Tag Archives: Chicago

Chicago murder coverage isn’t stopping the bullets

CHICAGO – Back in the early ’70s, as a cub working off the overnight city desk at the Chicago Tribune, you learned fast that all murders were not equal.

Sure, all were listed methodically on the deputy superintendent’s logbook at the old police headquarters at 11th and State streets. But while killings on the city’s predominantly white North Side were almost always pursued by our small band of nocturnal newsmen, the more numerous homicides in the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides most often were ignored.

There was even a winking code word for the latter category. They were “blue.” Blue, as in “cheap domestic,” where a drunken live-in boyfriend kills his common-law mate. Blue, as in someone shot in the face after a street-corner dice game gone awry.

Judging by how the other four daily newspapers (yes, four!) covered and displayed their homicides, it’s safe to assume the same double standard applied.

This practice was, of course, racially and morally indefensible. And by the end of that decade – a decade of enormous change in newsroom cultures across the country—a more race-neutral standard applied. Oh, sure, a juicy society murder on the city’s Gold Coast still got top billing. But space was made for everyone in those ubiquitous Monday roundups of weekend mayhem, especially if the victim was a sympathetic innocent.

The reasoning behind this sea change was, and still is, altogether sound. All lives have value, and only by recording the circumstances of each tragedy do we begin to understand the patterns of neglect that underlay the violence … and potential ways the killing might be stopped.

Fast forward to 2013 and, I would argue, a very different set of ethical questions now confronting editors.

Last year there were 506 homicides in Chicago, more than the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in Afghanistan. This past January’s toll of 43 does not bode well for 2013.

Most of the murdered were under age 24, shot with handguns, nearly within a handful of black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Fully a third of the victims were determined by police to be not the intended target of the shooter. They were simply in the wrong place – a car, a front porch, a gathering of friends – at the wrong time and unluckily close to the intended target.

A pattern has developed in which Chicago media focus on these innocent victims, on their grief-stricken families, on friends building curbside memorials, on their wakes and on their funerals. In January the full front-page, top-of-the-newscast treatment was given, day-after-day, to the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an innocent who the week before was a majorette in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade. In March it was baby Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old shot in the front seat of a parked minivan while in the lap of her father, an alleged gang-banger with a lengthy police rap sheet.

News columnists and editorial writers daily pile on their outrage, and almost daily stories with headlines such as “Bloodbath in Chicago” circle the globe via the Huffington Post, New York Times, BBC and others.

All of which begs – or should beg – the question of whether this approach to covering lethal urban violence is doing any good … or even doing more harm than good.

No responsible journalist seeks a return to the days of spiking “blue” murders from the wrong side of town. But consider the following:

  • Blanket coverage of lethal violence in minority neighborhoods is not balanced by an equal number of prominently played stories of good things achieved in those neighborhoods by the many good people who live there.
  • Negative perceptions about violence and personal safety are a major driver of the “white flight,” racial resegregation and neighborhood decay that have plagued U.S. metropolitan areas over the past half-century. Chicago has fared better than most but still has lost a quarter of its population since 1960 as middle-class families of all races continue to move out, albeit for many reasons.
  • Despite all the ink and airtime devoted to the killings, next to nothing has been accomplished – nationally or locally – in the way of more effective gun control, police tactics or provision of social services capable of solving the problem.

Then again, veteran Chicago editors and journalists who have struggled with these issues argue it’s not the amount of coverage that’s the problem … but the type.

Jack Fuller, a former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune who has written extensively on newsroom ethics, complains too much coverage focuses on weeping and wailing and not enough on root causes and criminal logistics.

Instead of bombarding the public with “isn’t that awful” stories, Fuller argues, “we need to go deeper into what’s behind it – the social pathologies, the illegal purchase of guns. Maybe it means our war on drugs has got to end. Take profit out of the system.”

Frank Main, a Pulitzer-winning police reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, agrees there ought to be less hand-wringing and more exposure of what’s behind the shooting.

“The problem is that those stories can be boring,” Main admits. “Anytime the words ‘program’ or ‘social services’ or ‘community involvement’ are anywhere near the top of the story, many readers flip to the sports section.

“The challenge is to ratchet down the coverage of murder victims’ memorials and funerals, and spend more time in neighborhoods, police stations, courts and universities to give context to all this tragedy.”

Laura Washington, a veteran observer of Chicago’s racial dynamic and an op-ed contributor to the Sun-Times, also complains about maudlin stories focusing on grieving relatives and open caskets.

“We should spend more time, space and bytes talking to experts, community leaders and residents about why these murders are occurring, and what can be done to stop them,” she says. “Our reporting is too often one-dimensional and simplistic. The problems are multilayered and complex.”

That sentiment is echoed by William Recktenwald, a journalism instructor at Southern Illinois University and former top investigative reporter at the Tribune. In 1993, he and a team of reporters chronicled in detail every shooting death of a Chicago-area child below the age of 15 in a yearlong series called “Killing Our Children.”

People forget, Recktenwald says, that 20 years ago, when crack cocaine and automatic pistols first appeared on the streets, there were even more killings – a record 932 just during 1992. So is this progress? His police sources tell Recktenwald the numbers would be just as bad now but for advances in trauma medicine.

But the fact that several gunshot victims survive for every one killed points to another reason people ought to care, no matter where they live. Gunshot wounds and deaths cost Americans at least $12 billion a year in court proceedings, insurance costs and hospitalizations paid for by government health programs, according to one recent study. Then there’s the cost of incarcerating a single young murderer – well over $50,000 a year, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“That’s the kind of thing people need to understand.” Recktenwald says. “Reporting about all the memorial candles and teddy bears, that doesn’t change anything.”

As for damage to Chicago’s civic reputation, thoughtful journalists such as Recktenwald, Main, Washington and Fuller seem less concerned.

“I’m still a believer in basic newspapering,” Fuller says. “When something happens, you report it. You cover the hell out of it … that’s how we begin to change the reality.”

Maybe so. But with so little progress achieved and so little in sight, one wonders if the old “publish and be damned” spirit still serves our troubled cities and the people who live in them.

Good riddance to “blue” homicides. But our journalism still needs a better approach.


Impact of Mirage series still felt 35 years later

Editor's note: This is a preview of a story that will appear in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

On Jan. 8, 1978, the first of a 25-part investigative series published by the Chicago Sun-Times about corruption in Chicago hit the newsstands.

Thirty-five years have passed, but the series is still talked about – not so much as to what was reported, but how it was reported, and its impact not on the crooks that were exposed, but on reporting methods.

“The Sun-Times series certainly was the most inventive (undercover project) and maybe the longest in modern times,” said Brooke Kroeger, a New York University researcher and author of “Undercover Reporting: the truth about deception,” which examines nearly two centuries of undercover reporting.

Triggered by decades of reports and rumors of shakedowns of businesses by city inspectors, the Sun-Times, in tandem with a civic group, the Better Government Association, opened a tavern named the Mirage and painstakingly documented what it encountered.


Audiotaping police stops in Illinois now fair game

Illinois’ toughest in the nation eavesdropping law is partly unenforceable now that a Chicago prosecutor failed to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to revive the law. Citizens now can make an audio tape of Chicago police making a stop without fe

ar of prosecution. The taping of police stops is part of an ACLU of Illinois program scrutinizing police conduct.

Many media reports overstated the Supreme Court’s action, however. The court merely refused to hear the case. That does not mean that it agrees or disagrees with the lower court ruling that found the law probably violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court’s refusal to review a case is not a ruling of the court, nor does it have precedential value. Many news reports suggested, incorrectly, that the high court was taking a position on the law.

See the St. Louis Beacon story for more details.


The Chicago Headline Club – the largest local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the country – announced the winners of its 2010 Lifetime Achievement Awards. Veteran Chicago journalists Roger Ebert, Richard C. Longworth and Elizabeth Brackett will be honored for their extraordinary work in Chicago journalism at the 34th  annual Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism banquet on May 6.

•   ROGER EBERT has been the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, and his reviews are now syndicated in more than 200 newspapers in the U.S., Canada, England, Japan and Greece.
Ebert is the co-host of television’s “Ebert & Roeper,” which appears in more than 200 markets and continues to rank as the top-rated weekly syndicated half-hour on television. For 23 years, he co-hosted “Siskel & Ebert” with the late Gene Siskel.
•   RICHARD C. LONGWORTH is a veteran of the City News Bureau, UPI – both in Chicago and abroad – and the Chicago Tribune where he spent nearly 30 years as an economics reporter, business editor, chief European correspondent and senior writer. Twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Longworth has reported from 80 countries and covered such historic events such as the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, all European revolutions of 1989, plus wars in the Mideast, Somalia and Kosovo. Longworth has won the Overseas Press Club Award twice, and has captured every major national award for economic reporting and a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for his camel trek through the Sahara. For the Tribune and in his two books, he specialized in globalization and its impact on Chicago and the Midwest. He is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
•   ELIZABETH BRACKETT currently serves as correspondent and substitute host for WTTW11’s flagship nightly public affairs program Chicago Tonight. During her tenure, she has covered presidential, mayoral and gubernatorial races, Chicago financial exchanges, the Chicago Bulls and genetic research, to name a few.

Since 1984, she has also served as local correspondent for the PBS program The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In that role she has covered national and international stories on an in-depth basis. Before joining WTTW, Brackett served as a general assignment reporter for WLS-TV, WGN-TV and Radio and WBBM-TV.
Brackett has won two Midwest Emmy Awards, two Peter Lisagor Awards for Business Journalism and a National Peabody Award.
“This year’s awards and recipients carry on our tradition of honoring outstanding journalists,” said Susan S. Stevens, president of the Chicago  Headline Club. “Chicago has so many great journalists that it is really difficult to single out just a few each year.”

In addition to the Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Chicago Headline Club will award its 2010 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting and will announce the winners of the Lisagor awards, which are awarded Chicago-area journalists for their exemplary work and truly superior contributions to journalism in a variety of categories. Winners were selected for such attributes as enterprise, accuracy, scope, style and impact.

The Chicago Headline Club will also announce the

recipient of the $2,500 Les H. Brownlee Scholarship to a Chicago-area journalism student and two $2,500 scholarships for journalism students who will have unpaid summer internships in the Chicago area.
Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern will give the keynote address.
The awards dinner will be held at the Hotel Allegro, 171 W. Randolph St. in Chicago, and begins at 5:30 p.m. Tickets to the dinner are $65 for members, $85 for non-members and $800 for a table of 10.

For more information and to purchase tickets to attend the dinner, please call  Kathy Catrambone, Headline Club executive director, 312-553-0393, or visit www.headlineclub.org.


The West End Word, a newspaper which offers coverage of “city living from the Arch to the Innerbelt,” has been acquired by the community journalism publishing company of Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. The Word is one of the city’s oldest independent newspapers and becomes the third newspaper in the portfolio of Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc.

“All of us at the Times are excited by this new challenge and opportunity,” said Dwight Bitikofer, president of Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. “It’s a unique opportunity to bring our proven brand of reliable journalism, and service to advertising clients, to a vibrant and vital area of the greater St. Louis community.

“We are pleased that Jeff Fister and his family, owners of the West End Word, came to us with the idea that we are the best fit for taking up the 39-year legacy of the West End Word,” said Bitikofer, who is publisher for the papers. “With this acquisition, the community newspapers of Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. will have more readers, more reach and more visibility than any other independent and locally-owned newspaper operation in the St. Louis region.”

The Times will take over publishing operations of the West End Word in late April. It will keep the publication’s name and will publish the first issue under its management on May 4.

Neighborhood volunteers in the Central West End area of St. Louis started the Word as part of a “back-to-the-city movement” in 1972, Fister explained. The newspaper grew as these urban pioneers rediscovered the great art, history and architecture of the area.  Jeff and Richard Fister’s Virginia Publishing Company bought the publication in 1989 and expanded the circulation to midtown St. Louis and parts of University City, Clayton and Maplewood.

“We are pleased that our coverage area now takes in world-class museums, bustling arts and entertainment venues, premiere health care centers and Washington University, St. Louis University, Fontbonne University and much more,” said Don Corrigan, editor of Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. “We look forward to continuing the tradition of arts and entertainment coverage of the Word, and bringing our expertise on local news, features and political coverage.”

The Webster-Kirkwood Times began in 1978. The South County Times has roots reaching back to 1947. The two community papers have a combined distribution of over 77,000 each week. The West End Word adds 20,000 papers on an every-two-week schedule.


Emanuel’s battle-of-the-ballot trumps all issues in Chicago mayoral race

Just when it looked like the Chicago news media were fixing to focus on the issues – wham! – the Illinois Appellate Court tossed the frontrunner in Chicago’s mayoral race off the Feb. 22 primary ballot.

True, that appellate decision only laste

d for three days—on Jan. 27 the state Supreme Court restored Rahm Emanuel to the ballot. But the off-again, on-again battle of the ballot has made it hard for everyone—press and public—to re-focus on the stuff that really matters.

So much for sober-sided stories about the worrisome city budget deficit, needed pension reforms, the imperiled expansion of O’Hare International Airport or the abuse of tax increment financing.

Which is too bad, because until the surprise Appelate Court decision on Jan. 24 the Chicago dailies had been doing some quality interpretive pieces on the real issues and where the four major candidates stand. The question now, after the fire drill, is whether teacher can settle down the class and get back to the math lesson.

That’s a tough assignment because Emanuel’s struggles have been nothing if not entertaining. Beginning last fall the big running story on the race to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring after 22 years in office, had been whether Emanuel is a legal resident of Chicago. His residency, and hence his standing to run for the elective office, had been challenged in that Emanuel has been living in Washington for the past two years where he served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Late last year the press pack had a field day—make that a field week—covering public hearings held by the city’s Board of Elections to go over the facts of the case. Emanuel had rented his house on the Northwest Side to an odd fellow who not only refused to move out upon Emanuel’s return but circulated his own petitions to get on the mayoral ballot. How bizarre is that?

Next, platoons of election lawyers for and against Emanuel made their case to the Election Board’s puffed-up, bow-tied hearing officer who moonlights as a conservative talk-radio pundit. At one point testimony centered on what, exactly, was inside the storage boxes the Emanuel family left in a basement of their North Side house. Was it trash or family heirlooms? Did not the contents, including Mrs. Emanuel’s wedding gown, speak to intent-to-return? Just how is a candidate’s stand on pension reform supposed to compete with that?

Then it was the public’s turn to testify, whereupon a parade of civic cranks, including a homeless lady calling herself “Queen Sister” and wearing a crown described in one story as a “golden donut,” tore into Emanuel for transgressions less real than imagined, from complicity in the Waco, Texas, conflagration to being a secret agent for Israel.

It all made for titillating television and colorful print sidebars, but after all was said and done the hearing officer ruled for Emanuel on Dec. 23 … and a Cook County Circuit judge affirmed that finding on January 4. Finally it was time to get back to the things that mattered. And the focus was made even clearer that first week in January when another major candidate—Congressman Danny Davis—opted out of the race, leaving ex-U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun as the only substantial African-American still in the running.

Substantial? This time around the media has pretty much ignored the “marginals”—political amateurs who collected sufficient signatures to get their names on the ballot but have few followers and fewer campaign funds. Several were “challenged off” due to deficient signatures. At this writing there are four majors—Emanuel, Moseley Braun, former schools and parks board president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle—plus two marginals: perennial candidate William “Doc” Walls III and community activist Patricia Van Pelt Watkins.

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell reasonably complained that the exclusion of any on-the-ballot candidate from civic- and media-sponsored debates “smacks of elitism. Even the most qualified candidate can’t get very far if their campaign is marginalized by the media.” Mitchell has a point. The Chicago media need some sensible, transparent guidelines about how such decisions will be made in the future.

That issue aside, news coverage of the race improved substantially once it was generally presumed Emanuel would be on the ballot. Perhaps editors and news directors took to heart an unusual op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by former Fox News Chicago political editor Jack Conaty. Under the headline “Are we ever going to get to the issues?” Conaty complained the ballot brouhaha was getting so much press that “Rahm” has “already been branded as a one-name sensation, like Cher or Madonna or Sting.”

So as if observing a New Year’s resolution, the Tribune and Sun-Times began in January to produced full-page, issue-oriented profiles of the four majors. Even daily stories off the campaign trail focused on this issue or that. Then again, what is considered an important issue by political reporters isn’t necessarily all that important. There’s a tendency to keep hitting the hot buttons. Example: Newspaper stories and TV field reports slavishly echo the candidates’ bashing of the privatization of city parking meters. In truth, the only serious problem with the meter deal was that the Daley administration did not get full value from the investor group that leased all 36,000 curbside spaces for 75 years … and then began charging $5-an-hour (downtown) and $1.50 (neighborhoods) using hi-tech meters that accept all major credit cards. People are outraged at the higher rates and the candidates have taken up the cry. But the concepts behind the meters – privatization and market-driven user fees—are sound, which is why enlightened governments around the country are leasing away everything from toll bridges to airports.

Then there’s the ever-present issue of race. One of the biggest challenges covering politics in Chicago is not to be naïve about race while not over-emphasizing the city’s enduring racial and ethnic divides. Chicago’s population breaks down roughly one third white (non-Hispanic), one third African-American and one third Hispanic. But Hispanic voter turnout lags, so the voting breakdown is more like 45 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.

A mid-January Tribune poll showed Emanuel running well ahead with 44 percent. Carol Moseley Braun was running second at 21 percent with Chico at 16 and Del Valle 7 percent. This surprised many because Moseley Braun failed to impress as a one-term U.S. Senator and more recently has had well-publicized personal financial problems.

But her strong showing doesn’t surprise Don Rose, dean of the city’s political consultants, who says virtually any black candidate can depend on 20 percent of the vote when matched against any combination of whites or Hispanics. Same goes vice-versa, with whites having an even larger racial “base” vote. So much for post-racial politics in the Age of Obama.

What this means is that Emanuel may well fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election on April 5 against the second-place finisher. That portends a likely Emanuel versus Moseley Braun runoff , with Emanuel expected to win handily. Why? Because a majority of Chico and Del Valle voters are expected to shift to Emanuel in the runoff.

Then there’s the sympathy factor. He may have a reputation as a hard-nosed politician—a guy who once sent a dead fish to an opponent and who tosses around the “F” bomb at staff meetings—but three months of “will-he-or-won’t-he” be allowed on the ballot has made Emanuel seem more victim than Visigoth.

This was especially true during the orgy of front-page headlines triggered by the appellate decision to throw him off the ballot. Turns out a key supporter of Gery Chico is Alderman Edward Burke, longtime boss of the South Side’s 14th Ward and chair of the city council’s powerful finance committee. Burke is also longtime chair of the county Democratic Party’s judicial slating committee. That means hundreds of judges in the state’s court system—including the two Appellate jurists who ruled against Emanuel in the 2-1 decision—owe their black robes, however indirectly, to “Eddy” Burke.

So as the city waited for the Supremes to affirm or overturn, news analysts wondered aloud whether Burke would dare lean on a sitting judge for a ruling favorable to Chico? Meanwhile, reporters flocked to the Supreme Court chambers of Justice Anne Burke, who happens to be the alderman’s wife, to ask whether she would recuse herself from deliberations. (She didn’t, siding with the 7-0 majority for Emanuel.)

But all that’s history. The campaigns now can get back to the issues … although, even this policy wonk must admit this has been more interesting than tax increment financing.

Best Chicago media coverage of 2010 Illinois races

With so much sloganeering and mud-slinging leading up to the Nov. 2 mid-term elections, the challenge for Chicago’s news media—print, broadcast, online—was whether to echo the races’ shallow bombast … or cut through to the issues.

By and large, the metropolitan press held to the latter, more difficult course. Which is saying something, given the staff cutbacks and news hole shrinkage of late.

The problem for readers and viewers was finding the good stuff. It’s not easy to navigate today’s choppy, changing sea of hard news, personal opinion and outright propaganda.  Readers and viewers face their own challenges: Was that a TV anchorman going over polling data or a political party operative doing some wishful thinking?  And on those election night panels of pundits, how much credibility ought one accord a news columnist, like the Sun-Times Esther Cepeda, when paired against an outright partisan like Dan Proft, the glib libertarian who ran and lost in the GOP primary? And what, exactly, are we to make of that menacing rat logo/cartoon that the Tribune runs, sometimes on the front page, when its editorialists go off on the performance of Chicago Democrats?

In other words, how’s a thoughtful reader, viewer, or Web surfer supposed to weigh what’s being put out there by an increasingly indistinguishable mix of straight-leg journalists, seasoned op-ed commentators/editorial writers, and clever political operatives or axe-grinding ideologues?

The answer, of course, is “LOL.”  It’s almost impossible to divine who’s telling it straight and who’s rep-ing some special interest.  Are we hearing from an employee of the host media outlet?  Or a respected newspaper op-ed writer or academician?  Or is he or she from the tea party?  Or the SEIU?

That criticism notwithstanding, this last electoral go-round produced some of the best reporting and analysis in memory. What follows are my very personal—and perforce incomplete—awards for the best of the best:

Grand Prize: Phil Ponce and Carol Marin’s series of live, in-studio debate-style interviews with the major candidates on WTTW/Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight.  The traditional League of Women Voters’ forums were never like this. Ponce and Marin cut off candidates when they digressed into talking points, shushed pols who talked over or interrupted, and demanded specific answers to specific questions about tax increases and spending cuts. This is how political debates should be run, with well-informed journalists empowered to cross-examine candidates and get at the real differences … not simply keep time and count platitudes.

Best issue coverage:  The Tribune’s News Focus series cleared out entire front-section pages for detailed comparisons’ of the major U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates’ positions on taxes, spending, health care, immigration and more. It was the Sun-Times, however, that better pinned down specifics, especially in the Sunday-before-the-election roundups. On taxes, for example, the Trib’s thumbnail said Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady “favors an audit of state programs and cutting 10 percent of spending.”  Hmmm. The Sun-Times blurbed that Brady “opposes every tax increase; favors eliminating state sales tax on motor fuel and the state’s estate tax. He proposes requiring a supermajority in the legislature to raise taxes.”  That’s saying something.

Best election night TV coverage: A graybeard like me can’t help but favor Bill & Walter’s color commentary on WBBM/Channel 2.  The highlight for me occurred shortly after 1 a.m., when Jacobsen turned to Kurtis, as soon as it looked like Democrat Pat Quinn would hold on to the governor’s mansion, and observed that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan might now reconsider and run for mayor of Chicago … rather than challenge an incumbent Democrat in the 2014 primary. That’s pretty sage for the wee hours.

Best online coverage: The Jim Kirk-edited Early and Often an adjunct of the Chicago News Cooperative site, especially its daily “Morning Palm Card” e-alerts, were a newsy mix of inside baseball, savvy analysis and deft aggregation.  This is what this talent-rich CNC, funded by subscriptions and philanthropy, ought to be doing … not slavishly covering Blago’s corruption trial. Or mailing FOIA letters to public agencies to obtain embarrassing expense accounts. We get that elsewhere.

Best column: Hard to beat Greg Hinz’ election eve primal scream in Crain’s Chicago Business. “At a time when Illinois is ethically and financially bankrupt,” Hinz wrote, “when voters are desperate for officials who will stand up, tell it like it is and do what’s needed … we instead get this year’s sad crop” nearly all of whom ran attack ads featuring an “unending stream of ominous music, doctored photos, screaming headlines and distortions (that) would make Mother Theresa wince.”

Then again, Greg, Mother Theresa ain’t registered to vote in Illinois.

A 40-year veteran of Chicago media, John McCarron now teaches, consults and writes freelance on urban affairs.

Michaels next to go at Tribune

For those who study or pay attention to the media and how they work, it is completely fascinating watching the effects of the New York Times’ story about the Chicago Tribune.

The story characterized the Tribune offices as a frat house and when the story came out, people noticed. First, it isn’t often that one media company takes such a well directed shot at another company. Second, this had all the juicy details to create a scandal. And we all know what happens when there is a scandal.

The Tribune Company had enough problems before this hit. Bankruptcy, layoffs, bad press because of its owner Sam Zell, and lawsuits from former employees suing Zell all affected the credibility of Tribune Company. But this story? It hit the media world like a meteorite.

And the Chicago Tribune is on the run. Lee Abrams resigned late last week and the Chicago Tribune ran a story in Wednesday’s Tribune announcing that Randy Michaels would be leaving the Tribune by week’s end. He had to. The heat from the media spotlight is affecting Tribune Company’s image and it needs any sort of positive news it can find while it goes through public bankruptcy proceedings.

John Kass, the Trib’s political columnist, wrote a column today about what was really happening at the Tribune. It read like the protests you see from a political figure who has been caught in a scandal, an acknowledgment that something is wrong, then a recap of all that is being done right.

Memo to Kass, who has put enough political figures’ feet to the fire to figure this out —  It won’t work. The frame has been set. The Tribune is a frat house and the two men who ran the frat house, Abrams and Michaels, must pay.

They’ve paid.

So has the Tribune. It’s credibility just took another hit. And the bloodletting at the top, however much deserved, won’t make it any easier for those doing their jobs in the trenches. As for the story, it will be interesting to see how much longer it continues to run.

Abrams out at Trib

Lee Abrams resigned from the Chicago Tribune Friday. It’s not often you get to witness the media eating their own but in Abrams’ case, cannibalism was allowed.

Of course, the press never considered Abrams one of their own. Abrams was a radio guy whose ideas affected the radio business on a number of occasions. When Sam Zell hired him as his Chief Innovation officer, Abrams took a radio approach to newspapers. The Columbia Journalism Review did a story on his attempt at changing newspapers in 2008.

By most media accounts, Abrams was never accepted by many of those in the newspaper industry. And when the New York Times ran its account of the atmosphere created at the Chicago Tribune, it was hard to find many in the media who took the Trib’s side. But this was just start of the Abrams saga. A week after the Times story hit the press, with media still buzzing about its effects, Abrams sent out a memo to his staff that could be considered racy at best. This did not go over well. The Sun-Times, usually quick to kick the Trib when it’s down, reported the story with a sense of almost shock.

The Tribune storyabout the memo by media columnist Phil Rosenthal was almost apologetic for Abrams, quoting Abrams who said the video was in poor taste.

“”The video in bad taste was a parody of a cable-type reality show,” Abrams wrote. “It is not something that we would ever air on our TV stations — in fact quite the opposite — we show this as an example of what NOT to do. But, still, I understand that it was very inappropriate to distribute a link to the video to a wider audience.”

The story even mentioned the Tribune’s harassment policy, which is mentioned in the New York Times story.

The media industry piled on to this story. The press found former workers at the Trib who were suing Zell and asked their opinion; when the Tribune broke the story about his resignation, there were cheers at the  Los Angeles Times.

So Abrams is gone. But is the story over?