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2 Southland billionaires make case to buy Tribune

Eli Broad, Ron Burkle meet with panel also reviewing offer by The Times' founding family.

January 21, 2007|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

After months of planning, two of Southern California's wealthiest men flew to Chicago on Saturday and made their case for buying a large and potentially controlling stake in Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Cubs and other newspapers and TV stations.

Eli Broad and Ron Burkle spent the day in a conference room with a special committee of Tribune directors, who have been assigned to sell, break up or otherwise remake the fortunes of the company, which has struggled after losing customers and advertisers to the Internet.

The special committee also must review an offer by The Times' founding family, which has proposed spinning off the TV stations and joining partners to buy Tribune's 11 daily newspapers. That offer, by California's Chandler family, could open the door to another Los Angeles potentate, entertainment mogul David Geffen, who has made a $2-billion offer for The Times alone.

Company insiders said they expected Tribune's review of the alternatives to continue for weeks.

William A. Osborn, the company's lead independent director, released a statement Saturday saying Tribune also would consider "actions the company may take alone."

Tribune offered no other details, although Wall Street has speculated that management might try to keep shareholders happy by paying a special cash dividend or by spinning off the TV stations.

Tribune's drawn-out auction seems only to have fueled the chatter in Los Angeles power circles about the fate of the city's largest media organization.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is said to be following the contest closely. A meeting of civic business powers last year on bringing a National Football League team to L.A. got sidetracked when participants began talking, instead, about the future of The Times.

Ruth Seymour, general manager for nearly 30 years of public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), called the showdown for The Times "a defining moment" for the city.

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, said that, while not everyone loves the idea of having Broad and Burkle as owners, she's optimistic. "They're ours," she said, "and they've shown that they're invested in this community."

Publicly, the billionaires have had little to say about the ongoing auction, muted by confidentiality agreements with Tribune or a desire to avoid alienating the company's management as the auction continues. A decision is expected by March 31.

But privately, the two camps have grown hostile toward each other. Broad and Burkle's backers earlier argued that they would build a large ownership base for the company, taking on partners to ensure that no single owner had too great a voice at The Times. "Geffen just wants to do his own thing. He doesn't want to be part of a team," said one of the duo's allies.

Geffen's side, meanwhile, has questioned the sincerity of the Broad-Burkle offer, noting that the two billionaires have committed only $500 million of their money for all of Tribune, while Geffen has offered $2 billion in cash for The Times alone.

Years of familiarity have bred both respect and contempt among the threesome.

Geffen and Burkle reside nearly side-by-side in famed estates in the leafy neighborhood above the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Broad's Richard Meier-designed home is just a stroll up the sand from Geffen's sprawling place on Carbon Beach in Malibu. And the pair each own a highly acclaimed modern art collection.

They might concede each other's business brilliance (Broad's net worth is estimated at $5.8 billion and Geffen's is $4.6 billion). But their disdain was sealed when they helped host the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Each ponied up $1 million to help sponsor the event. But several participants said Broad infuriated Geffen by seizing control of the planning sessions.

"Eli did it his way," said one participant, who asked not to be named lest he antagonize the two men. "Geffen just washed his hands of the whole thing earlier than he would have if he was treated the way he is used to being treated."

The billionaires' involvement in the region's civic and cultural life unnerves those imagining how they might use their power if they took control of The Times.

"When The Times' theater critic says the season at the Geffen Playhouse has been bad but last night's production was abysmal, how does he react?" said former Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky, now a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

"Or what does Broad do when someone writes that the greatest beneficiary of the Grand Avenue project would be the muggers, who could operate freely in the new park near the Music Center?"

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