Between the Lines: A Black day of judgment

The Jerusalem Post, too, was a victim of the harsh approach of Conrad Black.

conrad black 224 88 (photo credit: )
conrad black 224 88
(photo credit: )
Since The Jerusalem Post had a role of sorts in one of the big international media stories this week, it's appropriate to make some comment here on the sentencing of Conrad Black to six-and-half-years imprisonment, after being convicted in a Chicago federal court on charges of fraud and obstructing justice. For 15 years, until 2004, the Post was owned Hollinger, the international newspaper company founded and headed by Black, and almost every profile of him listed it among his trophy properties. In truth, he had almost nothing directly to do with this paper, content to leave it under the control of his (Jewish) partner David Radler, who earlier turned state's witness against Black in return for his own prison sentence of 29 months. Still, Hollinger's tenure was a decisive one in the history of this paper, and some kind of journalistic evaluation of Black is called for from these quarters now that the saga of his downfall from media mogul-dom has reached its dark conclusion. Black, who famously expressed contempt for journalists as "ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised hacks," nevertheless has a handful of defenders in the profession, most former employees such as columnists Mark Steyn and Robert Fulford. "Just about everyone who worked for him [Black] eventually grasped that he was ambitious in the best sense," wrote Fulford this week in Toronto's National Post. "Unlike nine out of 10 publishers, he was interested above all in making good newspapers, and he asked of his employees only that they care as much about quality as he did." Even if true, that applied only to The Daily Telegraph and National Post, which he viewed as key vehicles for his political aims and social advancement. Black was content to leave every other paper in his empire to the decidedly non-tender hands of Radler, who certainly didn't share those values. The most notable impact evident to readers of Hollinger's tenure as owners of The Jerusalem Post was this paper's editorial turn rightward, in line with the conservative views strongly held by Black and Radler. It's quite likely though, given the general ideological shift of this paper's natural readership, such a change would have eventually come about without them. Those working here during this era faced a constant struggle to put out the best newspaper possible in the face of Radler's relentless and ruthless cost-cutting. To be fair, the Post Hollinger inherited was beset by serious financial problems, and the entire newspaper industry has gone through a similar period of retrenchment. But that doesn't excuse the sometimes unnecessarily cruel and callous manner in which Radler and his minions went about their business - for example, denying proper benefits to the widow of a veteran employee, who then had to seek recourse in legal action against the paper. Nor does it exculpate the two examples of corporate malfeasance connected with the Post that were cited at Black's trial - the diverting of money from its charity funds (contributed by readers) to make personal donations in Radler's name, and the hiring of his daughter as an employee with salary and benefits well above those of other staff members, who were made to take pay cuts during the same period. One of the defenses offered by Black's lawyers at the trial was his supposed ignorance of the fraudulent financial machinations engineered by Radler - including the sale of Hollinger media properties from which both men pocketed millions in the form of a "non-competition" fee, in which they essentially pledged not to compete with themselves. I know of at least two instances in which senior Post executives personally expressed their serious concerns about Radler's business practices in face-to-face meetings with Black, only to be completely brushed off - so this particular line of defense certainly doesn't hold water. Yet nothing is black and white in this world, even the Black saga. Another of his defenders (and benefactees), New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky, is among those who credit him for his staunch defense of Israel over the years. Indeed, Black, along with his wife columnist Barbara Amiel, must be acknowledged in this regard, especially for taking such an unpopular stand in decidedly hostile anti-Zionist British media and intellectual circles. Still, that doesn't obviate his crimes, any more than the fact that someone like Meyer Lansky once gave support to the Zionist cause meant that his other wrongdoings should also be excused. The court has had its say, and the prospect of Black and Radler sitting behind bars for the next few years certainly brings no tears from the eyes of this opinionated hack. THE WINOGRAD Commission continues to release material connected with the way the government and IDF dealt with the media during the Second Lebanon War. This week it was testimony from the chief military censor, Col. Sima Vaknin. Her comments are, to say the least, disturbing. Vaknin basically told the commission that her office is unable to do the job it is tasked with. Part of her criticism was directed at the upper ranks, commanders who seem to feel they are free to talk with the press in a way that, for example, would be unthinkable in the US military. "They [senior officers] did not exactly understand that we were in the middle of a war, and they continued to brief reporters as if we were in the middle of a routine operation," Vaknin said. "During a war, ambiguity is our strength... here, we lost it." Vaknin also echoed the earlier testimony of former IDF spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, criticizing the inept and seemingly haphazard way the military carried out its press briefings. "This could have been handled better. I personally would have taken four people [and trained them how to give briefings]... and then turned them into something more institutionalized." Especially problematic was her comment that her office, with a staff of only 28, was completely inadequate in dealing with the more than 1,000 foreign journalists who covered the war. Vaknin said: "Can I say that the censor knows how to work with the foreign press? The answer is definitely no. I don't have the ability. To tell the truth, I don't even have enough televisions to see everything simultaneously, and I needed to call people at home and ask them to sit and watch Sky News [and] Fox News and to call if there was a problem." Granted, the IDF has its budget issues - but the censor can't afford a few more television sets to watch the international news channels broadcasting live from here during wartime?! Vaknin's admissions are no surprise to reporters and editors who have to work on a daily basis with the IDF censor. Yet despite the professional frustration this sometimes entails, almost everyone, even most journalists, understands that this country's unique security issues require some sort of censorship, especially during military operations. Still, if the censor's office itself says it can't do its job, it's time for the IDF to either step up and see that it can do its duty properly, or simply scrub the whole operation and take its chances with a completely unfettered press. [email protected]