Time for Tribune to clear the air on foul management

October 13, 2010

Tribune Tower

Just another day at the naughty, bawdy frat house known as Tribune Tower.

Tuesday's antics were sparked by a typically idiotic company-wide memo written the day before by Lee Abrams, chief innovation officer of Tribune Co. (and longtime crony of CEO Randy "Show Me Your Breasts" Michaels). Although it contained links to some videos that any normal person would consider outrageously inappropriate for the workplace -- including one in which women identified as "sluts were seen simulating lewd acts -- Abrams' memo was not much different than dozens of others he'd written since 2008.

But before the day was over, Abrams was forced to apologize publicly for what he called "poor judgment," and ordered his offensive email deleted from company servers. (Update: Abrams was suspended indefinitely without pay Wednesday, with Michaels saying: "We're in the process of determining further disciplinary action.")‚ What made this particular "think piece" from Abrams such a cause celebre? Three things:

  • Chicago Tribune editor Gerry Kern chose to make an issue of it, lodging complaints to the company's human resources department and to Abrams directly, and then publicly declaring: "I thought it was offensive and I thought it was completely inappropriate to be sent out in a workplace setting to everyone in this company."
  • Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal broke the story of the controversial memo and of Kern's reaction to it, further distancing the newspaper's editorial department from the corporate suites of Tribune Tower. Embarrassing as it was, it also inoculated the paper from even greater embarrassment if the memo had been leaked elsewhere.
  • Most significantly, it came just six days after a scathing, front-page story in The New York Times exposed the "bankrupt culture" of Tribune Co. under the ownership of Sam Zell and the leadership of Michaels and his cadre of radio rowdies, including Abrams. Reporter David Carr revealed in vivid detail what company employees (and, to a great extent, readers of this blog) had known for quite awhile --  that the Tower had become a playground for management's adolescent fantasies and a cesspool of "sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective."

All of which should lead anyone to ask:‚ What took so long? Why did it take almost three years and the glaring spotlight of The New York Times to force the Tribune finally to confront what's been going on inside its own house?‚ And other than a handful of bloggers, until last week where were the rest of our media on this story, for that matter?

Granted, the Tribune has done a diligent job of covering the business and legal sides of its company's epic bankruptcy, reporting on the chicanery that led to Zell's "deal from hell" and the struggles to emerge with a settlement. But except for a few artfully worded posts on Rosenthal's blog, the sordid reign of Michaels & Co. has been all but ignored by the World's Greatest Newspaper and its numerous print and broadcast confederates.

Once Carr's New York Times blockbuster hit, how did the Tribune respond? By circling the wagons at first and printing a ludicrous broadside from Michaels, who urged employees to "ignore the noise" and who sought to impugn the motives and reputation of the writer. (That's standard operating procedure for Michaels, who tried to discredit my reporting on him earlier this year by labeling me "an out-of-work blogger" and someone who is "no longer paid to be in media.")

The timidity of so many journalists at the Tribune, WGN-Channel 9 and WGN-AM (720) to speak out makes me admire Roger Ebert even more for the way in which he took on Conrad Black and David Radler, the two crooks who nearly ran the Sun-Times into the ground a few years ago.‚ Or the way Carol Marin and Ron Magers confronted their NBC bosses at WMAQ-Channel 5 in the late '90s.‚ Or the way Mike Royko stood up to Rupert Murdoch when he took over the Sun-Times in the early '80s. Who is their counterpart when Tribune Co. is in crisis? Colonel Tribune?

What's ultimately at stake is the credibility and authority of the Tribune to exert its influence over all the other institutions it covers. In the aftermath of the New York Times piece last week, Kern posted a memo in which he extolled his newsroom's "highest professional, ethical and moral standards." Confronting Abrams on Tuesday was another step in the right direction. But I'm afraid both moves are too little, too late.

It'll take more than a good housecleaning in Tribune Tower to remove the stench left by Randy and his pals.