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Slim chance the Times are a’changin’

19 January 2009

Marketwatch is reporting (from Tel Aviv, for some reason) that Carlos Slim, who has already bought 6.4 percent of the New York Times stock, is preparing to invest “several” hundreds of millions of dollars in the company.

American newspapers are a dying industry, mostly due to technical changes (paper and ink are increasingly expensive resources),  management misteps that often were counterproductive (downgrading the “core mission” of providing news in favor of more immediate revenue generators like advertising), and being slow off the mark in adjusting to new communications technologies.

Slim’s investment is logical.  His family fortune started when his father arrived in Mexico City at the start of the Revolution, looked around for an opportunity and began buying up the furniture and nick-nacks from departing exploiting class… becoming — some say — the exploiting class themselves.

Carlos — like Warren Buffet in the United States — inherited a large fortune and turned it into a HUGE one.  His “core enterprise” is broadly defined as consumer goods and communications — which makes the New York Times fit in quite nicely.

I know there are those on the left (where I’m usually assumed to be) who just hate the guy, but I’ve never had a problem with him being super-rich.  Yeah, we may be getting screwed on our telephone bills, but TeleMex is a much better company (and we have much better telephone service) than we had even a few years ago.  We were going to have mega-stores and chains stores, no matter what happened, and Slim expanded his empire by buying up troubled U.S. chains in Mexico (like J.C. Penny and Sears) and investing in similar businesses outside Mexico. And, if Slim has any ideology, it’s pragmatism. He understands that his success depends on people having the money to spend on consumer goods and services. He supported the Lopez Obrador administration in Mexico City, and has been willing to work with leftist administrations throughout Latin America.

Given the sometimes troubling role the New York Times has played in Mexican history, especially in the Wilson Administration (the last time Mexico was painted as a “threat” to U.S. security requiring intervention), there’s something fitting about a Mexican investment in the Times.  Wilson’s personal investigation into the Huerta regime was handled by Times correspondent William Bayard Hale.  As I said in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos (© 2008, Richard Grabman):

[Hale] … spoke no Spanish and had never been in México before, but Wilson trusted Hale, and Hall understood Wilson’s idealistic belief in constitutional democracy. Working undercover, Hale unsurprisingly reported that Huerta was a tyrant with no popular support. It was only control of the oil fields and the revenues from the oil fields that let him buy the foreign munitions that kept him in power.

Two things haven’t changed: New York Times reporters — with a few exceptions — tend to accept the prevailing theories in Washington about the way the world SHOULD work, and report though that filter. AND… while the Times’ reporters are better prepared linguistically than was Hale, they often know very little about Mexico or Latin America, and rely on “official sources,” as did George Carrothers, the “embedded reporter” with Pancho Villa’s army.

Carrothers — who was also Woodrow Wilson’s first cousin — was a good reporter, but because of his limited access, misled the Wilson administration into poisoning its future relations with the ultimate winners in the Revolution… Carranza and Obregon… as well as the unfortunate blow-back that occurred when the Wilson Administration changed policy and Villa launched his successful “terrorist strike” on the United States.

Today’s Times reporters STILL seem to rely too much on “official sources”, not just in Mexico. And, too often, sprung from the loins of the elites themselves.

Should the deal go through, Carlos Slim will not have a voting voice on the Times Board of Directors, nor will he be setting editorial policy. Still, PERHAPS it’s TIMES for a change.

One Comment leave one →
  1. A. Ruiz permalink
    26 January 2009 4:54 am

    Let’s face it. The New York Times would never strike a deal with a U.S. tycoon of a similar profile, for fear of triggering real or apparent conflicts between the newspaper’s coverage and the investor’s interests. Not that you could ever find such a U.S. tycoon: The conglomerate of Slim-controlled telecom, banking, tobacco, retailing, insurance, construction, and other interests has been estimated to add up to 7 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Even in his heyday, John D. Rockefeller accounted for only about 2 percent of the U.S. economy. As Forbes put it in its 2007 ranking of billionaires, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett would have to be worth $784 billion to have a similar share of U.S. wealth as Mr. Slim has of Mexico’s wealth….After all, Slim is someone that a Times editorial writer, Eduardo Porter, has called a “robber baron.” (His piece ran in August 2007, before Slim made his initial investment in the Times.) Will Slim now be referred to as a “robber patron”?

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