The New York Times Unloads on Tribune’s Zell Hell

David Carr and The New York Times have a fascinating and sordid story about Sam Zell’s tenure as owner of Tribune Company. It’s an excellent piece of reporting—a picture of a corporate culture descended to approximately the level of third-grade boys.

You get the feeling that the execs Zell installed won’t be around for long after this one:

Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, 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.

The frat culture installed at Trib makes for riveting reading and is appalling, but of particular interest to us is the degradation of its journalism culture. As far as I can tell, this is the first time we’ve heard this story of Zell interfering with the news side:

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.”

Let’s just say it’s unfortunate that it’s taken more than two years to get that information out.

Speaking of unfortunate, here’s what Zell’s boys put on the air in the middle of newscasts:

At four of the company’s television stations, an event called “CA$H GRAB,” in which a viewer was led into a bank vault and allowed to scoop up dollar bills, was inserted in the middle of the station’s newscasts. At WPIX-TV in New York, the viewers were cheered on by clapping Hooters waitresses, giving the station the appearance of televised shock radio.

It’s also trying to invent a new newscast format that will rely on less labor. Here, Carr reports on the want ad Trib posted for it. It makes for an excellent kicker:

“The TV revolution is upon us — and the new Tribune Company is leading the resistance,” the announcement read. And judging from the job posting for “anti-establishment producer/editors,” the company has some very strong ideas about who those revolutionaries should be: “Don’t sell us on your solid newsroom experience. We don’t care. Or your exclusive, breaking news coverage. We’ll pass.”

Trib also gave a WGN radio talk show to a politician who is a convicted felon.

Steve Cochran, a longtime midday host who has said he was dismissed as he was walking out of the bathroom this summer, said the changes seemed aimed at destroying WGN.

“This was supposed to be their comfort zone, what they were good at, and they have ruined a radio station that has had an 80-year relationship with its listeners,” he said.

“This is a collection of carnival workers who are only looking after their friends, giving jobs to their buddies. Blagojevich is on trial and you bring in a politician who has done time in jail?”

Let’s hope whoever hauls Tribune out of bankruptcy can patch the place up. It would be pretty hard for them to do worse.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.