Billionaire Donald Bren isn't just Orange County's wealthiest man. Over the decades, the Newport Beach real-estate developer has also proved to be one of the region's most secretive public figures. Other than what's on his carefully polished corporate résumé, the public knows close to nothing about the man who is arguably the most powerful person in OC.
So, on Sunday, Feb. 13, when I saw that Scott Kraft of the Los Angeles Times had gotten exclusive interviews with Bren that resulted in that day's 2,300-word story on the front of the Business section, boldly titled, “The Bren Legacy,” I was optimistic he would crack through the cloaking measures enacted by Bren and his PR machine. Kraft has been a sensational journalist with a weighty list of important accomplishments at the Times—foreign correspondent, national editor, currently a senior editor and roving correspondent.
I was hoping he might get answers to some of the same questions I'd have for Bren: After being worth around $1 billion for several decades, what caused your worth to jump nearly tenfold during the past decade? How have you used the politicians you've generously funded to assist your corporate interests? Do you really think it's honest to portray yourself as “an environmentalist” when you are singlehandedly responsible for pouring more concrete over Orange County than any other human? What was your role in blocking George Argyros' plans for an international airport in Irvine?
Sadly, I was wrong. Kraft's Bren is a one-dimensionally flawless character out of a Hollywood fairy tale: “ruggedly handsome,” physically “sturdy,” humble, envied and emulated. Indeed, the Bren in this story assumes near-superhero status; he's “a visionary” whose traits include “self-discipline, creativity and entrepreneurship salted with an abiding thirst for knowledge.”
Kraft even allowed Bren to make an absurd, unchallenged assertion—that his life story is somehow akin to the Horatio Alger-type rags-to-riches drama that so many Republican businessmen try to make their own.
Bren grew up in the sullen California ghettos known as Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. His father was a wealthy Hollywood film mogul. His stepmother was an Oscar-winning actress. His childhood was filled with thoughts of architectural grandeur and days boating in Newport Harbor.
Did Kraft identify a single Bren mistake during his 78 years on the planet? How about a character flaw such as, perhaps, his quirky aversion to germs or his knack for treating public agencies as his corporate subsidiaries? No and no.
Instead, Kraft was content to shower Bren with accolades and to regurgitate old stories about Bren's life, including numerous details first published 21 years ago by The Orange County Register.
Kraft declined to comment after requesting and receiving a list of questions about his story. A Bren PR representative also declined to comment.
But just to be helpful, on the following pages, I've left a few editing comments on the story—ones that hopefully will add to readers' understanding of who Bren is and what his true legacy will be for OC.
This story appeared in print as “The Real Bren Legacy: The bulldozers, the concrete, the machinations: What the Los Angeles Times didn’t tell you about Donald Bren, OC’s richest man.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.