The Men Who Would Own the L.A. Times
Geffen. Burkle. Broad. Who'd be the worst owner?
Dropping mortar round after mortar round of insubordination on their bosses at the Chicago-based Tribune Co., Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson have fought them to a stalemate. The daring duo refused—in the news pages of their own paper—to make the staff cuts ordered by the barbarians from the Midwest. The staff naturally applauded this public act of resistance, which succeeded in enlisting members of the city's ruling elite in the insurrection: The city fathers and mothers wrote an angry letter to Tribune's brass expressing their view that the Times isn't just a newspaper but a "public trust" with a "responsibility to serve the community."
Instead of firing Baquet and Johnson, which everybody expected, the Tribune bosses have changed the subject, according to today's New York Times. They've set the issue aside for a meeting of the Tribune board to deal with the equally insubordinate Chandler family. In 2000, the Chandlers sold the Times and the media empire to which it belonged to Tribune, making themselves Tribune's largest stockholder. The family isn't livid about budget cuts but rather Tribune's depressed stock price, and the remedy they seek is the company's breakup.
The least likely resolution to the stalemate would be the sale of the Times to one of the three local billionaires who have petitioned Tribune's board for the right to buy it: media mogul David Geffen (net worth, $4.5 billion); supermarket buyout guy Ron Burkle ($2.3 billion); and builder-investor Eli Broad ($5.5 billion). I write "least likely," but what do I know? I thought it inconceivable that Tribune would allow two executives to mutiny and live.
On the very, very, very long shot that Tribune sells its way out of its Los Angeles Times nightmare, what sort of owner would each of these aspiring newspaper saviors be? The track record of the filthy rich who acquire newspapers as playthings or as business propositions is not good. Mortimer Zuckerman, whose hunger for New York status motivated him to buy New York's Daily News, doesn't really have the heart or temperament for the tabloid war he's in with the New York Post. Wendy McCaw has made herself a national joke with her management of the Santa Barbara News-Press. And if you understand what Philip Anschutz's master plan is for the free dailies he runs in San Francisco, Washington, and Baltimore—beyond creating new forms of litter—please tell me.
Our most eager Los Angeles Times suitor is David Geffen. A 1993 New York Times profile attests to his generosity, a quality that Baquet and Johnson would surely appreciate. Geffen gave his longtime secretary 1 percent of the sale of his record company upon her retirement, which worked out to $5 million. But he's also so parsimonious that he came to believe that owning a beachfront house in Malibu gave him title to the entire Pacific Ocean. Geffen pledged to provide public access to the beach in front of his property in exchange for California Coastal Commission permits to remodel and expand his residence but took 22 years to make good on the promise.
He possesses a Tribune-esque personality, with a vindictive streak so broad that even his friends talk openly about it. "David will do anything for you if you're his friend," movie producer Howard Rosenman told the New York Times. "But if you're his enemy, well, you might as well kill yourself."
Enemies who don't kill themselves and who were once Geffen's friends have a shot at becoming a Geffen friend again, according to Tom King, who wrote a biography of the mogul in 2000. This sort of inconsistent consistency is common to many newspaper owners. King captured Geffen's dualistic nature in a 2000 comment to the Los Angeles Times: "On one hand, David repels people, and on the other hand, he draws them in." Zuckerman and McCaw, on the other hand, seem only to repel people.
As the McCaw catastrophe illustrates, journalists expect owners to pay the bills and keep their paws off the newsroom. Of course owners almost always fiddle around with their papers—why else own one?—but the smarter ones do it subtly. How would the vengeful Geffen react to negative Times coverage of his buddies in the Democratic Party, the art world, financial circles, and Hollywood? According to today's New York Times story, Geffen has told friends he'd be satisfied with a 5 percent return on his investment at the Los Angeles Times compared with the 20 percent margin it's alleged to earn Tribune now. How long would Geffen feel that way? How about when inflation rises to 4 percent? It would be wiser to give Geffen his own column than the keys to the Los Angeles Times.
Ron Burkle likes to party. So do journalists. He likes to trap his tormenters with gotcha traps, as he did with Jared Paul Stern. So do journalists. He allegedly hired a private investigator to spy on his ex-wife, according to a report in the Los Angeles Business Journal. (He denies it.) Hewlett-Packard hired private investigators to spy on journalists. Well, two out of three ain't bad.
Unlike David Geffen, who mostly wants to run his mouth, Burkle has actually taken a flyer at the vanity press-mogul thing before, attempting to purchase the dregs of the Knight Ridder breakup this year. He tried to bring an NFL franchise to Los Angeles and owns part of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, which is totally silly but makes him no sillier than Tribune (owners of the Chicago Cubs) and the New York Times Co. (part owners of the Boston Red Sox).