It was as recently as April that David Geffen attended a reception for the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Nick Lemann, at the Los Angeles home of Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton. I’m told Geffen uninhibitedly demonstrated in front of several guests that his interest in buying the Los Angeles Times was still very much alive and well. Right now, David doesn’t want to talk publicly about what he might, or might not, do, understandably. So it’s been a while since there’s been any substantive word connecting Geffen to a sale of the paper. Until yesterday. His name first surfaced in a September 2005 LAT story reporting the surprising news that Geffen met with parent company Tribune Chief Executive Dennis J. FitzSimons that summer to say he was interested in buying the media outlet. FitzSimons reportedly told the Dreamworks partner it was not for sale. For months, speculation ensued (mostly in the LAT‘s pages). Then, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal wrote that the Chandler family, which owns its Tribune shares through trusts and is at loggerheads with FitzSimons and will become the company’s largest shareholder in the wake of Tribune’s not-very-popular $2 billion stock buyback scheme, is preparing to meet with Geffen and other potential buyers like Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, as well as private-equity and other investors. It’s all an attempt by the family that once ruled the Spring Street roost to create some drama and force a breakup or sale of all or part of Tribune Co.
Let me relate this: One time when I went to talk to Geffen in his Dreamworks office, he was sitting behind his desk and focused on the television. Specifically, he was concentrating on a CNN report about developments in the Middle East. While I took a seat and waited for him to acknowledge me, we sat there in silence listening to the CNN reporter and then anchor for about seven-to-ten minutes. After that, I could tell that he reluctantly pulled himself away from the foreign briefing to deal with the more trivial matter of Hollywood. In this day and age when foreign news holes are becoming smaller and foreign reporting budgets leaner at media outlets across this country, a wannabe owner who cares so deeply about international events bodes well for the LAT. Slate’s Jack Shafer recently coined a term, the “New Vanity Press Moguls,” claiming that typically they are “confident beasts … [who] usually join the game because they’re already bulging at the seams with profitable investments and are bored with their yachts, airplanes, mansions, sports franchises, race horses, and priceless works of art, and they view publications (correctly) as exciting diversions from their conventional holdings. Some vanity moguls buy into journalism for ideological reasons, hoping their investment will move the public debate in their direction. For others, the attraction is political: They’re frustrated politicians who don’t have the time, patience, talent, or resume to sell themselves to voters.” While famously liberal Geffen may well fall into the latter category, he also may be better explained by the category of newshound.
My own greatest fear is that the LAT will be taken over by Philip Anschutz, that Colorado billionaire and Christian conservative whose Clarity Media Group has a new network of Examiner newspapers in San Francisco, Washington DC, and Baltimore. LA would be a natural new expansion since he desperately needs a media shill for his Downtown LA entertainment-sports-housing-hotel holdings and edifices and complexes already put together or still being planned or under construction. Note that Anschutz has already trademarked the name “Examiner” in Los Angeles and dozens of U.S. cities.