Calling all conscientious reporters: Would you accept an invitation to spend the holidays with Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S.? What if he invited you and your kids to stay at a $36 million, 90-acre ranch with a pool, tennis court, stables, 15 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, and 18 bidets-a place where all employees sign confidentiality agreements and no one gets in without a security check?
That was the feather of opportunity tickling Patrick Tyler, The New York Times' chief D.C. correspondent, just a few weeks ago, when Tyler and family were invited to spend Christmas at Bandar's posh ranch in Aspen, Colorado. Two sources claim that, at a party thrown by former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee the weekend before Christmas, Tyler "talked freely" about going to Aspen. But Tyler says he declined the invite.
Tyler is no mere reporter. A former bureau chief in Moscow and Beijing, he has covered the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA. What's more, he is a good buddy of Times executive editor Howell Raines, who hired Tyler away from the Post in 1990 and is said to be grooming him to be the new D.C. bureau chief.
And Bandar is no garden variety pasha. His generous gifts have warmed hearts in Aspen and around the world. But Bandar's reputation took a hit in November, when the news broke that the prince, his wife, and the Saudi embassy had given $140,000 in charitable contributions to a Saudi woman who presented herself as a hardship case, but whose husband had alleged ties to terrorists.
Bandar showed a keen command of damage control by inviting Tyler to his mansion in McLean, Virginia for an exclusive interview. The piece ran on the front page of the Times November 27, humanizing the prince and princess and giving them ample opportunity to proclaim their innocence and deny links to terrorism. For Tyler, it was a scoop.
And the prince must have been pleased, too, because the next thing you know he was inviting the Tylers to Aspen. While Tyler gave the impression at Bradlee's party that he was Colorado-bound, with Times colleagues he is said to have been more discreet, intimating that he might have a chance to speak with Bandar over the holidays. But a day or two before Christmas, when Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi called Tyler to quiz him about Aspen, Tyler said he was not going.
In an interview, Farhi said that Tyler's trip to Aspen would have been a "remarkable story" and a "whopping conflict of interest. But the story did not check out."
Via e-mail, Tyler denied even toying with the idea of going to Aspen. "I made no such statements at Ben and Sally's and I did not cancel anything after receiving calls about anything." Tyler said he and his family had always planned to spend Christmas at their West Virginia house, which they did. He added, "We had two other invitations for Christmas, one from my sister . . . and one from Prince Bandar. We had declined both and were loading the car for West Virginia when a Washington Post reporter expressed an interest in our Christmas agenda."
"In truth," Tyler concluded, "I think one of my kids, while visiting Ben and Sally's house the day after the party, mentioned the Bandar invitation, which had just arrived and was declined before anyoneI repeat, anyoneexpressed an interest in it."
A Times spokesperson said the company has "policies that prohibit staff members from accepting anything of material value from news sources or business associates. As for socializingwithout accepting giftsit is a necessary and time-honored way of gathering news in Washington and other capitals. It represents no conflict of interest."
A Saudi embassy spokesperson saw nothing untoward about the invitation, pointing out that Prince Bandar and Tyler have been "close friends" for some time.
When Russ Smith launched the New York Press back in 1988, he dreamed of making it the city's number one alternative weekly. With the secret backing of his brother Randy Smith, Russ was going to huff and puff and blow the Voice down. But now he seems to have lost his wind. Last month, the Smith brothers sold the Press to Douglas Meadow and Charles Colettiwho say they, too, aim to dethrone the Voice.
The Times reported that the new owners paid $5 million for the Press, but the real figure is closer to $3 million, according to a knowledgeable source. Meadow and Coletti have said they won't change much. Smith will still write the Mugger column, and most staffers will stay on. But the source predicts the new owners will cut the publisher's salary and decimate the editorial staff.
So who are these guys? According to a report in the New York Post, Coletti was a past owner of the Connecticut-based Consumer Direct chain of shopper publications, and Meadow comes from a family that once owned Spotlight magazine. But a subsequent Post story, and the knowledgeable source, say that Meadow and Coletti are front men for Avalon Equity Partners, a private investment fund that owns Window Media, a chain of gay alt-weeklies including the New York Blade. Window is beset with financial problems, according to recent reports in the Gay City News.
The source explains that Avalon is losing money on the Blade, and the investors see buying the Press as a way to bail themselves out. Avalon's game plan, according to the source, involves moving the Blade into the Press offices, packaging the Window chain with the Press, and selling the package for up to $10 million.
That is, if they can make the Press profitable. For the last few years, profitability seemed to elude the Smith brothers, even though, like the Voice's owners, they have no inhibitions about selling sex ads. Sex ads accounted for about 27 percent of the Press's $5.8 million in revenues last year, according to the source. The paper lost about $500,000 in 2002, but the situation has been improving: by year end, losses were down to about $30,000 a month. By cutting Russ Smith's salary and expense account (no more Bermuda trips on the company dime), the new owners might even break even.
Smith did not return an e-mail for comment. Reached at the Press, Meadow said he'd call back, but did not.
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