What would you do if you were in charge of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune? Would you offer a waitress $100 to show her breasts? That's what Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels did. And it's not all.
The New York Times' David Carr just dropped a 4,000-word front-page bomb about the fratty, shock-jock culture of the management of the Tribune Co., the once-mighty and now-bankrupt media company that counts among its holdings The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant and The Baltimore Sun, among others, as well as several radio and television stations.
And while it's pretty obvious that the company has been grossly mismanaged ever since being bought by real estate magnate Sam Zell in 2007—besides being bankrupt, the company's newspapers are financially underperforming even by today's special-ed standards—it's never been made so exactingly clear how sick and unprofessional Zell and the buddies he installed in top management positions are. (Michaels has already responded to the article in an internal memo, below.)
So, how gross and unprofessional? You might get a hint from the rewritten employee handbook:
"Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use... You might hear a joke that you don't consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process... This should... not [be] considered harassment."
But if that doesn't send off warning bells, check out some of the stories Carr dug up from his more than 20 sources:
- Just a few weeks after joining the Tribune Co. in the wake of Zell's purchase, executive Randy Michaels was at the InterContinental Hotel bar in Chicago with "senior colleagues." According to two people, Michaels "sat down and said, "watch this," and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded." (Michaels denies the incident occurred.)
- The memo announcing the hiring of former Clear Channel exec Kim Johnson described her as "a former waitress at Knockers—the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews." (Carr describes this as a "jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain"; we would just call it "a dick move.")
- One woman described a "loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area" that took place between Michaels and Tribune Interactive chief Marc Chase. About business matters, of course! Oh, no, wait, I read that wrong—the conversation was "about the sexual suitability of various employees"
- The boorish behavior wasn't limited to male executives. The same source told Carr about a meeting where a "female executive jovially offered to bring in her assistant to perform a sexual act on someone... who seemed to be in a bad mood." But, hey, it was "jovial," so.
And that's just the sex stuff. There are also the crimes against good taste: Carr details media reporter Robert Feder's scoop about the management poker party thrown in the former offices of former Tribune Co. head Col. Robert R. McCormick—on Facebook, one exec wrote, "It's normally a shrine. We pretty much desecrated it with gambling, booze and cigars." The photo above is from the party—that's Michaels, in the yellow, next to a gentleman named "Pig Virus," who is the program director Chicago talk station WGN-AM. Feder has more Facebook photos from the event here. (To be honest, who cares if they threw a party there—but did it have to be such a lame one?)
The management wasn't particularly fond of "journalism," either. Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, who exited less than a year after Zell's entrance, told Carr about the time Zell approached her to encourage her to be harder on then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. (His inspiring words: "Don't be a pussy.") Later that day, Lipinski learned that Zell was trying to sell Wrigley Field to the state—and the pressure exerted by the paper could be very useful.
There's way more good stuff in Carr's article (we haven't even gotten to the Hooters girls cash grab, or our old friend Lee Abrams and his visionary ideas for television news) and we encourage you to read the whole thing. The truth is, the stories of the embarrassing college-kid antics of Michaels and company would almost be funny, if the article didn't detail the extent to which Tribune Co. employees—who took on a large ownership stake in the company when Zell bought it—were screwed over:
More than the Tribune's creditors took a haircut: the shares that about 10,000 nonunion employees received in the ESOP [employee stock ownership plan] deal are now worthless as a result of the bankruptcy, although at the beginning of this year, the company replaced the ESOP plan with a cash incentive contribution. But if and when the Tribune exits bankruptcy, the value of the company will be worth substantially less than when Mr. Zell bought a controlling interest.
(Tribune Co. execs, in case you were wondering, "have been rewarded handsomely," earning "a total of $57.3 million in bonuses" between May 2009 and February 2010.)
Here's the memo sent out to Tribune Co. employees tonight, via L.A. Observed. It encourages employees to "create the future":
We have been informed that tomorrow's New York Times will run a column written by David Carr (http://www.nightofthegun.com/#). Many of the questions Mr. Carr asked us for this article concerned events, distortions and rumors more than two years old. He will apparently paint the work environment at Tribune as hostile, sexist and otherwise inappropriate. Many of the rumors Mr. Carr referenced were spread by an ex-Chicago Tribune employee who is now a contributing writer to the New York Times. Mr. Carr has made clear that he is digging up these old allegations because he believes that decisions about the company's management are about to be made, and he wants to influence those decisions. Mr. Carr knows that an outside firm investigated the most substantial of these allegations, and that they were found to be without substance. Mr. Carr intends to use them anyway.
As you know, it is our intention to create a fun, non-linear creative environment. I am tremendously proud of the results of that creative culture. Our websites on the P2P platform are the most advanced in media. We have reconfigured production of the newspaper with standard ad sizes, Media on Demand Modules, and combined editing, design, and layout functions using technology. We have "Breaking News Centers" that eliminate redundancy and give newsmakers one contact point for each market's most powerful news media. TOPS, TONS, and BRUTUS have changed the way TV is produced and aired.
It is our intention to have creative environment. A creative culture must be built on a foundation of respect for each other. Our goal is an environment where people are free to speak up, free to challenge authority, and free to fail on the way to success. Our culture is NOT about being offensive or hurtful. This is supported by our Harassment Policy. It's in the Employee Handbook which is posted on TribLink-Section 3.
The fact that so many at other media companies dwell on the way it used to be creates great opportunity for those of us willing to rethink our opportunities and recast our culture. Ignore the noise. Treat each other with respect. Have fun, and let's go create the future.