n a democracy, there is no graver sin than stealing the right to vote; it’s the tool that builds the democracy.
The second gravest is destroying the free press, because honest information is the whetstone that sharpens the vote.
We’ve discussed previously ways in which that free press can be subverted for political ends, and no doubt we’ll revisit that again. But today’s story isn’t about politically bending the media one way or another; it’s about smashing the media to bits, for no better reason than buying one more mansion.
nce upon a time, there was a greedy Wall Street tycoon (yes, I realize ‘greedy’ and ‘Wall Street’ seem redundant). He sought to keep the lowest profile possible, which was aided by his generic name, Randall D. Smith. Randy liked money, and like any ultra-tycoon worth his salt, he bought a fancy mansion on the coast in Palm Beach, Florida because Randy and his (second) wife deserved the best.
But you know what’s even better than a big, fancy mansion? Two. So, he bought another. And he didn’t stop there. At last count, Randy owned 16 different houses on America’s richest strip of land, worth nearly $60 million. In effect, he’s surrounding a neighboring compound known as Mar-A-Lago and you-know-who; but alas, there are no reports yet of any imminent invasion.
Being a wealthy guy in America and buying expensive things hardly qualifies you as noteworthy. But how Randy achieved his wealth certainly is.
You see, Randy figured out he could buy “distressed” newspapers across our fair land for a pittance, and then pick the bones clean for a tidy profit…before dumping the bodies of disemboweled reporters and editors into waters somewhere other than off Palm Beach. His victims include esteemed local papers like the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, the Orange County Register, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Contra Costa Times, the Denver Post, and, more recently, the Boston Herald.
Randy doesn’t know journalism. He doesn’t know free press. He doesn’t know public interest. He only knows profit. That is Randy’s gift—nurturing other people’s ignorance and turning it into gold.
If you’re looking for a silver lining here, Randy is closing in on age 80, so one could hope that this nightmare would soon be ending. But unfortunately, Randy is not alone; other companies are doing the same thing. But more to the point, Randy has personally groomed exactly the young gun to perpetuate his civic carnage.
Allow me to introduce you to the Freemans.
t first glance, they look like so nice and entrepreneurial and ‘with-it’. Three siblings inhabiting multiple residences across Manhattan, the Hamptons and Gomorrah. Let’s deal with them in ascending order of abhorrence.
Danyelle is the eldest and founder of a blog called restaurantgirl.com, covering exactly the right places to dine and the right things to eat in New York city. She prides herself on being, “…the very first non-anonymous critic in the country.” Which means you can let them know you’re coming…thus receive a quality of food and service that may have no bearing whatsoever on what anyone else experiences…and presumably then walk out without being asked to pay. Brilliant!
But so sad to report that even as the queen of cuisine, all is not perfect in Danyelle’s world. When she decided to take a husband, she took someone else’s, along with that couple’s child. The ex was not happy—"hell hath no fury”, and all that kind of stuff. And that ex—a now-diminished socialite named Nirit Vanderbut—did not take to this kindly. After seeing a picture of Danyelle in the society pages with Nirit’s child, Nirit posted this about Danyelle: “I want to be the one who skins her alive. I can make wallpaper out of her.”
Really, she said that. At this writing there is no extreme exfoliation to report…which shows that protective orders can work, as long as you live in the right zip code.
ext, we have middle child Amanda. If her big sister is all about the calories you consume, Amanda deals with how best to get rid of them. She runs a string of “boutique fitness studios”, and is, “…a serial entrepreneur with a particular focus on health and wellness.” Oh yeah, and a focus on profit--only $40 a class or $400 a month. Good for her!
But don’t think that her life is easy, either. “I usually get up at 6:30. I’m not a snoozer at all—I get up and at ‘em.” And amazingly, “I’m not a caffeine person.” So how, dear Amanda, could you possibly cope with your incredibly demanding schedule? “My nanny introduced me to moringa tea. When I was breastfeeding, she told me to have moringa with your milk--if you’re constipated or if you have diarrhea. How it helps with both I don’t understand, but it solves everything!” (There’s a life lesson here--If you want to succeed, people, get the right nanny.)
If you think all this qualifies as too much information to volunteer in print, that’s ironic since Amanda doesn’t get much information at all. “I don’t really read the paper, and it’s shocking where I’ll find out some horrible thing that happened way later than everybody else…”
And speaking of both a lack of news and diarrhea, let’s move on finally to the true scum of the family, baby brother Heath.
f you’re a sports fan, you probably know about Christian Laettner and ‘the shot’. Laettner was a basketball player at Duke and simultaneously the national poster boy for self-entitled, self-important arrogance. The shot he made came years ago and was one that famously beat Kentucky in the closing seconds to secure a national championship.
The jersey he wore in that game is now owned by the second most self-entitled, self-important jerk in Duke history, Heath Freeman. I don’t know whether it’s ever been washed. Heath himself is proud to say he was a kicker on the Duke football team…which is sort of like the guy who changes your oil at Jiffy Lube claiming to be an auto industry executive.
Anyway, Heath is not without talents, the most prominent being an even more predatory destructor than his mentor, Randall D. Smith. This whole disgusting plan was created by them together under the umbrella of Alden Global Capital, via a subsidiary called Digital First Media. If Smith is the Don Corleone of this Wall Street crime family, Freeman is his executioner, Clemenza: “leave the newspaper…take the cannoli.”
And there are bodies. At last count, the newsgathering staff of the Denver Post had been cut from 184 to less than 70. The Pottstown (PA) Mercury from 73 to 19. The even smaller Norristown Times-Herald (PA) from 45 to 12.
In addition, there’s a lot of money to be made just selling off the buildings where the newspapers used to be housed. And in dismantling and selling off the printing presses.
In the opinion of noted media critic Ken Doctor, “there’s no long-term strategy other than milking and continuing to cut. Their view is that in 2021, they’ll deal with that then. Whatever remnants are there, they’ll try to find a buyer.” An informed public be damned.
But couldn’t this be just a little unfair? After all, everyone knows the newspaper business is dying anyway. All those classified ads have moved online. People get so much of their ‘news’ on Facebook these days. So maybe Heath is just conducting orderly and inevitable funerals?
Well, there’s a varying opinion to all the doom-and-gloom. In fact, it was written in a company-wide memo in 2017 by Steve Rossi, the CEO of the very same Digital First Media. He called the company, “…solidly profitable”, and added, “…advertising has been significantly better” than competitors. See—it’s not so bad, folks! But that didn’t do anything to explain why continued executions of staffers were necessary. The contradiction did not go unnoticed, which is why dear Steve ‘retired’ a couple months after telling this truth. (And they didn’t even bother to replace him. Heath can decide who to lay off all by himself.)
ooner or later, all these dollars picked clean by daring vulture capitalist Heath Freeman have to be put to good use. Leaving those dollars to sit in ‘safe’ investments does not fit Heath’s self-image, or satisfy his investors—whoever they are. He is what the late, great Tom Wolfe defined as a Wall Street ‘master of the universe’—and damn it, he’s going to act like one!
Which makes it doubly disappointing for me to report that Heath, by the available public records, is profoundly HORRIBLE at his job.
First, there is his string of loathsome investments in:
The Brazilian energy company at the center of a national corruption scandal
A bankrupt Mexican developer which the SEC said committed the biggest real estate fraud in that nation’s history
A Houston-based oil company backed by corrupt Angolan officials
Peabody Coal, known for its superhuman efforts to stiff mine workers out of their pensions; and for also being named dead last a couple years ago in Newsweek’s listing of America’s greenest companies
And, a Russian (of course) oil giant with ties to Putin, which despite his patronage has been at the center of criminal charges of pollution in that nation. (Still, doing business with Russia is so smart these days, right? Just look around.)
But just making smart investments doesn't cut it In the right circles. Heath needed to prove his ability and his Duke breeding by showing how to turn a real profit by building something himself. Which is why he turned an acquisitive eye towards Fred’s…a regional drug store and value retailer in the southeast. Go Heath, go!
So, he plunked down over $150m; and man, when that news broke, investors showed their love for that old Alden magic. The stock shot up to over $20 a share. Heeeaaaatthhhh!!
By last fall things didn’t look so good, so Heath named himself chairman of the board, pushed old management out the door, and set out to personally right the ship.
That is, if righting the ship can be defined as watching the stock plummet to barely $2 a share. No matter how you slice it, losing 90% of your own investment does NOT qualify you as a master of the universe. Poor Health. At least he's got that jersey.
here is a counterpunch to this story, and not surprisingly, it’s journalism--beleaguered, embattled and not-just-a-little-bit-embittered journalism. Journalists know how institutions work, and journalists are trained not to take “no” for an answer.
Seeing so many of its members pushed out onto the streets and into unemployment lines, the NewsGuild decided to do what it could to fight back. They wrote to the Dewitt Wallace Center for journalism at Duke, which professes, “…understanding…the principles and the practice of journalism…and teach(ing) about the role of journalism in democracy.”
But Duke is also a place where Heath Freeman makes healthy contributions (it’s so important to give back). He's Board Chair for the Jewish Life Foundation at the school. In addition, he and the good folks at Alden run an intern program, so that more of the special people who attend Duke can grow up in the image of Heath Freeman and Randall D. Smith.
The NewsGuild saw a contradiction here—how does a school promising to protect journalism and democracy willingly lie down with a fraudster whose life work it is to destroy journalism? They formally put this question—twice--to Duke.
Once, Duke advised that they take their complaints to Alden, apparently under the impression that they are legally compelled to cash any check slipped under the door. And you can feel for Duke here. With an endowment of a measly $7 billion, Heath’s money alone is likely pushing back bankruptcy.
And asked the other time? They didn’t even bother responding.
The overall mission statement for Duke promises, “…to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world; and to attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do.”
In the sense that this includes minting amoral raptors who will help kill both journalism and democracy, I would say, “mission accomplished.”
Editor’s note: this article pays tribute to the outstanding work being done by investigative reporter Julie Reynolds @grlreporter, and by Ricardo Baca @bruvs and other current and former employees of the Denver Post.
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