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Daniel Sinker Headshot

My Governor Got Led Away in Handcuffs, and All I Got Was This Lousy Newspaper

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Be glad you're not Rod Blagojevich. In addition to having a terrible haircut, he's going to go down in history as the worst politician in the history of Illinois politics--a high bar to pass, but one he's passed handily. Trying to sell the Senate seat of the next U.S. President for personal and political gain? Check. Threatening to hold back funds to a children's hospital? Check. Attempting to extort a six-figure salary for your wife? Check. Somehow thinking that all this could be flipped into a post-Obama presidential run? Check.

Reading through the fourteen-page complaint issued today by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald--who's now able to scratch off the second notch in his "brought down an Illinois Governor" column--paints an absurdly cartoonish portrait of a corrupt politician. Blagojevich as the Wile E Coyote of corrupt politicians: running just fast enough to not notice he'd abandoned solid ground for sky long ago.

In Illinois, of course, we can laugh it off--we're painfully used to this sort of thing. It's not a stretch at all to say the only real surprise from today was what took so long. And, hey, the last Governor had a hand in giving dirty licenses to school bus drivers so, you know, withholding $8 million from a children's hospital does seem like the logical next step.

But really, you know Blagojevich moved into an entirely different realm of awful when, as the Chicago Tribune reported in early November, his people called Tribune owner Sam Zell and demanded the firing of editorial board members in return for assistance in selling the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs.

I mean, dragging the Cubs into...

Full stop.

That didn't happen.

Oh, the phone call happened--it's in Fitzgerald's complaint--but the Tribune report about it? They were silent. When handed a story that would possibly have brought down Blagojevich, the Chicago Tribune clammed up.

Instead, we're reading about the calls for the first time today, thanks to Fitzgerald:

Intercepted calls allegedly show that Blagojevich directed [Chief of Staff] Harris to inform Tribune Owner and an associate, identified as Tribune Financial Advisor, that state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment. In a November 4 phone call, Blagojevich allegedly told Harris that he should say to Tribune Financial Advisor, Cubs Chairman and Tribune Owner, "our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support." On November 6, the day of a Tribune editorial critical of Blagojevich , Harris told Blagojevich that he told Tribune Financial Advisor the previous day that things "look like they could move ahead fine but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page."

Read that over again, and think about this: You're a newspaper. The governor of your state--a governor who has had the stink of corruption on him for years--has his people call you up and directly state that they'll help you out if you fire members of your editorial board. It is a phone conversation that not only wipes its ass on the ethical lines it crosses, it also treats the First Amendment like it's optional. And you don't report it? Why?

There's only one reason: Zell was entertaining the offer. Fitzgerald's complaint, again:

In a November 11 intercepted call, Harris allegedly told Blagojevich that Tribune Financial Advisor talked to Tribune Owner and Tribune Owner "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." Harris told Blagojevich that according to Tribune Financial Advisor, there would be "certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he's going after that section." Blagojevich allegedly responded. "Oh. That's fantastic."

If it was fantastic a month ago, Blagojevich must have been downright ecstatic yesterday, when Sam Zell announced that the Tribune Company was entering bankruptcy protection. Hell, Blagojevich must have thought, I just wanted a few people fired and Zell's going to take the whole paper down instead.

Be glad you're not Sam Zell. Zell, a man with an unfortunate choice in facial hair, bought the Tribune company less than a year ago, leveraging billions of dollars of loans to do so. Anyone with half a brain might have questioned the sanity of buying a newspaper company in 2007, but Zell jumped in with both feet, promising to restore the glory of the Tribune and its properties, including the down-but-not-out LA Times and the co-star of the final season of "The Wire" (a show Blagojevich clearly never watched), the Baltimore Sun. It didn't last long. Within months, the Tribune Co was offering buyouts to the journalists at its papers, hoping to dig their way out of the hole they were in.

We know where that story ends: with the New York Times breaking the news that Zell was filing for Chapter 11. Times is tough all over.

Was Sam Zell really willing to sell out the Tribune's editorial independence in order to help unload the Cubs? Nobody knows--at least, nobody's talking. The statement issued by Tribune editor Gerould Kern (several steps below the level of folk that Blagojevich was talking to) makes no direct mention of Zell's part in the corruption investigation:

On occasion, prosecutors asked us to delay publication of stories, asserting that disclosure would jeopardize the criminal investigation. In isolated instances, we granted the requests, but other requests were refused.

The Chicago Tribune's interest in reporting the news flows from its larger obligation of citizenship in a democracy. In each case, we strive to make the right decision as reporters and as citizens. That's what we did in this case.

Gerould is talking about some other story, not this one. There was no possibility of jeopardizing Fitzgerald's investigation, because this story didn't need it; the wiretap wasn't involved: Blagojevich called them! The Tribune could have and should have run the story of Blagojevich's call to Tribune Tower in 200 point type. They should have printed it in Rod's own blood. They would have brought down a sitting governor the same week that they were trumpeting the win of Obama. They would have pushed the Tribune's brand into the stratosphere, at just the time that it needed it.

But they didn't. Faced with a defining moment in journalism--this was the kind of story that we would have taught in journalism schools for years--Sam Zell decided not to do the right thing. It's not surprising--the guy is a waxed mustache away from tying a damsel in distress to a railroad track after all--but it's still a shock.

When you walk into the lobby of the Tribune Tower, you're dwarfed by the etched words of legends. They speak of the importance of journalism for a functioning democracy; of the imperative to speak truth to power. One, from Thomas Jefferson himself, reads "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that can not be limited without being lost."

That lobby is for sale now. Zell wants to turn the building into condos.