By: George Garneau
Court affirms right of Hirschfeld to manage the New York Post pending purchase; Murdoch surfaces as a potential buyer
THE MAN WHO controls the New York Post fashioned a shaky court-approved truce with its editor, but while the pact assured some stability for a few weeks, it did not end the turmoil at the defiant tabloid.
In a late development, Rupert Murdoch, former Post owner and chairman of Australia-based News Corp., has made overtures about buying back the bankrupt paper.
In a hearing March 19, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Francis Conrad affirmed the right of parking garage and health club magnate Abe Hirschfeld to manage the Post pending a purchase agreement.
He said the transfer of management control, and purchase agreement, from bankrupt real estate developer Peter Kalikow to Hirschfeld was “a done deal.”
Responding to new proposals from rejected bidder Steven Hoffenberg, and to pleas to remove Hirschfeld, Conrad said any offers for the Post would have to go through Hirschfeld, who is managing the paper on a one-year contract.
At the same time, Conrad moved to quell the chaos that engulfed the Post when Hirschfeld fired editor Pete Hamill. That chaos, played out in the newspapers and on television, included nearly a complete edition of the Post attacking Hirschfeld as a “nut” and another whose Page One consisted of an open letter pleading with Conrad to remove Hirschfeld in order to save the paper.
After a meeting in his chambers, Conrad announced an agreement calling for Hirschfeld to reinstate Hamill and to add the remaining $1 million of his $3 million infusion into the Post?enough to keep it in business for a couple of weeks.
The paper, which one executive said is taking in $1.2 million a week while costing $1.5 million, is already in debt to suppliers, including about $2 million for newsprint.
In return for coming back, the highly regarded Hamill, who Hirschfeld is personally guaranteeing to pay nearly $2,000 a day until a final hearing April 2, got a big kiss from his boss. But the truce did not yield peace.
On March 22, Hamill refused to work in the Post’s newsroom and managed the paper from a seat in a nearby diner. It was a one-day protest of Hirschfeld’s refusal to rehire four key editorial employees: editorial page editor Eric Breindel, state editor Fredric Dicker, City Hall bureau chief David Seifman and investigations editor Jack Newfield.
They kept working anyway, prompting Hirschfeld to ban them from the Post’s building. In a conference call hearing, Conrad upheld Hirschfeld’s right to fire them but said they were free to work for free.
“I’ve been working for free for two weeks,” said Seifman from his office in City Hall. “For me, being in the building is meaningless.
“Nothing Abe does makes any sense except that he wants to destroy the newspaper. If we leave, he achieves his devious end. We are trying to keep it alive so somebody else can buy it,” Seifman said. “All we can do is do our jobs and pray somebody else comes along.”
Hirschfeld’s firing of 14 other non-editorial supervisors?including Mark Khan, who kept computers and phones running?remains in effect.
The temporary peace agreement calls for no further firings for the time being. It allows Wilbert Tatum to remain in the building as editor designate, but with no authority in the newsroom.
Tatum, the editor of the black weekly Amsterdam News, was blamed in a Post editorial for the firings, all of journalists he has condemned as racists. He denied the charge. He has earned the disdain of many journalists for, among other stands, naming in print a white woman who was raped and nearly killed by a gang of black youths.
In addition to proposing to remake the Post in the image of the Oprah Winfrey Show, Hirschfeld has proposed joint operations with black and Spanish-language papers, including carrying the other papers as inserts.
In other developments, the New York Times reported that Murdoch, who sold the Post to Kalikow in 1988, has called New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and at least two U.S. senators to discuss his buying it back.
Under his sale agreement with Kalikow, Murdoch has the right of first refusal to buy the paper from Kalikow. He waived that right for the proposed Hoffenberg purchase, but his attorney said he declined to waive it to clear the Hirschfeld deal.
Under the Federal Communications Commission’s cross-ownership rules, Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns WNYW-TV, is prohibited from owning a newspaper in the same market?a rule that forced him to sell the Post in the first place?but cross-ownerships before the rule were grandfathered and the FCC has granted temporary waivers.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who spearheaded the move to enforce the cross-ownership rules on Murdoch, said he would not oppose a Murdoch bid.
? (Despite a forced kiss from New York Post publisher Abe Hirschfeld (right), New York Post editor Pete Hamill is still not bosom buddies with his boss. When Hirschfeld banned four columnists from the Post building, Hamill refused to work in the paper’s newsroom and set up office in a nearby diner.) [Photo & Caption]
? (Associated Press Photo/Alex Brandon Wannabe New York Post owners Steven Hoffenberg (right) and Leon Charney (left) talk with reporters outside U.S. Bankruptcy Court during an ownership hearing this week. Both are trying separately to acquire the newspaper.) [Photo& Caption]