A 6,800-word Los Angeles Times article by Glenn Bunting on the cigar-chomping, money-making, deal-cutting multibillionaire Philip Anschutz is a piece of journalism for which newspapers live.
Here is how it works. Newspapers want to cover people involved in their community. Usually this involves an interview, a nice photo and a couple of quotes. Controversial subjects are addressed (hopefully), but that’s routine since people typically know about the controversies.
There are those occasions when the person does not want to be interviewed, or involved in the article, but wants to be left alone. But when you are worth $7.2 billion, give to charities and own sports teams, venues, a movie company (think Ray and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the nation’s largest theatre chain, and an aspiring newspaper chain in three major cities, you should expect to attract some attention. And if you don’t cooperate, a reporter is not likely to write as kindly.
Bunting did a very nice job hooking the story to Anschutz’s activities in Los Angeles to make it a relevant local story for the Times. But it quickly becomes a review of court documents and interviews with people who have had legal spats with Anschutz. It is not an article about religion, but religion definitely slips in there through Anschutz’s spokesman, Jim Monaghan:
Anschutz’s religious beliefs have been scrutinized, especially within the movie business, because he is regarded as a moral conservative who has invested heavily in films that appeal to families and Christians.
Although Anschutz and his wife have worshiped at an Evangelical Presbyterian church in suburban Denver, they no longer do so, according to Monaghan. He said that Anschutz considers himself “spiritual” and now attends services at churches of various denominations. When in Southern California, friends say, he prefers spending occasional Sunday mornings on the golf course.
That’s about as deep as the article goes in trying to understand Anschutz’s faith. This article is about money, power and scandal, but I think a more thorough look at Anschutz’s faith would have been compelling. That’s difficult because Anschutz obviously does not want anyone writing about his life, let alone his faith. For more on Anschutz and his faith, see Ross Douthat’s report for The Atlantic.
Anschutz’s press-averse ways make it difficult to do a balanced report, particularly regarding alleged improprieties with his Qwest telecommunications company and the gutting of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System:
Paula Smith, 56, a Denver mother of two teenagers, said she faces the prospect of working “until the day I die” after losing nearly $240,000 in retirement savings and $220,000 in the value of her Qwest stock.
Smith was hired as a technical writer for Mountain Bell in 1980 and took a buy-out in June 2001 — exactly one year after Qwest acquired the company.
It infuriates her that Anschutz has moved on to make spiritual films laced with moral messages.
“The thing I resent most about Anschutz is that he never steps up to the plate and holds himself accountable,” Smith said. “Funding ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is not going to exonerate him in the eyes of the Lord.”
Ouch. Knowing that Anschutz is a Christian, I believe he would agree with Smith’s statement based on basic Christian doctrine. Nothing we do on Earth will save us in the eyes of God. But how does one fit that into a newspaper article when the guy isn’t talking?
One of the more interesting segments of the article deals with Mel Gibson and a lawsuit his movie company filed against a Anschutz’s theatre chain, claiming that the company cheated the actor’s distribution company out of payments for The Passion of the Christ:
Testimony in the case disclosed that Anschutz’s theater group charged church groups a $500 “worship price” on top of the normal admission to attend special screenings of “The Passion of the Christ.” Regal routinely levies an administration fee to cover marketing and overhead costs for private screenings.
Gibson became so upset that he ordered his company to issue more than $500,000 in refunds to churches and Christian groups.
“Icon was shocked and disappointed that this additional fee (which was never reported to us) was being charged to faith-based organizations,” Icon wrote in a letter accompanying the refunds.
Worship prices for churches and Christian groups? Why the term “worship” and not the more routine “administrative fee”? That smells fishy.
Finally, as a person fascinated by the life of Howard Hughes, I am not persuaded by the article’s comparing Anschutz to Hughes.