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Howard Kurtz on Newsweek bidders, Helen Thomas gaffe, Gore breakup coverage

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; C01

While journalists get into the business for various reasons -- vicarious thrills, investigative zeal, outsize ego -- ultimately they're at the mercy of the marketplace. And that marketplace seems to have sent a very discouraging message to Newsweek.

But the picture is more complicated than the downbeat media reports last week, perhaps best captured by this Gawker headline: "Bunch of Wackos Bid on Newsweek."

Three companies have been identified as having submitted preliminary bids to The Washington Post Co. by Wednesday's deadline, and none of the firms is particularly impressive in national reach and resources. But a source familiar with the Newsweek situation, who would not be identified discussing private negotiations, says a number of other substantial suitors -- both corporations and wealthy individuals -- have formally expressed interest as well.

With Post Co. executives refusing to discuss the process, the other possible bidders remain shrouded in secrecy. They may or may not wind up pursuing a purchase, but for now, the discussion centers only on those who have confirmed their interest, perhaps for the publicity value.

One is Newsmax, a conservative Web site and monthly favored by Sarah Palin and founded by Christopher Ruddy, who once investigated conspiracy theories that Clinton administration officials Vince Foster and Ron Brown were murdered. Another is Thane Ritchie, an Illinois hedge-fund manager and Ross Perot fan who is angling to start a new political party. The third is OpenGate Capital, a private equity firm that two years ago bought TV Guide for $1. It's hard to imagine any of them supporting Newsweek as a vibrant weekly that could compete with Time.

Sidney Harman, founder of the stereo giant Harman Kardon and husband of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), says he is also exploring a potential bid.

"What you're reading isn't the complete story by any stretch of the imagination," says Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's managing director. She declines to provide details, saying: "Once we get to a point where it's clear, we'll be open about who's in the running."

Based on what has been made public, Michael Parker, managing director of AdMedia Partners, which specializes in media mergers, says: "I'm a little surprised that, shall we say, major players haven't come into this arena, at the very least to take a closer look. Newsweek has huge brand equity in the marketplace, a wonderful reputation editorially." But, he says, potential buyers must be asking: "Who's going to do it better if The Washington Post Company can't figure this out?" The company has owned the magazine since 1961.

The lack of information has bothered some Newsweek staffers, some of whom describe the mood as ranging from stunned to funereal to angry -- the latter emotion fueled by a sense that Editor Jon Meacham erred badly by transforming the newsweekly into an upscale, left-leaning opinion magazine. Meacham has said that in the face of mounting losses -- $44 million since 2007 -- he had no choice but to seek fewer subscribers who would be willing to pay more.

On one level, the situation is a paradox. Here you have a magazine loaded with talent -- from the Pulitzer-winning Meacham (who is pursuing his own bid to buy the magazine) to such media stars as Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, Mike Isikoff, Evan Thomas, Fareed Zakaria and Robert Samuelson -- and few seem willing to bet on its financial future. That amounts to a no-confidence vote not just on the category of newsweeklies, which have long been squeezed between daily papers and in-depth monthlies, but on print journalism itself. The lucrative properties these days are digital, and Newsweek's Web site has long been a flop, both creatively and commercially.

The best bet for Newsweek, whose losses dropped to $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2010, would be a savior such as Bloomberg News. The company founded by New York's mayor recently bought the ailing Business Week for $2.5 million to $5 million and is integrating the weekly into its business empire. The Post Co. publishes no other magazines -- unlike, say, Time Warner, which can sell advertising across multiple titles.

With their silence, Post executives are playing by the cloistered rules of investment bank Allen & Co., apparently concerned that premature disclosure might spook some bidders. The result is a conventional wisdom, to use a phrase popularized by Newsweek, that the magazine smells like a loser.

Columnist denounced

Helen Thomas has sparked a furor by declaring that Jews should abandon Israel. In a video posted last week on a site called RabbiLIVE.com, founded by a Long Island rabbi, the Hearst Newspapers columnist, who's covered the White House seemingly forever, tells an unidentified interviewer that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine."

Asked where they should go, Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, says: "Go home. Poland. Germany. And America and everywhere else."

In a statement, B'nai B'rith President Dennis Glick calls Thomas's remarks "contemptible," saying: "Her distortion of historical reality is astonishing. Her call for Jews to return to Poland and Germany -- site of the Nazi genocide, the worst genocide in modern history -- is beyond offensive."

Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told me that "Hearst should let her go. She should not get a pass for saying something so terrible and offensive."

Former Clinton White House aide Lanny Davis accused Thomas of "an anti-Semitic rant" and asked whether the White House Correspondents Association would yank her credentials "if she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa."

Reached at home, Thomas, 89, said: "I'm very sorry for my remarks. I think I crossed the line. I made a mistake."

Celebrity breakup

It was being covered, a longtime aide to Al Gore noted, like Brad and Angelina had called it quits.

The news that a man who left public office a decade ago was splitting up with his wife -- without any hint of scandal -- landed on the front page of The Washington Post and USA Today, on all three network newscasts, on all manner of cable shows. But why?

The answer is that the saga of Al and Tipper has struck a cultural nerve, not least with the people who chronicle such things.

"The news came today as a shock," said NBC's Brian Williams. "Just a few days ago, they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary," said ABC's Diane Sawyer. And if the Gores couldn't make it, writes Melinda Henneberger, editor in chief of Politics Daily, "what, if anything, does that mean for the rest of us?"

Of course, journalists excel at larding a gossipy tale with all kinds of social significance to justify their involvement. Thus, the New York Times quoted McGill University's Gil Troy as saying that in seeking a divorce, the former vice president and his wife are committing "the iconic baby boomer act." Well, maybe. Or maybe they are just another unhappy couple who drifted apart.

That is the problem with what passes for media analysis on this story: No one, especially the talking heads, really knows what happened. Newsweek's Howard Fineman called the Gores an "odd couple" whose marriage seems "the quirky, unstable leftover of their youths in the capital." One conscientious objector, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, insisted we should "just leave these people alone."

There were the inevitable comparisons to the Clintons -- Bill and Hillary's marriage was the one that was expected to implode after the Monica Lewinsky fiasco, while the Gores were portrayed as the role models: solid, stable and seemingly immune to such temptations as a thong-snapping intern delivering pizza.

In the Facebook age, we all think we "know" our politicians. But whatever the carefully constructed image, friction in a marriage can remain safely hidden from public view.

What made the split an ideal television story was The Kiss -- the convention lip lock in 2000 that the media hyped into a turning point, and which now provides a poignant video loop for a failed marriage.

After coming within a few chads of the presidency, Al Gore has been in the public eye only intermittently -- his film "An Inconvenient Truth" capturing an Oscar, his climate-change campaign winning him a Nobel Prize -- while Tipper Gore, who once led a crusade against raunchy lyrics, has receded from the spotlight.

That makes the media fascination with the politician turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur hard to explain. Gore is a former reporter who never seemed that comfortable around reporters and who has always kept his emotions in check. Unlike the recent breakups of John and Elizabeth Edwards, or Mark and Jenny Sanford, there was apparently no extramarital soul mate involved. Yet many journalists insisted on casting the dissolution of the marriage as a sign of the times.

It isn't that they care deeply about Al Gore, but that they view the story through a personal prism.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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