Editor calls damage to Tribune reputation "shameful'

October 18, 2010

Mark my words: A year or two from now, the Chicago journalism establishment will look back on this time as a critical moment in its history — a period when the city’s oldest and most important news organization faced a crisis of confidence and a test of leadership.


Gerry Kern

Seminars will be held, stories will be published, and maybe a book or two will be written about how the Chicago Tribune survived the siege from within — the bankrupt ownership of Sam Zell and the miserable management of CEO Randy Michaels and his cadre of henchmen who ran amok in Tribune Tower.

We’ll hear how the men and women of the World’s Greatest Newspaper carried out their jobs with diligence and professionalism despite working for slimebag corporate bosses under terribly stressful circumstances. David Carr’s now-infamous New York Times piece no doubt will serve as the template for the narrative.

I just hope I’m around when local journalism groups start handing out awards for ethics or courage or whatever they celebrate when right triumphs over evil in our business. Because if they do give an award to any of the editors at the Chicago Tribune, I’d like to be there to point out that not one of them spoke up about what was going on inside their own company until The New York Times slapped it on its front page 12 days ago.

I’d also like to be around to remind the Chicago Headline Club (one of the groups that loves to hand out awards) of an extraordinary statement its board issued Friday to Tribune Co. executives, directors and creditors, and to bankruptcy court officers. Saying that it “strongly objects to the culture of offensiveness that has marginalized women at the Chicago Tribune,” the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists declared:

“In recent generations, American workplace managers presumably moved beyond sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination against employees. Yet in recent years, as the New York Times asserts in an Oct. 5 [sic] article, offensive behavior has become all too frequent among Tribune Co. management. The Times article is not the first time such complaints have been reported. It is, however, the largest compilation of allegations of ‘sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective.’ Corporate rock star status and/or supposed creativity do not excuse this behavior. Nor, we might add, has a boys’ locker room attitude helped dig the Tribune Co. out of its financial hole. If anything, unacceptable treatment of employees has cost the company the loyalty and dedication of staff. . . .The Chicago Headline Club condemns the misuse of power that apparently occurred at the Tribune.”

The man in the middle of this is Chicago Tribune editor Gerry Kern, who ascended to his job after his predecessor, Ann Marie Lipinski, and many of her colleagues walked out early in the Zell regime.

On one hand, Kern is largely responsible for bringing Lee Abrams’ memo to light, branding it “offensive” and “completely inappropriate to be sent out in a workplace setting,” and setting in motion the events that led to Abrams’ ouster Friday as chief innovation officer. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Kern would have acted as forcefully or as publicly were it not for the New York Times’ scrutiny just days earlier.

On the other hand, Kern has been taking great pains to separate his newsroom from the shenanigans going on above his head in the upper floors of Tribune Tower. In response to the Chicago Headline Club statement, Kern told Phil Rosenthal that the newspaper was “being wrongly tarnished by the allegations against Tribune Co. executives and by actions such as Abrams’,” adding: “The Chicago Tribune has nothing to do with any of it. It’s shameful that significant damage has been done to our reputations and to the good name of the Chicago Tribune.” Don’t confuse the Chicago Tribune with Tribune Co., he told Rosenthal. “They are two different organizations.”

Let that sink in for a moment: “They are two different organizations.” For the editor of the Chicago Tribune to disavow his own parent company and the conduct of its top executives is nothing less than stunning. Either that, or it’s all just one big P.R. game.

Notwithstanding allegations of Zell’s attempts to interfere with editorial matters to benefit his business interests, I believe Kern and a lot of Tribune writers who say the noxious culture that exists in the executive suites has not reached the newsroom. But it’s naïve of them to try to convince the public that the company and the newspaper are distinct entities. We’ve seen enough of Michaels’ micromanaging in other areas to know better.

If Kern truly believes they are different organizations, why did his newspaper ignore the debasement of one of Chicago’s leading corporate and civic institutions until it became a national embarrassment? And how will the Tribune cover itself from now on?