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What’s to stop a new kind of 'family-owned' newspaper?

COMMENTARY | May 13, 2008

A crime family, that is. It may sound far-fetched but there's nothing preventing it. Freedom of the press means freedom to sell to anyone.

By Gilbert Cranberg and Randall Bezanson

Families have left their marks on journalism – the Binghams in Kentucky, the Cowleses in Minnesota and Iowa, the Knights in Detroit, Chicago and Akron, the Ochs-Sulzbergers in New York and elsewhere, and many lesser-known families who passed their papers down through generations. Now, with newspapers increasingly changing hands, could we have a different kind of family entering the business – the crime family?

Imagine the conversation between a member of a crime family and his financial adviser over coffee one morning.

A: Say, did you notice that the new owner of the Chicago Tribune Company is trying to sell a number of newspapers, and also the Cubs?

B: Hmmm. Newspapers? That might be worth thinking about. They cash flow nicely, but don’t make so much profit to attract attention. As a business, they are highly liquid and with all the cash moving through they might be a good vehicle for laundering money.

A: And there are other benefits, now that you have got me thinking. What police department or prosecutor is going to undertake an investigation of a newspaper?

There would be an outcry from the free press defenders. And politicians owe the press too much to take the risk. Just think of all the cash we could disguise in the ad revenues, if we had to.

B: And pay taxes on! Yuk.

A: It’s a small price to pay for the greater security. And there would be plenty of tax loss to cover much of the income.

B: Yeah, and I remember someone saying once that even if it’s unprofitable a newspaper gives the owner respect. We could use that.

A: But what about the Cubs?

B: Forget it. Major League baseball has standards we could never meet.

As far-fetched as a Mafioso-owned newspaper might seem, nothing prevents it. Freedom of the press includes the freedom to sell to anyone; yes, even low-lifes. If a Mafia crime family openly or covertly invests in any of the Tribune Company properties Sam Zell is reportedly interested in unloading, readers and advertisers in those communities could find themselves doing business with hoodlums.

The Newspaper Association of America, the organization of publishers, lacks even a code of ethics or a way to bar criminal types from membership.

While Zell has a free hand to sell his newspapers to anyone, no matter how shady, he can’t do that with the Cubs. Any new major league franchise applicant must pass scrutiny by existing owners, who have to be mindful of the game’s concern about conduct not “in the interests” of baseball. George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, was twice suspended by baseball’s commissioner for behavior the commissioner considered to be inimical to the best interests of the sport.

The “not in the interests of journalism” concept is foreign to the world of a free press, where anyone with enough money can own a newspaper regardless of criminal record or commitment to quality journalism – and get respect in the bargain.

It’s surreal that an institution so essential to democratic society can fall into the hands of money grubbers with no commitment to a community, even criminal types, while communities are powerless to prevent it.

Or are they? Nothing bars a community’s leaders from carefully examining  prospective owners when a newspaper is for sale and weighing in with recommendations. If no buyer seems worthy, those leaders could, and should, recruit a buyer who is.

It’s bizarre – even an outrage – that there are more safeguards over ownership of a baseball team than over who operates the most important First Amendment franchise in town.

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