The rape of the New York Post


IT'S a nasty sight, the carrion crows descending to feed upon the entrails of what was once a vigorous newspaper. And it's hard to imagine, after this evisceration, that the New York Post can be brought back to anything resembling journalistic life.

There's a dishonor roll attached to this sad event that's worth looking at. It reads: Murdoch, Kalikow, Hoffenberg, Hirschfeld -- the names of the money men who in less than 20 years stripped the nearly two-century-old paper of its self-respect.

Rupert Murdoch at least had newspapers in his portfolio when be bought the Post in 1976; the Australian carried the paper into infirmity with yellow journalism, a strategy that had worked financially for him elsewhere but failed miserably in New York. Mr. Murdoch, tired of absorbing his annual losses, sold the paper in 1988 to Peter Kalikow, the real estate heir, who wanted a toy with which to impress his rich friends. Mr. Kalikow didn't even know how to preserve his family's properties, much less how to revive the Post. He frittered away the real estate and slid into personal bankruptcy, at which point his bank cut off the credit line he was using to continue his toytime at the Post.

So he had to look for a buyer, any buyer, and into the picture stepped Steven Hoffenberg, a sleazoid known for juggling books, stiffing creditors and bilking unsuspecting investors through what the Securities and Exchange Commission has described as a Ponzi scheme. But Mr. Kalikow didn't see the future of the paper as his concern; he just wanted out. He worked out the sale agreement with Mr. Hoffenberg. Meanwhile, however, the SEC, fearing the buyer would use the Post simply to hide his money from his victims' claims, got the courts to freeze his assets.

That meant Mr. Hoffenberg needed cash to keep the Post going. He turned to then-friend Abraham Hirschfeld, a real-estate investor and perennial failed seeker of office in New York. Mr. Hirschfeld's only lifetime experience with journalism was an act of expectoration a couple of years ago. He spat in the face of a Miami Herald reporter, Bonnie Weston, because he was angry over that paper's coverage of building-code violations at a hotel he owns in Miami Beach.

Over the last several days, Mr. Hirschfeld and Mr. Hoffenberg had a falling out, apparently over who would get to strip what from the carcass that remained of the Post. As a result, Mr. Hirschfeld and Mr. Kalikow (who is still the formal owner and has thus shifted his allegiance to the buyer who at least had cash in his pockets) went into bankruptcy court to try to cut Mr. Hoffenberg out of the deal. And they succeeded, although the judge, Francis Conrad, expressed something less than enthusiasm about his decision. "I think I have to choose between two evils," he said.

That ruling came Friday, and while it may have looked like a final resolution of this kaleidoscopic, five-ring circus, it wasn't. Over the weekend, Mr. Hoffenberg and Mr. Hirschfeld exchanged insults and threats, as sharpies do when they fall out. Mr. Hirschfeld's people said they couldn't find $3.6 million that Mr. Hoffenberg was supposed to have infused into the Post. Mr. Hoffenberg went to court for a restraining order to try to block Mr. Hirschfeld's takeover. Mr. Hirschfeld and Mr. Kalikow went to court to put the Post into bankruptcy, apparently to fend off Mr. Hoffenberg's move (until now, only Mr. Kalikow was in bankruptcy, not the paper).

Mr. Hirschfeld fired the editor, the well-liked Pete Hamill, and the staff threatened to go into revolt. Mr. Hirschfeld ordered the new editor, Gerard Bray, to put together a list of 272 employees to be laid off -- more than one-third of the already badly depleted work force. Mr. Bray refused and quit. Mr. Hirschfeld brought in Wilbert Tatum as his new editor and also co-publisher. Mr. Tatum is publisher of the Amsterdam News, a weekly paper directed at black readers.

On Sunday, Mr. Hirschfeld called a news conference to announce some kind of cockamamie joint agreement with the Amsterdam News, though Mr. Tatum would put no money into the Post. The newsroom staff came to the news conference and went nuts over Mr. Hamill's firing and the layoffs. "You're an animal!" came one shout at Mr. Hirschfeld. Then, "You're a dog!" Eventually it eased off. The final primal scream was only: "You're a liar!"

Mr. Hirschfeld turned his back and left the room. Chaos reigned. The paper never came out Monday morning. Tuesday it appeared with its employees essentially having taken it over, Mr. Hamill back as editor, the staff working without pay, founder Alexander Hamilton on Page 1 with a tear on his cheek and column after column of diatribe against Mr. Hirschfeld and Mr. Tatum, whom it referred to as "slime."

"The best thing I would like," said Mr. Hirschfeld, "is to buy the building. I don't know anything about newspapers."

No, nothing except how to shut them down and sell the pipes and fixtures for salvage.

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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