Media Analysis: The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Sixers Arena, and the Blurry Line Between Journalism and Activism
Last week, the Sixers put out a curious statement via the 76Place Twitter account, which is the working name for the arena they’d like to build on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia. The project is still in the “entitlements and approvals” phase, a crucial part of the timeline in getting this thing off the ground, and a glut of recent reporting has centered heavily on pushback from the neighboring Chinatown community.
That resulted in the team coming out to denounce what they call “misinformation campaigns,” writing “it is disappointing to see some groups claiming to represent the broader interests of the city irresponsibly spreading misinformation about our proposed plans.” The longer statement was truncated in a Twitter-friendly graphic format:
Let's be clear: 76 Place will benefit ALL Philadelphians.
We'll improve transit, create thousands of union jobs, revitalize Market East, make our city safer, and work with community groups to invest in underserved communities.
— 76Place (@76Place) March 3, 2023
The Sixers don’t mention any specific “groups” in the statement. They don’t name any media outlets, organizations, or individuals, instead generically asking for “respectful” discussion that’s “grounded in facts.”
Every major outlet has reported on the Sixers arena, but based on the timing of this statement, simple context clues, and the Zeitgeist of the particular moment, it’s pretty obvious that the alleged “misinformation” can be traced to the messaging from various Chinatown opposition groups and the paired media coverage. It’s not hard to connect the dots here.
The most important outlet highlighting these voices, by far, is The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has produced more arena content than any other publication in the region. So to continue a project I started a few weeks ago, an exercise in media analysis, I went back through seven months of Inquirer reporting on the Sixers arena, beginning with the July 21st announcement. I logged each story touching on the proposal, and came up with these findings:
- 57 total stories
- 1 favorable op-ed
- 1 neutral-to-favorable op-ed
- 1 neutral op-ed
- 1 neutral story from an Inquirer employee on the opinion desk
- 3 unfavorable op-eds
- 30 different bylines (authors), some combination efforts
- 23 stories focused on Chinatown
- 5 stories focused on Market East
- 4 arena mentions in letters to the editor (3 anti-arena, 1 neutral)
- 3 non-op-ed stories with a positive/favorable tone towards the arena
- 33 non-op-ed stories with a neutral tone towards the arena
- 7 non-op-ed stories with a negative/unfavorable tone towards the arena
- 7 stories from Massarah Mikati (Communities and Engagement Desk, no other author had more bylines)
- 2 straight video pieces
- 1 photo gallery
- 6 stories from the sports department (Mike Sielski, Gina Mizell, Keith Pompey)
In determining what was “favorable” or “unfavorable” towards the arena, I used my own discretion and bounced ideas off other Philadelphia media members. Ultimately, there’s an arbitrary nature to the parsing of the data, but I did my best in an effort to be fair.
For reference now, here’s the full list, with author, title, hyperlink, and category, in reverse chronological order:
- March 3rd – Massarah Mikati: Divest from 76ers arena: Penn students rally and attempt to disrupt board of trustees meeting in protest against Chinatown arena / communities and engagement desk
- February 21st – Daniel Pearson: A downtown arena for the Sixers can be a Philly thing, too / opinion desk
- February 15th – Elizabeth Wellington: One Book, One Philadelphia picks ‘Interior Chinatown,’ explores the conflicts of the American experience / (Q/A)
- January 9th – Massarah Mikati and Jeff Gammage: Legal fight against Sixers arena develops in Chinatown as steering committee holds first meeting / features + communities and engagement desks
- January 9th – Massarah Mikati: Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to join Chinatown coalition to fight against Sixers arena / communities and engagement desk
- January 4th – letters to the editor (published a message from ‘Ellen’ accusing Jim Kenney, Mark Squilla, and the Sixers of collusion “to roll over the Chinatown neighborhood”)
- January 2nd – Massarah Mikati: A HOW-TO GUIDE FOR FIGHTING BIG DEVELOPMENT / communities and engagement desk
- December 28th – letters to the editor (published a message from Father Thomas Betz of Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School, asking if “the destruction of Chinatown an acceptable price to pay to build the Sixers arena in Center City”)
- December 25th – Samantha Melamed: Jewish tradition of Christmas in Chinatown this year includes protest of 76ers arena plan / investigations desk
- December 23rd – letters to the editor (published a message from Ed in Philadelphia, who criticized David Gould and thinks the arena will bring an “invasion of 4,000 cars to each game”)
- December 22nd – Sean Collins Walsh: How Chinatown got blindsided by a City Council bill that could have helped the 76ers build a new arena / news desk
- December 20th – letters to the editor – published message from Don in Philadelphia, who rips David Adelman and his wine collection
- December 19th – Katie Krzaczek: One of the billionaires behind the Sixers arena plan spent six figures on a ‘drinking room’ where he keeps 5,000 bottles of wine — and a $7,000 bottle of tequila / digital desk
- December 15th – Massarah Mikati and Jeff Gammage: Chinatown residents loudly denounce Sixers arena proposal at contentious meeting / features + communities and engagement desk
- December 15th – Jenna Miller: Pointed questions, strong opposition to proposed 76ers arena at community meeting in Chinatown / video piece
- December 15th – Tom Gralish: Chinatown neighbors pictured in public meeting with developers of proposed Sixers’ arena / photo gallery
- December 7th – Sean Collins Walsh – How an under-the-radar parking garage bill sparked the first City Hall dust-up over the 76ers’ arena proposal /news andpolitics
- December 7th – letters to the editor – (published a message from Angus in Narberth who talks about perhaps having the arena a few blocks down the street, at 8th and Market instead)
- December 1st – Joseph DiStefano: Chinatown groups unite to protect the neighborhood as Sixers plan a new arena / business desk
- December 1st – Massarah Mikati: A developer said Chinatown is ‘positive-to-neutral’ on the Sixers arena. Not so, say community members / communities and engagement desk
- November 17th – Gina Mizell: Sixers lead tour of proposed 76 Place arena site, share hopes of landing zoning ordinance by June / sports desk
- November 13th – Joseph DiStefano: Sixers try to sway Philly’s Chinatown leaders to accept a new sports arena / news desk
- October 22nd – Mike Sielski: David Adelman is officially a Sixers limited partner. Their arena plans rise and fall with him / sports column
- October 19th – Sam Katz: I don’t ‘trust the process’ (or concept) of the downtown 76ers arena / op-ed
- October 14th – Harry Guey-Lee, Eddie Moy, and Jack Lee: An arena destroyed D.C.’s Chinatown. Don’t make the same mistake in Philly / opinion
- October 3rd – Joseph DiStefano: Meet some of the Chinatown leaders weighing the wisdom of a 76ers arena next door / business and news
- September 30th – Mike Sielski: Point man for Sixers’ arena plan: ‘The city’s not going to fix itself’ / sports column
- September 23rd – Craig LaBan: EMei remains one of Chinatown’s best restaurants as the neighborhood faces uncertainty / food and opinion piece
- September 17th – Thomas Fitzgerald: Chinatown’s ‘Moon Festival’ returns in person amid celebration and concerns about Sixers project / business
- September 14th – David Gould and Greg Reaves: New Sixers arena will benefit all Philadelphians / opinion
- September 1st – I’m worried the new Sixers stadium will displace the best movie theater in town / opinion
- August 12th – Michael Hochman: I lived on top of a sports stadium. It was fantastic / opinion
- August 12th – Massarah Mikati: Big projects like the Sixers’ arena plan have often threatened Philly’s Chinatown. But the AAPI community always fights for the neighborhood / communities and engagement desk
- August 11th – Katie Krzaczek and Matt Mullin: Everything we know about the Sixers’ plans for a new Center City arena / digital desk
- August 8th – Inga Saffron: The Sixers’ ambitions for Market Street go well beyond building a sports arena / architecture
- August 2nd – Jake Blumgart, Max Marin, and Ryan W. Briggs: What we know about the Sixers arena proposal’s impact on East Market / business desk
- August 2nd – Gina Mizell: How the Sixers’ proposed new arena vaults them into the NBA arms race: ‘We’re really only limited by our imagination’ / sports
- August 1st – Joseph DiStefano: Proposed Sixers arena site would expand across Filbert Street / business
- July 27th – Katie Krzaczek and Patricia Madej: We asked what a new Sixers arena should be named. here’s what you said / digital desk
- July 27th – Joseph DiStefano: Meet the billionaires behind the Sixers’ new arena plans – and another who may prefer the team stay put / business profiles
- July 27th – Harry Leong: I was born and raised in Philly’s Chinatown. I don’t want a Sixers stadium here / opinion
- July 25th – Elizabeth Wellington: White flight and fast fashion meant Market Street never got the attention it deserved. Could the 76ers change that? / features
- July 23rd – Keith Pompey: Sixers season ticket-holders are split on team’s $1.3 billion proposal to build arena in Center City / sports
- July 22nd – Mike Sielski: If the Sixers want to build a downtown arena, they and the city have to answer some questions first / sports column
- July 22nd – Matt Mullin: If Sixers leave Wells Fargo Center for new arena, Philly will be an outlier among sports towns / news
- July 22nd – John Duchneski and Felicia Gans Sobey: Philly teams have tried to leave South Philly before. Here’s where — and why it didn’t work / news + history
- July 22nd – Thomas Fitzgerald: The Sixers’ idea isn’t new. Sports arenas around the U.S. have been built on or near transit.
- July 21st – Ximena Conde and Rodrigo Torrejon: Chinatown coalition calls Sixers arena proposal a threat to their neighborhood’s identity / Now desk + justice desk
- July 21st – Isabella DiAmore: Sixers fans, players and local residents react to proposed $1.3 billion arena in Philly’s Center City / digital desk
- July 21st – Ximena Conde, Heather Khalifa, and Astrid Rodrigues: The Sixers want to build an arena next to Chinatown. Here’s what the neighborhood thinks about it / video piece
- July 21st – Rob Tornoe: As Sixers plan new Center City Arena, Philly’s Disney hole sits vacant / news
- July 21st – Harris M. Steinberg: In the Sixers arena plan, hopes for a revitalized Market East, and concerns about poor urban design / opinion
- July 21st – Sean Collins Walsh and Anna Orso: Enthusiasm, skepticism, and unanswered questions: Philly politicians had mixed reaction the 76ers arena plan / politics
- July 21st – Patricia Madej and Matt Mullin: The Sixers aren’t the first team to eye Center City. Here’s why it didn’t work for the Phillies / news
- July 21st – Joseph DiStefano: The Sixers want to build a new $1.3 billion arena in Center City / news
- July 21st – Anna Orso: Philly mayor says proposed Sixers arena is at an ideal site and confirms no city funding is planned / news
- July 21st – Katie Krzaczek and Patricia Madej: What would you name a new Sixers arena? / digital
There’s a lot to unpack here, but there are are some obvious patterns. The first wave of arena stories covered every angle imaginable, and all of them were more or less right down the middle. There was a lot of high-quality straight news, with a few neutral columns and some well-written history and opinion pieces. Sixers beat writers Keith Pompey and Gina Mizell authored stories along with sports columnist Mike Sielski, while the non-sports desks got involved in a thorough exercise that saw the Inquirer pretty much hammer the story from every side, right out of the gate. From July 21st to November 17th, there was some brilliant content published in the paper and online at Inquirer.com.
I noticed a shift in coverage when I got to December, when there wasn’t much left to report from a straight news perspective. Everything had already been covered in the summer, such as the arena’s impact on Market East, the background of the Fashion District, and what this would mean for transit. By the winter, public Chinatown community meetings were taking place, and the Inquirer leaned hard into this, deploying the recently-created “Communities and Engagement” desk. From December 1st to February 15th, there were more than a dozen published pieces that highlighted Chinatown opposition voices, not including hard news reporting on the Filbert St. parking garage bill involving Councilman Mark Squilla and Mayor Kenney’s staff, resulting in Chinatown leaders criticizing what they thought was “a secretive back-door deal to facilitate the groundwork for the proposed arena.” Pertaining to the Asian Americans United meeting specifically, when Sixers’ Chief Diversity and Impact Officer David Gould was shouted down by irate residents, the Inquirer published multiple written stories, a video piece, and even a photo gallery of the meeting. They covered that specific gathering from all angles, while each of the local TV stations sent reporters and cameras as well. That event was widely covered by media outlets across the city.
Included in this December to-mid-February time frame were four published letters to the editor, three of which were anti-arena, and a fourth that suggested moving 76 Place to 8th and Market instead. Only when Daniel Pearson on the opinion desk wrote “A downtown arena for the Sixers can be a Philly thing, too” did the Chinatown pattern end, in late February, before starting up again in early March with a story about protests outside developer David Adelman’s University City office. Regarding quotes in these stories, there doesn’t seem to be as much from Sixers representatives as there was earlier in the timeline.
I spoke with about a dozen people at the Inquirer (either on background or off the record, none wanted to go on the record for obvious reasons), representing various desks. Some downplayed the heavy lean into Chinatown stories, noting that this simply floated to the top because community was the main topic of the moment. An influx of those stories was to be expected, especially with the Communities and Engagement desk created for scenarios like this one. Others, however, were aware of the idea that the hard focus on Chinatown gave off the impression that the paper was taking sides by elevating opposition voices while the Sixers were found defending themselves on multiple fronts.
Regardless, Chinatown has been the major recurring topic in the Inquirer’s coverage. 23 of 57 stories pertaining to 76 Place have a primary focus on the neighborhood, which amounts to 40.3% of the coverage, and that’s not just a product of the winter shift. There were nine stories published before December that focused on Chinatown. Meantime, only five stories in total have focused directly on Market East, where the arena is positioned (front facing towards Market, butting up against Chinatown along Filbert Street), likely because Chinatown is a minority residential area and Market East is largely an underperforming retail corridor with no real “community” to speak of.
Notably, through the Communities and Engagement desk, the Inquirer has elevated opposition Chinatown voices, while arena-favorable voices in the community are largely nonexistent. It could certainly be the case that Chinatown is overwhelmingly in opposition of the arena being built, but reading the Inquirer it feels like the skew is 100%, to 0%, with not one resident there in favor.
A quirky thing that popped up in this study was the aggregation of a Wall Street Journal story about Adelman’s expensive wine collection, which was posted on December 19th, just a few days after the much-publicized Chinatown AAU meeting, when the Sixers got absolutely clobbered in the press. The purpose of the story? I’m not sure, unless it was to paint the arena developer as an out-of-touch rich white man on the heels of negative publicity for the organization. However, people I spoke with at the Inquirer overwhelmingly believed this was goofy timing via digital desk aggregation, and not some nefarious pile on. I was asked by Inquirer employees to note that the various desks (sports, news, opinion) typically work on their own and operate in a silo-like fashion, with less macro-level oversight, which would explain why content looks topically “clumpy,” for lack of a better word.
Another thing you’ll notice is that op-eds published by the Inquirer skew negatively towards the arena. It’s not egregious, but I counted six total, then added the Daniel Pearson column to the group (he’s on the opinion desk), and found that the only favorable piece was co-authored by a Sixers employee (Gould) and the CEO of Mosaic Development Partners. There is a neutral-to-favorable op-ed from a freelancer, and the neutral one from Pearson, while three negative op-eds were written by former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, three former D.C. Chinatown residents, and the man running a Chinatown basketball organization. The other neutral op-ed was authored by Drexel’s Harris Steinberg, who runs the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
What’s curious about the opinion content is that prominent local figures (of color, no less) have written neutral or favorable op-eds on the arena that did not appear on Inquirer pages. Former mayor Michael Nutter confirmed to Crossing Broad that he submitted a piece to the Inquirer, which was ultimately turned down. The article, neutral in tone and calling for due diligence, ended up being published at the WHYY website instead. Additionally, labor leader Ryan Boyer (who was quoted in early Inquirer arena stories) wrote a message of outright support that went up at The Philadelphia Tribune on Friday, March 3rd.
“We submitted an op-ed on the 76 Place project to the Inquirer but have not yet received a response,” said a spokesperson for Boyer.
This is an interesting nugget, when you consider the fact that these are the type of guest editorials that the Inquirer has historically welcomed. You want the city’s biggest voices, in this case two black men, using your outlet for dissemination, not going to publications with a smaller reach. It would be like Jeffrey Lurie approaching Crossing Broad with an op-ed and us telling him “nah we’re good.” It just doesn’t happen, and in this case, if those submissions were accepted and published, the op-ed balance would be more or less right down the middle in terms of representing both sides of the discussion.
This all brings us back to the nascent, six-person Communities and Engagement Desk, created just last year, which became heavily involved with the Sixers arena in early December. Reporter Massarah Mikati, who leads the Inquirer with seven Chinatown/arena bylines, is a member of this desk, which is tasked with “representation and community visibility in The Inquirer’s reporting,” with a focus “on building non-transactional relationships with communities, with an eye to better serving them.” This was something Inquirer employees pointed to as source of contention, with the desk’s activities slanting arena coverage negatively. Several Inquirer sources spoke of “hostile” meetings involving the Communities and Engagement desk, painting the picture of a standoffish entity that seemed uninterested in macro-level concerns of how their pursuits might compromise their colleagues’ efforts. Other employees said they disapproved of a Mikati story titled A HOW-TO GUIDE FOR FIGHTING BIG DEVELOPMENT, which reads like a handbook for grassroots activism. For what it’s worth, however, every single Inquirer employee I spoke with thought the Communities and Engagement desk was a good idea, and a necessary one, explaining that the operation of the desk was the problem, and not its larger mission.
The conclusion I came to, independent of Inquirer sources, is that the high concentration of Chinatown stories gives off the perception that the Inquirer is anti-arena, even if that’s not necessarily the case. There’s an obvious reason for this notion. When you go back to the employee revolt of 2020, which saw editor Stan Wischnowski resign, the result was the commissioning of the Temple study, which confirmed what we already knew – that the Inquirer was relatively old, white, and not adequately representing communities of color. We wrote about this in a 2021 deep dive, titled “Amid Wholesale Changes, Philadelphia Inquirer Employees Tell Crossing Broad About the Sports Department’s Current Mix of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Dubious Morale.”
So it made sense, that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter reckoning, the Inquirer would create a desk that exists to better serve under-represented communities. What I think happened, however, is that they over-corrected, because in elevating previously-marginalized voices, it makes it seem like the Inquirer is taking their side, simply by the amount of dedicated publishing volume and linear tone. It’s like the pendulum swung too far to the other side. The Communities and Engagement desk should exist, in this case, to give opposition Chinatown voices the same power and reach as those of the Sixers and David Adelman, and not necessarily as a media extension of neighborhood and activist groups. Folks like Larry Platt at The Philadelphia Citizen have observed this.
Perhaps that’s where the distinction needs to be drawn, because the Inquirer’s straight-news reporting on the arena has been very good. It’s been thorough and fair. Those early pieces from Inga Saffron and Thomas Fitzgerald were high quality, and Sielski’s sports-focused columns were balanced. Joseph DiStefano has six bylines full of solid work. Sean Collins Walsh has done a nice job as well, along with myriad other early contributors. It’s the recent turn, spearheaded by the Communities and Engagement desk, combined with the op-ed decision making, which gives off the impression that the Inquirer wouldn’t mind seeing the arena fail.
If that were to be the case, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but then the Inquirer should declare that stance and toss it over to Jenice Armstrong or Will Bunch on the opinion desk for explanation, in the same way the paper might endorse a mayoral or presidential candidate. My takeaway is that the notable shift in coverage has muddled the Inquirer’s output to the point where it’s diminishing the quality work published in the fall and summer, while blurring the already-thin line between journalism and activism.
Crossing Broad reached out to the Inquirer earlier in the week for comment, and will update this story if they’d like to respond.
We did get in touch with the Sixers, who said they stood by the statement issued last week, while noting that they’ve requested a meeting with Inquirer leadership.