Jan
01
1993

Zuckerman Unbound

A Developer/Publisher Brings His Influence to the Daily News

Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News when the paper was bought by real estate developer/publisher Mort Zuckerman, wrote an angry column about the purchase that never appeared in his paper (New York Newsday, 12/2/92). It began with the words, "Some people never get accustomed to having a bully's foot on their back without trying to shove it back in their mouth."

Though not all his potential employees were that outspoken, journalists had grounds to be resentful about Zuckerman's takeover of the Daily News. As Extra! went to press, conflicts with major unions at the paper had still not been resolved, with Zuckerman threatening to fire all 540 members of the Newspaper Guild and make them reapply for their own jobs.

News consumers also have reason to be wary of Zuckerman, who already owns U.S. News & World Report and the Atlantic, taking over another media outlet. As an owner, he has a history of imposing his views on news content, sometimes in defiance of journalistic standards or in pursuit of personal interests. Zuckerman declined to discuss his history as a media owner with Extra!.

Get the Money Upfront

Zuckerman's first major media purchase was the Atlantic, bought in 1980 with the promise that he would retain the existing staff (New York Times, 2/14/82). Two weeks after Zuckerman took control, editor Robert Manning learned that Zuckerman had already started looking for a replacement. Six months later, Manning was gone, his contract scrapped (New York Observer, 11/16/92).

After taking over, Zuckerman demanded that the price be renegotiated, citing a $500,000 loss the first year above what was expected. "He was just trying to bully," said Marion Campbell, the previous owner. It took seven years in the courts for Zuckerman to pay the $2 million he still owed (Barrons, 11/20/87).

Manning's advice for employees at the Daily News (Newsday, 10/19/92): "Get the money upfront.... He's got this knack for signing deals, shaking hands, and then, after it's all done, to say, 'Now the negotiations begin.'"

In 1984, Zuckerman bought U.S. News & World Report, the nation's third largest weekly. He soon became the George Steinbrenner of journalism, running through five editors in his first five years. By that point, 80 percent of the entire news staff had left (Washington Post, 5/1/89).

"The first time he addressed the staff, he had this warm look in his eye, and he was telling us how much he respected us and was hoping we'd all stay with him," a former senior editor told the Washington Journalism Review (10/92). "It was a little shocking to start hearing a few weeks later he was planning to replace us all." Zuckerman defended his firings to the media journal: "I think everyone who left the magazine did so because we found they were inadequate to the very new standards we had set."

Less than two weeks after Zuckerman bought U.S. News from its employees, Zuckerman tried to use money from the pension plan to pay legal costs associated with the takeover--a move one employee described as "a real stab in the back" (Washington Post, 10/26/84). He had also promised when he came on that he would never be editor-in-chief--a title he assumed a year later (Washington Post, 5/1/89).

What Kind of Influence?

One former editor of U.S. News, Roger Rosenblatt, defended Zuckerman's role as a hands-on owner. "I don't think one fairly questions the exercise of influence of somebody who pays tens or hundreds of millions for a publication," he told Extra!. "I think they have a right to exercise influence. I think the only question you want to ask is what kind of influence they exercise, and that is only told by experience."

Zuckerman has never been shy about promoting a political line in his publications, particularly on the issue of the Middle East. After buying The Atlantic, he issued a ban on articles that, in Zuckerman's estimation, "challenge Israel's right to exist." Prior to his move toward neo-conservatism, he had reneged on a commitment to invest $10,000 in the Nation after taking offense at an article about Israel's military and commercial ties to South Africa (New York Times, 2/14/82).

In a U.S. News editorial (11/12/90), Zuckerman chastised the press for bias against Israel in the Al Aqsa/Temple Mount incident, giving an account of the supposed stoning of Jewish worshipers that was later completely contradicted by an Israeli government inquiry. After 60 Minutes (12/2/90) aired videotape showing that the plaza below the wall was virtually empty when rocks were thrown, Zuckerman (with ABC's Barbara Walters) berated 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt at a private dinner party. Asked to explain, Zuckerman said he felt no need to be objective about Israel, because "I write editorials, which by definition are opinion" (Newsweek, 12/17/90).

Under Zuckerman, U.S. News had a contract with a dubious Israeli news service called Depth, drawing criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review (5-6/88). Part of the reason Zuckerman used Depth, one U.S. News staffer told Washington Journalism Review (10/92), was so he "could get stories that would say the kinds of things he wanted them to say."

The news service was the source of a U.S. News cover story entitled "The Ayatollah's Big Sting" (3/30/87), which claimed that Iran had duped the U.S. into the arms-for-hostages deal, minimizing the responsibility of the U.S. and Israel. No reporter was willing to take credit for the 11-page piece; one editor told Columbia Journalism Review that "the pressure for using it came from Zuckerman." Zuckerman defended the story, saying that it had an "impeccable" source; it turns out that that source may have been Ronald Reagan (Washington Journalism Review, 10/92).

Zuckerman's intolerance for views other than his own apparently is not limited to the Mideast. Former U.S. News columnist Edwin Yoder told the Washington Post (5/1/89) he felt his column was scrapped in 1986 because his views differed from those of Zuckerman and then-editor (and former Reagan aide) David Gergen on issues like support for the Nicaraguan Contras. When he wrote a column mocking then-Attorney General Ed Meese's views on the Constitution, Yoder said, it "was the straw that broke the camel's back"; the piece never ran, and the column was terminated.

"Power of a Publisher"

At other times, Zuckerman has used his power of ownership to influence coverage of issues that he had a personal stake in. A U.S. News story on the decline of California's real estate market was reportedly scaled down after concerns were raised that the story could cause further harm to that market--a market that Zuckerman's development company, Boston Properties, has a sizable stake in (GQ, 11/90).

When Zuckerman tried to build on a piece of land near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, provoking major opposition led by singer/songwriter Don Henley, U.S. News was the only one of the three major newsweeklies that didn't do a story on the controversy (Newsweek, 4/30/90; Time, 8/27/90). Richard Lingeman of the Nation (10/28/91) pointed out the irony of the owner of the Atlantic, which first published some of H.D. Thoreau's most memorable essays, attempting to build an office complex on one of Thoreau's favorite spots.

When Zuckerman's plans to build a Manhattan skyscraper that would overshadow Central Park were being opposed by a community coalition led in part by local resident Bill Moyers, a senior reporter at U.S. News was allegedly asked to dig up dirt on Moyers. The request that was said to come from Zuckerman himself. The reporter refused the assignment and no story appeared (GQ, 11/90).

When asked about the Moyers story, David Gergen, U.S. News' editor at the time, responded, "There may have been a research request on that; I don't recall what prompted it." Later, both Gergen and Zuckerman denied there had been any request. Moyers himself commented on the allegation (GQ, 2/91): "Every journalist should shudder at the prospect of an owner willing to use his power as a publisher to serve his interest as a developer."

Zuckerman is also adept at using personal ties to get favorable coverage in other people's publications. When Jane Perlez wrote an unflattering profile of Zuckerman for the New York Times (8/5/85), Zuckerman called up the Times' then-executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, who had had dinner with Zuckerman just a few days earlier (Fortune, 10/14/85). The result was a lengthy editor's note apologizing for the profile that Newsweek called "obsequious" and Newsday columnist Murray Kempton called a "genuine rudeness to Perlez." (See Washington Post, 1/8/86.)

What a Journalist Really Is

David Halberstam told Extra! that he saw Zuckerman as "a sad little man...who likes to think of himself as a journalist but doesn't have any earthly idea what a journalist really is." Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, on the other hand, said that "Mort Zuckerman is obviously the most important journalist in Washington" (Washington Post, 4/29/91).

That there is some truth to both views--that Zuckerman is an important journalist who doesn't know what a journalist is--is illustrated by the comments made by Zuckerman praising the restrictions imposed on the press during the Gulf War (MagazineWeek, 3/18/91; Newsday, 3/22/91).

Saying he was "absolutely thrilled" with the information provided to the press, Zuckerman continued, "The press, in my judgment, is petulant, self-concerned, self-centered, and really downright silly, particularly when you compare the rather mature intelligence of some of the military briefers...to the stupidity of some of the questioners." He described the lawsuit brought by independent media seeking to overturn censorship rules as "carping," saying, "I don't know what in the world they were complaining about."

SIDEBAR:

Zuckerman on Zuckerman

"I don't cooperate with female reporters. They all ask the same thing: Why is a man like me not married, and why am I still searching for the perfect woman? All they really want to know is why aren't I married to them." (GQ, 11/90)

"I would only marry a woman who reads the New York Times." (Washington Post, 5/1/89)

On being a developer: "You literally do what a writer or painter does. You take a design form and freeze it on a city's skyline." (MacLean's, 1/27/86)