The [Monday] Papers
By Steve Rhodes
I am no longer contributing to NBCChicago.com and I feel obliged to tell readers why. It's also a tale that needs to be told in any case.
I was going to start this column this way:
"Tribune Company never interfered with my work after they bought Chicago magazine when I was working in part as an online media critic there. I had to work for NBC Universal for that to happen."
But to bend over backwards to be fair to Tribune Company, I'm still not certain whether that happened - despite being told so on two occasions by two people. Let me explain.
On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 3, I sent in my usual story suggestions for the three posts a day I had been getting paid to produce for NBCChicago.com, the ostensible website of WMAQ-TV (Ch. 5), but really one of a series of local market websites relaunched by NBC Universal as part of a new digital strategy.
The morning editor liked two of my three suggestions but suggested my third post be about Sam Zell handing over the reins as CEO of Tribune Company (while remaining as chairman, for now) to chief lieutenant Randy Michaels.
The subsequent post I submitted has since been removed (or "de-targeted," I was told at one point, though I can't find it through searching the site) as you can see by the original link provided here (item No. 6).
Shortly after submitting the post, the NBCChicago.com morning editor I work with sent me a note: "This is great!"
Around 11:30 a.m. the next morning - more than 24 hours after my piece was posted - I received a note from media maven Jim Romenesko notifying me that the link for the post I had provided in my Beachwood column was broken; he had been looking forward to reading the piece. The broken link was new to me. But it turned out it wasn't a broken link at all; the story had been "taken down."
No one had notified me. Perhaps no one would have had I not been alerted to it.
I sent an e-mail to my NBCChicago.com minders asking about it. At the same time, I noticed that a story I had submitted earlier that morning - and which had been approved in the usual morning pitch process - had never been posted. That was about the suicide of Michael Scott, a Daley insider who had most recently been the chairman of the school board.
(In that post, I recounted the evidence in the case and suggested that the delay by the police chief in finally declaring Scott's death a suicide had the tinge of politics and media management about it. I also suggested the police chief would finally see the light on a late Friday afternoon, when news the mayor likes to bury gets buried. And that's exactly what happened.)
Phone conversations with the NBCChicago.com managing editor and his boss followed that day and the following Monday (December 4 and 7) in which I was told that "someone from the Tribune sent an e-mail to New York" and "somebody in New York was contacted by somebody - you can read between the lines."
There was not a "comfort level" in Chicago with what happened, I was told, but it happened at "the highest levels" of the company. And that "the highest levels of the company" made the decision "to remove" the Michaels post.
I was then told that the Michael Scott story had been scotched because he was a friend of a high-ranking station official here in Chicago who had been "ruffled" by the coverage of Scott's death to that point. On the heels of the Tribune controversy, I was told, the folks (or perhaps just one folk) here in Chicago didn't want another battle on their hands.
I was then told that was an overreaction.
I was shaken, of course. With 20 years in the business, I know how things work. And yet, with everything I've seen myself and reported on in others, I cannot recall ever being involved in an incident like this. It was truly depressing.
I never set out to be a media critic. All I've ever wanted - well, after it became clear I would never play centerfield for the Twins, shortstop for the Cubs, or lead a rock and roll band - was to be a journalist. Call me corny, but I believe in the calling deeply.
But how can journalists keep quiet about what goes on in their own shops while cajoling - and even moralizing to - others to speak out about what goes on in theirs? We as an industry hail the whistleblower in print while not only keeping secrets ourselves, but expounding on how much the citizenry needs forthright people like us for democracy to survive.
It makes me sick to my stomach.
News organizations are the biggest hypocrites on the planet because they so often violate ethical standards - conflicts of interest, deception of the public - that they so often try to hold others to. Nothing is more disheartening to journalists who actually believe in what they do to hear of and confront and become entangled such untoward activities.
* * *
I knew immediately my gig was in jeopardy; not because I thought I would face retribution but because I thought I would be just one of those hypocrites I decry if I went merrily on my way.
I tried to take myself through a reasoned ethical checklist.
First, did I trust the folks at NBCChicago.com and NBC Universal?
Even if I was told - which I was - that this was a one-time deal (even though the Scott incident made it a two-times-in-two-days deal) and they had my back, it wasn't the first time that the NBC folks acted, in my view, irresponsibly. Nothing that had happened previously measured up to an ethical breach like this per se, but a pattern of sloppiness, poor judgement, and reckless disregard for factual precision had long ago put me on edge.
And I couldn't very well continue writing media columns like the one that usually appears in this space while keeping to myself the fact that I had been told that someone at the Tribune had reached into NBC at the highest levels to squelch a post about the CEO - and one involving claims of sexual harassment at that, and involving a person who hopes to stay on as CEO once the company exits bankruptcy and Zell leaves the stage.
I could come clean here like I'm doing now, but that, I presumed, would have resulted in my dismissal. Besides, as the conversations continued, including one with a vice president in New York, it wasn't completely clear what had happened. Even if no one from the Tribune contacted NBC - doubt was now being sown - that was something no one from NBC could tell me either. That, I was told, was something we would never know.
That I took as backtracking. And it wasn't good enough.
* * *
From the start I was assured and reassured that the content of the post was not the issue. The "sourcing" - which consisted of links to pieces referencing a lawsuit, a 20/20 segment, and mainly an extensive piece of reporting by Salon that had never come under question as far as I could tell - was "airtight," I was told. Nobody was questioning the accuracy of the post. The post, it was theorized, had become a proxy for a larger debate in the company about the mix of commentary and news on its websites.
Perhaps. But of all the posts I've written for NBC, this would hardly stand as one of the most controversial. And nobody had a problem with it until the evening of the morning it was posted. After that purported Tribune contact.
I was also told that the highest-ranking folks here in Chicago thought the post was "old news" and "a personal attack."
I keep up pretty extensively on the media and I have to say I had never come across the information about Michaels before that I used in the post. And it was no more a personal attack than anything critical we've written about anyone, including Zell. That doesn't fly.
Later I was told that the president of NBC Universal's local news division (whom I think came up through the sales side) made the call. The post didn't meet the standards of the NBC brand, he had said.
Like those photo galleries of catwalk spills and sexy magazine spreads?
The Michaels post was partly about sexual harassment, not sex. It wasn't arted with yet another montage of cleavage that has become so familiar on the site over the past few months.
* * *
After discussing the issue with the locals, I was asked to speak to an NBC Universal vice president who oversaw us to try to resolve the matter. NBC wanted to keep me and at that point knew I was thinking seriously about leaving.
The veep just made things worse.
First, he started out the conversation by telling me about the big plans for the site in 2010 - and how it would include more visibility for my work and more money for me.
I could only wonder if he was trying to buy me off. I'm a reporter, dude. Think.
It went downhill from there. I explained that what he had just told me was well and good, but irrelevant to the issue at hand: Did someone from the Tribune get that post taken down?
The veep: I don't know.
Me: Well don't you think you should find out?
The veep: I don't think I can.
Me: Aren't you concerned that someone can reach into your editorial product and fiddle with its integrity?
The veep: I don't think we'll ever know.
Me: Then why am I talking to you? That's what this conversation was supposed to be about.
The veep: I don't think this is the one to go to war over.
Which one is, then? I thought. Describe the circumstance.
Then I heard something fairly amazing from the veep: That the problem was that the post didn't go far enough! I had the goods, he said; I could have eviscerated Michaels. Instead, the "tone" was off. It was something he never would have posted in the first place.
This from a guy who used the word "salacious" three times in a discussion I had with him a few months ago when we were both exploring the idea that I might become managing editor of the site. Approvingly. As in he wanted salacious material on the site. I was the one who wasn't down with that.
I have a hard time believing, then, that he couldn't get past the rubber penis Michaels allegedly wore around his neck when he worked at Clear Channel. (And again, that's not about sex, it's about sexual harassment.)
I also mentioned the Michael Scott incident to him; he said he didn't know anything about it. He would look into it. He would talk to someone in Chicago and I would hear something back.
I never heard anything back. In fact, by the end of the day he hadn't talked to anyone in Chicago, as far as I was able to determine.
So last Thursday evening, I resigned as a contributor to NBCChicago.com.
* * *
I didn't use names in this piece because I don't really intend this as a "tell-all;" instead, to me, it's another in an incredibly long line of tales about journalism and its discontents. It's a sick, diseased industry that can't seem to get past the basics of what it is and what it's supposed to do. It felt right to leave names out of it.
My intention also is not to signal to future employers or partners that I will blab about every decision I do not agree with. Editors properly have the authority to make decisions that reporters don't agree with. That's not what this is about. The post could have been edited, rewritten, sent back for refinement if there was a problem.
I also believe that while news organizations should be far more transparent than they are, that certain editorial discussions are properly confidential. I just don't think that applies here. I think you can see why.
Finally, and frankly, I have neither the time nor the energy to continue chasing this to its logical, reported conclusion. Mainly because it's partly my own story. That has pros and cons, but for me to report out has too much a twinge of vengeance. That's not what this is about either. I'll leave it to other interested parties to pursue, if they wish. Maybe it's all just an innocent misunderstanding. That's certainly not the impression I've been given, though, and sometimes what an organization is not willing to tell you is as important as what they are.
Programming Note: Posting will be light through the holidays, but we will still be open for business. Today we have George Ofman on the latest Bears disaster in Air Cutler Crashes Again.
The Beachwood Tip Line: Airborne.
Posted on December 21, 2009
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