"We're here to announce a seismic shift in Bay Area journalism," said Robert Starzel, gripping a podium for dear life as the chandeliers swung to and fro above a handful of local reporters. Lava flowed; mountains crumbled into a roiling sea; and Dog Bites, ever mindful of proper safety procedures during an earthquake, beat it to a doorway, where we struggled to take stock of the changing media landscape.
The 63-year-old Starzel was announcing that his boss, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, had just bought the Examiner and several other San Francisco properties, including the Independent and the Bay to Breakers race, from the Fang family. (The price tag was widely reported to be $20 million, although the next-day issue of the, ahem, Examiner somehow failed to mention any cost at all.) Anschutz was nowhere to be seen at his own news conference we're assuming he didn't want to be crushed by falling debris and left it to Starzel, chairman of the new newspaper group, to kinda outline a vision, or whatever, for the Examiner.
"We'll analyze without prejudgment ... and reject ideologues of whatever stripe," said Starzel, apparently unaware that he was going to be running a newspaper in San Francisco. "We don't have the answers, but we're going to have a lot of questions."
Hey, that's a start, considering it's journalism. Not to be outdone, the local media tossed some hardballs of their own at Starzel. Namely: Will the Examiner be hiring?
"We'd be awful careful before we start replacing people," said Starzel, and we have to assume he was referring to all four of the newspaper's editorial staff members.
Still, the assembled reporters clearly wanted to audition for Starzel and impress him with their intimate knowledge of Bay Area media. Asked one intrepid TV reporter: "Are there any plans to go head-to-head with the Chronicle as an a.m.-er?"
Embarrassed silence. "We are an a.m. now," explained Starzel. And James Fang, who had heretofore occupied himself by checking what appeared to be a cell phone, burst out laughing.
But this is a serious business, even if the Examiner hasn't always seen it that way, and once the rollin' and tumblin' of the media quake stopped, our brow furrowed, and we became curiouser and curiouser about this Anschutz guy.
The truth, we thought, lay on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. So Dog Bites invited one of our brethren, a media columnist for the Denver altweekly Westword, to say a few words about the man from Colorado who's causing all these temblors:
Who the hell is Phil Anschutz? Until Feb. 19, when the quietest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list bought the Examiner, few in the Bay Area had a clue, and they're not alone. Even in Denver, his hometown, he keeps a subterranean profile, avoiding most public events, including a Jan. 30 ribbon-cutting ceremony at a University of Colorado hospital named for him. He also shuns the press as a matter of course a bizarre proclivity for someone getting into the newspaper business. He riled himself to issue a public statement of outrage in 2002 after Fortune declared him the greediest executive in the country for peddling a hefty chunk of his stock in Qwest Communications, a massive telecom he founded in 1995, after its value began to tank. For the most part, though, he prefers to remain in the shadows of his enormous piles of cash.
Steering clear of spotlights has gotten harder since Anschutz went from being a mere railroad tycoon to an entertainment-business magnate; he owns sports franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers, arenas like L.A.'s Staples Center, and Concerts West, a major concert-promotion firm. Additionally, he controls the nation's largest chain of movie theaters, Regal Entertainment Group, and a film company, Walden Media, dedicated to producing family flicks such as the forthcoming adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
A Web site devoted to chronicling the Chronicles, accessible online at http://members.lycos.co.uk/Jonathan_Gregory76/rumours.htm, notes that "although little is known about [Anschutz], he does appear to be sympathetic to Christianity and is maybe a Christian himself." Strike the "maybe." Anschutz has been known to attend Cherry Hills Community Church, the house of worship chosen by Colorado's wealthiest Christian conservatives (including Hall of Fame- bound quarterback John Elway), and has even hired Bob Beltz, a former pastor at the church, to serve as Walden Media's theological consultant. No wonder the company's first major cinematic venture was 2002's Joshua, a heavy-handed, little-seen religious allegory starring Tony Goldwyn as a modern-day Jesus. Walden Media had more success with Holes, which, unfortunately, wasn't nearly as smutty as it sounded.
More recently, Anschutz backed his son-in-law, Tim Brown, in the purchase of several Colorado radio stations, including a talk outlet, KNRC-AM, intended to provide an alternative to the usual right-wing yakkers by letting listeners hear opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. When ratings flagged, however, liberal personalities in prime slots disappeared in favor of boilerplate conservative blather; one new host is a minister. That probably appeals to Phil, a Republican who's not averse to financially supporting causes close to his Bible. In the early 1990s, for instance, he gave $10,000 to supporters of Amendment 2, a ballot initiative designed to prevent communities from enacting civil rights legislation that would protect gays. Amendment 2 passed, resulting in a widespread boycott of Colorado that only ended when the law was ruled unconstitutional.
That sort of information should cause Examiners to fly off the shelves ... . (Michael Roberts)