Wednesday, December 17, 2008

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers

By Kevin Guilfoile

The Chicago Tribune has been running an ad on local television this week. It includes edited clips from US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference announcing the arrest of Governor Blagojevich:

FITZGERALD: I have to take my hat off to the Tribune...We ought to credit the Chicago Tribune...I appreciate that and respect what they did.

V/O: Looking out for you. Now more than ever. Subscribe Today.


Of course, if you saw the press conference you would know that what the Tribune did to deserve such praise from Fitzgerald was withhold the story that the feds were bugging the governor's home, a decision, I understand, that met with vigorous debate within the newsroom. Now this might have been the right the thing to do, and as an Illinoisan I'm glad the investigation wasn't compromised. We all have a big crush on Patrick Fitzgerald right now so I can see why someone in the Trib marketing department got all gooey when he started blowing the Trib kisses in the middle of his statement. But I know a lot of terrific reporters and editors at that paper and I doubt there's anyone on the editorial floors at 435 North Michigan who doesn't think it's bizarre to suggest that people should subscribe to the Tribune because the paper DIDN'T report what would have been the biggest story of the year. That decision might have made the paper a good citizen--and I'm not criticizing them for it--but it's no reason to get all boastful. Bad newspapers don't break stories all the time.

Last week in the Huffington Post, Daniel Sinker wrote a column really giving it to the Trib for not reporting the fact that Blagojevich had been trying to blackmail Tribune executives into firing members of their editorial staff before that information came out in Fitzgerald's complaint. Sinker's piece, however, makes a number of factual errors and arrives at a series of assumptions none of us can make. We know that Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris talked to each other about speaking to Tribune executives, as well as a "financial advisor to the Tribune," to suggest that state financial assistance for Wrigley Field could be held up if the Trib didn't jettison some of its editorial board. But we actually don't know who Harris spoke to and everything he alleges was said to Tribune executives (and what they said in return) is all third-hand on the tapes. Harris even told Blagojevich that he "won't be so direct" with the suggestion. It might have been indirect to the point where Trib officials thought it was just another example of the governor whining about their coverage (in fact Blagojevich was calling publicly for the firing of editorial board members right up until the day before he was arrested). Harris might personally have thought the suggestion was insane and might have been lying to his boss about conversations he had just to keep Blagojevich happy.

It's seems clear that Tribune executives did not put actual pressure on the editorial staff as a result of suggestions from the governor's office. "If the governor did what was alleged, he ran into a brick wall," said one Trib editor. But if Trib execs did get an explicit message from Blagojevich that he wanted reporters fired in exchange for state money, it seems odd they wouldn't have passed this information along so their own paper could report--I'll say it again--what would have been the biggest story of the year. And if they didn't get that message, it seems that the nature of the forthcoming indictment against Blagojevich could be radically altered. I'm not sure you can be convicted of extorting somebody who doesn't know they're being extorted. I suppose you still have some sort of conspiracy to commit extortion, but that might be harder to prove. Any prosecutor would rather have goods on the real thing.

It appears as though the governor is going to fight this complaint. He's hired a defense attorney who is well-known for going to trial rather than pleading out. It would seem the only way he could challenge what's on those tapes would be to argue what's on those tapes isn't what it seems. And one of our hometown newspapers is going to be at the center of that argument.

Unfortunately, newspapers are rarely great at reporting on themselves.

Also, confidential to 23-Year-Old Chicago Woman: The traditional gift for the sixth wedding anniversary is either candy or iron.

We're really hoping you get the candy.

22 comments:

Mark Combes said...

There certainly seems to be a shift in a good many institutions these days. The role of unions in America is at a crossroad. So are newspapers, clearly.

It's a weird kind of dichotomy. Do newspapers sell a product - news? Or are they the fourth estate - there to protect the public? Selling and public service don't seem to go hand in hand. Except when you are the governor from the land of Lincoln....

Libby Hellmann said...

This is a tough issue... for exactly the reasons you cite, Kevin. Did Harris pressure the Trib? Did the Trib see it as anything beyond the normal whining and complaining of a pol? Gbay's lawyer can and probably will say it was all hot air on Blago's part.. but does that constitute a crime (excluding whatever conspiracy charges might be filed)? I hate to say this,(in fact, it makes me shudder), but there might actually be a defense...

jnantz said...

Well, I don't know about the papers and journalists in your area, but the ones around here wouldn't know the truth if they greased its palm for some great fiction to print.
It's sad that I can read some random idiot's joke of an idea on a free sports message board one day, and it's reported as a "confidential source" in the N&O the next. If the hack "journalism" in the Triangle is any indication, then most of the graduates from UNC's school couldn't pass my High School Senior Lit class.
Papers across the state are going out of business left and right because people aren't buying anymore. Gee, wonder why that is....

Sara Paretsky said...

For all the flaws of print media, it's still the source. If you look at online stories, most credible ones originated with print media, either a paper or a wire service.

Kevin Smith said...

Having worn the title of ink-stained wretch for several years, I think this was the kind of thing where the Trib might have decided that, with a prosecution coming down the pike that could last for years and draw remarkable attention from the press and the public, it might not be the worst thing to have a few IOUs with Pat Fitzgerald's signature on them.

That said, I must agree with Kevin that the decision to not run a story is certainly not the kind of thing a paper should build a marketing campaign around. While the editors and reporters might be somewhat at peace with the decision, pragmatic as it was, it was not the kind of thing that inspires professional pride. Pride comes from publishing when the powers that be beg you to hold the story, or threaten you.

Media marketing people are a scary bunch, I think; they have a tendancy to underestimate the audience and what the audience wants, they think short term rather than long term, and they are working hard to insinuate themselves into the decisions being made in the newsroom. The result is a decline in depth and quality that leads to an ugly self-fulfiling prophecy about the readers.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

[w]ith a prosecution coming down the pike that could last for years and draw remarkable attention from the press and the public, it might not be the worst thing to have a few IOUs with Pat Fitzgerald's signature on them.

Kevin, that's an angle I hadn't thought of and should have. Thanks. I didn't want to criticize the decision--obviously I have no idea what considerations went into it, and I'm happy the governor seems to have been caught in all his red-handed and blue-streaked glory. I do feel bad for the reporters who had a hell of a scoop and had to sit on it but, as you say, maybe they traded up.

Pete said...

I've never broken a story in my life - doesn't that qualify me for an even more exalted level of adulation? Seriously though, considering all of the shots (sorry, "investigative pieces") the Tribune has been taking at Blago all these years, it IS quite surprising that they sat on the biggest Blago story of all. Though it's certainly not the stuff of great marketing campaigns, it does suggest the Trib does have the public interest at heart. Not that respecting the public interest will do them much good, that is, after Sam Zell is finished leveraging the paper into the ground.

And after seeing that so-called "press conference" today, the people I feel worst for are the citizens of Illinois, whose government will grind to a complete halt as this arrogant and vain prick of a governor keeps insisting on his complete innocence, right up to and probably even beyond the day that the jail door slams shut behind him.

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