Rattling the Cage: The Jerusalem Post's Black years

Former 'Post' owner Conrad Black wasn't a newspaperman, he was an anti-newspaperman.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
I was reading up on Conrad Black and learned that a couple of prominent right-wing journalists are saying his recent criminal conviction was not only a tragedy for him and his many friends and admirers, but a tragedy for journalism as well. Mark Steyn, who was the star columnist of Black's Hollinger newspaper chain, described him as a "great newspaperman." Seth Lipsky, editor of the New York Sun, where Black was an investor, went so far as to call him "one of the greatest newspapermen of his, or any, time." There's nothing in Steyn's National Review article or Lipsky's tribute in the Sun that spells out what made Black such a great newspaperman, so I think what they might really mean is that he was a great right-winger who served the cause by advancing it in his hundreds of newspapers. And since for such people being right-wing includes being pro-Israel in a way that's pretty much synonymous with being anti-Arab, I'm sure Steyn and Lipsky consider the pro-Israel/anti-Arab sentiments of Black's influential wife, Barbara Amiel, to be part of what made him such a great newspaperman, one of the greatest. AS YOU probably know, the newspaper you are reading was one of Conrad Black's. With his longtime junior partner, David Radler, he bought it for Hollinger in 1990. They owned it for 14 years until their indictment for major corporate crimes, which forced them to give up the business. Because of its name recognition, its being published in Israel, and its high profile and influence among Jews and conservatives worldwide, the Post was one of Hollinger's most important newspapers. And today it remains a rightward-leaning Israeli newspaper. Many journalists who worked here during the Hollinger regime, and many who still work here, are Israeli right-wingers; some are probably even further right than Steyn, Lipsky, Amiel, Radler or Black. Yet no lament was heard in the The Jerusalem Post newsroom after Black was convicted last month. In fact, when he and Radler were indicted in 2004, there was outright jubilation. Right-wingers, left-wingers and centrists, religious and secular, the entire Jerusalem Post rainbow nation rejoiced that the senior and junior heads of Hollinger were finally going to get theirs. It was sweet revenge, vindication of everything we'd been saying about them for years. FOR ANYONE interested, I invite you to ask any journalist who worked at the Post between 1990 and 2004 to give their opinion of Conrad Black as a newspaperman. I can guarantee what the spirit of the answer will be: As a newspaperman, he was a butcher. A bloodsucker. A destroyer. He wasn't a newspaperman, he was an anti-newspaperman. Black wasn't solely to blame for trashing the Post. He delegated the dirty work to Radler, who in turn delegated much of it to publisher Tom Rose (whose firing in Hollinger's final days also set off celebrations here). But Black was the regime's ruler; ultimately, the Post's degradation during those 14 years was his doing. He showed he was "great," above all, at firing and driving away outstanding journalists. He was prolific; he got rid of dozens upon dozens of journalists who went on to do excellent work at other publications. He was thorough; his victims accounted for a very large majority of the best people who passed through the Post during those years. Whenever I want to make my colleagues heartsick, I start going down the list of our former colleagues who were cast out by Black, and I ask them to imagine what The Jerusalem Post, as good as it is, would be today if those people, or even a portion of them, were still here. Now that I think about it, Black wasn't really particular about firing outstanding journalists - he fired everybody he could. His goal was always to put out the newspaper with the fewest employees and at the least expense possible. He cut the number of journalists, production workers, technicians, salespeople and administrative staff down to the absolute bone. He saved more money by letting the plant, the production technology - the computers, the phones, everything - go to hell. HE DIDN'T care about journalism, he didn't care about the people who worked for him - he only cared about taking every cent out of the newspaper that he possibly could. Steyn and Lipsky should know that right-wing politics counted for nothing with Black if it stood in the way of his greed; he fired right-wing journalists - some brilliant ones, too - as eagerly as he did leftists. In fact, the one thing I can say in Black's defense is that while he made the Post right-wing on balance, he didn't make it monolithically right-wing. The opinion pages always had a substantial leftist presence; nobody ever told me how to write my op-eds. And during times when the editors were more centrist than rightist, the paper's editorial slant changed accordingly. No, for Black, money was the thing at The Jerusalem Post. For a while, at the beginning, he had a lot of defenders here who said, with at least some justification, that Hollinger had a right to make deep cuts because the previous owner, the Histadrut, had spent far more on the paper than it earned. There was a lot of waste at the Post, it was pointed out, and Hollinger was entitled to cut away at it and try to make money for its stockholders. BUT THE CUTS went on for 14 years. Finally, when the indictments came down in 2004, we learned what Black and Radler had in mind with the money they drained from The Jerusalem Post and its employees - it wasn't for Hollinger's profitability or stock prices, it was for their own personal, insatiable whims. In Black's case, the money went toward such expenses as a vacation in Bora Bora for $565,000 (of which he charged half to Hollinger as a business expense), and a birthday party for his wife at a Manhattan restaurant for $62,000 (of which he charged Hollinger two-thirds). The worst abuse, though, by far, was Radler's taking $75,000 from the Post - including $25,000 from the paper's Forget Me Not charity fund for needy children - to buy himself an honorary doctorate at Haifa University, which has since returned the money. I think one of the things that make Black the perfect villain, someone the public loves to hate and longs to see punished, is the set expression of contempt on his face. The public isn't reading anything into that; he is a contemptuous man, more specifically a contemptuous newspaperman. He showed nothing but contempt for The Jerusalem Post and everyone who worked here, and he was reputedly no different toward his hundreds of other newspapers and thousands of other employees. For journalism, Black's downfall wasn't a tragedy, it was a gift from God. THERE'S ONE other misconception about him that ought to be cleared up - that he was a friend of Israel. Maybe in his words he was, but in his deeds? In his deeds he went as far as he could to gut an Israeli newspaper that's been around for 75 years, one that's very important to this country and the Diaspora. Furthermore, he fired hundreds of Israelis, he destabilized hundreds of Israeli families, for nothing but his own greed. He had more money than even his wife could spend, yet for 14 years he fired as many Jerusalem Post employees as he could manage. No, Lord Black of Crossharbour isn't a friend of Israel; he's as contemptuous of Israelis as he is of anybody else. He's due to be sentenced on November 30. He could get up to 35 years in prison for fraud and obstruction of justice. I wish the Post would throw a party that day and invite all the hundreds of people Black pushed out of here to come to the newsroom and wait for news of the verdict. I guess it's just a fantasy. But reality ought to be festive enough. There will be dozens of current Post employees, many of them Hollinger survivors, in the newsroom on the day of Black's sentencing. All will be newspapermen and newspaperwomen, all of them pro-Israel - right-wingers, left-wingers and centrists, religious and secular, all sharing the same hope or prayer. And on that day, God willing, when a roar of exultation is suddenly heard from the old Jerusalem Post building on Yermiyahu Street, it will mean that there is still some justice in the world.