A Chicago Trial

Posted: Mar 29, 2007 9:33 AM

WASHINGTON -- The news from the Conrad Black trial in Chicago is a surprise. The vulpine British press is returning home. Members of the jury have been observed deep in sleep. The circus that was recently predicted by The New York Times has turned into a thunderous bore.

Black is the Canadian "press baron" who over three decades created one of the great newspaper conglomerates in the world. At its height, at the beginning of this century, it was the second or third largest chain of English-speaking newspapers in the world. With the Telegraph papers of London, the Jerusalem Post and Canada's National Post (founded in 1998 by Black), Black could lay claim to being the owner of the most high-quality string of newspapers in the world. Then disaster struck, or was it simply jealousy?

At the New York investment firm of Tweedy Browne, holder of 13 million shares of Black's publicly held company, Hollinger, there arose in late 2001 a restive spirit concerned about "management fees" paid by Hollinger to a private company, Ravelston, which was controlled by Black. Black and his associates got the money. Tweedy Browne's "restive spirit" agitated for an investigation, and the Hollinger board of directors tapped Richard Breeden, once chairman of the SEC, to oversee it. Breeden had become a corporate reformer and the report he eventually deposited has been described by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. of the Wall Street Journal as "an inflammatory report." It accused Black and his lieutenants or "corporate kleptocracy."

That brought in the feds. Black and several associates were indicted on such charges as racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering and mail fraud. Facing some 100 years in prison, Black chose to fight. A partner of his, David Radler, copped a plea. Black was forced out of Hollinger and Hollinger's stock plummeted. Possibly the "restive spirit" at Tweedy Browne has subsided. Since Black has been out Hollinger's shareholders have lost a bundle, though lawyers all around have rung up more than $60 million in fees. There had to be a better way to address this question of "management fees."

Black did not begin his career as a journalist. He was a businessman. Yet the company he built, the newspapers he published and the journalists he encouraged mark him off as one of the finest newspapermen of modern times. Black himself is a stupendously civilized man, widely learned and the author of two splendid biographies, one of Franklin Roosevelt, the other (to be published this spring) of Richard Nixon. When he was on top at Hollinger, journalism in the English-speaking world was vastly more interesting than it is today. I have known him for two decades and admired his works. I have also had my run-ins with him. A few years back I refused a deal he offered me. Boy was he mad. I was too. But that is water under the bridge. Black is a major force for good in the publishing world, and all who favor a free and intelligent press should hope that he will be back.

From Chicago it sounds as though he might be back. One of Canada's most distinguished journalists wrote from the courtroom after observing two weeks of the trial, "Conrad Black will be found not guilty." Peter Worthington is a bit irked, expressing his view in the Toronto Sun that American prosecutors have been dismissive of Canada, which they have "depicted as Albania." But it is the case that the prosecutors have made that provokes Worthington's judgment that Black will be acquitted. As he sees it, the charges against Black and his co-defendants "are not only unwarranted but wrong." After two weeks "there has been no evidence produced that clearly indicates a crime committed." Better yet, the courtroom proceedings have become "booooring."

So the hacks in the press are growing tired of the trial. The drama of bringing a grand figure down is not developing. Black has been a gentleman through the entire proceedings, though he faces months more. His stance has been valiant. He did not cop a plea. He has trusted in the justice of an American court. He remains a friend of America. If Worthington is right, Black may yet mount one of the great comebacks in modern journalistic history.