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It Didn't Start With Sam 

The story of the Tribune Company's decline is more nuanced than what you read in the New York Times.

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Ryan M. Yoes / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

UPDATE "Tribune's top exec poised to resign," said the chicagotribune.com headline Wednesday, the day after the column below went to press, proposing a picture that's hard to imagine. How does one assume a resigning pose? Is the model nude or fully dressed? At any rate, Randy Michaels is obviously gone as CEO of Tribune Company, though some niggling detail has to be dealt with first—probably including a severance package that would set any one of us up for life.

With Michaels's downfall, triggered by a newspaper article but made necessary, the Tribune coverage suggests, by the board members' fear of liability in the grinding bankruptcy litigation (everyone will be back in court Friday), lots of stories are spilling out about him, and the Tribune, perhaps later than it might have, is printing them. The company's future, whatever is, can't be worse than the past, one of the paper's stars told me Wednesday. You never know, I said. No, he said. "It can't be. It can't be. It can't be. It can't be."

David Carr's exposé of Tribune Tower was the sort of brutal takedown that's easier to write about a place when it's a thousand miles away. Examine a news shop across town staffed by judgmental people you run into a lot and you'll linger over every nuance. But every New Yorker knows Chicago is a simple, bawdy town and Sam Zell is a billionaire Hell's Angel. Broad strokes will do—let 'er rip.

Carr's piece, on the front page of the New York Times October 6, would have to be counted a great success if it had brought the dramatic change expected Tuesday morning. The Tribune Company board met, and the Times, in a story cowritten by Carr, had "a person directly involved in the matter" predicting the board would ask for CEO Randy Michaels's resignation. If the board did, Michaels said no and the board piped down. "A one-source story!" said a Tribune writer who didn't buy the prediction when he read it. "Who do you replace him with? Has anyone ever heard a peep from this fucking board throughout this whole fucking thing?"

You never know about sources, especially the ones that go unnamed (which, unfortunately, is how mine in this story chose to go). Anonymity also helps account for the sour aftertaste to Carr's delicious page-one tale. No one at the Tribune I've talked to in the past few days says Carr got it wrong. But he didn't get it exactly right either.

Even Arthur Brisbane, the Times's public editor, has admitted to some ambivalence. Brisbane called his own readers' attention to the way Carr began his account, with an anecdote about Michaels allegedly offering a waitress $100 to show her breasts. Lechery focuses contempt, so the anecdote efficiently launched Carr's account of a once-great media conglomerate being run into the ground by boors. But Carr named neither of the sources he claimed for this randy behavior. "I enjoyed David Carr's immense takeout … as much as the next reader," Brisbane blogged on October 15, but he wished Carr had found a way in that didn't invite so many questions.

The big complaint I kept running into, though, was that Carr got the Tribune's newsroom atmosphere wrong. He brought in California-based news consultant Ken Doctor to bluntly set the scene: "They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy." Anyone who's worked at the Tribune knows that while there's some truth to that, the whole truth is a lot more complicated. Randy Michaels had little if anything to do with the company going bankrupt. He didn't structure Zell's deal, and he wasn't part of the management that brought the company to the point where hardly anyone but Zell had any interest in buying it. "My only serious problem with the piece is that it strongly suggests that the Tribune was this sophisticated, serious, ethical and financially stable operation that suddenly deteriorated when the zealots came in," wrote a recent Trib vet I asked for comment. "That simply isn't true. The buyouts and even some firings started before they got here. … The real villain in all this, since the late 1990s, was the Times Mirror deal, which in the beginning was shaky at all levels and ultimately was a disaster for everyone except those who escaped with rich 'bonuses.' THERE's the story—that deal, and the board of directors that enabled it."

In 1994, after former Tribune editor Jim Squires left the company, he wrote a book, Read All About It, in which he slammed the men he'd reported to. The big decisions, he told me then, "used to be made by editorially minded proprietors. Those decisions are now made by lawyers, accountants, professional managers, owners. Very few editors are CEOs, and even the ones who are now probably won't be replaced by editors."

In 2010, after former Tribune editor Jack Fuller left the company, he wrote a book, What Is Happening to News, in which he slammed the man he'd reported to. "In 2003 a new CEO took over [Tribune Company]. He had come up on the advertising sales side of the broadcasting business, where news was a very small part of the enterprise. Not only did he not know much about journalism and its values, he made it clear to me that he did not care to learn."

I should mention that it was Fuller who negotiated the Times Mirror deal in 2000. There are people still at the Tribune who have never forgiven him for the company's troubles. The larger point is that what went wrong inside the tower began years before the arrival of Zell, Michaels, or the late, unlamented chief innovation officer, Lee Abrams. Michaels and Abrams both came out of radio and knew nothing about newspapers, but that made them a lot like the CEO Fuller had no use for, Dennis FitzSimons, who came up through the ad sales side of Tribune Broadcasting..

"Over the years there must be 50 people I know who fucked people in this building," says a reporter who's been in the Tower too long to get excited by much. So if it's true, as Carr reported, that a senior executive and a female employee "engaged in a consensual sexual act" on a 22nd-floor balcony, the view must have been spectacular and we should care why? As for Michaels's $100 offer to the waitress, it was boorish, yes, but the standards that concern him more are journalistic, and he believes Carr's article breached them by hanging too much on too little. "The whole piece seems literally hooked on those two stories—salacious, sexy, unsourced anecdotes. Otherwise, there was nothing that anybody that I know found new in the story."

"Less than a year after Mr. Zell bought the company, it tipped into bankruptcy," Carr reported. "More than 4,200 people have lost jobs since the purchase. … The new management did transform the work culture, however. … Mr. Michaels's and his executives' use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk."

And "as the company foundered, the tight circle of executives, many with longtime ties to Mr. Michaels, received tens of millions of dollars in bonuses."

FitzSimons resigned when Zell took over, and estimates of the severance and stock package he went away with range from about $20 million to $40 million. Employees who protest huge unearned bonuses could think of them as simply a Tribune tradition.

It's the supposedly transformed work culture that most perplexes the Tribune newsroom employees I've been in touch with. "I never ever saw that frat house mentality, frat house behavior, that Carr tried to capture in his piece drift into the newsroom," says the reporter who wishes Carr had named names. "Not even close. Not even close. Most of us are relative grown-ups."

A woman in the newsroom writes, "I've never seen, heard, or felt anything but (at times beleaguered) professionalism. Lord knows there are things wrong with the Trib, but a sexist and hostile newsroom isn't one of them." The recent Trib vet quoted earlier says the grab-ass frat house atmosphere Carr sketched was nothing like the atmosphere inside the Tribune newsroom, either as he knew it before leaving or as old colleagues still there have since described it. "What I've heard more is that fear exists everywhere," he wrote, "fear of being laid off, fear of challenging management decisions, fear of appearing 'not with the program.' And there's some serious anger regarding those projected bonuses, plus a general unhappiness (and sometimes outright embarrassment) about the deterioration of the product."

Another writer wrote me, and then wrote me again (and yet again), teasing out the nuances that separated Carr's picture of the Tower from the actual newsroom culture. "The frat-boy cavorting is not the atmosphere on the fourth and fifth [editorial] floors of Tribune Tower," the writer began. "People in the newsroom are working harder than ever and care as much as we ever have about putting out the best paper we can. … And while I disagree with some of the editorial decisions we've made, and while I admired many people in the previous regime, [editor] Gerry Kern is busting his butt to make the paper work. I think Carr should have worked harder to reflect that."

But then, after a few days had passed: "The bad actors don't reside in the newsroom. Gerry Kern is not himself one of the frat boys. But we (in the newsroom) knew about the frat boys' antics. We saw these guys in the building. We got their memos. They had power over us. In that way, the frat boys' behavior filtered into the newsroom, demoralized and outraged reporters (and, OK, entertained us some too, because you have to laugh at some of it). As I said before, the yahoo behavior revealed their larger contempt for us, and that was the most distressing thing.

"And the frat boys had the ultimate power. It was frustrating and disappointing that Gerry and other editors wouldn't openly acknowledge how ugly the frat boy crowd was and HOW THAT AFFECTED THE REPORTERS. A lot of people were afraid to speak out. This has been the most discouraging thing to me. The frat boy behavior created an odor in the newsroom, and the sense that it was dangerous to speak out against it made the odor worse. In that way, it has created a sexist newsroom environment. Or maybe 'oppressive' is the better word."

As for Kern, "I think he's a guy who genuinely doesn't like that kind of behavior, but didn't allow himself to see it as long as it seemed to his benefit to ignore it. … If he pushed back at those guys—before the world was pushing back at them—they were likely to have pushed him out. Who wins then?" (I called Kern just before press time but didn't reach him.) In other words, the complicated currents inside the newsroom—and beyond it, I suspect—weren't done justice by "frat house." But the phrase did its job. It was the kind of broad stroke that put the story on page one, guaranteed that everybody in the business would read it and talk about it, and made it a very bad time for Abrams to send the "sluts" memo that got him run off the premises—though not before the leadership of the Chicago Headline Club wrote a letter not only to the Tribune Company's board and top executives but also to the bankruptcy court in Delaware denouncing "the culture of offensiveness that has marginalized women." Here Kern finally spoke out. He said his paper was being "wrongly tarnished by the allegations against Tribune Co. executives and by actions such as Abrams'. The Chicago Tribune has nothing to do with any of it." Tribune Company and the Tribune, he said, exercising a good leader's license to alter reality in a crisis, "are two different organizations."

This reaction, welcomed by his troops, muddied the waters. It was a "brilliant feint to counter Carr's article," one of the troops told me, "turning the conversation from how rowdy the Trib is to how uptight it is to not think an Onion video is funny. A workplace can't be both full of grab-ass pigs and full of overly sensitive PC police." Though, then again, "naked boobs are naked boobs, and if you're not into seeing them at work it doesn't matter whether they're satirical or not."

But Abrams hadn't doused the lights after deadline and screened the Onion's "Sluts" video in the newsroom. He'd e-mailed the staff a list of videos, and "Sluts" was on it.

"Lee Abrams, by the way, is not the worst of them," I was told. "He's taking the fall for them all, as best I can deduce." For the time being, at least, that would include Michaels.

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