Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 17, 1993
New York Post to owner: Drop Dead
A different kind of tabloid war.

NEW YORK - The employees of the New York Post welcomed their new boss yesterday with an issue all his own.

For the cover, rebellious editors used an illustration of a weeping Alexander Hamilton, the Revolutionary War patriot and founder of the Post. Inside, a cartoonist provided a depiction of Hamilton's latest successor, Abraham Hirschfeld - locked in a padded cell wearing a straitjacket.

Finally, there was the headline on a story introducing the man who now pays the bills.

"Who is this nut?" it asked.

So it went yesterday for Hirschfeld, the Post's new owner, a parking-garage tycoon with a propensity for spitting on his critics.

"It's not done as a joke," said Marc Kalech, the paper's managing editor, who helped lead the mutiny. He said the aim of the attack was "to make Hirschfeld so uncomfortable owning the paper that he'd sell it."

But Hirschfeld, 73, ensconced in an office two floors above the newsroom, hardly seemed displeased about the first edition published under his ownership, an edition that ridiculed him as a "mean-spirited, insecure, disheveled, profoundly angry and frustrated man" and urged readers to call public officials to block his takeover.

"I could never expect such a great honor and such a great success like this newspaper," said Hirschfeld, who has unruly, orange-colored hair and a thick Yiddish accent. He said that the paper had sold briskly.

Hirschfeld did little to calm concerns about his stability. He compared himself to Albert Einstein and said that being the Post owner "makes me one of the three or four most powerful men in the country."

"I'm a nut?" he said. "Yessir. I am a little nutty. Everybody's a little nutty. The perfectly sane people you only find in an insane asylum."

Earlier, he had confessed he knew nothing of how to run a newspaper, and had bought the Post because he wanted to own the building it is in.

The lunacy that has engulfed the Post this week comes after several months of uncertainty about the future of the tabloid, the smallest of New York's four daily papers. The newspaper, with a daily circulation of a little more than 400,000, filed for bankruptcy protection Monday.

The Post's recent experiences underscore how failing newspapers, unlike most other money-losing businesses, manage to live on, like respiratory patients, because of the artificial intervention of owners with huge egos and deep pockets.

"There are an awful lot of people who have romantic notions about owning newspapers, rescuing them, being a newspaper publisher," said news media analyst John Morton. "Unfortunately, a lot of them don't know a lot about newspaper publishing.

"It's really delaying what's likely to be inevitable."

The long financially troubled Post's most recent problems surfaced in January when real estate developer Peter S. Kalikow, who bought the paper in 1988 from Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch, put the paper up for sale after entering personal bankruptcy.

But the new buyer, Steven Hoffenberg, had difficulties of his own. The Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating his debt-collection firm. The Post's top reporters and editors fled in droves to the rival Daily News, itself embroiled in turmoil in recent years.

"I cover crooks," said columnist Mike McAlary, one of the stars who left the Post. "I don't work for them."

After an SEC lawsuit froze Hoffenberg's assets, a bankruptcy judge last week awarded ownership to Hirschfeld, who has been one of Hoffenberg's financiers.

Hirschfeld, unlike Hoffenberg, was no stranger to the public eye. An immigrant from Poland and Israel, he made his fortune building parking garages and from creation of the Vertical Club, a 10-year-old glitzy Manhattan health club.

He ran for New York lieutenant governor in 1986 and for Congress last year, losing both times. He moved to Miami Beach in 1987, where he bought a hotel, won a two-year term to the city's board of commissioners and then lost a bid for mayor.

Hirschfeld has a reputation for combustible behavior. In 1977, he locked a New York City official in his office and threatened to keep the official hostage until she issued a clean-air permit to one of his parking garages.

In 1976, he spat in the face of a state Democratic leader for refusing to support him for the U.S. Senate. In 1990, he spat on a Miami Herald reporter because he disliked the paper's coverage of a building dispute over his hotel.

On Friday, upon assuming ownership of the Post, he figuratively spat on the employees of the newspaper by immediately firing Pete Hamill, an author and popular columnist who had been appointed editor only 19 days before.

Over the weekend, Hirschfeld fired Hamill's successor - a man who had been editor for all of two days - after he refused to carry out Hirschfeld's order to fire 272 employees; the paper employs about 700 people.

The paper erupted in such turmoil that no issue was produced on Monday, the first time since a 1978 strike that the paper missed publication.

On Monday, Hirschfeld fired 72 newsroom employees and then rescinded most of those dismissals after he was informed that their firings violated the union contract. The paper also filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming $32 million in debts and $18 million in assets.

Hirschfeld told an Israeli newspaper that he wants the Post to be "the international spokesman for the state of Israel." But the man he hired Sunday as his second editor, Wilbert Tatum, publishes the Amsterdam News, a black-oriented paper widely reviled in New York's Jewish community as anti-Semitic.

But neither Hirschfeld nor Tatum ventured into the newsroom, where, unbeknownst to them, the editors were plotting their revenge.

On Monday, the Post's rapidly thinning staff assembled a barrage of stories and headlines attacking Hirschfeld and Tatum.

"Part of her job was taking a glob from angry slob," read the headline over a story about the reporter whom Hirschfeld spat upon in 1990.

"Honest, Abe doesn't know spit about journalism," was another headline.

As was: "Hate-'Em Tatum ready for slime time."

The paper's masthead also failed to list Hirschfeld as the owner, while still naming the editors and executives he had fired.

"I opened it up and found myself listed as editor, so I thought I better go in and edit the paper," said Hamill, who returned to the newsroom yesterday to thunderous cheers.

The editorial staff held out hope that somebody - Gov. Mario Cuomo, the bankruptcy court, a new investor - would intervene to bail out the Post.

Hirschfeld, two floors above, might as well have been on another planet.

"I told people, if the paper was out today, I will be writing checks," he said. "And the checks are being written today. Everybody's being paid today. We have good harmony working together."

Hirschfeld's reign lasted less than three weeks until a bankruptcy judge turned the Post over to Rupert Murdoch. Hirschfeld returned to the news business in 1996 when he started a newspaper called Open Air. It closed after five months. In June, 2000, he was convicted of criminal solicitation for plotting to hire a hit man to kill his longtime business partner. At the age of 81, he is now behind bars on Rikers Island. He will be eligible for parole in July, 2001. home page   
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