Milken the Crook
Jude Wanniski
December 17, 1996

 

Memo To: Frank Rich, The New York Times
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Milken the Crook

I enjoyed your Saturday, December 14th column on Michael Ovitz and gather it is based on solid ground. Media hype is a factor of our time, but that works in both directions. Some men (and women) know how to "work the press" to establish themselves as paragons of intellect and virtue, when they are in fact incompetent and evil. In my world of political economy, Ivan Boesky comes to mind as a master of that Media Universe. On the other hand, we have any number of cases of men and women who are naive about the way this world works, and because they are not competent in "working the press," they get hyped in the opposite direction. Michael Milken is one such man, one of the finest human beings I have ever met in my 60 years, a man of pure intellect and virtue, incapable of committing any but the slightest of sins or misdemeanor, yet totally inept in understanding the media. If you would use your considerable journalistic skills to investigate Milken as I did, before meeting him, you would come away pleased to find that you have been mistaken about him. Pleased, I say, because it is always a pleasure to find good where you believed only evil existed. I send along a paper I did for my clients, one of many I wrote before and after meeting Milken and determining for myself that he is precisely the opposite of the media image of him, as Boesky was exactly the opposite of the media image he had.

Indeed, because I spent most of my career in journalism, 13 years at Dow Jones publication, 6 at The Wall Street Journal, I first noticed Milken's name coming to the surface in a way that left me deeply suspicious about what was occurring. That is, I began to see in The Wall Street Journal's news pages stories by James Stewart, and others, that were outside the norms of the Journal's standards of proper journalism. Specifically, Milken stories began appearing regularly with unsourced charges and allegations of his criminal activities. He was being tried in the press before the government brought charges against him. Not the tabloid press, but one of the pillars of the Establishment press. It took me a long time before it became clear that in order to get a good deal from the feds, Ivan Boesky told Rudy Giuliani a string of lies about Milken, and Giuliani and his team leaked these stories as if they were true to James B. Stewart, a lawyer by training, not a journalist by training. The stories promised fame for Stewart and glory for his boss, editor Norman Pearlstine, a lawyer by training, not a journalist by training. They were so sure Giuliani had the goods on Milken, that they allowed him to use them to prosecute Milken in their news pages.

You must know, Frank, that the federal government can practically break anyone it wishes to break, except for the First Amendment and the diligence of the press. In this case, the federal government and the press corps teamed up to organize a lynch mob, which turned the screws on Michael and his family to the point that he came to believe they would lynch his brother Lowell as well, unless he finally gave in to them. In the several months before he pleaded guilty to six technical violations of the security laws, I spoke to him almost every day, and came to see in those anguished conversations what kind of man he was, how naive he was in the ways of the media world, how implacably good he was.

If you look carefully at the press accounts of his trial, you will find the most accurate accounts in The New York Times, as the Times reporter came to see what was going on, and how helpless Milken was in the process that unfolded. The barons of Wall Street and corporate America were, after all, looking for a scapegoat for the financial distress of the era, and Michael served their purposes nicely. It is not likely that you would be familiar with the details of the case, because the world of finance is outside your normal field of expertise, but I assure you that what I say is true. You may recall that during the Milken trials, the Journals editorial page was supporting his side of the case, but it could do so only with great care, because of the enormous investment the news editors had made in Milken's guilt.

Another man who is completely naive about media hype and is Milken's counterpart in the black community is Louis Farrakhan. You no doubt will recoil at this statement, but this is another case where my investigations over the last several years have led to conclude that Minister Farrakhan does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body and that what you see is a media image based on his complaints about Jewish political leaders who are trying to destroy the Nation of Islam, out of concern that Farrakhan's political power is a potential threat to the state of Israel. Farrakhan is not a political man and has little understanding of the world of political economy. He is a religious man, who could most easily converse with Orthodox Hasidic rabbis. I had dinner recently in Chicago, a 5-hour marathon dinner, with him, his wife and his son-in-law, and me, and it was clearer than ever that he knows he does not understand how to tell the world what he is about. "I wish I could shout from the rooftops that I am not anti-Semitic or anti-Jew in any way." Jack Kemp and I are doing what we can to find a path to reconciliation. Please keep an open mind on this too, as implausible as it may seem at the moment. I had dinner with Milken recently too, in New York at his fundraiser for prostate cancer, and I told him I was meeting with his counterpart in the black community Farrakhan. He objected, until I pointed out: Michael, you are the most demonized Jew in America. Farrakhan is the most demonized black.

My objective is nothing less than the reconciliation of the black and Jewish community. I need at least the objectivity of journalists who are Jews, who will watch from a neutral corner as we try to make this happen. Call Mike Wallace, who has been trying to do the same, and he will vouch for me. I've spoken as well to Mort Zuckerman and Rupert Murdoch, both of whom have wished me luck. See what your column about Michael Ovitz has inspired in me?

Happy holidays.