national, Illinois, Chicago, Governor Rod Blagojevich
M. Spencer Green/AP
Tribune Co. Chairman and CEO Sam Zell

Chicago Tribune’s Timing of Blagojevich Story Under Scrutiny

December 16, 2008 02:29 PM
by Christopher Coats
A delayed decision to publish sensitive information about the investigation into Governor Rod Blagojevich has raised questions about the Chicago Tribune’s motivations, timing and relationship with the Illinois politician.

The Tribune, Blagojevich Relationship

The early morning arrest of Blagojevich last week occurred only after the Chicago Tribune ran a story outlining the FBI’s investigation, which they had been sitting on for more than two months.

Although the motivation behind the Tribune’s decision to run the long-delayed story remains unclear, some have begun to question what role the financially beleaguered company’s own relationship with the governor played in their final decision.

Asked by the office of Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to hold onto the story in October, the Tribune decided not to run the story, though Fitzgerald later said they were never notified about why the request was made.

Fitzgerald would go on to compliment the paper for granting what he described as an unusual request, despite the suggestion that the FBI would have been able to gather more pressing information if they could have continued the investigation without Blagojevich knowing.

Incidentally, although direct talks about the governor’s attempts to sell the senatorial seat of the outgoing President-elect Obama had ceased around the middle of November, they began again the week before the arrest.

The Wall Street Journal reports that recorded calls revealed the first mention of a cash transaction and a scheduled meeting with a representative of Senate Candidate #5, later revealed to be Jesse Jackson Jr.
However, the paper’s parent company, helmed by Sam Zell, also played a role in the conversations recorded by federal agents during the month of November.

Faced the with the threat of bankruptcy, the Tribune Company had appealed to the governor to take on the title of Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, which the company has owned since 1981.
Unhappy with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board’s calls for impeachment investigations into his office for the practice of distributing state funds without legislative or voter approval, Blagojevich was recorded pressuring company representatives to fire columnists in exchange for the stadium deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Citing what he saw as a discrepancy between the words of the editorial board and appeals of the parent company, Blagojevich reportedly called for the specific removal of Deputy Editorial Editor John McCormick in exchange for clearing the deal.

If completed, the state’s acceptance of the stadium title would go on to save Zell and his company approximately $100 million and help to stave off bankruptcy for the Tribune.

On Dec. 4, the Tribune announced a wave of layoffs, but informed the governor’s office that the editorial board members in question were not among those let go.

The next day, the Tribune reversed their delay and ran the article on the FBI investigation.

On Monday, Dec. 8, the Tribune filed for bankruptcy, declaring $12.9 billion in debt and only $7.6 billion assets.

The next day, Fitzgerald’s office moved to make an arrest of Blagojevich and his chief of staff.

While Zell and the Tribune released a statement denying any wrongdoing, the timing of the talks with Blagojevich’s office and questions surrounding what influence the Tribune’s corporate offices may have had influencing coverage of the governor have raised the ire of media watchdogs, such as the Columbia Journalism Review.

Further, while the exact knowledge of events on the part of Zell’s office and his influence on the content and timing of the Dec. 5 story on the governor have raised more questions about the move to make the arrest.

Opinion & Analysis: Taking a stand

Hannibal Courier-Post editor Mary Lou Montgomery sees the relationship between Zell and Blagojevich’s office as a victory for traditional journalistic ethics, suggesting that the Tribune’s decision to run the story despite the pressure put on the paper to remove employees was a stand against blackmail.

Further, The New York Times argues that the pressure put on the Tribune company to remove writers and their subsequent decision to run the Blagojevich story supports the need for investigative journalism and city papers.

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