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The [Thursday] Papers

"Tribune Co.'s board is preparing to replace Chief Executive Randy Michaels with a four-person caretaker management team to steer the company as it attempts to exit bankruptcy, according to people familiar with the matter," the Wall Street Journal confirms today.

Now when will NBC come clean?

Let us review. At the request of someone "high up" in the Tribune Company strongly intimated to me to have been Randy Michaels, this piece was pulled down from NBCChicago.com after it had been up for a day.

Tribune's New CEO Has a Shocking Past
Zell steps aside for old friend
By STEVE RHODES
Updated 12:54 PM CST, Thu, Dec 3, 2009

Sam Zell is leaving control of Tribune Company in the hands of a former shock jock who used to tell jokes about gay people on the air and reportedly roamed the offices of a past employer with a rubber penis tied around his neck.

That would be Randy Michaels, Zell's chief lieutenant at Tribune and now the once-staid media institution's CEO, a post Zell abdicated on Wednesday. Zell will remain chairman of the company to provide, you know, a strategic vision until Tribune gets out of bankruptcy. Then Zell will probably be gone.

Michaels, however, reportedly wants to stay. What a nice gift that would be for Zell to leave behind.

Michaels is known for, among other things, believing he is the first to measure reporters' productivity by the number of words they produce and actually believing that is a legitimate way to measure a reporter's productivity. That and a lawsuit that once alleged - among other things - that he roamed his old Clear Channel offices with a "flexible rubber penis" tied around his neck as well as a host of other crude rituals. The suit was settled.

As an executive with Clear Channel, Michaels was "an effective but tasteless programmer," according to Salon.

"Behind the mike he made a name for himself back in the '70s and '80s farting on the air, cracking jokes about gays and tantalizing listeners with descriptions of 'incredibly horny, wet and ready' naked in-studio guests," the Salon account reports.

Michaels is "well regarded by the creditors who are expected to control Tribune when it emerges from bankruptcy protection next year," the New York Times reports.

Michaels, whose real name is Benjamin Homel, was once described as the AntiChrist of radio. He told Radio Ink magazine that "We'd all prefer to be liked, so of course it bothers me. I think I personify uncomfortable change in our business for a lot of people."

Or at least a certain kind of change.

Pretty prescient, I'd say.

If I've learned one thing, though, from my 20 years in the business, it's this: It never pays to be ahead of the curve. And in this case, I wasn't even ahead; I was just reporting what a little nosing around turned up. Nobody else bothered.

Now that it's safe, though, everyone is piling on - without mentioning, of course, the way my post disappeared 10 months ago. Maybe that was a sign that Michaels would be, um, trouble? Channel 5, in particular, has a lot of nerve airing a story by Phil Rogers - as it did this week; no link that I could find - about the the Michaels mess without mentioning its own culpability. Hey Channel 5, maybe you haven't heard, but transparency is in.

Or a story like this without mentioning this.

And maybe when NBCChicago writes that "Tribune officials could not be reached for comment on Michaels' rumored departure," they should place a call to this guy - after all, he seems to have a back channel to the Tribune executive suite.

Finally, to all of those who have asked: No, I have not received an apology. But more than an apology to me, NBC and its local affiliate ought to apologize to its viewers and website readers for failing to uphold the most basic standards of a news organization. Ironically, by doing so it could have burnished its journalistic reputation instead of embarrassing itself. That's the funny thing in this business: Being ethical is an awesome branding move.

*

Of course, Tribune columnist John Kass would prefer to rail at bloggers. You know, the kind who work out of mommy's basement. Here's a question for you, John: What blogs do you read? Cite some examples. Or are you just cutting and pasting from the hoariest cliches you've heard about the Internet?

*

Kass's patriotism about his newsroom is both bizarre and naive. Like Trib editor Gerry Kern, Kass tries to argue that the newsroom is a separate operation from the corporate suite or the rest of the company - as if it doesn't matter what the boys upstairs do. But it does matter. When executives make decisions about marketing strategy, for example, that dictate sending reporters and resources to cover affluent communities instead of city neighborhoods or poor suburbs so their demographic can be presented to advertisers, that's a perversion of the values Kass thinks his newspaper holds. When the Trib website becomes littered with "Comic Con Hotties" and "Hot Sports Wives & Girlfriends," that's an editorial matter influenced - explicitly or implicitly - from the top. When the corporate hacks install as managing editor of Kass's newsroom the former editor of RedEye who, for all I know, has never reported a one-alarm fire, that impacts the product. And who does Kass think Kern has to make happy - and how? - to keep his job?

And that's not even to address a newsroom that vies for the most dysfunctional office politics in the land.

That doesn't mean the Tribune doesn't ever do outstanding work. It does. But that doesn't absolve its blind spots and embarrassments.

*

For example - and again, once it was safe to do so - the Tribune itself reported this on Wednesday:

"One example is Denise Brown, a former member of the company's corporate communications staff. Brown, who sat across the hall from Michaels on the Tribune Tower's sixth floor, said she was quietly disgusted with what she saw going on in Tribune Co.'s executive suite before she left the company earlier this year to start a small business. After the Times story, Brown began blogging about her concerns."

(Link please! Duh.)

"In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Brown described an incident in 2008 when she had been given the task of organizing a Mardi Gras lunch for people on the sixth floor. The Cajun food she ordered came with a set of colorful beads and she put them on as she walked down the hallway. She said that when she encountered Michaels in the hallway he asked, 'What did you have to do to earn those beads? Will you do that for me?'

"Brown said she took it as a clear reference to the Mardi Gras tradition in which women earn beads for exposing their breasts."

And:

"One former Tribune Co. corporate employee said she had an interaction with Michaels that played a significant role in her decision to leave the company. It occurred shortly after Michaels arrived at Tribune, she said, when she was called to his office to review some documents with him. Michaels, she said, asked her to come around to his side of the desk, even though there was no chair. As she stood next to him, he asked her to lean down and move closer so that eventually she was crouching at his side, which made her feel uncomfortable.

"'Then he looked at me and said, Did anyone tell you that you'd look really good on your knees?' she recalled."

*

And just so there's no gloating, don't forget that the Sun-Times was run by an amoral sexist for years.

*

That wasn't my only issue with NBC, of course. There were a series of embarrassments, but the big one that occurred concurrently with the Michaels incident was how this post never ran because a station executive who was friends with the subject was unhappy with the coverage of his pal. The website's managing editor got the message and spiked this:

What more does police chief Jody Weis need to know?

Consider:

- The city's vast surveillance network has captured Scott driving alone from his sister's nursing home to the spot on the Chicago River where he was found dead. He didn't meet anyone along the way. If he was murdered someone would have had to have been waiting for him. There is no evidence anyone else was present, though.

- He was shot with his own gun. Unless he kept the gun in his car - unlikely - he brought it with him from home. If he was murdered, someone else would have had to have somehow gotten the gun from him or his home.

- He was shot in his left temple, consistent with him being left-handed. Gunpowder residue was found on his left hand. The residue found was also inconsistent with any theory that someone else put their hand over his and forced him to pull the trigger.

- A spent bullet casing found at the scene was linked in forensics tests to his gun.

- His money clip and credit cards were found on the scene, indicating he was not robbed.

- The Cook County medical examiner quickly and firmly ruled the case a suicide. Not a shred of evidence has emerged to suggest otherwise.

And yet, Weis won't make the call.

"As of right now, I'm keeping it a death investigation," Weis said. "We're going to sit down and just take one more hard look at everything, make sure we haven't missed anything"

Like what?

Weis said the police still haven't reached everyone Scott talked to on the day of his death - which seems odd. How many people can there be and how hard can they be to reach?

Weis also cites friends and family who swear Scott would never kill himself. But that's not unusual in suicides. Even friends and family are often in the dark about people's inner struggles. And veteran political reporter Greg Hinz has written that Scott "had personal, business and family problems."

Perhaps police want to explore those problems so they can offer a fuller explanation to skeptics. Perhaps Weis has an ornery mayor to satisfy. Perhaps an announcement will come late on a Friday to avoid media glare.

None of it is an excuse for Weis's charade, though. Michael Scott killed himself, and Weis knows it.

Guess what? The announcement was made that afternoon - a Friday.

*

That's how it's been my whole career. And that's why I'm doing what I'm doing, despite the immense financial stress. I'm not looking for sympathy, I'm just trying to explain how systemically and culturally awful our news organizations are.

So Kass can complain about bloggers all he wants, but maybe he ought to focus more of his attention on the media powers that be. They are the real pretenders.

*

Note to Kass via Whet Moser, a blogger who easily outdistances this city's newspaper columnists in original thought, research, awareness and smarts:

"Dean Starkman has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on journalists vs. bloggers in the specific realm of the growing mortgage/foreclosure crisis. You'll have to click through to see who he thinks is winning."

Rhymefest Runs
For 20th Ward alderman. A closer look at his music and politics.

The Real Reasons Ryno Was Rejected
A Beachwood exclusive.

-

The Beachwood Tip Line: Bar-backed.



Permalink

Posted on October 21, 2010


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