NOT LONG AFTER DEAN BAQUET became editor of the Los Angeles Times, influential entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg sought a meet-and-greet. It was during this lunch that Katzenberg purposefully let slip big news: His DreamWorks partner David Geffen really wanted to buy the newspaper. Baquet was shocked. “How’s he going to feel the first time we review a movie or music produced by a friend of his?” Baquet asked. Katzenberg just laughed.
That was a year ago, and, since then, Geffen’s pursuit of the Tribune Co.’s troubled outpost not only hasn’t flagged, it has fired up, and not just because the paper’s 20 percent profit margin is so much better than the 6 percent earned on bonds. I’m told he’s “very serious” and “pretty confident” about purchasing it someday soon. “He believes that he’s going to be the owner,” an insider explains. That, even though there’s a growing list of fat-cat Angelenos lining up, including Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. But anyone familiar with Hollywood knows how relentless Geffen can be: What David wants, David gets. Says another source: “He has never stopped doing anything until he’s done.”
But the Times’ most pressing problem isn’t whether Geffen or someone else buys it, or Tribune sells it, or Baquet gets fired. Instead, the widespread media coverage has ignored the dangerous game being played with the paper’s integrity between this billionaire boys’ club and Baquet or his surrogates behind closed doors. I’ve even looked into accusations that the Times buried an investigation into one of the potential buyers. It’s all so unseemly: There, in August, was the Times’ own West magazine’s Power Issue giving high placement to every past and present rich guy who’s ever expressed interest in owning the paper: Eli Broad (No. 2, fortune valued at $5.6 billion), Philip Anschutz (No. 6, $6.4 billion), Haim Saban (No. 10, $3.1 billion), Ron Burkle (“who just missed our Top 10,” $2.5 billion), David Geffen (“another enormous name who barely fell out of our Top 10 list,” $4.6 billion) and even Peter Ueberroth (the poorest of the bunch, worth only $50 million). To top it off, Baquet’s name was included on that exclusive roster, thus giving the disturbing impression that he’s playing on their polo field.
Yet it’s a fact that he’s hanging with them at their exclusive business clubs. On September 12, Baquet entered L.A.’s City Club for what he later told people was “a long-standing lunch” with 20-some prominent Angelenos. Normally, such routine meetings, well within the purview of a newspaper editor’s job, wouldn’t rate a second thought. But at this one, Baquet’s presence coincided with the same group of civic leaders’ signing a hyperbolic letter of protest to Baquet’s Chicago-based bosses at the Tribune Co. about additional staff cuts at the Times that “could remove it from the top ranks of American journalism.” Seeing the activity, Baquet tried to sidestep it. “I said, ‘You guys must be signing that petition thing. I can’t talk about that,’ ” he explained later.
Even more troubling has been what are described to me as ongoing “secret” talks between rich-and-powerful Angelenos and one of Baquet’s two handpicked managing editors, Leo Wolinsky. True, his duties include the thankless task of outreach to the readership to stop the newspaper’s circulation nosedive. But I’m told that Wolinsky increasingly has acted as Baquet’s surrogate to drum up local support for a local buyer of the Times. That was certainly the deliberate topic of Wolinsky’s recent meeting with Richard Riordan, the ex-mayor (worth $100 million), who has expressed interest over the years in owning an L.A. newspaper (not just the Times, but even one started from scratch that never got off the ground). Yet here’s Riordan being quoted prominently, and often, in the Times’ own accounts of the Showdown on Spring Street: “It would be in the best interests of Tribune and the best interests of Los Angeles if a sale was completed.”
The Times’ newsroom is abuzz with other boldface names supposedly being courted by Wolinsky, including many who signed that letter of protest. But Wolinsky himself refused to confirm or deny or even discuss the meetings with me. Not only is it strange that while Baquet is making such a big deal about recusing himself from such discussions, Wolinsky isn’t. But also it’s bizarre that they’re both so blind to the obvious need for transparency here. Wolinsky has been overheard saying there’s no reason for him to “put up a red flag” when his conversations turn toward the Times’ purchase. But my info shows that he’s the one playing Twister. After all, he’s got a job to keep. Insiders told me that if Baquet gets fired as editor and executive vice president by his Chicago bosses, then his trusted senior lieutenants — Doug Frantz, John Montorio and, yes, Wolinsky — have agreed to quit on the spot. The trio have what’s being called a “suicide pact.” They feel that they owe Baquet this rather extreme display of their loyalty because he promoted them all in October 2005. Inside and outside the paper, Baquet has been renamed Dean of Arc, and he’s clearly enjoying the meaning behind that moniker as well as his newly national reputation for standing up against editorial cuts. Even if it’s only partially true that he and his surrogates are playing a tawdry game of footsie with the power elite in Los Angeles, he’s putting himself and the paper in the terrible position of owing favors to the most thin-skinned men on Earth. A lot of people in the Times newsroom don’t want to believe it. They think Baquet and his cause are righteous. But even if innocent in this matter, he’s laid himself open to criticism anytime a billionaire on that list of past or present would-be buyers gets a break from the Times.
CASE IN POINT: A TIMES INVESTIGATION of grocery magnate and gossip magnet Ron Burkle that began in April, shortly after his involvement in that Page Six scandal became known. It ended up back-burnered — coincidentally? — after Burkle’s name surfaced as one of the paper’s billionaire suitors. I’ve obtained some of the e-mail exchanges between the staff writer, veteran investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich, and one of his sources. They offer a rare glimpse into the progress of a Times probe of a secretive personality who’s been prominent in the news for a variety of other reasons all year: his name surfacing in The New York Times in connection with the Pellicano scandal, a divorce so messy it resulted in a legislative attempt to shield those court files from public scrutiny, his relationships with high-profile people ranging from ex-President Clinton to supermodels, even a juicy lawsuit filed against him by his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and, of course, Burkle’s mega-investments. While other media outlets began to lavish attention on Burkle, the Times has written sparingly about him.
Rohrlich first introduced himself to the source in April with an e-mail saying he’d been assigned to the Burkle story “over the long haul.” Several interviews ensued. Then, on May 1, Times media reporter James Rainey wrote a story headlined “Far From a Passive Observer of Media; Billionaire Ron Burkle says his run-ins with the press show that he’s committed to integrity.” The next day, on May 2, an e-mail from the source to Rohrlich asked about his progress. Rohrlich replied, “A lot of progress. Supposed to sit down with Burkle on May 3rd.” That day, Rohrlich had what was described as a three-hour off-the-record chat with Burkle during which the reporter in advance pledged “for darn sure” to ask tough questions. On May 4, Rohrlich made clear that nothing said at that meeting by Burkle “was persuasive enough to drive the story off its track.” And, in another e-mail that day, the reporter said about the story, “The substance of this stuff is getting mighty interesting . . . I think it’s going to produce really good stuff — and sooner rather than later.”
Meanwhile, Rohrlich was apprised that both New York magazine and The New York Times were looking into Burkle. On May 11, Rohrlich revealed that he’d tried to speak to Burkle’s estranged wife, Janet, but she wouldn’t talk to him. On May 18, Rohrlich wrote that he hoped to see the Burkle divorce files, because their thousands of pages were being unsealed. That day, the Times published a story by another reporter headlined “Billionaire’s Divorce Deemed No State Secret; The California Supreme Court lets stand a lower court ruling that a politically connected investor can’t have his records sealed.”
On May 24, asked by the source if everything was cool with the story, Rohrlich responded, “cool as a cuke.” Also that day, the reporter assured his insider: “Don’t worry. I’m not playing into anyone’s hands. Just doing my work, like I always do — thoroughly.”
But on May 31, local media reported that a man who claimed he’d dated Burkle’s estranged wife was suing Burkle for being behind a police search that led to the boyfriend’s arrest. The Times did not cover the lawsuit, however.
Rohrlich’s e-mails to the source stopped on June 2. On June 14, the Times published an article, headlined “Talk Grows of Possible Sale of L.A. Times; Local investors express interest in bidding for the Tribune Co. paper amid a boardroom rift,” mentioning Burkle’s interest in buying the paper in the third paragraph. The next day, on June 15, asked in an e-mail by the source whether the reporter was still on the beat, Rohrlich never responded. Meanwhile, he has not published a Burkle article and rebuffed my attempt to speak to him.
Granted, such things are never black and white with a newspaper; as a veteran of bigtime media, including the Times, I can personally attest that editorial decisions to back-burner, or even kill, stories more frequently occur because of inattention or incompetence than because of conspiracy. I’m told that Baquet strenuously denies that he killed the Burkle probe, but does admit back-burnering it because he wasn’t convinced his reporter “had the story.” I’ve learned that Rohrlich and Baquet are going to talk about the probe again.
I do know this as well: Baquet has met Burkle only once, when the billionaire came to Spring Street to complain that the paper kept referring to the divorce-shield legislation as “Burkle’s bill.” Burkle sat down with Baquet and Doug Frantz; I’m told that, in the course of that conversation, he “may have mentioned Ted’s story in passing. But the paper’s ownership never came up.”
As for the other billionaire suitors, I’m told that Baquet has met about five times with Eli Broad, who a year ago hosted a reception for the newly named editor at an old-money club and more recently introduced the paper’s brass to the new director of LACMA. “And in the course of conversation with Baquet and [Times publisher] Jeff Johnson, in passing they discussed that the L.A. Times should be locally owned,” an insider said. Baquet, meanwhile, has never met David Geffen. “But if David Geffen called me up tomorrow and said, ‘I want to have lunch,’ I’d probably have lunch with him,” Baquet was overheard saying. “After all, I’m the editor of the L.A. Times.”
True, but that’s exactly why this is all such an ethical dilemma too.