It wasn't on the order of the Virgin Mary's likeness appearing on a tortilla, but the quasi-religious apparition that materialized on the premises of the Houston Post recently set plenty of journalistic tongues on fire.
Without warning, there was Pat Robertson, inspecting the paper's presses during the evening hours of January 5 and making a swing through the newsroom the next morning. The ever-smiling televangelist was accompanied by several Asians, apparently representatives of an investment group interested in buying part or all of the Post.
When word of the visit -- and Robertson's interest in the paper -- leaked out, William Dean Singleton, the board chairman of the paper's owner, MediaNews Group, released a statement claiming the paper was not for sale and the tour was simply a courtesy for someone of Robertson's "stature in American politics."
That wasn't quite the line emanating from Robertson's camp. Spokesman Gene Kapp characterized the intent of the visit as "preliminary discussions" regarding the purchase of the paper by Robertson and an unspecified group of investors. Asked whether he endorsed Singleton's version of events, Kapp snapped, "I'm not going to have any further comment on it."
Robertson's appearance at 4747 Southwest Freeway set local media observers to wondering if his aim was to turn the weaker of the city's two daily newspapers into a beacon for the forces of Christian conservatism -- sort of a Texas version of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times. One longtime Robertson observer says The 700 Club founder has long been interested in staking an outpost in the mainstream media.
"Robertson's got a history of fascination in what he calls 'the secular media,'" says Mark O'Keefe, a former reporter for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, the home base of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Robertson has turned CBN into a business-religious hybrid that brings in more than $100 million in tax exempt donations each year. Using CBN as a support base, he also founded the Family Channel, and CBN then sold the highly successful cable television network to Robertson and his son, Tim.
Robertson has written of his desire to use established media to "turn the tide" in favor of his brand of Christian morality. And the evangelist has dabbled in the secular news media before. He, like former Houston developer Joe Russo, at one point attempted to purchase the faltering United Press International wire service. When that bid failed, Robertson created Standard News, a service that he hoped would one day compete with the Associated Press.
Lest one think that a Robertson newspaper might feature such headlines as "Freedom fighters halt baby murder at abortion clinics," O'Keefe says that Standard News had a fairly sophisticated touch that kept the moralizing to a minimum. "It was mainly pitched at radio stations with the idea that if it took off they could try to do something for newspapers," says O'Keefe. "They pumped a lot of money into it but the bottom line was radio stations were skeptical of the product." In a competitive arena that included NBC and Mutual, Standard soon went belly-up.
And maybe a Robertson-controlled Post might not be half bad, if that's what it would take to keep Houston with two competing daily newspapers, and especially in light of the disinformation that the paper's current management spread to its own employees about the purpose of Robertson's visit.
In fact, Robertson's Houston foray might have remained inside media gossip except for Post publisher Ike Massey's clumsy attempt to disguise the reason behind the televangelist's presence on the paper's premises. When a member of the paper's staff asked Massey why Robertson was in the building, the publisher replied that the visitor was there because he was running for president. (Massey did not return calls from the Press for comment.) His comment got back to the Post's city desk, which in turn passed it on to the paper's Washington bureau. From there, D.C. bureau chief Kathy Kiely -- skeptical since Robertson has steadfastly denied interest in mounting a 1996 presidential bid -- put in a call to Robertson's Mecca in Virginia.
When Kapp denied that his boss had personal designs on the presidency, Kiely acted on her suspicion that it was dreams of occupying Fort Singleton rather than the White House that had drawn Robertson to Houston.
"I specifically asked him about that," Kiely explains, "because I thought it would have been coy and stupid not to. That's what everybody thought was going on. It was just being honest, that's all."
Her query drew the confirmation that Robertson and his fellow investors were indeed romancing the Post, although it's still unclear whether their interest is in MediaNews' controlling interest or in the 49 percent share owned by Rogers Communications Inc., or the whole operation. Rogers is a Canadian communications giant that now owns the Toronto Sun. The Toronto Sun Company sold the Post to Singleton's company in 1987, but came to control part of the paper again after renegotiating its original deal with Singleton. Last fall, Rogers announced its intention to liquidate the American publishing holdings of the Sun's parent company, pricking the ears of some alert Post employees to the possibility that a change could be coming in early 1995.
Whatever Robertson's designs, his interest in the newspaper doesn't make much sense to John Morton, a Washington, D.C.-based media analyst for the brokerage firm of Lynch, Jones & Ryan. Morton was "surprised" by Robertson's interest, since his previous media experience is on the electronic side. And if his goal were purely commercial, turning a healthy buck off the Post would be "difficult," given its precarious market position against the Houston Chronicle, Morton says.
Morton says the speculation that Robertson and his group could buy Rogers Communications' 49 percent share and be guaranteed control of the editorial product isn't entirely implausible. "It would all depend on how the contract would be written," he notes.
Robertson's stop at the Post came hard on the heels of another heavy round of rumor and speculation about the paper's future. One phenomena fueling the speculation is the Post's deep-dip subscription offers, including a current blue-light special in which a subscriber can get the paper delivered Wednesday through Sunday for a dollar a month.
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Post newsroom employees (or at least those left who aren't part-time or contract workers) have become inured to talk that the paper and its presses are on the block, and after several years of severe belt tightening and staff reductions at the paper, their sentiment about Robertson cuts two ways.
"The reaction I've heard," says one, "is not so much about Robertson wanting to buy the paper, but rather the impression that the paper must really be for sale now. And people think that if the paper's for sale, that must mean trouble ahead.
"On the other hand," the staffer adds hopefully, "someone made the observation that if these guys with Robertson were Japanese, it's assumed they have a lot of money and then, 'All right! Good times ahead!'"
Of course, journalists are always trying to find the bright side of a hard-luck world, particularly the journalists at a paper that's been under three owners in the past 11 years and somehow -- perhaps miraculously -- has been able to stave off the sad fate that seems to inevitably befall the second daily paper in a two-paper town.