Press Box

Annenberg’s Ticket Out of Hell

Dead almost four years, he’s still rehabilitating his image.

Walter Annenberg

Nothing resuscitates a foul reputation as reliably as cash distributed to the right folks. Preferably lots of cash.

Evil press mogul Walter H. Annenberg observed this maxim decades before he died, grubstaking the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and another Annenberg outpost at the University of Southern California. To the Corporation for Public Broadcasting went a 1980 pledge of $150 million. In 1993, he promised $365 million to education and continued to make one publicity-seeking act of philanthropy after another—did I mention the $1 billion worth of art masterpieces pledged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?—as he sought to rehabilitate his thuggish image before he died in 2002.

Annenberg’s billion-dollar makeover campaign continues from the grave. If you’ve got a spare $750 and a clean tuxedo you don’t mind soiling, you can participate in it by purchasing a ticket to tonight’s (May 22) tribute to Annenberg and his widow, Leonore, at the “WETA Salute to Excellence.” The black-tie, corporate fund-raiser is sponsored by the capital-area’s public TV and radio broadcaster, a plump beneficiary of Annenberg’s largesse.

The Annenbergs are third on the bill of honorees, beneath headliners Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil. Whatever Lehrer and MacNeil’s shortcomings, they are not the enemies of journalism that Annenberg was. Annenberg punished his foes and rewarded his friends with coverage—or noncoverage—from his Philadelphia-based media empire, which included the Philadelphia Inquirer (which he sold in 1969), TV Guide, Seventeen, the Daily Racing Form, and broadcast stations.

The Annenberg blacklist was not written down and was subject to change, reports Christopher Ogden’s Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg: “Certain folders in the morgue, the Inquirer’s clip library, were red-flagged with tags advising reporters or deskmen to check first with [the top editor] before writing a story on that subject.” Ogden continues, “There was never any question but that the blacklist was Walter’s.”

A local builder, a school president, and the head of the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stock Exchange graced the Annenberg Inquirer blacklist. So did entertainers Zsa Zsa Gabor and Imogene Coca.Ogden notes that boxer Sonny Liston “was banned from front-page mentions because of his criminal past and unsavory companions. ‘He was a bum,’ said Walter, a lifelong boxing fan. ‘I didn’t want to give him publicity.’ ” Ralph Nader became an Inquirer nonperson for criticizing General Motors.

When the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors could not come to lease-renewal terms with the Annenberg arena they played in, the Inquirer stopped covering the team for the rest of the season. “There were no game stories, no features, no line scores, no mention in the NBA standings box and promotional ads were rejected. Game attendance plummeted,” writes Ogden.

Johnson administration Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach “inquired why references to him in the Inquirer during the 1960s were invariably critical. ‘A guy at the paper said I was on Walter’s blacklist, but to this day I have absolutely no idea why.’ “

As a longtime Nixon supporter, Annenberg banned his Philadelphia and New Haven television affiliates from broadcasting an ABC network news program titled The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon, which was completed after Nixon lost the 1962 race for governor in California. Annenberg’s stated objection: The producers interviewed convicted perjurer and suspected Soviet spy Alger Hiss.

Annenberg’s ugliest crime against journalism came in 1966, when he ordered the Inquirer’s editor to generate coverage that would knock liberal Democrat Milton Shapp out of the Pennsylvania governor’s contest. Annenberg, as we’ve observed, loved hating people, and Shapp rankled him on several scores: Shapp opposed the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads; he spent a lot of his own money on his campaign; he considered Shapp an “oily windbag and a faker,” as well as a “sleazy son of a bitch with bad character.”

The Inquirer’smost famous smear came when it presented Shapp with the false charge that he had been treated in a mental institution. When Shapp denied it, the Inquirer published the denial, raising the issue in everybody’s mind. In case the voters missed it, an Inquirer columnist repeated the candidate’s denial nine days before the election. Annenberg biographer and former Inquirer reporter John Cooney writes in The Annenbergs: The Salvaging of a Tainted Dynasty:

Thus the Philadelphia Inquirer embarked on one of the most brutal attacks on a politician that journalism in a major metropolitan area had witnessed in years. The Inquirer’s role in the campaign more than any other act revealed the lengths to which Annenberg would go to harm someone. The coverage showed his autocratic nature; he indulged his emotions at the expense of his responsibilities as a publisher. It was the act of a vindictive man.

WETA claims in its honoree propaganda that Annenberg “enjoyed a distinguished career as a publisher [and] broadcaster,” and I’m certain that tonight’s proceedings will compound the lies in hopes that widow Annenberg will fork over more loot before she dies.

WETA isn’t the only craven organization on the take. As I noted before, the institutions at Penn and USC bear the disgraced Annenberg name.

Listen to USC President Stephen B. Sample upon the occasion of Annenberg’s death: “I can say without reservation that his warmth, sincerity and devotion to the ideals of promoting greater human understanding through education and communication more than match the magnitude of his generous gifts. He was a pioneer, a visionary, an exemplary philanthropist and, above all, an extraordinary human being. He leaves an enduring legacy at USC.” For a bigger laugh, read the hagiographic note by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

These people would praise Kim Jong-il if he funded their programs. Edward Barrett, former dean of Columbia University’s journalism school, captured the rotten piece of work that was Annenberg when he wrote in 1970 in the Columbia Journalism Review “perhaps Walter Annenberg never really understood the mission, the obligations or the ethical principles of ethical journalism.”

I’ll salute that instead—and save myself the $750.


Requests for grants to the Kim Jong-il School of Communication, Jack Shafer proprietor, should be addressed to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)