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(photo credit: AP)
I never met Conrad Black, who was sentenced last week to a 6 1/2-year prison term for obstruction of justice and fraud, but I did once have an exchange of letters with him that accounts for the considerable empathy I have for him in his current plight.
His takeover in 1990 of the Jerusalem Post, long a left-of-center bastion, was protested by most of the editorial staff members and many of them quit. As one of the most veteran staffers who remained, I wrote Black in London a month after the new management was installed to express my concern at the sharp turn to the Right of the Post's editorial position. I feared that the paper's credibility and reputation were rapidly being eroded by the right-wing triumphalism flaunted in the editorials and by the fact that almost all the op-eds now appearing were from the Right.
I acknowledged in the letter that I myself had left-wing views and that I was writing only in my own name although I believed that most of my colleagues at the paper shared my concern.
Somewhat to my surprise, I received a reply. In his current circumstances, I do not believe Black would object to my discussing its contents.
Although only a month had passed since I sent my letter, he twice apologized for his delay in responding and attributed it to "discreet research" about the newspaper that he had been conducting during and after a visit to Jerusalem. Any such research would easily have established that I was just another underpaid reporter who had no representational status and merited no special attention. From his respectful tone, however, I might have been sitting on the board of Hollinger alongside Henry Kissinger.
Distancing himself from my reservations about the abrasiveness of the new editorial style - "you will appreciate your views are not shared by all other readers" - he contended that a departure from the previous left-wing editorial policy had been called for. "It is a widely held view, especially by readers of the international edition who have made their opinions forcefully known to me, that some adjustment to achieve greater balance was called for."
NEVERTHELESS, he wrote, he had consulted with supporters of the paper's previous regime, including former foreign minister Abba Eban and Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and had spoken of the necessity of achieving editorial balance with the editor, the editorials editor and the publisher.
"I detect no dissent from my strongly held view that we must avoid the course that you caution me against in your letter to seem to lurch from the far-Left to the far-Right. There is nothing wrong with a moderately conservative view, provided that it is sensible, balanced and respects inconvenient fact."
One of the surest ways to judge a man's character is how he behaves toward those over whom he holds power. Black could easily have ignored my letter or responded with a snub or even a letter of dismissal. Instead, he responded thoughtfully, at some length and without condescension. He acknowledged that the paper had lost talented staff members but said he was determined to replace them with journalists of equal talent.
Black sent a copy of my letter to his partner and future nemesis, David Radler, who would deal directly with the Jerusalem Post on behalf of Hollinger Inc. over the coming years. Radler in turn wrote me to say there was no attempt to increase the quantity of right-wing views appearing in the paper. "In fact, we have done everything in our power to increase the number of left-wing writers."
In time, indeed, left-wing writers would come to feel comfortable again about submitting opinion pieces to the newspaper, which achieved a rough balance.
I have not followed the intricacies of Black's trial but I have been taken aback by the venom directed at him in blogs and the media.
Schadenfreude at the toppling of the rich and powerful is inevitable but the feeding frenzy around Black's public corpse seems aimed at depriving him of any human dimension. Although it may rank as one of those "inconvenient facts" he alluded to in his letter, from the narrow perspective of an underling who happened once to cross this tycoon's path my image of Conrad Black is of a man who, whatever his legal transgressions, knows how to give respect and therefore deserves respect. In short, a mensch.
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