When my mom arrived at work in Chicago on Tuesday morning to news about Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest, she immediately picked up the phone and called her sister in Springfield to gush. Finally! The dirty governor was going down. They crossed their fingers that the story would get national play.
Boy has it ever. A good political scandal doesn’t have to work too hard to capture public attention, and in this case, the connection to president-elect Barack Obama gave Blagojevich’s take-down extra currency.
Not surprisingly, the governor’s attempt to auction off Obama’s Senate seat emerged as the dominant storyline in news about his arrest. What has received less attention is a brewing journalistic scandal in the laundry list of complaints against Blagojevich. For anyone concerned with media ethics, it can’t be overlooked.
Clint Hendler at the Columbia Journalism Review has a nice, detailed account of what we know so far about discussions between Blagojevich’s chief of staff, John Harris, and an unknown “financial advisor” to Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell. The talks in question involve the governor’s request that the paper fire members of its editorial board and editorial page staff, who have published unflattering pieces about him, in exchange for state aid in selling the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field, which are owned by the Tribune Company.
Charges against the governor disturbingly indicate that the paper was “very sensitive to the message.” As CJR points out, Zell has a lot of questions to answer if he intends to salvage a smidgeon of his fledgling news organization’s reputation. For instance, “Did the financial advisor make the deal that Harris implied he did?” And a couple of months ago, when the paper almost ran a story about the Blagojevich wiretaps, was Zell involved in its decision not to?
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker sums up the disgrace of it all nicely:
Apparently, the caveat that one should never do battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel has been rendered meaningless by “financial advisers” in the Tribune Tower, where Zell's yearlong reign of error is leading one of the nation's greatest newspaper companies to ruin.