Vanity Press

When the Free Times talks, it might be wise to lend a skeptical ear.

Michael Lacey is executive editor of New Times.

Who's your daddy? It's a question that doesn't throw an honest person into a dither.

But after sitting through two issues of the Free Times -- and page after page after page of bug-eyed attack on our organization -- I had to laugh. If you can't trust these guys to tell the truth about their own paper, it might be wise to lend a skeptical ear when they talk about ours.

Personally, I haven't met anyone who cares about the ownership of the Free Times. Yet Publisher Matt Fabyan and Editor in Chief David Eden deceived their own readers in their first issue. "We are no longer owned by a large media corporation and just another link in a newspaper chain," Fabyan wrote of the paper's former owner, Village Voice Media, in his debut column. "Now we are locally owned and operated . . ."

It was a childish fabrication. One of Fabyan's new partners had already said in an interview one month earlier that the new Free Times "majority shareholder" was a Pennsylvania outfit, Times Publishing Co., which owns a daily in Erie and has bought and sold newspapers, shoppers, cable-television providers, and radio stations around the country.

Furthermore, Times Publishing Co. announced in April that it was "actively pursuing other purchases of alternative newsweekly properties." In other words, the people who actually own Fabyan and Eden's paper intend to start an alternative newspaper chain -- just like the Village Voice, just like New Times, parent company of Scene. Cheers to them.

Fabyan was forced, almost immediately, to admit to The Plain Dealer that, well, okay, there aren't actually any local investors in the Free Times, but that's only because Fabyan and Eden are such dangerous journalists that no one in all of Ohio would dare put cash into a paper that is going to expose ALL THE DIRT, ALL THE TIME.

The simple truth wasn't good enough for these guys. They wanted to hide their corporate ownership so that they could play the little guy, the victim. So they concocted a false identity. An article last week in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies newsletter re-confirmed the Pennsylvania ownership, characterizing the stake held by Fabyan and Eden, the local owners, as "a sliver."

This time, Fabyan wisely decided that he was nowhere to be found for comment.

If the first thing -- the very first thing -- they published on the opening page of their newspaper was a jumbled cat's cradle, is it any surprise that these two also lied about their competitor, Scene?

Fabyan and Eden lied about New Times Inc. and our fight with John Ashcroft's Justice Department. They repeatedly told readers that our news organization admitted violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

That is absolutely false.

They repeatedly told readers that we signed a consent decree admitting that we broke the law.

That isn't true either.

"There is no admission of guilt in the consent decree," observed The New York Times in its front-page coverage of the contentious dispute between the Justice Department, New Times, and Village Voice Media.

We fought the U.S. Justice Department for months that felt like dog years. The feds made a lot of accusations, but the government lawyers never made a case -- and they spent a long time trying. We didn't roll over at the beginning, and we didn't roll over at the end. Prosecutors chose to avoid court, preferring a settlement favorable to us. There was no admission of guilt. Ever. The consent decree is a public document. You can look it up yourself. Fabyan and Eden simply doctored the paperwork to fit their own story.

But perhaps this disappointing trail of falsehoods was to be expected.

Eden was a public relations flack for more than a decade; his job has long been to say what he was instructed to say by those who paid him.

In 1993, Eden and two colleagues bought the public relations firm where they worked. William Silverman & Co., an outfit The Plain Dealer described as a "bare-knuckle brawler for political candidates," had billings in the millions of dollars. The owner took Eden's money, moved to Colorado, and wrote a book about every rich man's idol, Che Guevara. Eden informed The PD that his agency was getting out of politics in favor of more traditional public relations.

Sure enough, within months Eden was defending Ohio's largest health insurer, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, against an FBI investigation regarding allegations of kickbacks and pay-offs.

"All insurance companies, to my knowledge, have special types of relationships with their top brokers," Eden announced, trying to explain away Blue Cross's troubles.

By the end of 1993, Eden was defending the insurer's takeover of Riverside Hospital in Toledo, as well as ushering in a new era of callousness toward patients.

"With Blue Cross in control, there will be a fundamental change in administration philosophy from filling beds to one of reducing stays," Eden told The Plain Dealer.

Not all of Eden's public statements were uttered for pay, though certainly most were self-serving.

In 1996, he loudly protested a Beachwood synagogue's plan to sell a parcel of land so that Marriott Corp. could construct an old-folks home.

"This is the wrong place, the wrong time, and the wrong location," Eden told The PD. "What we are telling you is, this is not the best time for Marriott to force itself into our community."

Eden likes to play the big-business-bugaboo card the way other "progressives" play the race card -- unless, of course, that big business just happens to be a multi-billion-dollar health insurer. But in this case, there was an evil more pressing than Marriott. It just so happened that Eden lived near the envisioned retirement home. Apparently he's the sort of populist who believes that old people in rocking chairs are no different than old Camaros up on blocks.

One year later, Eden surfaced again in Beachwood, loudly opposing the construction of two Orthodox synagogues and a small school for 250 girls on a 12-acre site.

"Any religious group that comes in by the thousands will take things out of balance," Eden told The PD.

But while he opposed an old-folks home, two synagogues, and a small girls school, as well as clusters of the religious in the expensive little suburb where he lives, he was not entirely opposed to progress -- as long as it was elsewhere and he was making a buck off it.

That same year, 1997, Eden was the spokesman for Biskind Development Co., which sought to impose a $344 million development -- including "750 upscale homes" -- on "pristine woods, meadows, and wetlands." The development would have nearly doubled the population of tiny Bath Township.

Residents never bought the PR spin that Biskind would build "an eco-residential community that was sensitive to the balance between the needs of nature and man." In fact, opposition was unwavering. In a story announcing the project's collapse, Eden was uncharacteristically understated: "Community consensus did not develop."

Later that year, Eden offered himself to the friends and neighbors he had so relentlessly defended over the years. He ran for mayor of Beachwood. He finished a disappointing third, with a few more than 500 votes out of the 5,000 cast.

Community consensus had developed after all.

In their first issue, Fabyan and Eden lurched toward readers full of exaggerated swagger. Eden actually called us "scumbags and cowards." There is no record, anywhere, of Eden ever looking a man in the eye and saying something like this to his face. But as a paper pugilist, he's a full-on pantload.

These two immortals compared themselves, repeatedly, to the Cleveland Browns. (Never mind that only a fool equates a newspaper -- any newspaper -- to something as important as football.) They claimed that their competition with Scene had captured no less an audience than America itself, "from New York to Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country." Both ran pictures of themselves that were larger than the model's head on the cover.

In the second issue, they ran pictures of themselves at their own party, grinning at finally discovering a velvet rope they could get past.

Most guys are less self-absorbed at their first prom.

These are rich kids whose vanity and lies are published on someone else's nickel. They are play-acting at being blue-collar underdogs -- and using someone else's money to pay for the makeup.

Free Times is all about the two of them, their petty political squabbles and their fabulous party lifestyle. Their leadership is infectious.

In the first issue, their restaurant critic swindles the paper's owners by feasting on beluga caviar, lobster tortellini, foie gras, and "a wonderful 1998 Bussola Amarone." Besotted with expensive red wine, the reviewer describes the restaurant as a "temple of malevolent excess." The critic also drops 400 clams on his personal feast. By the second issue, Eden's fellow poseur was defending the goddamned French while swilling more wine and babbling about "garlicky sweetbreads . . . punctuated with lardoons of bacon."

Lardoons? Infectious indeed.

Fabyan and Eden figure that if they can squander other people's money without consequence, they can lie without consequence. And so the two of them set out to reinvent history, to cover their tracks in an explosion of bluster.

Here is what they want to distort; here is what they want to hide: They lost the battle in Cleveland.

In 2002, following the financial panic that accompanied the September 11 tragedy, New Times suffered losses, as a lot of companies did. When the dot-com and telecom bubbles evaporated, many investors and lenders were crippled. Our bank announced that it was closing its media division and that we would be forced to find a new lender. In that economic climate, all the new bankers we interviewed demanded that we sell our Los Angeles publication; it was our only substantive loser and showed no sign of economic turnaround.

It was a very painful decision. We owned 11 successful newspapers, and their continued health depended upon our making the right choice. We did not have a Pennsylvania angel to fall back on. We found a willing buyer in the Village Voice, owner of one of the papers we competed against in California. They paid us $11 million for the assets. We packed it in.

While it was true that we lost the fight in Los Angeles, it is also true that the Village Voice, which owned the Free Times, had lost the fight in Ohio to our paper, Scene. We purchased their Free Times for $2 million.

Now, you can certainly argue -- and we won't dispute your judgment, believe me -- that in executing the sales simultaneously, we followed lousy legal advice, which triggered a Justice Department investigation.

But remember: The federal government in recent years had already overseen the greatest concentration of media ownership in the history of the world. From Rupert Murdoch to AOL Time Warner, no deal was too big. This very week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to remove what few restraints remain that prevent companies from owning numerous television, radio, and print media in the same market.

The notion that Ashcroft would draw a line in the sand by declaring that two alternative weeklies were some sort of badass monopolists seemed just the sort of cynical feint that's meant to appease government critics while the Big Boys all wink.

Or, as the nation's most traditional media trade magazine, Editor & Publisher, noted at the time the investigation was announced, ". . . It's not an argument Justice can make with a straight face . . . This 'serious investigation' reveals a risibly misplaced sense of priorities at the Antitrust Division."

After months of searching through our files and deposing witnesses, after months of vilification in the pages of our competitors, here is how it played out: The Justice Department declined to prosecute. Prosecutors agreed that New Times could keep all $11 million from the Los Angeles sale. The Village Voice could keep all $2 million from the Cleveland sale.

Neither party would admit, or be asked to admit, any wrongdoing.

In order to salvage something from the debacle, the Justice Department wanted both newspaper groups to sell, for a second time, the same assets. In plain English, the Village Voice would sell the Free Times once more, and -- get this -- it would also keep the proceeds from the second sale. We would do the same in Los Angeles. Yep, we got paid a second time, too. But the Justice Department wanted to pick who got to own the next alternative papers in Cleveland and in Los Angeles.

The suggestion that a prissy fundamentalist like John Ashcroft would anoint an "alternative" paper is a unique idea that must have had the Founding Fathers sharing a laugh. This should have been a pretty good story, in and of itself. But it wasn't paranoid enough, or sinister enough, for Fabyan and Eden. Nor does it provide the conspiratorial twist they need for their roles as martyrs.

In their second issue, they wallowed in the same organ discharge that capsized the first issue. They devoted themselves to conspiracies wrapped up in an ad hominem attack on New Times and Scene. Eden, in particular, spat food everywhere: He concocted quotes, invented financial statements, fabricated history, lied about court records, continued to hide the ownership of his newspaper from his readers, distorted media coverage, and made up whatever he needed to make his point.


In his cover story, Eden concluded his first paragraph by making up a quote attributed to my partner, New Times CEO Jim Larkin. "Larkin told one reporter that he knew it was a risky deal at the time, but hoped that nobody would care," he wrote.

Where, exactly, did Jim Larkin say that? Who did he say that to?

Jim Larkin never said any such thing.

Of course people were going to care. People lost their jobs. (We re-hired and moved virtually the entire staff of writers and editors in Los Angeles to our other papers.)

Referring to the final days of the Free Times, Eden then wrote: "The paper was showing double-digit advertising growth over the prior year and was on target to make a small profit in 2002, says Matt Fabyan, publisher of the Free Times. Fabyan adds that the then-Village Voice-owned newspaper had lost about $200,000 in 2001."

That's cotton candy from start to finish. We know that for a fact, because when we purchased the Free Times, we also bought their books -- the books Fabyan kept. Read them, and you'll understand why the Free Times was sold for a fraction of the price our Los Angeles publication fetched.

Matt, you lost over $325,000 in 2001. More ominously, that loss was triple the percentage of loss from the year before.

Nor were you on track to make a small profit in 2002. In the eight months prior to our purchase, you lost a shade shy of a half-million dollars. Spread out over the year, you were on track to lose in excess of $700,000. You more than doubled your losses from 2001.

That's why the Free Times was sold. Your losses were compounding, with the trajectory of a V-2 buzz bomb dropping out of the sky and corkscrewing like a dud into the ground.

Worse, the $700,000-plus annualized loss didn't begin to tell the whole story. Hidden in your books, masked as income, was $250,000 of uncollectable debt. That's right: People advertised with you but never bothered to pay. And what did you care? It wasn't your money. You were playing with the Village Voice's checkbook -- the same way you're playing with a Pennsylvania checkbook now.

Eden continued to throw around fantasy numbers throughout his diatribe. He claimed we've lost $10 million in Cleveland. Not true. Not close to true. He said we're going to lose $2.5 million this year. Not true. Not close to true.

He claimed we have a promotional deal with House of Blues in Cleveland that cost $2.5 million. That's absurd. Why not pick up the phone and ask the promoter if that number is even in the ballpark?

Eden claimed we purchased Scene for $3.8 million. That's not true. We paid $2.1 million. It's an easily verifiable number. Why make it up?

Covering up your own losses, while sleazy, is at least self-serving. Attributing phony losses to us is the sort of lying one might expect. But why make up numbers about House of Blues or the purchase price of Scene?

As an Army lawyer once famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency?"

After just two issues of the Free Times, one could fairly ask the same of Matt Fabyan and David Eden.

So enjoy yourselves, guys. Smart readers will appreciate the spectacle. And keep scarfing down that Pennsylvania foie gras while it lasts. Your first week you printed 112 pages. Last week you dropped to 84 -- even though you were giving away half-page ads for $250.

We'll get the lights when the party's over.

For more on this topic, go to "It's the Journalism, Bruce," in our sister paper, SF Weekly.

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