Saturday, December 01, 2007

Mr. Zell: Owning A Paper Is Not All Making Money

Now that it appears its lobbying in Washington has paid off, and the FCC will clear the way for Sam Zell to assume ownership of the Tribune Co., and its largest newspaper property, the L.A. Times, I think it's important to raise again the issue of control by Zell over editorial policy.

So far, the Chicago real estate magnate and part time Malibu resident has steadfastly proclaimed that he will keep hands off the editorial pages. He makes it sound like his only interest is making money.

But, Mr. Zell, there is more to newspapering than that. Owning a newspaper is a public trust, and it is not only appropriate in my view, it is desirable, that you, as owner, try to influence your papers in constructive directions, as you understand what those directions to be. The way Abraham Lincoln once put it was "firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right."

This is particularly the case with you, the son of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. (your parents got out of Poland just weeks before Hitler took over) and a major contributor to educational institutions in Israel and other Israeli charities.

At the L.A. Times, again this week, there have been fresh indications that the newspaper, editorially, wants to have it both ways in the Arab-Israeli dispute, equating Jewish "extremists" with Arab ones, and running, yet again, an Op Ed Page article this morning by a Palestinian woman who says any peace settlement in the Holy Land must include a "right of return" of Arab refugees to Israeli territory. The editor of the Op Ed Page, Nick Goldberg, has repeatedly run such articles, when he knows, or should know, that a "right of return" would submerge Israel in a sea of Arabs, and destroy the character of what President Bush just this week at the Annapolis conference accurately called "the Jewish state."

There is nothing in the article this morning by Ghada Ageel that mentions that the war that induced her family to leave its farm in 1948 was caused entirely by an Arab determination to destroy Israel as soon the United Nations-approved partition of the Holy Land went into effect, that Arab armies attacked the state the night it was formed, that again in 1967 Israel was forced into war on threat by Arab governments of its annihilation, and that Palestinians controlling the Gaza strip, which Ageel now wants to call home, have been continually pursuing military conflict with Israel, just this week continuing to send missiles into Israeli towns.

Today's Op Ed article is the latest of many that have appeared in the L.A. Times over the years that have taken a position on Middle Eastern issues that was offensive to many in the Los Angeles Jewish community, one of the largest in the world. The present attitude of the paper explains why many Jews do not like or trust the Times. The Chandler family which used to own the paper worked hard to bring the Christian and Jewish communities in Los Angeles together in common pursuits, but since the Chandlers sold out to the Tribune, the paper has editorially become more and more unsympathetic to Israel and to its right to defend itself.

Now, with your ownership, the question must be asked of you: Will this position continue, or will you direct that it be altered?

I hope the answer will be the latter.

Another matter which will be of fundamental importance this coming year is the 2008 election. As owner of the newspaper, it is entirely proper for you to take a position on this and direct that the editorial policy of the Times be in accord with it.

I realize that you are a Republican, but, according to various articles, you have made political contributions in the past to both Republicans and Democrats. The issues this coming year will be many and complex, and it is by no means certain who will emerge finally as the major party candidates. I'm a Republican too, but on many occasions have voted for Democrats, and I think it likely that you have too. Just as I haven't made up my mind how to vote yet, I expect your views may well evolve.

All this is not to say that Times coverage of the political contests in the news columns shouldn't be fair to all, and independently-minded, as Otis Chandler directed when he became publisher of the paper in 1961. But fair and independent news coverage does not mean that the editorial pages can't take a position, and, as I say, I believe that position should be consistent with yours, whatever it may be as the year goes on. You are the owner and you should not abdicate all the responsibilities of ownership.

You've been in business all of your adult life, and obviously you have an interest in seeing to it that the Tribune Co. and its papers and television stations are profitable. So do, naturally, your employees. But in the long run I believe your reputation will be established more on the quality of your papers and the soundness of their editorial policy than on dollars and cents. The L.A. Times in particular has always been profitable, and I would imagine that would continue. The quality of the paper and the soundness of its editorial pages are more in question.

--

Tim Rutten has a powerful column in the L.A. Times Calendar section today raising questions about CNN's conduct of the debate this week between candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Rutten is particularly concerned at the 35-minute concentration at the beginning of the debate on the immigration issue, and he also is critical of questions to the candidates about their religious feelings. I think he is correct when he perceives a CNN attempt to embarrass former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon. Although proposed questions came through Google, there were 5,000 of these, and in picking a very small number of these to actually be asked CNN in effect decided the questions itself.

I too have had several blogs in recent months questioning whether CNN is not chiefly concerned these days with improving its ratings via-a-vis the Fox News network than it is with being a responsible newscaster. The network is bound downhill to moral squalor, and Rutten is correct in suggesting that under these circumstances, some other network ought to be selected to stage the debates.

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