Apparently a simple apology was too high a price to pay.
There’s an odd little comment at the end of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.’s (PNI) statement, released last Friday, about the multi-million-dollar settlement of the libel suit brought by former Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano. The one-page release quotes Inquirer Editor Robert Rosenthal, whose negative assessment of Cipriano’s integrity in 1998 prompted the suit, as suggesting that this whole affair could have been avoided.
“I regret my remarks and that we weren’t able to resolve this in a way other than litigation…,” he says in the next-to-last paragraph. Readers with little or no knowledge of the case might infer that it was nothing more than a tragic misunderstanding, perhaps even that Cipriano was an unreasonable plaintiff hell-bent on turning it into a pay day. Rumors about the size of the settlement — reliable sources put the sum between $3 million and $7 million — may reinforce this impression.
But such an interpretation of this strange case would ignore its history. Rosenthal had ample opportunity to apologize, possibly avoiding legal action, but never seized it. And now PNI, owned by the increasingly cost-conscious Knight Ridder chain, is out several million hard-earned dollars. (The fact that Knight Ridder also was on the hook for a verdict if the case went to trial may have had something to do with the decision to forgo a day in court.)
The ball got rolling in June 1998, when Cipriano spoke openly and at length to City Paper about his difficulties in getting certain stories about the Philadelphia Archdiocese — particularly about its spending decisions — into the Inquirer. The Inky’s apparent reluctance to risk alienating Catholics had led him, in 1997, to pitch a story about Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s leadership to National Catholic Reporter. The article was published the week after City Paper’s story.
But the precise moment of the big bang that created the lawsuit occurred the day after City Paper’s story hit the streets. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz called Rosenthal to ask about the NCR article and Cipriano’s criticisms of his own paper. Rosenthal, who had declined to speak to City Paper, relayed to Kurtz his now-infamous assessment of Cipriano’s integrity.
Okay, so he misspoke; his words were “intemperate,” as last week’s statement says. Consider the week he was having: On Monday he learned that Cipriano had written an article for an out-of-town weekly, a story whose significance Cipriano supposedly downplayed by characterizing it as a “rehash” of old Inky articles. Then on Thursday he saw City Paper and read about the breadth and scope of the NCR piece, as well as Cipriano’s incendiary allegations about the Inquirer’s cowering before the Cardinal and his public relations berserkers. And on Friday Kurtz called, meaning the whole thing was about to become a national story.
All barely six months after winning the top job amidst much fanfare; who wouldn’t have popped off? And as he conceded to City Paper a few weeks later, “I sort of got blindsided here. And as a former hockey player, I don’t like that.”
The problem, however, is that he steadfastly refused to apologize, or even acknowledge the damage he might have done — which may be acceptable, even admirable, for hockey players, but not for corporate executives. Judging from interviews and from the few pages of deposition transcripts that were made public, Rosenthal had several golden opportunities to apologize. In his deposition he admitted to having had “conversations” with Cipriano immediately after the Post published the quotes; but he not only refused to apologize, he added he’d be happy to accept Cipriano’s resignation.
He again declined to retreat from his statements a couple of weeks later, when some of the few dozen staffers who attended an open meeting pressed him at least to clarify what he’d said. And at some point he also opted not to sign a letter drafted for him by recently departed projects editor Jonathan Neumann to be sent to the Post. The letter addressed both Cipriano’s claims of Catholic-coddling (“We walk a very complex and difficult path in an effort to always be fair and honest. We try our best. It is not easy. There will always be people who criticize our decisions”), and Rosenthal’s trashing of the reporter (“I have full faith and trust in Cipriano and every other reporter on The Inquirer”). Instead, Rosenthal signed a letter he later admitted was written primarily by PNI’s in-house counsel. Speaking of rehashing, this letter did little more than restate that Cipriano was prone to telling tall tales.
Ironically, the reason for stopping well short of an apology may have been to avoid giving up anything that could be damaging in a libel suit. Cipriano had already used the L-word at that point, in a pre-publication rebuttal to a column, by the assistant managing editor for readership at the time, that addressed the controversy and contained a line about unbiased reporting that could have been read as yet another indictment.
Cipriano declined to discuss the case this week. An attempt to reach Rosenthal was unsuccessful. His assistant referred City Paper to PNI’s statement, and said Rosenthal would have no further comment on the Cipriano affair.
City Paper’s complete coverage of the Inquirer/Cipriano faceoff can be found here.