Conrad Black

Conrad Black

Conrad Black

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 31 2001 8:30 PM

Conrad Black

The newspaper mogul thinks like an American and writes like a Brit. No wonder he's leaving Canada.

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For 30 years, Conrad Black has been Canada's most extraordinary businessman. For U.S. readers who've never heard of him, this is the same as saying: Conrad Black is the world's tallest midget. But Black doesn't deserve the smack. He's a treat for all of North America, not just its upper half.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Black made headlines last week by selling the last fragments of his Canadian newspaper empire, his remaining half-share in the National Post, the excellent paper he founded in 1998. Black also renounced his Canadian citizenship, which means he now belongs to the largest category of famous Canadians: ex-Canadians.

Black has often been cast as a mini-Murdoch—another rapacious, daredevil, conservative, global press baron. But Black possesses little of Murdoch's commercial bravura. He has never risked it all on TV ventures or movie studios. He has been a stolid newspaper publisher, making millions from a menagerie of teeny-tiny regional papers (the Algonquin, Ill., Countryside) and a few big ones. He has attempted only one bold experiment—the National Post—and now he's sold that, too. Black, until recently the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world, has reduced his holdings to little more than the Telegraph, England's most respected Tory paper; the small but influential Jerusalem Post; and the large but impotent Chicago Sun-Times. And Black is worth only a fraction of what Rupert is—less than a billion dollars, not even real money by American plutocrat standards.

Yet Black is the rarest of breeds: A mogul more interesting for himself than his businesses. He is a better writer than most of the journalists he employs and a better thinker than all of them. A more entertaining public figure you could not find. Now that he's abandoned the Big Maple Leaf, he hopes to buy a prestige newspaper in New York or Washington: The United States should be so lucky!

Black certainly had financial reasons to quit the Great White North. The devaluation of the Canadian dollar had slashed the value of his holdings. His beloved National Post has been bleeding profusely since its launch, and Black was sick of taking the losses. But Black's departure is also the culmination of his patriotic disillusionment. He so loved Canada that he wanted to save it. But Canada did not want Black's kind of salvation.

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Here is an old joke about the Canadian character: Why don't you need to cover a Canadian lobster pot? Because the other lobsters will drag down anyone that tries to climb out. Black has spent most of his life encouraging his countrymen to climb out with him. He has waged a gleeful, vicious, and ultimately unsuccessful war against (what he perceives as) its enervating, anti-entrepreneurial collectivism.

Black, born in 1944, was a child of the Canadian establishment, the gray and conforming Toronto elite. His father was a rich investor and brewery executive. After shedding his roots—Black got himself booted from prep school for selling exams—and declaring himself an outcast, Black started buying tiny provincial papers in the late '60s. A decade later, using stock inherited from his father, Black grabbed a Canadian conglomerate, then deployed it to snatch up the Telegraph at a bargain price. From the mid-'80s to the late '90s, he expanded a modest Canadian firm into one that controlled hundreds of dailies in the United States, Australia, England, and Israel and published more than 60 percent of Canadian newspaper titles. He bought cheap at a time when others doubted the future of newspapers and netted a fortune from his confidence.

Almost from the cradle, Black's defining quality was that he resisted Canadian orthodoxy. "In Canada, the received wisdom was so stultifying that conforming to it meant mental death. Conrad Black was one of those unusual people who decided early on that he was not going to be afraid and that he was going to live the truth," says David Frum, a Canadian who has written for Black-owned papers.

Black brought a bloody crimson to Canada's beige political and cultural life. He used his newspapers—especially his Canadian ones—as a platform for his conservative views. By U.S. standards he is a moderate Republican; by Canadian standards, a raging wing nut. Black writes with a ruthless honesty and savage humor that is utterly unexpected in a tycoon. Black can be mean, sexist, intolerant of human frailty, and overbearing, but never dull. (Imagine Mencken with a pile of gold or Hitchens turned upside down.) He denounced Canada's social welfare system as "an overgenerous reinsurance policy for an underachieving people." He attacked trade unions, blamed Canada's high taxes for brain drain, pilloried liberal politicians. One typical character assassination: He called an Ontario pol the "Salvador Allende of Canada," trying to "strangle, disembowel, and immolate the vestiges of the incentive-based economy." When the Catholic bishop of Calgary backed a strike at Black's Calgary Herald, Black denounced him as a "jumped-up little twerp" and a "prime candidate for exorcism."

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The Canadian Black is more English than the English and more American than the Americans. He is resolutely Anglophilic and monarchist, which did not go over well in democratic Canada. When Black was offered an English peerage, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who loathes Black, invoked an obscure Canadian law forbidding Canadians from accepting English titles. (This is a key reason Black has dropped his Canadian passport.) Meanwhile, Black can't stop telling Canadians that they need to be more like Americans—freer, braver, more entrepreneurial. He has even suggested that Canada join the United States, an idea that's approximately as popular as a national ban on hockey would be.

Black, bullish in appearance and manner, revels in his murderous reputation. When he buys papers, Black usually fires a significant chunk of the staff. He calls this, delightedly, "drowning the kittens." He heaps scorn on journalism, dismissing some investigative reporters as "swarming, grunting masses of jackals." He once wrote that "a very large number of [journalists] are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised." He files libel suits almost for sport. He has lots of friends but prefers enemies.

In polite Canada, Black was abhorred for his showmanship, vitriol, and ego. (He joked, "Humility is a fine quality, but it can be overdone.") Press critics griped that he slashed his small papers to increase his profits (which he did). On issues, he has been a prophet without honor. His insistence that Canada's high taxes stifle enterprise and cause brain drain is increasingly accepted. The National Post championed tax cuts so successfully that even the rival, ruling Liberal Party endorsed them. The paper helped jump-start a vibrant conservative party, the Canadian Alliance, that briefly threatened the Liberals.

But Black may leave no durable mark on his homeland. The Alliance has all but collapsed. The Liberals, led by Black's sworn enemy Chrétien, are phenomenally popular. And Black is handing the National Post to the Asper family, Liberal loyalists. The Aspers vow to continue the Post as is—conservative uppercuts and all—but Canadian journalists expect it to mellow.

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Black lives grandly and loves his wealth. Still, he is fundamentally less interested in the business of business than in the business of nations. That may be why, unlike Murdoch, he always seeks to buy respectable papers, never resorted to the T-and-A sleaze of Murdoch's tabloids, and never built a giant multimedia empire. "TV and other forms of media are a three-ring circus, a burlesque. Newspapers are the last remaining serious medium, where he can speak to what he cares about, the serious issues of the day," says Christopher Dornan, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Great tycoons are monomaniacs. Black is too distracted by his intellectual life for that. (He's married to Barbara Amiel, a libertarian journalist and provocateur. They may be the most impressive media couple since the Luces.) Black is a serious student of history, with a savant's knowledge of Napoleon, Charles De Gaulle, warships, and Anglo and Canadian politics. (He once lectured Margaret Thatcher on the history of the Tory Party.) He wrote the definitive biography of Quebec's most famous premier, and he's working on a biography of Franklin Roosevelt. He loves nothing more than a long argument over the six greatest wartime leaders in history. He is a thesaurus, a font of polysyllabic words and tongue-twisting phrases. Black is bombastic but famously entertaining. ("He is a terribly lively guy. He's most extraordinary," raves William F. Buckley Jr., who's on the board of advisers for Black's company, alongside Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich, and other high-profile conservatives.)

Black's status in England, where he lives most of the year, is secure. He and Amiel top guest lists, and he will be Lord Black before long. Thanks to the Telegraph, he hugely influences conservative politics. But friends and acquaintances sense that he'd like an American profile, too. He idolizes America's freedom and chaotic capitalism, but he is unknown here. (You can't even buy a copy of the National Post in Washington, D.C.) In the '90s he backed out of deals to buy the New York Daily News and the New York Observer. Now he covets the New York Post or the Washington Times, but neither Post owner Murdoch, nor the Times' owner, an organization associated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, wants to sell. (He isn't helping his cause with the Times: In his zingy public statements, he refers to the "Moonies," a term Unification Church members despise.)

If Black does find a glamour paper, will Americans adopt him? In Canada, he was a rara avis, but here he'd be another rich conservative guy. Americans prefer their moguls populist, but Black is an elitist who behaves more like a 19th-century count than a 21st-century capitalist. (This is part of why he goes over so well in Britain.) As Black biographer Richard Siklos notes, the United States measures its tycoons by the size of their bank accounts, not their IQs. Black isn't even a billionaire. And perhaps most important, Black's values don't match those of our sweaty, too-much-is-never-enough business culture. Black prefers intellectual combat to corporate. He enjoys making an enemy as much as making a buck.