In the latest American Prospect, Harold Meyerson tells a good morality tale about how certain types of businesses can succeed only if managed as public trusts, if only in spirit. He documents the ignominious decline of the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Dodgers after each was taken over by men "so venal, cynical, incompetent, and egomaniacal that they gutted them in just a couple of years.” Both Sam Zell (who acquired the Times after buying the Tribune Company) and Frank McCourt (a Boston parking lot mogul) treated the revered corporate institutions that they bought as personal piggybanks. The public was a mere afterthought -- helpless dependents on seemingly impregnable monopolies.
While the idea of running one’s business as a public trust has historically gotten a lot of lip service, at least in the newspaper business, today the barbarians who pass as CEOs and investors virtually go out of their way to flaunt their coarse, selfish personalities. The schadenfreude at the fall of Zell and McCourt is therefore deeply satisfying. Writes Meyerson:
Zell installed talk-radio executives who knew nothing about newspapers. He derided the editorial staff at the Timesand the Tribfor not producing the kind of copy that would turn the industry's fortunes around, and made clear that editors and reporters concerned with editorial autonomy and quality journalism were elitists who were no longer to be indulged. He instituted layoff after layoff, so that the Times, which had had an editorial staff of 1,200 in 2000, saw its ranks reduced to roughly 500 today. A little more than a year after his purchase, with the recession clobbering revenues and Zell's executives still clueless about how to run a newspaper, Tribune entered bankruptcy proceedings, where it remains mired to this day.