Can anyone buy all the news that's fit to print?
Flamboyant Saul Steinberg seems to think so. And he isn't talking about buying just a copy of The New York Times.
For starters, the company Steinberg heads -- the Reliance Group, a sprawling insurance complex with roughly $3 billion of assets -- has bought 5.2 percent of the Class-A common stock of The Times Co., the newspaper's parent company.
All told, Reliance shelled out about $21 million for the purchase of 587,000 Class-A shares, which at presstime were selling at around 35-l/2.
Sources tell me Steinberg's next step in his pitch for The Times call for Reliance to fatten its Times holdings to around 25 to 30 percent, spending in the process about $100 million.
The usually loquacious Steinberg wouldn't say a word when I rang him up. And all The Times would say is that Steinberg and Times Chairman Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger met and that The Times is studying the situation.
The unreported meeting, a luncheon get-together at Times offices last Monday, was hardly one designed to inflate Steinberg's already well-inflated ego. In fact, a couple of incidents at the meeting so angered him, sources tell me, that he had Reliance that very day buy up another 350,000 Times shares at 38, thus raising the firm's holdings to 5.2 percent.
And that purchase -- made at the stock's high of the year and about 8 points higher than the security was selling at just about a week earlier -- led to the subsequent announcement of the purchase.
"It was an ego thing," says one source close to Steinberg. Saul wanted to show them he wasn't going to take any of their nonsense . . . ."
One of the incidents that disturbed Steinberg, so I'm told, was an apparent change of heart by Sulzberger.
A couple of weeks earlier, according to reports, Sultzberger had told Steinberg he had no objection to Reliance taking a major position in Times stock. But then at the luncheon, the Times boss told Steinberg that his associates had since advised him that such a purchase could prove unsettling to Times staffers. And he asked Steinberg to confine his purchases of Times stock to 5 percent.
An unhappy Steinberg, who had three drinks at the meeting (all vodkas on the rocks), is reported to have responded to Sulzberger: "I'd defend with my life your right to a free press, and I know you'd defend with your life free enterprise and my right to buy Times stock."
The windup: Sources say an agreement was being drafted at press time which calls for Reliance's shares in The Times to be placed in a voting trust that would essentially be controlled by Sulzberger until he's 65. He's currently 54. In turn, there would be no restrictions on the amount of purchases of Times shares by Reliance.
Whether the agreement comes off or not, Reliance, so I'm told, will definitely increase its Times holdings.