Tabloid King Altman Answers Critics

Alex Kuczynski of the New York Times raked Roger C. Altman over the coals yesterday for becoming a tabloid tycoon. It’s about time somebody did. Roger Altman is not to be confused with the three Robert Altmans who, are, respectively, a celebrated film director, a former law partner to Clark Clifford, and a former Rolling Stone photographer who took these compelling shots of hippies during the 1960s (counterintuitively, it is the lawyer who is married to Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter). Roger Altman is a former deputy treasury secretary and continuing Clinton intimate whose investment company, Evercore Partners, owns American Media, which in turn owns the National Enquirer, the Star, and–most appalling of all, because it is so clearly the most nutty tabloid in America–the Weekly World News.

Faithful readers of this column may recall that Chatterbox has been tracking Altman’s new career as a sleaze-peddler (see “Man Bites Dog” and “It’s the End of the World, But Don’t Panic“), with an eye to finding out whether Altman would attempt to make his new media holdings more pro-Clinton or more respectable. Chatterbox naively assumed that if Altman didn’t make his tabloids more pro-Clinton, he would be frozen out by the Clintons, and that if he didn’t make his tabloids more respectable, he would be frozen out by respectable society.

But according to the Times, Evercore’s purchase of three cheesy supermarket tabloids didn’t prevent Hillary Clinton from attending a dinner at Altman’s home on the Upper East Side in April. Since then, the National Enquirer has run a piece alleging that Hillary has committed adultery (with Vince Foster and an unnamed “longtime friend”) while serving as first lady. Chatterbox (who has no opinion about whether these rumors are true, but wouldn’t blame Mrs. Clinton if they were) doesn’t see how Hillary Clinton can dine with Roger Altman ever again; if she does, Chatterbox will be forced to conclude that she lacks even the small quantity of self-respect required to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Chatterbox was clearly an idiot to think that Evercore’s ownership of the Weekly World News could deny Altman a prominent role on Wall Street. The peg to Kuczynski’s article was Altman’s apparently major role in the CBS-Viacom deal, on which “Evercore earned an estimated $10 million fee as the principal adviser to CBS,” and with which “Altman sealed his growing reputation as a politically connected player on the media merger scene.” Of Altman’s new dominance in the supermarket-tabloid biz, Goldman Sachs’ Robert Hormats told the Times, rather charitably, “I do not think it is widely known at all in this world.”

The most intriguing thing in Kuczynski’s piece is Altman’s own ambiguous stance about his stewardship of the supermarket tabloids:

We think American Media is a good investment, plain and simple. We are not sitting there working on each week’s copy. We are not involved in the weekly or monthly or, for that matter, any editorial decision of any kind. I think if you went around and asked any number of reasonably well-established buyout firms, they approach it the same way. It is management’s job to manage the company. We are financial guys, and we do not manage the company.

On the most superficial level, Altman appears to be signaling, “Please don’t be mad at me, Hillary,” and also, perhaps, “Please, Brooke Astor, don’t shut me out of the charity-ball circuit.” On a deeper level, though, it’s hard to tell whether Altman means to communicate, “Hey, I’m just the pimp, I don’t turn the tricks,” or whether he’s casting himself, absurdly, as some magnificently disinterested Sulzberger- or Graham-esque figure who refuses to compromise editorial integrity. American Media’s chief executive, David Pecker, seems to hew to the latter interpretation, because he told the Times that Altman has done nothing to interfere with the “hard-hitting” stuff in the Enquirer and the Star about the Clintons.

Pecker might also have noted that the editorial integrity of the Weekly World News remains largely unmolested (though Chatterbox did point out, earlier, a bizarre feint in the direction of respectability in the Weekly World News’ coverage of the imminent apocalypse). This week’s issue includes headlines such as “Your Family May Be Living Under a Curse … And Not Even Know It!” and “Cement Mixer Rips Man’s Penis Off!” and “Last Living Neanderthal Family Found In Icelandic Cave!”

Altman’s Evercore partner, Austin Beutner, told the Times,

American Media reaches an audience of 20 million people each week. We think the ability to deliver interesting content to that large an audience, and deliver that large an audience to advertisers and providers of commerce–whether through direct-response marketing or E-commerce–is compelling. And we think the scale of that business can grow many-fold over the next several years.

Translation: “This is a dream advertising market, because practically by definition these readers will believe anything!”