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Public Trust Betrayed

GUEST WORDS - What’s more American than baseball and a free press?

Not much.

And yet here in Los Angeles, we have been betrayed by the providers of both.

As a youngster, several eons ago, I loved nothing more than going to a Philadelphia Phillies game in long-gone Shibe Park.  I caught one of only five home runs that Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts hit.  My father took me to the second game the Dodgers played in Los Angeles in 1958, in the Coliseum.

I loved baseball … particularly Los Angeles baseball.

As a young boy, my career goal was clear…to be a crusading newspaperman.  The first money I made was selling articles to the Phoenix (now Arizona) Republic newspaper.  I was editor of my junior high school paper, my high school paper, and The Daily Bruin at UCLA.  I worked for the old Herald-Express, the Santa Monica Outlook, and The Los Angeles Times while I was in school.

I loved newspapers … particularly Los Angeles newspapers.

But out-of-towners killed both love affairs.

First, real estate speculator Sam Zell rode in from Chicago and bought The Times with a boatload of promises and a kayaks-worth of cash.  Then Boston’s parking lot king, Frank McCourt, did the same with the Dodgers.

Zell was crude and crass…and surrounded himself with men who were crude and crass.  Only half-kiddingly, he suggested at a Times staff meeting that the paper should run pornography if that would help it return to profitability.

McCourt was smooth and stately…and said all the right things.  He promised not just a winning baseball team, but a community-based organization that would enhance the quality of life in the City of the Angels (the municipality, not the American league team).  

The downfall of both of these organizations began when their family-controlled corporations sold out … the Chandlers and the O’Malleys, respectively.

The phrase that the scions of both families understood – and the Zells and McCourts of the world don’t – is “public trust.”

In Article I of its State Constitution, Pennsylvania defined the phrase from an environmental standpoint: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.  Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

The key phrase is, of course “for the benefit of all the people.”

You see, Mr. Zell and Mr. McCourt, newspapers and baseball, while they can – and should be – part of the capitalistic system, are also public trusts, and should be “for the benefit of all the people.”

No one would contest the right of the owners of newspapers or baseball teams to make money.  After all, as President Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”  The second half of that Silent Cal quote of nearly 90 years ago is equally important: “…and the chief idea of the American people is idealism.”

People are idealistic about baseball and newspapers.

We want our teams to play hard and honestly, and we want our owners to re-invest in building a good team, even if we have to “wait until next year.”  We don’t want our team owners to build six mansions and live a profligate lifestyle while raping the team’s finances.

We want our newspapers to report the news fairly, comprehensively, and in a timely manner.  Even in an era of aggregators like Arianna Huffington (full disclosure: years ago she was a client of our firm) we want our newspapers to provide the sort of investigative journalism at which The Times excels.

But when greed trumps an understanding that private property is also a public trust, we quickly look for the tar and feathers.  

No matter how much the litigious Mr. McCourt wiggles and squirms, he has betrayed the public trust, and we, the public, will have no more of him.

No matter how long the bankruptcy proceedings take, the corporate entity that is now The Times’ parent corporation, Tribune Company, has betrayed the public trust, and we will have no more of them.

Both will lose in the bankruptcy court, but they have already lost in the court of public opinion.

That is the lesson that the imperious Australian, Rupert Murdoch, is just learning, as his flagship newspaper, The News of the World, ceased publication after 168 years…because it betrayed the public trust.

“When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”  – Thomas Jefferson

(Martin Cooper, President of Cooper Communications, Inc., is Past Chairman of VICA and Chairman of its Board of Governors; Vice Chairman of the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley; and a member of the Boards of the Valley Economic Alliance and of the LAPD’s West Valley Jeopardy Program.  He is Past President of the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles Chapter, the Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission, and the Encino Chamber of Commerce.)

Tags: Los Angeles, Dodgers, The Times, LA Times, Sam Zell, Frank McCourt, public trust, Philadelphia Phillies, baseball, newspapers, Tribune Company Arianna Huffington

Vol 9 Issue 56
Pub: July 15, 2011