Eli Broad: Bully in search of a pulpit.

Media criticism.
Nov. 9 2006 6:02 PM

Bully in Search of a Pulpit

Making sense of Eli Broad's ambition to own the Los Angeles Times.

Vanity Fair profiles Eli Broad.
Vanity Fair profiles Eli Broad

The more we learn about the Los Angeles Times' three billionaire suitors, the better Tribune looks.

Vanity Fair's Bob Colacello profiles the cheesiest of the lot, Eli Broad, in the December issue. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that Broad and supermarket king Ronald Burkle have joined checkbooks to make a preliminary bid for the whole Tribune Co.

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Broad made his first fortune building cheap suburban homes during the 1950s. His great conceptual breakthrough was applying William Levitt's cheapo construction techniques to Michigan: You could build a bargain-basement home for even less if you didn't include a basement! Or a garage!

As Colacello writes, after plaguing Michigan with shoddy housing, he gave Arizona the treatment and then Los Angeles. He made his second fortune at SunAmerica, selling retirement-savings accounts to the same demographic he'd built homes for. If Broad weren't 73, I'd wager that his next investment would be funeral parlors, and he'd make a bundle embalming and burying his old clientele.

I don't really hold the origins of Broad's fortune against him, but he's not the one I visualize when I imagine the perfect owner of a major daily newspaper. (See my sign-off for my visualization.) Although Mr. 42-on-the-Forbes-list is deeply vested in the Democratic Party—sleeping in the Clintons' Lincoln Room and running Alan Cranston's 1968 senatorial campaign—he's not especially principled about his affiliation: He defected from the party to serve as vice chairman of Democrats for Nixon in 1972 out of fear that McGovern would surrender to the Soviets.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be equally nervous about him owning the Los Angeles Times if he had sponsored Ronald Reagan's political career and shot friends in the face with Dick Cheney and then endorsed Ralph Nader for president.

While I'm fine with how Broad made his money, the way he's spending it gives me the creeps. For one thing, he's a busybody philanthropist. There's nothing wrong with philanthropy, but it's not the same thing as charity. Broad uses his foundation billions to steer public policy, most notably in the field of education. Broad preaches the centralization of public primary and secondary education, and Colacello reports that through his foundation, Broad "plans to virtually take over the Delaware school system in 2007, pending approval from that state's legislature." He backed the winning slate of candidates for the local board of education in 1999 and helped hire the new superintendent. I'm sure the folks on the Times education beat already anticipate receiving Broadgrams about their coverage.

Oh, you counter, just because he gives millions to philanthropies doesn't mean he'll insist on micromanaging. In the art world, where he's dropped hundreds of millions on museum building funds and modern and contemporary art, he's a bully, as Colacello documents. I can tolerate him pushing other rich collectors around, but I draw the line at trying to get taxpayers to build his art palaces for him. In 2002, Colacello writes, he gave $50 million to an effort to rebuild the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and another $2.2 million to support a ballot measure that would have stuck the county with a $98 million bill. Voters rejected the measure.

Broad's life reads like Harrison Gray Otis' in reverse. Broad is leveraging his political muscle and fortune to take over the Los Angeles Times; Otis parlayed a small investment in the late-19th-century Los Angeles Times into immense wealth and political power throughout the region. Somebody should tell Broad he'll suffer a reduction in political power if he insists on buying the Times.

The Vanity Fair article also includes this sweet dish: Why doesn't Broad get along with David Geffen, another billionaire art collector with eyes for the Times? Colacello writes that Geffen declined to "sign letters of credit totaling $10 million as a guarantee against unpaid bills" when Los Angeles Democrats were trying to host the party's 2000 national convention. Colacello continues:

Broad wouldn't let the matter rest, and gave another interview on the eve of the convention. "I'll tell you what happened," Broad said of his dustup with Geffen. "I got all the press, that's what happened. And why did I get all the press? I was there."

Geffen's response: "Eli Broad seems to need attention. I prefer to avoid it."

I worry less about Eli Broad getting his hands on the Los Angeles Times and acting like a later-day William Randolph Hearst, shoving his political pieties down readers' throats and declaring a dictatorship over Southern California, than I do about his expressed ambitions. In June, the New York Timesasked him for his vision of the Los Angeles Times. Laura M. Holson writes:

If the real estate billionaire Eli Broad had his way, the Los Angeles Times would run more photographs of donors at charity events. There would be fewer stories on movies and more about the city's museums and classical arts. And it would champion civic projects, becoming, in his view, the glue to unite a diverse and fractured city.

That, ladies and gentlemen, describes a newspaper without a basement.

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My ideal newspaper owner: He'd have gone to the finest schools but served in Vietnam. After working as a cop, he'd learn everything about the newspaper business by working everywhere from the pressroom to the newsroom. He'd have bad taste in clothes and be proud of it. Your ideal publisher? Send your spec sheet to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.