By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
On Sept. 29, a Chicago Tribune editorial ripped Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his "notorious pay-to-play politics" and said the legislature should investigate whether to impeach him.
Five weeks later, Blagojevich told a deputy governor that they should target some of the paper's editorial page editors by telling Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell to "get rid of those people. . . . Fire those [expletives]."
This, according to a criminal complaint unveiled yesterday, was no idle threat. According to secretly recorded phone conversations, the Democratic governor had his deputies convey a threat that Blagojevich would block the Tribune's effort to sell the Chicago Cubs unless certain staffers were dismissed. An aide to the governor told him a Tribune financial adviser suggested that changes would be made at the editorial page. But the journalist targeted by Blagojevich, Deputy Editorial Page Editor John P. McCormick, was not fired.
As media analysts question the continuing relevance of newspapers, prosecutors are charging Blagojevich in an extraordinary scheme to silence critics at the state's largest paper -- even as they were urging editors not to undermine the investigation with premature disclosures. A day after Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy, the charges raise new questions about the embattled tenure of Zell, the Chicago businessman who bought the media conglomerate last December.
Tribune said in a statement that "no one working for the company or on its behalf has ever attempted to influence staffing decisions at the Chicago Tribune or any aspect of the newspaper's editorial coverage as a result of conversations with officials in the governor's administration."
Former Tribune managing editor Jim Warren said that if Zell was apprised of the conversations, he was "a babe in the woods . . . in neither thinking he has a story or that he should be going to the U.S. attorney's office with this. He's essentially being extorted. Is there any suggestion in this complaint that Sam Zell was stricken with conscience or ran down to his newsroom [with the information]? No."
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, thanked Tribune editors for bowing to his request to hold for eight weeks -- until Friday -- a story that his office was wiretapping Blagojevich. Editor Gerould Kern said he agreed to delay some stories, but not others, based on the paper's "larger obligation of citizenship."
As special counsel in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak investigation, Fitzgerald drew criticism for pressuring such journalists as Robert D. Novak, Tim Russert, Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller -- who spent 85 days in jail -- to testify about conversations with confidential administration sources.
Blagojevich seized on the fact that Tribune, in attempting to unload the Cubs, was seeking aid from the Illinois Finance Authority to ease the sale of the team's ballpark, Wrigley Field.
On Nov. 4, the complaint says, Blagojevich told his chief of staff, John Harris, that because of the impeachment editorials and the pending Wrigley deal, an unnamed Tribune financial adviser should be told that "our recommendation is to fire all these [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support." The governor said the next day that Harris should tell the adviser -- whose identity is not known -- that "before we go to the next level, we need to have a discussion about what you guys are going to do about that newspaper." Harris, who was also charged yesterday, reported back that he had told the adviser "there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page."
On Nov. 11, Harris told Blagojevich that the adviser had said Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue," and with budget cuts and a reorganization coming, "reading between the lines, he's going after the section." The governor's reaction: "That's fantastic."
Ten days later, Harris said he had told the financial adviser that McCormick was "the most biased and unfair." Blagojevich agreed that McCormick was a "bad guy." But on Dec. 5, Blagojevich said: "What's the deal? . . . McCormick stays at the Tribune, huh?"
McCormick said last night he is "gratified" that the pressure "didn't work," even though the $150 million benefit being dangled on Wrigley Field was "a lot of enticement." The governor, he said, "is mad at an institution, and I'm a guy who types. There's a level of personal animosity there that I wouldn't have anticipated."