London, April 20, 2007
A yiddishe revolution in America's media
The colonel loathed the wartime US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he viewed as being in cahoots with the British and a traitor to his social class. In McCormick's view, FDR was unsound because he was in thrall to the Jews. Now, after a very public auction, the Tribune Company has fallen into the hands of a very Jewish entrepreneur, Sam Zell, described by the American Jewish paper The Forward as a "billionaire boychik".
At the state-of-the-art Washington bureau of the main titles, the reporters in their gleaming steel work pods regard the arrival of Zell as the second coming. Uncertainty is the enemy of newspapers and ever since the Tribune group was put on the block, there has been nervousness about new ownership.
Zell, described by Forbes magazine as the 52nd-richest man in America, is as Jewish as you can get. The son of Polish refugees from the Shoah, he attends a traditional synagogue regularly, is a big donor to Israeli- and Jewish causes and made most of his money in property. But unlike many Jewish philanthropists, he shows little interest in associating with the rich and the great, eschews the idea of having his name plastered across donated buildings, and at the age of 65 years he still prefers denim to Brooks Brothers.
Even though Zell is a neophyte when it comes to the press, he has eased concerns with plans for an employee shareholder ownership plan which would give workers a stake in the enterprise and incentivise them to "deliver the goods".
In the financial world, Zell, whose original family name was Zielonka, is known as the "grave dancer" because of his success in picking up burnt-out businesses, cutting costs, fixing them up and turning them around.
It might have been thought that the Tribune company -- which aside from its main newspaper titles also owns 25 television stations, the Chicago Cubs baseball team and its historic ground, Wrigley Field -- is hardly the kind of burnt-out business in which Zell specialises. But most American big-city newspapers are currently regarded as in the emergency ward.
Circulations even for emblematic titles like the Los Angeles Times have been tumbling, advertising revenues are under pressure from the Internet and the magic pill of making online news and information pay is still a long way off. The days when the Chandler family, founders of the LA Times, ruled over California's media have gone. The family, which dominated California's power elites, sold the paper to the Tribune in 2000, ending a 120-year association.
This title, like the Chicago Tribune, was also known for its trditional, preppie background and its disdain for Hollywood and things Jewish.
Yet in many ways, the LA Times ought to be the jewel in the crown of Tribune. It ranks alongside the Washington Post and New York Times in the annals of quality journalism in the United States. Its reputation began to suffer when it became part of a media conglomerate, losing the special edge which comes with local ownership.
Indeed, it is thought that Zell could recover some of his investment rapidly were he to sell the paper on to another Jewish tycoon, the movie and record producer David Geffen, one of the founders of Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg.
The scenario is favoured by some of the paper's workforce. Geffen is much more of a political figure than Zell, having been an early supporter of Bill Clinton. More recently, he raised $1.3 million (£650,000) for Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama at a star-studded Hollywood fundraiser.
Were Geffen to acquire the LA Times, it would be a transformational deal.
The big question for British Jews when the Telegraph changed hands in 2004 was whether the new owners, the Barclay brothers, would be as friendly towards Israel and the Zionist cause as Lord Black. Among British media, which are often hard on Israel, the Black Telegraph had been a beacon of fairness. The US media are very different. They generally start from the point of view that Israel is a good thing, an exemplar of democracy in a crazy part of the world and, crucially, an important strategic ally of the United States.
Yet the histories of the Chicago Tribune, banned from many Jewish households over the decades, and the LA Times have been very different, despite the large Jewish populations in their respective cities. Ownership by Zell and possibly by Geffen, if the LA Times is disposed of, would be likely to change the complexion of the papers.
Zell and Geffen may not be traditional newspaper proprietors, but both are overtly Jewish and pro-Israel. They would bring a different perspective to the previous American first-owning families, whose culture still lingers on the fringes.
Zell insists he will leave journalism to those who know about it. But newspaper proprietors always find it hard to keep their hands out of the cookie jar.
Alex Brummer is City Editor /DAILY MAIL