Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim became an object of journalistic fascination last September when the press reported that he and his family had acquired a 6.4 percent stake in the New York Times Co.
Fascination turned to anxiety last month when Slim—the richest man in Mexico and No. 2 internationally in Forbes' 2008 list—upped his investment by extending the Times Co. a massive loan that could hypothetically result in him owning to 17 percent of the company six years from now.
The most fretful of commentators was Andres Martinez, who expressed his worries in a Slatepiece. The investment would cause the New York Times to pull its punches when reporting on Slim, wrote Martinez, a former New York Times editorial writer and a former Los Angeles Times editorial page editor. Martinez forcefully cited a Wall Street Journal profile of Slim from 2007 that portrays the billionaire as a crony capitalist whose made his fortune in large part because of his relationships with the politically powerful.
The Martinez piece acknowledged that Slim can't take over the Times Co.: Sulzberger family ownership of a special class of stock gives it unbreakable control of the board. But he fears Slim's investment functions to give the mogul a "priceless seal of approval" from the Times itself. Martinez writes:
It becomes easier for [Slim] to write off his critics in Mexico as perennially frustrated leftist whiners. If any of what they alleged were true, after all, would the enlightened and liberal New York Times allow him to become one of its largest shareholders? Slim is lending money to the Sulzbergers for the same reason he has donated to Bill Clinton's foundation.
Although I don't share Martinez's alarm, I see his point about the Times being damned if it covers him and damned if it doesn't. If Times reporters and editorialist criticize Slim, he can wave the clips to prove to his countrymen that he isn't a vengeful brute. If the Times doesn't cover Slim's every move, it will be charged with cutting its investor slack.
Which brings us to a Reuters story from earlier this week about a new Mexican law that requires cell-phone companies to maintain detailed databases of their customers, complete with fingerprints. The justification behind the law is that authorities need all the help they can get to apprehend the many kidnappers who use cell phones to negotiate ransoms. (Like a kidnapper won't steal a phone rather than use one registered to him?) Toward the end of the story, Slim, who controls the country's top cell-phone company, suggests that what would make the law more effective is if it allowed authorities to track the movements of cell-phone users.
Are Slim's ideas about surveillance and privacy worthy of coverage? Unfettered by fear or favor, my news sense says yes. But that doesn't mean I'm bent out of shape because the Times didn't print a news story or an editorial about Slim's creepy notions. In the full constellation of civil liberties outrages facing Mexico right now, his comments might not be the most pressing.
Just the same, let's keep an eye on Señor Slim and get to know him better. A lot better.