It Didn't Start With Sam, BUT . . . | Bleader

Friday, October 22, 2010

It Didn't Start With Sam, BUT . . .

Posted By on 10.22.10 at 01:22 PM

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Some people are helplessly interesting and others are not. Sam Zell might be one of those who’s had to work at it. Someone I know who's known him socially says he was kind of a bore — always talking business. But he acquired a few billion dollars, put himself in jeans and on a hog, and with his “Zell’s Angels” pals liked to go roaring around places like Sardinia and Abu Dhabi. All this made him a seriously interesting person, especially to other guys — in particular, I suspect, to other guys worth a few billion dollars less who worked for him and liked to imagine themselves in his mold.

Sam Zell brought Randy Michaels to the Tribune Company, Michaels who said in his own defense the other day that his intention had never been to offend, simply to establish “a fun, non-linear creative environment.” That would have been the environment Zell wanted, and if encouraged by someone a little more mature than Michaels it would have been a welcome change at Tribune Co., whose environment left a lot to be desired on all three scores.

An early sign of change was the new I.D. badge. The back of the badge used to list the “Tribune values,” which ran in the familiar direction of “citizenship,” “integrity,” and “teamwork,” and got no closer to nonlinear, creative fun than “innovation.” The list was scrapped by Michaels in favor of “A.F.D.I.” — which some say stood for “Actually Fucking Doing It” and others for “Already Fucking Doing It,” but pretty much everyone agreed was really juvenile.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A raunchy security badge struck some employees as an inside joke better by far than its cloying predecessor. The point is — A.F.D.I. was a Zellism. It was something he liked to say. Michaels was just the guy who made everybody wear it.

Zell only bought the company because he was able to set up a deal where a lot of people could lose big-time but he wouldn’t be one of them. That turns out to be as true of his reputation as his money. I don’t know if at the moment Randy Michaels is formally still CEO of the company, but he’s clearly history, doomed by David Carr’s New York Times story that said Michaels’s and his team’s “use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended” employees in Tribune Tower, which “ came to resemble a frat house.”

Michaels takes a terrible beating, Zell not so much — not nearly. There’s an anecdote deep in the story about Zell urging then Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski to pound then governor Rod Blagojevich even harder than the Tribune already was.

In Chicago, Ms. Lipinski said, it became clear that Mr. Zell was not above using the newspaper as a tool for his other business interests. In June 2008, Mr. Zell approached her at a meeting, saying that The Chicago Tribune should be harder on Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She reminded him that the newspaper had aggressively investigated the governor and that its editorial page had already called for his resignation.

“Don’t be a pussy,” he told her. “You can always be harder on him.”

In a news meeting later the same day, she found out that Mr. Zell was in negotiations to sell Wrigley Field to the state sports authority.

“It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was trying to use the newspaper to put pressure on Blagojevich.”

But it’s a story without much impact. Zell’s reasons for saying so might have been completely self-serving, but no matter how hard on Blagojevich the Tribune already was, we tell ourselves in retrospect that it could have been even harder. There was no way to turn him into the innocent victim of a reckless press.

It was Carr's allegation of a “frat house” atmosphere with “pervasive sex talk” that did Michaels the most damage. Where did Michaels get the idea this could possibly be acceptable? Well, I assume Zell invites him to his birthday parties. Years ago, Zell held one of those parties in the Aragon Ballroom, and writer Joy Bergmann happened to be there and described it for me. "Trojan warriors at the front door and girls painted in gold body paint with vines twisted around their nipples wearing little bikini thong bottoms,” she reported. “They were nymphs of some sort, bodacious nymphs draped along the buffet. I don't think his guests had a very good time — that was the big take-away for me.”

There’s nothing like gold body paint to send a wildly erroneous message to an impressionable subordinate that the objectifying of women is acceptable behavior. I’m not saying anything like that happened with Randy Michaels. I’m just saying details of that frat house atmosphere at the Tower are shocking, shocking, and I’m not altogether clear about why it’s all on him.

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