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June 2004

Paper Dragon

Are the Germans creating an imaginary media demon?

On one side of the English Channel, Daily Express owner Richard Desmond screams that all Germans are Nazis and goosesteps around a boardroom mocking the German Springer Verlag’s bid to buy the Daily Telegraph. On the other side of the Channel, the national project to keep the Kirch media empire in German hands fails. And the bogeyman that takes it over is an American-Israeli billionaire, a cross between a beach boy and, so the media would have us believe, Shylock.

Reading about business transactions in the papers can be duller than dishwater—unless of course these transactions involve the media themselves and there are (nasty) foreign bidders waiting in the wings. Then we have a story that’s hip and juicy: one that highlights prejudices and casts light on our fears as a society. Characters who otherwise have little celebrity status suddenly find themselves propelled to center stage to be picked over by a rapacious gang of journalists.

Haim Saban has become the most celebrated absentee media mogul in Munich, thanks in part to Der Spiegel magazine’s personalization of the story. Unfortunately, and it must be said, uncharacteristically, in covering Saban Der Spiegel has relied on the same stereotypes that abound in the reports found in the gutter press. A March 2003 article, entitled “Attack of the Beach Boys,” was our first introduction to Saban: an American-Israeli, averse to publicity, a trickster who is always up for a surprise—appearing at meetings barefoot and then excusing himself from proceedings to gossip with secretaries and munch chocolate. He appears to be both an irritatingly good-natured beach-boy type and an unbelievably tough and insistent negotiator.

His good vibrations, however, seem to have unnerved the boardroom players and damaged a potential takeover deal, and insiders deemed his first bid a joke. His second proposal was more serious. But doubts lingered about Mr. Saban’s interest in the long-term well being of the German media. He was not going to move to Munich or assert control over program content. What was to stop him from selling the company in two years after making a quick buck? There were also suspicions about his political connections to the Democratic Party and to the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Nevertheless, there was a general consensus that he was less obnoxious than Murdock or Berlusconi.

A week later Michael Jaffe, the Kirch Media liquidator, said in an interview that the creditors and company were satisfied with the proposed sale. Then, in May, we read that sunny boy was baring his teeth and beginning to make shameful demands. The bankers were repulsed by his narrow-mindedness and arrogance. The stockholders were no longer charmed. Rumors circulated that he was unwilling to invest a large portion of his personal capital and this was preventing him from scraping together a group of enthusiastic investors. By June the bankruptcy team had put together an alternative plan designed to shut out the American-Israeli. Saban, in turn, made major concessions, which soothed everyone’s nerves. In August, Der Spiegel reported that the battle had been lost. Saban abandoned a yachting vacation off the coast of Mallorca and flew to Munich, with his family in tow. A committee of creditors voted to accept Saban’s offer and the deal was closed two days later, in Basel.

The signing of the papers, according to Der Spiegel, was a historic moment. The control of foreign investors over approximately 50 percent of the German media landscape is unprecedented. Fortunately, Saban has a smaller role than was originally envisioned. Six other investors have a stake. But it is still a dangerous situation: he is the only investor who has veto power; there will be pressure to turn a quick profit; costs will be cut and staff will be fired. It appears that he will be the new chairman of the board and English will be the working language. A recent issue of Der Spiegel ran a long interview with Saban entitled “I’m Going to Surprise Everybody.”

Well, that should not be difficult. His media persona is now so overlaid with stereotypical, yet contradictory images: the good businessman, the tricky little devil, a clannish Jewish media juggler, a stubborn, naïve, unflappable, laidback, barefoot, leisure-suit-wearing Californian, a disinterested American business-tourist making a brief visit to German-media territory, an active, concerned American citizen, a greedy American speculator who is going to sock it to the Germans, and so on. How could we not expect surprises? We don’t know what to think?

Tabloid entertainment is the omnipresent affirmation of stereotypes. Like Reality TV, it leads to the cementation of illogical prejudices. The Saban story is a perfect example of a commercialized media that creates a need and a desire for more of this personalized, superficial drivel. MUNICH FOUND is proud not to be involved in producing this misbegotten rot. The popularity of tabloid entertainment expresses nothing more than our wish to put our brains to sleep; it draws the blinds and closes the windows on intelligent thought. Would somebody please wake up Mr. Desmond?

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