Author Archive | Jane

When Publicity-Mongers Seek Privacy

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, March 6, 1990

Having been away a while and out of touch, I’ve had a lot of catching up on the news to do.

When I departed for Asia last summer, the “Evil Empire” was still intact; now the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself are running toward free enterprise and away from state communism as fast as they can. South Africa, too, has been turned almost upside down, with Nelson Mandela finally freed and apartheid crumbling.

Here at home, the money world witnessed The Fall of the House of Drexel, but only after the elders of the junk-bond house parachuted safely to earth with self-awarded multimillion-dollar bonuses. In more serious belly-up news, major banks in the savings and loan community have been going under, the megabillion losses to be underwritten by the taxpayer (The CIA, as a siphoner of loans for covert activities, was apparently a player in this crash.)

In New York, other covert activities were uncovered, these perpetrated by U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, our peddler of influence extraordinaire, who after so many years of free rides seems now to be sinking under the weight of multiple investigations. And, yes, before I forget, Andy Rooney came back, some think with his genes watered down.

But by far the biggest news in this city that believes it defines America has been the Trump saga. The divorce of the century. Relentless hours of air time and thousands of column inches of print, and we’re only just beginning. New Yorkers know what’s important. The Trumps are us.

And beware of those who tell you they are neither following the tawdry tale nor talking about it at the dinner table. Their noses may be growing. The fascination is fairly universal. And it is definitely selling newspapers.

My bet for the most profitable headline was the banner in the New York Post on Feb. 16, which purported to be a quote from Marla Maples, the Other Woman. She was said to have enthused to her friends about Donald Trump in the following way: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.”

Which brings us to one of the few non-trivial issues generated by this hair-pulling contest: the question of whether the Trumps are entitled to the customary rights of privacy.

Of course, the customary rights in this country don’t extend very far any more, given the boom in the gossip industry. Even so, I have always argued, as with the Gary Hart episode, that the private lives of public figures are not the business of the press unless we can demonstrate that the personal activity has a clear bearing on the public performance. Part of this argument is that since the media have as much effect on public policy as do elected officials and other power wielders, do we in the press agree that our private lives are fair game for someone else’s scrutiny? 

My position hasn’t changed. So where does that put me on the Trump issue? Do Donald and Ivana — and Marla — come under the protection of the Schanberg rule? The answer is yes, but.

The problem in the Trump case is that Donald in particular but Ivana as well have conducted their lives via neon announcements to the world — by writing their names in the sky, so to speak. Nothing is built or purchased that is not immediately plastered with the family name — Trump Tower, Trump Castle (the casino), Trump Princess (the yacht), TrumpShuttle (the airline), Tour de Trump (the bicycle race) et cetera, et cetera. Press conferences are called to proclaim every deal, every prize-fight promotion, every new toy. Lots of climbers are tacky but none have been so determinedly public in their tackiness as the Trumps. They became the Royal Family of High Tack.

The Schanberg rule is not absolutist. It is very hard to argue in defense of the privacy of people who have invited us to worship their treasure, who have insisted that we photograph them at every turn, who have asked us into their many homes to gaze at the limits of ostentation to which they have pushed their decorators. When people shout “Look at us! Look at us!” for years on end, can they expect the world to stop looking just because something awkward or embarrassing happens in their personal lives?

Even in their break-up, the Trumps waged a public, not private, battle. Each hired shark lawyers skilled at manipulating the press, each sought out a gossip columnist of choice, each set in play their public-relations men to smash and trash the other. (It was Scanlon for Ivana and Rubenstein for Donald. As the PR dirt flew, it blurred and became indistinguishable, one side from the other. In my mind, a la Watergate, it became a single public-relations entity — the Scanstein team.)

Still, the press clearly went too far on several occasions (as with the “Best Sex” and other stories). No matter how outrageously public the Trumps have ever been, we, often with relish, stepped over that line of good taste that most of us are so fond of trumpeting as our ethic.

Donald complained bitterly that the coverage had been excessive and called it “sick.” He, of course, wanted it both ways — megacoverage when he was on one of his ego trips but press discretion and restraint when he found himself in distress. His double standard, however, does not excuse ours.



This Little Piggy Went Nyah-Nyah to the Moron

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, Jun 2, 1987

Just when it looked as though the garbage-without-a-country was going to be the only story to keep the press alive during the summer doldrums, along came The Mayor and The Mogul to deliver their gift to the hungry hyenas of the Fourth Estate. They gave us the multiple, continuous, floating mega-tantrum.

The Mogul, whose parents had named him Donald Trump, was rechristened by The Mayor as “Piggy, Piggy, Piggy.”  It’s not clear whether this came before or after The Mogul called The Mayor, who used to go by the moniker of Edward Koch, a “Moron.”

What a boon for the headline writers — “Mayor Moron Blasts Mogul Piggy.” It’s almost enough to restore one’s faith in the high-mindedness of our celebrities and in their selfless commitment to keeping us entertained.

We’ve seen hair-pulling by inflated personalities before, but this one is special — a pluperfect specimen. After all, it’s not often that two of the biggest hustlers, con men and self- promoters in town turn on each other in their sandbox and throw a conniption fit.

This town isn’t big enough for both of us, nyuh-nyahed Piggy the Mogul. “Koch is a disaster. He should resign from office. He can’t hack it anymore.”

Mayor Moron snarled back that if The Mogul “is squealing like a stuck pig, I must have done something right.” And then, to make sure everyone got his meaning about the swine epithet, he jeered: “Greedy, greedy, greedy.”

You’ve got to admit, this is mud-slinging at its best. I can’t wait for the next installment.

And there’s bound to be more. Because this particular chapter in the saga of The Mayor and The Mogul is not only about towering egos but towering bucks as well.

The Mogul, you see, wants to build a mini-city on 100 acres he owns along the Hudson River and the poor thing wants The Mayor to give him all sorts of subsidies to lure the National Broadcasting Co. to the site as the prime tenant, occupying nine of the 100 acres. NBC, it seems, looking ahead to when its leases expire at Rockefeller Center in the 1990s, is considering a move to New Jersey, where taxes and other costs are lower.

The Mayor said he will give tax abatements and other incentives to NBC to keep the communications giant in New York City, but he will not give these goodies to Piggy’s whole 100-acre project to help him amass a windfall profit. Piggy wants this handout, The Mayor says, because he is, well, greedy.

“Common sense,” said The Mayor, citing a trait rarely demonstrated before in his dealings with real estate developers, “does not allow me to give away the city’s treasure to Donald Trump.” This is what probably drove Donald to call him a Moron: for forgetting that he has been giving away the city’s treasury to builders for the past 10 years.

Mayor Moron didn’t stop at smearing The Mogul. He had an insult left over for New Jersey as well, as he explained why NBC should understand that being in Gotham, center of the entire world, was a premium all by itself. “People want Manhattan,” he said. “This is bedrock country. This is not mudflats.”

And besides, you don’t get spitting matches like this in New Jersey. 

While it’s true that The Moron was forgetful about his giveaway policy to developers — it seems to be the style of the ’80s to have memory losses about important things, as with the president’s arms sales and secret bank accounts for rebel armies — Piggy also seems to deliver a self-serving version of history when he listed The Mayor’s failures and said that he should therefore spare us further fiascos and fade into retirement.

For example, Piggy noted — shedding crocodile tears — that, under Koch, “the homeless are unnecessarily wandering the streets.” This is true — as far as it goes. But it fails to mention that the only thing that Piggy has done for the homeless, as their numbers have swelled, is to build more and more super-luxury apartments.

In one instance, when Piggy wanted to empty a building so he could convert it from middle class to regal class, he offered to house a few of the homeless temporarily in the building’s vacant apartments so as to scare out all the other tenants.

Trump and Koch have feuded before, but never as Piggy and Moron. Usually it’s been over who gets the credit for something and who gets to stand in front when the cameras start taking pictures. This time, it’s no different, except that it involves more money as well as a valid policy issue about how large the concessions to entrepreneurs should be to spur the city’s economy.

The problem, though, is that the behavior is that of little boys throwing tantrums because they can’t get everything their own way. It’s my bat and ball, so we’re playing by my rules. Who sez? I sez, what are you going to do about it? You’re a piggy. Yeah, well you’re a Moron.

No, they don’t get this kind of big-time entertainment in the mudflats on New Jersey. Think how dull their newspapers must be.


Well, Recessions Do Teach the Basics

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, April 26, 1991

There’s nothing like a recession for teaching home truths — and for making some people behave oddly.

Donald Trump’s empire is sliding speedily into the maw of his creditor banks, and Donald says, with a smile on his Kewpie lips, that he’s never done better and everything’s going his way. That’s the nice thing about Donald — his realism.

The other nice thing is the comfort his downfall brings the rest of the suffering nation. He was the high roller, the world’s leading con man, and he got stung and stung big by the junk-bond scam. We little schnooks, we exist to be taken, so when the high priest of hustle gets skinned by the carnival barkers, we get to feel superior — or at least feel a little better about our schnookiness. 

For my part, it makes me experience a smidgen of empathy for Donald. I can almost see him as a human person, vulnerable and capable of being hurt. The only thing that gets in the way of this empathy attack is the manner in which Donald dresses.

No, I’m not talking about those stupendously ordinary red and yellow ties. It’s his jackets. He never takes them off. Think about it — have you ever seen him with even his arms exposed? He goes to Palm Beach, and the temperature is 90, and he keeps his jacket on. He goes to construction sites where men are stripped to their t-shirts and he nervously buttons his jacket tight — and puts something on, a hardhat.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, but clearly he’s trying to cover something up. Maybe that headline should have read: “Best Sex I Ever Had With a Fully Dressed Man.”

To get back to the recession, I’m convinced it had one primary cause — those junk bonds that Donald among so many others bought like shortcakes.

Every morning when you pick up your pager, you know there’ll be a story about another huge bank or insurance company going out of business because they loaded up on junk bonds.

As we know, Michael Milken was the chief sorcerer, a man with a bent bent. His story was that he had discovered the ultimate populist panacea. By creating this new category of high-risk, high-return instruments, he was going to crack open the closed fraternity of snooty bond brokers and make the bond market available to little people. In short, he wasn’t breaking laws, he was creating a new world economic order for all of us schnooks.

Sure. And now there are legions of schnooks around the country whose retirement annuities have gone into the sewer with the financial institutions that carried them and then invested the funds in the garbage bonds. Why didn’t somebody believe the label? Wall Street did, after all, describe them as “junk” bonds.

It’s hard to conceive that a handful of tricksters from a handful of financial houses — Drexel Burnham, Salomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch — brought on this whole slide. And of course, they didn’t — because for their scheme to succeed (and for the economy to collapse later), they needed thousands of accomplices around the country. Greed drove the engine, and greed — like the smell of sulfur — is never in short supply. Added to which is the fact that no one ever accused bankers as a community of being intelligent. 

So here we are now, watching businesses by the dozens go under and watching George Bush’s lips for any hint at all of when the cloud will lift — as if he really has any more of a clue than the rest of us schnooks.

At the center of the universe — New York City — where the top financial geniuses practice their alchemy, things are getting to the point where the homeless are being pushed into a lower category of government concern by the growing regiments of the unemployed.

Whole office buildings stand empty or nearly so, another demonstration of the genius-cum-greed syndrome. Brilliant developers rushed to throw their scrapers into the sky so as to capitalize on expiring government tax abatements, and now their creditors also soar in the sky, emitting vulture shrieks as they circle the new towers listening for death rattles.

I know it sounds naive to ask who suffers most in times like these, but the answer is so obvious and so necessary. Milken’s in jail for a few years, but nearly all the other schemers are free and clear, just waiting for their next chance to hypnotize us and skin us. The people on the jobless lines are the ones who’ve taken the biggest hit.

At a seminar I attended a few years ago, a leading New York developer described real estate as the highest-risk business in the country. He was then asked what the personal impact would be on him if, say, his latest project went bust. He seemed confused by the questions. “Well, my investors would lose their money,” he said. But what about you, the questioner persisted, what effect would this have on your everyday life? “Like I said,” he repeated, perplexed, “this Japanese group would lose their investment.”

It had never occurred to him that risk for ordinary people meant possible loss of a job or a decline in standard of living. His risk was for others to take. His limousines would always stay intact.

Yup, there’s nothing like a recession for dispensing some gut lessons in life.


Trump the Money Man Is Just No Fun

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, May 25, 1990

When is Donald Trump going to realize that money isn’t everything? Money’s not why we love him. Why is he going around now saying that when he grows up he wants to be the “King of Cash”?

I liked him better when he wanted to be in charge of nuclear arms negotiations for the United States and said it would take him no more than “an hour and a half” to master the subject. That’s the Donald who wormed himself into our hearts.

He just doesn’t understand. We loved him for his adorable self. That goes for all of us, from Marla to Leona to Ivana. Everybody loves a lover. A moneybags, on the other hand, commands only fear and awe and envy.

Donald, boychik, your mind has become clouded. I know things aren’t going so well, and you’re mortgaged to the hilt and you need some pocket money. But, remember, you’re our national soap opera, and in the soaps, when things are looking bleakest — when your wife, Rona, comes back from the doctor to tell you she has only six months to live, when your old flame Meredith shows up right then with a cripple teenager she says is yours, and the phone rings and it’s your lawyer saying you’re being indicted for tax fraud and you’re facing six years in the slammer — that’s when the violins build and the sun breaks through the clouds, and you realize that money isn’t everything and that only character will see you through.

So why then, Donald, are you running around protesting that you’re worth billions when the truth is closer to $400 million or $500 million? Yes, Forbes magazine and Business Week annoyed you by saying your assets were overvalued and your father had cut back on your weekly allowances, but that’s no reason to throw a tantrum and get Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. to fire the securities analyst who studied your books and reported that your empire was a bit rocky, founded as it is on junk bonds that are growing junkier.

And then you threatened a libel suit against a Wall Street Journal reporter if he even hinted in his story that you’re suffering from cash-flow blues.

Cripes, Donald, if you need a few bucks to tide you over, just ask around. But don’t get yourself into an uproar. You’re beginning to sound like your late friend, Roy Cohn, who was the world’s highest-living deadbeat. Anytime a store or a limousine garage tried to collect the money Cohn owed them, he sued them for harassment and defamation of the Jews.

Now, Donald, you’re refusing to pay your bill, and your story is that it’s the other guy’s fault. Take the contractors who built your Taj Mahal casino. You owe them $30 million and you choose to call it a billing dispute. Is that any way to treat the guys who made you the kind of the principality of High Tack?

And what about the stretch limousine manufacturers, Executive Coachbuilders, who made 35 custom vehicles for the Taj? You accused them of making four of them too short, by two to four inches, and you’ve refused to pay for them or even return them. That’s no way for a really big fella to behave, Donald. A big fella would bend a little and then I’m sure he would shoe-horn himself into those cabin cruisers.

People are not unsympathetic about your being a little tapped out. It’s not as if we haven’t been there ourselves a time or two. And we know why you’d rather hush it up. The sharks out there, if they smell blood, aren’t going to pay top dollar for the trinkets you’re trying to sell off for cash. But why fight it, Donald? It’s kind of obvious that a guy’s flat when he’s trying to sell an airline less than a year after he bought it and painted his name all over the planes.

The thing that bothers me most is the prospect of losing you. If you go down the tubes and become just another parvenu has-been, columnists like me are going to have one less tush to kick around. By being so outrageous and behaving like a world-class horse’s patootie for a decade, you’ve provided instant fodder for us. To be honest, I probably owe you maybe 2 percent of my salary for all the columns you’ve unselfishly served up to me over the years. Don’t try to collect, though. I’ll countersue and call it a billing dispute.

What got me worrying about losing you as a meal ticket were the gossip items about you souring on New York and moving your hustle to Los Angeles. Cindy and Liz say you’re going to buy yourself a movie studio with a stable of starlets.

Say it isn’t so, Donald. They’ll never love you in La-La-Land the way we do. Here, you’re an exotic species; out there you’ll be just another paper moon in a Barnum and Bailey world. 

Out there, you won’t get any headlines when you raze a building and destroy a valued bas-relief that you had promised to an art museum. No one will even notice when you throw widows out on the street in order to build yet another tower of glitz. It’s Hollywood and they’ve seen movie sets before.

In California, you’ll never find a mayor who’ll call you “Piggy, Piggy, Piggy”; they’re too laid back. And when you offer them the exclusive on your latest messy divorce, they will yawn — for messy divorces are a dime a dozen on Malibu Beach. 

Out there, Donald, you’ll be just another pretty face. Stay home where you belong. After all, who loves ya, baby?


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