Piling on

Emmett Tyrrell

12/4/2003 12:00:00 AM - Emmett Tyrrell

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "Hit ‘em when they're down," is our motto. "Pile on," is our hearty exhortation. Who are we? We are the noble souls of the press. We are the self-described heroes, who write "history's first draft," as daily journalism is called. Yes, perhaps old Henry Ford had something when he described history as "bunk."

I may write in newspapers every week -- when I am not writing in magazines or writing books -- but I am quite confident that I am not a member of the press corps. I only "hit ‘em" when they are standing and capable of hitting back. I would never "pile on."

I avoid group things, and besides there is something cowardly about the journalists' feeding frenzy.

Today, the press is piling on in its coverage of the British and North American press tycoon Conrad Black. The journalists have found that Black's disagreements with members of his boards at his Hollinger corporations have put him under scrutiny by government agencies, and so they "hit ‘em while he's down." No rumor or report of irregularity is too measly for them to inflate into a page-one scream. If everything that has been said against him is wrong, it will take him years to recover his reputation, a legitimately earned reputation as a builder of some of the finest publications in the world. If Black is exonerated, you can be sure the hacks will not be writing about his exoneration on page one.

I have had my own run-ins with Conrad. A few years back we discussed entering into business arrangements, from which I walked away, to his indignation. But I will tell you that in all my dealings with him he was always a gentleman, and after suffering affront from me he showed the mettle of a gentleman and continued our friendship. He can deliver a punch, and he can take a punch.

Now the punches delivered at him are often below the belt. Just the other day in the Wall Street Journal -- on the front page no less! -- a series of low blows was struck. "Hollinger Investments Are Linked to Board's Perle and Kissinger," ran the headline of a story written for the credulous by the credulous. Certainly there was not much intellectual discipline present.

"This board (one of Black's Hollinger boards) has ties that were never disclosed," harrumphs a representative from one of Black's minority shareholders. "If we had known this, we would have said a preponderance of the board was not independent." The "ties" alluded to so melodramatically are ties Black, Kissinger and Perle have had for years, which anyone familiar with Hollinger should have known. Even as reported in the Journal story, they are perfectly unexceptional.

Yet the piling on continues. "Hollinger also made contributions to political causes linked to directors. Hollinger contributed $200,000 annually for an undisclosed number of years to National Interest." That journal is a scholarly publication dealing with international relations at a very high level. It is hardly a "political cause." A few lines later, the Journal continues in its portentous groan: "Hollinger has never disclosed its role in publishing the National Interest." Actually, it has. The masthead of the National Interest describes itself as a "nonprofit partnership between Hollinger International Inc. and the Nixon Center." Moreover, Black and Kissinger have for years been very publicly associated with both the National Interest and the Nixon Library. The Journal's story says so itself!

There are more inflated alarums in the Wall Street Journal story. Hollinger has been donating $375,000 annually to a distinguished London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Another secret arrangement? Perhaps to the enemies of Conrad Black, but the think tank's library is publicly known as Hollinger-Telegraph Library. "Telegraph" refers to the superb newspaper Black publishes in London.

There is nothing secretive or unethical about any of these arrangements at Hollinger. There may be other things amiss, but not in these arrangements. It makes eminently good sense for a media chain to have attachments with scholarly journals and think tanks. If more of our media chains did, they might publish material of a higher intellectual standard. Black is merely being hit while he is down. The noble press is simply "piling on."

Black is a worldly man, the author of a new biography, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," that is being touted as the "definitive" one-volume book on the president. Black is surely well acquainted with the press's feeding frenzies.

"Conrad Black has been a risk taker," one of New York's most respected investors tells me. "He's more than a CEO. He built a worldwide network of newspapers in an industry that is going sideways." Those newspapers are among the best in the world, and they are the most interesting and independent. That is why I hope he can hold them all together. The press acts as a herd. The public is better served by the publisher who remains free of the herd and stands up to bullies.