NEW YORK — In a stunning development that raised new questions about evangelical ownership of American media, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson emerged Tuesday as the likely new owner of United Press International after submitting the high bid at a bankruptcy court auction of the historic news service.
Robertson, a conservative who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and is best known as the host of "The 700 Club," a talk show produced by Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, offered $6 million in cash for UPI through his U.S. Media Corp.
After a brief recess, representatives of UPI and its creditors accepted Robertson's offer, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Francis Conrad said he would formally certify the deal today after lawyers hammer out details. Robertson, who insisted that he would not interfere editorially with the news service, would take over by June 30.
Robertson's victory became clear when the three other bidders at the bankruptcy court auction submitted bids totaling just $197,000 for small parts of the 85-year-old news service. Robertson was the only bidder who offered to buy the entire company.
UPI, which broke the news of shots being fired at President John F. Kennedy's limousine in 1963 and boasts such illustrious alumni as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Harrison Salisbury, has gone through a succession of owners and two bankruptcy filings in the past decade. Its death has been forecast many times.
The wire service, which listed $18.2 million in assets but nearly $60 million in debts earlier this year, requested the auction last month after telling Conrad that it was running out of cash and would be forced to shut down Friday.
The news that the controversial religious broadcaster was the high bidder sent shock waves through the world of journalism and especially through UPI's shrunken staff of about 500, down from 1,850 in 1984.
"People are flabbergasted. It's a bolt out of the blue--in this case, the Great Blue," assistant sports editor Fred Lief said. "The last thing we need is a Christian wire service. I'd be much more comfortable if it were in secular hands."
New York court reporter Peg Byron said: "A lot of people are worried about what it would mean if someone with a political agenda came in as owner . . . . From a business standpoint, it wouldn't make sense."
"Amazing," commented Tom Goldstein, dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley. "The wire service that won't die gets another lease on life."
Goldstein said religious ownership of UPI "may be unprecedented for a wire service, but it's hardly unprecedented in journalism." He cited such church-owned newspapers as the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Times--which has close ties to the Unification Church--and the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, owned by the Mormons.
But other press observers found the possibility of Robertson's ownership of UPI extremely worrisome. "It's a chilling prospect for any number of minority groups that don't subscribe to Pat Robertson's brand of 'family values,' " said Christopher Fowler, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
But Robertson, an ordained Baptist minister and graduate of Yale University's School of Law, told reporters before the bankruptcy court hearing in Rutland, Vt., that he would not interfere editorially with UPI. He said UPI "would complement, from a news-gathering perspective, some of the things we are already doing."
Robertson, who posted a $900,000 deposit with the court, said he was particularly interested in UPI's Latin American and radio operations.
Robertson owns a major stake in the highly popular and profitable Family Channel, a cable TV service that grew from his Christian Broadcasting Network.
As he left to catch a plane while the bankruptcy court was still in recess considering his bid, Robertson said: "The thing that I'm doing is coming in today as a white knight. This company is within minutes of total shutdown and I'm trying to see if we can give a fair bid and keep the operation going.
"I would like to see it become the superb news organization it was 30 years ago," said Robertson, who has practiced faith healing and once claimed to have prayed a hurricane away from his company's Virginia headquarters.
Robertson said it was too early to describe any changes he might make but he hoped that UPI could expand into the television market and employ cutting-edge data retrieval technology.
Gallows humor immediately exploded at UPI bureaus around the world on news of Robertson's bid. "Wire Service Born Again," went one supposed headline. Another wag told of UPI's new slogan: "We can't stand Pat." There was talk that Robertson would change the news service's name to "United Prayer International" and that its stylebook would be altered to require the use of "thee" and "thou."