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Michael Sigman

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Owners Say the Darndest Things

Posted: 07/27/11 04:47 PM ET

That Rupert Murdoch has always coveted power and money over ideology is best demonstrated by remembering that from 1977-85, he owned the Village Voice. And the News Corp chief pretty much allowed what was then the premier paper of the Left to thrive on its own terms. David Schneiderman, the Voice's editor during much of that time, liked to tell the story of Murdoch's half-hearted attempt to influence editorial content. Summoned to the owner's office one day, Schneiderman was instructed to fire a certain writer -- I think it was Voice media critic Alex Cockburn. When Schneiderman refused, the best that the Vlad the Impaler of journalism could manage was to threaten, "If you don't fire [the writer], I'll sell this paper to someone even worse than me."

Murdoch did eventually sell the Voice -- for a huge profit and, by almost any standard, to someone far better than he. But that was all about power -- the FCC wouldn't let him buy a New York radio station unless he sold off one of his New York pubs. The new owner, Hartz Mountain pet food magnate and billionaire Leonard Stern -- who later bought LA Weekly and became the best owner I ever worked for -- was known to instruct his HM sales force to make sure the canine treats were displayed on the lower shelves of grocery stores, "where the dogs could see them."

Jay Levin, the owner for whom I toiled at LA Weekly before Leonard arrived on the scene, was a sometimes visionary, often difficult guy who gave power with one hand while seizing it back with the other. At the height of our biggest fight, Jay expressed his frustration with me in memo form. He began by noting that though he was unhappy with my performance, he had a plan for how I could improve: "But I want to hear your ideas first," he wrote. The very next sentence -- which began, "My idea is..."-- provided chapter and verse of his way or the highway.

In 2000, Leonard sold the Voice and the Weekly, for a huge profit, to Goldman Sachs and several other bankers. These owners, who seemed more like embodiments of numbers than actual humans, were prone to such phrases as the annoying "growing the company," the mind-boggling "sticky eyeballs on a platform" and the all-important "exit strategy." Unlike Murdoch, they had zero interest in political influence -- Goldman asked us not to mention their participation, presumably because of that whole left-wing thing.

My early experiences with owners were more hilarious than portentous. When I was in my 20s and a cub reporter for a music magazine, one of the owners assigned me to cover my first convention, the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers, which he and he alone called "The NATRA." He further instructed me to bring "the wife," the better to socialize with sources and "get the story." When I said that I'd see if my then-wife Margie could make it, he stared at me for what seemed a very long time before asking, "Who?"

The other owner of that same magazine was a good man who drank too much. One time, when a staffer came back from lunch falling-down drunk and reported he'd downed eight Bloody Marys, the owner's response was to ask, "How in the world did you drink all that tomato juice?"

In an economy where job security is nonexistent and it's riskier than ever to stand up to horrible bosses, there's usually nothing funny about their carelessly erratic and sometimes cruel behavior. But one finds humor where one can. Randy Newman wrote the satiric gem "Lonely at the Top" for Frank Sinatra, who refused to record it for fear listeners would conclude that Ol' Blue Eyes himself was isolated and lonesome. So Newman, doubling down on the irony, recorded and performed it himself.

 

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