bosses not to say anything, for fear of further antagonizing him. At one of these meetings Tierney and two associates took turns verbally beating me up in front of my cowardly editors, while they just sat there.

 


The Tierney I saw up close and personal was just a bully. When my editors ran a piece of my story, Tierney got an archdiocese diatribe published in my own newspaper that met the very definition of actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth. One of my editors, the Inky‘s expert on libel, had written a memo to my bosses before the archdiocese diatribe was published, saying it libeled me. But they printed it anyway, in its entirety. Then Tierney sent out a letter to every church and parishioner that attacked me by name, making more false allegations.

I got rid of you once and I’ll get rid of you again, Tierney once hissed at me. So that’s why I had to be there at 400 N. Broad when he bought the Inquirer and Daily News and made a speech about how he’d signed a pledge to respect the integrity of the newsroom. As I stood among the decimated staffs of two once-proud newspapers, it disgusted me that some of my fellow journalists would applaud a certified enemy of the First Amendment. Why be content to merely beat up reporters, bully editors and kill stories, when you can own the whole schoolyard?

When I got up close to Brian Tierney, my question to him was, “When you were an advocate kicking down editors’ doors, you didn’t show much respect for the integrity of the newsroom. What’s different now?”

The old attack-dog backpedaled all the way. He wasn’t disrespectful, he said. We may have had our differences, but he was always “fair and honest” with me. He never meant me harm, and wished me well. And then he stuck out his hand. I had no choice but to congratulate him on his day of conquest. And when I came home that night, my wife asked me if I had washed my hands.

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    • Former Philadelphia Weekly writer Steve Volk joined Resolve Philadelphia as an Investigative Solutions Reporter in Jan. 2020.

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