Warren Watch: Howard Buffett's foundation gives $1 million for award honoring spirited journalist

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Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2014 12:00 am

Warren Buffett's son Howard was a photographer first, a farmer second and a philanthropist third. His friendship with Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus grew from photography.

“I really admired her work,” he told The World-Herald. They had met when she won the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation in 2005.

“I could have stayed out of trouble most of my life but always have been drawn to the people who suffer in difficult situations,” she said during that awards ceremony.

When Buffett put together “Fragile,” the book of his photos and stories about people involved in conflict and poverty, he wanted to include one of Niedringhaus' photos from Bosnia.

“Then a few people talked me out of it because it would not be 100 percent accurate to say they were my photographs,” Buffett said. “I always regretted not including it. It was the best conflict photo I have ever seen.”

The two met later in Germany, and she came to his home in Decatur, Ill., twice. He provided funds for her to attend Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow in 2007.

This month, Buffett arranged another honor for Niedringhaus. She was shot and killed by a gunman in east Afghanistan on April 4. Within days, Buffett's foundation gave $1 million to the women's media foundation to endow the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award.

Each year the award will go to a woman photojournalist whose work follows in her footsteps. “Facing and surviving danger to uncover the truth, they raise the bar for reporting under duress,” Buffett told the foundation.

He said Niedringhaus was a friend “who represented the best of photojournalism. By creating this award, we ensure her spirit lives on. Anja's voice may be silenced, but our hope is that other voices who share her commitment become louder.”

Invited to 'real deal' Cinco de Mayo

The Cinco de Mayo challenge is on.

A Berkshire company's sale of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger “fiesta” ducks — sporting sombreros, mustaches and maracas — has a South Omaha activist issuing a public invitation for Buffett to join the “real deal” Cinco de Mayo parade and fiesta.

The invite comes as Jose Garcia spotted fliers announcing Oriental Trading Co.'s sale of the “exclusive” $5 rubber duckies during the May 3 shareholders gathering. That same weekend, a parade and celebration on South 24th Street marks the Mexican holiday.

Garcia said he doesn't begrudge Oriental Trading or Buffett joining the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. Most everyone else has done the same, he said.

But, Garcia said, if Buffett's going to dip his wing in the fiesta funds, he might consider dropping by the community event, which typically draws thousands. There, Garcia said, Buffett could mingle with a huge and growing market.

Garcia, who runs the Mexican-American Historical Society of the Midlands, said that until companies “get away from treating us like an excuse for a fiesta, we're going to remain a puzzle to your marketers.”

He said he does not speak for the Cinco de Mayo committee but is part of the celebration. Of the duck sale, he said: “This clearly takes the thunder, the winds out of the sail, regarding the promotion of the 'real deal' community celebration in South Omaha.”

Fund will vote against board

A financial management fund for Catholic institutions will vote its Berkshire shares against the company's board of directors on May 3, “due to a lack of information on diversity of the composition of the board” and insufficient background about the directors, according to the Pension & Investments Research Center.

Berkshire's shareholder materials don't include photos of the directors, said Christian Brothers Investment Services spokeswoman Marietta L. Parenti.

The group plans to endorse Chairman and CEO Buffett's salary package, however, the story said. He received a $100,000 salary, $385,060 worth of security services and no bonus in 2003. The salary and bonus figures haven't changed in decades.

Berkshire doesn't print photos of its directors but included its first photograph in this year's annual report: a shot of the corporate staff at its annual Christmas dinner.

Reputation key for Airbnb

Gayle King and Charlie Rose didn't mince words when they talked with Airbnb founder Brian Chesky on CBS last week.

Warren Buffett has asked the online lodging site for help in finding reasonably priced rooms during the weekend when Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders come to Omaha for their annual meeting on May 3.

King said, “Hookers turn hotels into brothels on Airbnb. There have been reports of people getting penthouses under Airbnb and then trashing the place or having orgies. What do you say about that? And what are you doing to prevent that from happening?”

“Well, this is not a new problem to the hospitality industry,” Chesky said. “It's something the entire hospitality industry has to deal with. We have totally zero tolerance in this issue.

“And it's incredibly rare, but we're going to work really, really hard. We have a verification system where everyone can verify who the guests are, and we're going to continue to double down on this as we continue to grow.”

King said her son uses the service, and his stays were “really pleasant.”

Chesky said the “local experience” is part of the appeal, as well as generally lower prices than hotels. “You actually feel like you're home.”

New York City has a law that prevents Airbnb hosts from paying hotel taxes, he said, which would amount to $21 million this year. He's working with the city to figure out a way to pay the tax.

“The whole thing works off a reputation system,” he said. “So before you stay, you can read the reviews of what someone else wrote before you.”

Then came the business lesson: “Our first adviser said make something people want,” Chesky said. “We focus on building a product people love.”

A regulatory 'light touch'?

Two companies owned by Berkshire are “enjoying a relatively light touch from Washington,” James Freeman wrote for a Wall Street Journal online site last week.

“It's good to be the king of investing,” Freeman wrote. “And two events yesterday suggest that it's also good to be a close friend of President Obama.”

The first example was a regulatory agency that “took a restrained action that should nevertheless help an important sector of the economy,” Freeman wrote, based on a account from attorney Michael McBride.

The Surface Transportation Board held a hearing on delays in fertilizer shipments on Berkshire's BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific. The regulatory board ordered the railroads to send shipping data once a week, “thus sending a strong signal about the STB's concerns without actually telling the railroads what to ship where.”

Wrote Freeman: “And to be clear, at the Journal editorial page we are all for regulatory restraint. But it would be great to see such regulatory restraint when it comes to companies not owned by Mr. Buffett.”

The second action involved a decision last year by the U.S. Justice Department to charge the financial rating company Standard & Poor's with civil fraud because of its flawed ratings on mortgage bonds.

A federal judge ruled last week that the department must turn over documents on the decision. The Justice Department didn't charge Moody's, a competing rating service, even though it had “essentially identical ratings on the bonds,” the article said. Berkshire owns 11.5 percent of Moody's.

S&P has argued that it was targeted because it downgraded the nation's credit rating in 2011, while Moody's kept the rating high. Buffett had criticized S&P for the downgrade.

Freeman wrote that the documents going to the court may show whether Buffett had a role in the government's decision to keep Moody's out of the fraud case.

“In truth, the case should never have been brought at all, because ratings judgments are merely opinions,” he write. “The ratings only have such power because of government regulation that has forced companies to follow them. But however misguided the government's legal theories are, they should be applied equally.”

World-Herald staff writer Cindy Gonzalez contributed to this report.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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