The Chicago Tribune Runs Aground

May 2, 2020
Florian Sohnke

Facing financial ruin, former “World’s Greatest Newspaper” aims to toss employees overboard.

As the bottle of Madeira smashed over the heel of the Chicago Tribune’s bowspirit in 1847, the christening of the newspaper inspired men to wave their hats and women to flutter their handkerchiefs amid a burst of enthusiastic cheering.  Now a vessel drifting rudderless 173 years later, the Tribune’s next port of call may be ruination.  However, to avoid suffering the embarrassment of filing Chapter 11 for the second time in a little over a decade, the daily is, again, weighing all its options, primarily cutting staff base pay, paring back on employees’ hours, or simply downsizing its staff and shifting the workload on its remaining workers according to media reports and social media postings from Tribune staff.  A protection the newspaper sought in 2008 after it nearly crumbled under the weight of massive debt and declining advertisement revenue, though the Tribune did eventually emerge from the rubble and a new era was expected, the newspaper’s present burdens are fairly significant, and it is under different management.

Eight years after it crawled out of bankruptcy, amid another precipitous drop in advertising revenue and subscribers in full retreat, Tribune Publishing, the owner of the Chicago Tribune, announced to what remains of its workforce it was permanently reducing base salary for those earning more than $67,000 annually.  The first of two cost-cutting moves in April, Tribune Publishing management followed cuts to salary with another arrangement ten days later in which it announced a broad plan to briefly furlough employees earning between $40,000 and $67,000 per annum.  In a memo to employees untangling its dilemma, Tribune Publishing quietly offered a bargain to its beleaguered staff:  Tribune employees could exercise the option of accepting severance and leaving the newspaper.  For the benefit of the unenlightened among us, we shall translate precisely what all this means:  The Tribune is, once again, in the midst of a steep financial crisis and appears to be leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to rid itself of unneeded or unwanted staff.

Despite living under uncertain circumstances, unionized employees of the Tribune have recently banded together to form a united front in opposition to Tribune Publishing’s design to trim staff.  Rallying behind the dauntless Megan Crepeau, the Tribune’s union employees created the Chicago Tribune Guild and have vented their concerns in Twittersphere under the handle @CTGuild.  In a series of woe-unto-me tweets responding to the spate of bad news Tribune management delivered to its employees, @CTGuild has demanded the union be permitted to examine Tribune Publishing’s balance sheets, above all, its shareholders’ dividends, attempted to dictate terms of Tribune employees’ departure, and in another chirp from the social media platform, insisted Tribune Publishing re-open its voluntary buyout offer.  In a swipe at management, @CTGuild also attacked Tribune Publishing over its alleged profligate habits.  Using the Twitter account to pose as a spirited defender of journalistic values, @CTGuild has also reminded followers of the ruthless toll the contagion has exacted on the journalism industry, described personal hardships its members have endured, and waxed grandiose about the sanctity of its profession by petulantly asserting Tribune journalists provide “lifesaving” news.

Though the Tribune Guild’s attempted standoff is unlikely to compel Tribune Publishing to re-consider its decisions, now is an appropriate moment to take stock of the Tribune’s misfortunes and how the once-great newspaper arrived at this sad juncture.  While it is tantalizing to simply dismiss the calamity faced by the Tribune and its competitors as the consequence of technology overtaking print news, this is a far too simplistic an explanation for such an immense failure of an industry. Over the past thirty years, market forces, cable and satellite broadcasting, and more recently the rise of the Web, social media, and alternative news sources, blogs for example, have all contributed to a falling advertisement revenue and a sharp decline in subscriptions to print publications.  Although plain factors which have gutted the print news industry, the forces which dictate the laws of supply and demand can be outmaneuvered by clever management and, unlike blogs, newspapers often have the financial means to retain reporters, so to suggest the entire sector of print news was consumed by the new phenomena of social media, the Web, and modern news delivery is not entirely accurate.  Though the Tribune’s fortunes are little different than other newspapers which have faced insolvency, it can be argued poor stewardship, the anarchic looting of the paper by a former owner, and boardroom rivalries and feuds in tandem with the explosion of technology contributed to its present misery.  There is, however, a fatal flaw which has rendered the Tribune obsolete among readers:  The Tribune’s rigid alignment with the ideological Left.  An unacknowledged bias worth exploration, the Tribune, which once was an unimpeachable authority on urban affairs in the Windy City, has just become another casualty owing to the rot in journalism.  In other words, subscribers have long since seen through the Tribune’s deceptive pose of objectivity and determined the paper no longer represented their concerns.  Once one of the more dignified platforms in print journalism, the Tribune editorial board refused to exercise editorial discretion in every area of reporting.  A board room full of habitual self-deluders, the Tribune’s editorial board allowed its headlines to make editorial points to thrash figures its publishers despised, whether or not the criticism was substantiated or fair.  Although the Tribune’s editorial board prefers to view itself as a neutral arbiter of facts and custodians of balance, its editorial pages almost always presented one-sided, propagandistic views of complex issues, and often in the harshest of terms.  To the Tribune editorial board, when its news stories were inaccurate or incomplete, it pardoned reporters and columnists alike under the reasoning fault rest with pressure to meet deadlines, limited sources or guileless error.  To the Tribune, malicious intent or fabrication did not exist in its reporting.  Instead of editors at the Tribune directing journalists to be more diligent in reporting and instructing reporters to make a greater effort to correct the record, what was imprudence among journalists was ignored and what should have been career-killing gaffes was deemed permissible or rewarded by Tribune management.

Though the Tribune’s editorial board committed its share of missteps, part of the liability for the downfall of the newspaper rests with the collapse of journalistic standards among its corps of political reporters and columnists.  While this plucky crew often gloated over untold accolades and awards from trade groups, a share of its reporting has been recognized for stories in which writers omitted crucial facts or underreported facts which could not be ignored.  Reporters who came to be seen as handmaidens for the chorus line of Democrats who held elected office in Chicago, pivotal facts were optional, the truth difficult to report, and nothing was ever amiss in a city governed by Rahm Emanuel, Lori Lightfoot, Timothy Evans, Tom Dart, or Kim Foxx.  On the rare occasion in which inconvenient facts threatened to overwhelm their deceptive reporting, Tribune reporters outflanked readers by violating journalism’s sacrosanct decree, the insertion of a reporter’s opinion in news stories, or simply created diversions to deflect away from the truth.  Although it would be unjust to label every instance of Tribune reporters’ bias as a grave problem, some are nevertheless less severe, no single topic summarizes Tribune bias than the newspaper’s coverage of the Chicago Police Department (CPD).  A mission issue of the Tribune, although the newspaper’s cast of blinkered journalists include Jason Meisner, Jeremy Gorner, and Megan Crepeau, the paper’s most formidable anti-police villains are ace reporter Dan Hinkel and its resident brainiac, Eric Zorn.

A stranger to the truth, Dan Hinkel’s coverage of Robert Rialmo repeatedly pilloried the former Chicago police officer.  Though a tragic episode known to the public, a brief account of what delivered Mr. Rialmo into the public consciousness begins with a blitz of 911 calls from the Austin neighborhood home of Antonio LeGrier on the morning of December 26, 2015.  Just after 4:30 a.m., Officers Robert Rialmo and Anthony LaPalermo responded to the disturbance call and were greeted by Bettie Jones, who was a resident of the same home occupied by the LeGrier family.  Almost immediately following Ms. Jones receiving the officers at the front door of the home, both Rialmo and LaPalermo were confronted by 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who was armed with a baseball bat.  Threatening the officers with the bat above his shoulders, LeGrier is reported to have swung the bat at police at least once before being shot six times by Rialmo.  Sadly, Ms. Jones was killed in the incident.

Reporting without caveat anything which passed across his desk, Dan Hinkel’s coverage of Rialmo’s path following the shooting incident spanned 41 months and comprised more than 15 stories.  Nothing was too ridiculous to furnish to readers.  Reporting under broad guidelines and little adherence to journalistic virtue, Hinkel followed Rialmo relentlessly as the former officer endured a formal inquiry, Cook County prosecutors declining to prosecute him, Rialmo’s trial, and ultimate acquittal.  Though unrelated to the incident with LeGrier, Hinkel demonstrated the skills of an investigative reporter to enlighten readers Rialmo’s life was ripe with a drunken encounter, Rialmo’s involvement in a bar room brawl, and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) hosting a fundraiser for the embattled officer in which a raffle with gift certificates for guns were among the prizes awarded.  Though the awarding of gifts is a common practice at all FOP benefits, Hinkel found a charity event for Rialmo at which gift vouchers could be redeemed for firearms a breathtaking scoop.  Still further, although it was irrelevant to Rialmo’s difficulties, Hinkel always managed to interpose Laquan McDonald into his coverage of the former police officer.

Though Hinkel did not re-write immutable fact or outright falsify the events surrounding Mr. Rialmo, his journalistic offense was far worse:  Hinkel deliberately excluded a material fact of Rialmo’s case in his coverage.  Despite Hinkel’s myopic obsession with every step of Rialmo’s life after the LeGrier shooting incident, in the midst of Rialmo’s passage through investigations over the episode, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the FOP exposed the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) had withheld critical documents from then-superintendent Eddie Johnson.  Johnson, who played a vital role in Mr. Rialmo’s fate, had protested COPA’s concealment of relevant files necessary for him to make a determination on Rialmo’s career.  Excluding any fact which may have contradicted his previous reporting, or rather a narrative he was creating, Hinkel never alerted his audience to the fact the FOP’s FOIA request revealed the records COPA had withheld contained details of the police watchdog agency hiring an outside law firm to assist with its probe of Rialmo’s actions in the LeGrier incident.  Nor did Hinkel inform readers the FOIA submitted by the FOP also revealed the law firm, Virginia-based McGuireWoods LLP, had sought the opinion of an expert witness, Boston Police Lieutenant Robert Harrington.  Harrington, it was exposed, had concluded Rialmo’s actions were justified in light of LeGrier’s provocation with a baseball bat.  Although these details were known to the public and reported by the Chicago Sun Times in two articles in January and February 2018, Hinkel chose not to report on COPA’s treacherous behavior and Harrington’s expert opinion declaring Rialmo’s actions reasonable.  In fact, after Hinkel ignored the February 2018 revelation COPA had buried an expert opinion on the LeGrier incident, the Tribune’s ace reporter ploughed ahead with a further 11 stories covering Rialmo over the next 15 months, but never mentioned the FOIA request, COPA’s deceptive behavior, and never faintly referred to Harrington’s expert opinion.  Not once.

An attempt to bury truth, Hinkel’s reporting resembled the work of a man with missionary zeal laboring under the presumption superfluous reporting would be misleading enough to drown out the real story, a man armed with a baseball bat threatening two peace officers, to divert readers to a preferred narrative, Robert Rialmo was a ticking time bomb who acted impulsively when challenged by the armed Quintonio LeGrier.  Though omitting the facts exposed by the FOP’s FOIA request in his reporting was no maddening mistake, Hinkel felt compelled to make a point, and a biased one.  However, if you are Dan Hinkel and you are employed by the Tribune, reporting all relevant facts can be tiresome.  When you are covering Chicago Police officers, both checking and reporting facts is ultimately pointless.  While creating a cloud over Mr. Rialmo’s head, might not a cloud of devious reporting follow Hinkel around too?

The rotten apple in the Tribune barrel, columnist Eric Zorn has contributed greatly to condemning Chicago police officers in trial-by-media.  Going full-on “police are evil,” Zorn fired a fusillade of premature accusations against police in a September 2018 column, shortly after special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes concocted indictments against Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney, and Detective David March in the wake of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald.  Brown, who later went on to represent the now-infamous hate-hoaxing Jussie Smollett, had charged the three men for obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and official misconduct.  Screaming as if he required an oxygen tank, Zorn declared police at the scene and fellow officers involved with the official inquiry guilty of engaging in omertà, the opaque method under which police officers are alleged to furtively thwart an investigation into assumed criminal wrongdoing.  More commonly called the “code of silence,” Zorn laid the groundwork for future columns by harping over conflicts with written statements and the dash-cam videotape capturing McDonald’s death.  Mind you, Zorn’s column condemning Walsh, Gaffney, and March as plotters in a conspiracy was published prior to their trial taking place.

Months later, in January 2019, Zorn re-visited the trial as it concluded and opened his column by hyperventilating over the fact Judge Domenica Stephenson, who presided over the “cover-up case,” required six weeks to prepare her ruling in the matter. With pompous tone and trite language, Zorn continued to upbraid Stephenson’s ruling vindicating the men as “unpersuasive” and “infuriating” for branding the armed McDonald as an offender whose behavior was threatening, and for describing the path in which McDonald took as walking “in the direction of police officers” at the scene.

In a third column penned later in June 2019, Zorn, again, returned to the Laquan McDonald incident to heap praise over the documentary 16 Shots and to stubbornly remind readers he remained committed to his delirious theory police engaged in a conspiracy to thwart justice.  Zorn told readers of the impressive job the documentarians did in assembling figures interviewed for the film and how director Richard Rowley and producers Jacqueline Soohen and Jamie Kalven were charitable enough to present “both” sides of the McDonald story.  In a signal he remained crimson with rage with the outcome of the “cover-up trial,” Zorn segued into a brief harangue in which he lamented police who purportedly evaded justice, and expanded his police-as-criminal hypothesis to suggest police allegedly “harassed” witnesses to the incident, and flog police who Zorn speculates may have erased surveillance video at a Burger King located near the scene at which the armed McDonald was shot.

While Zorn often assumes the pose as a master of urbane and laconic disquisition on political and daily life in Chicago and across the nation, he is neither an experienced law enforcement official nor a jurist, so it should strike his readers as odd he waded into the allegations revolving around Laquan McDonald’s death with the strength of conviction he chose.  Nonetheless, there is a great amount of detail to be culled from police procedure, but because Zorn terribly misread the charges leveled against Walsh, Gaffney, and March, he deluded his gullible readers into believing the dash-cam tape capturing the incident was the probative piece of evidence in the trial.  It wasn’t.  Despite Zorn’s sanctimony, the dash-cam tape in which he apparently placed so much faith had only minimal relevance in the “cover-up” trial. Unbeknownst to Zorn, the charges brought by Holmes hinged over whether the accused had fulfilled their duties when entering official record over the events of October 20, 2014.  Judge Stephenson rejected Holmes’ flimsy charges, and administered precious justice to Walsh, Gaffney, and March.  Put differently, in a single stroke, Judge Stephenson’s ruling dismantled three years of compulsive media claims a massive police conspiracy had taken place.  A court decision particularly irksome to Zorn, Stephenson’s ruling also razed a media fiction ranking CPD officers in supervisory positions had facilitated a conspiracy by virtue of authenticating official records.  What should have been patently clear to anyone who was drawn to the trial, as Zorn claims he was, proved to be a matter to which Zorn was utterly oblivious.  

This was not the only critical fact Zorn either ignored or failed to recognize over the McDonald incident.  For example:  Zorn mentions in his June 13, 2019, column witnesses were allegedly intimidated by police in the aftermath of the shooting.  Though both trials had concluded at the time he published his column, Zorn failed to mention one witness who claimed to have been bullied by police had offered conflicting accounts of what occurred on October 20, 2014, including where she stood as the incident took place.  A point of which Zorn never bothered to return to issue a mea culpa or clarify, Zorn later wrote with alarm over the allegation police erased a security videotape at a Burger King located near where the McDonald incident took place.  Although Zorn penned his anti-police screed in June 2019, a Sun Times article revealed an inquiry headed by the FBI had concluded three years earlier the Bureau “found absolutely no evidence of any tampering or any removal of any portion of the tape.”  Moreover, the Sun Times reported the source for the story had stated Burger King’s video recording system was archaic and prone to failure.  None of this seemed particularly relevant to Zorn, who, according to his columns, appears to have settled on a narrative of police wrongdoing ahead of the case handled in court.  To Zorn’s foolish and obnoxious criticism over the length of time Judge Stephenson required to draw her conclusion in the trial, does Mr. Zorn not expect a judge to demand necessary time to weigh all evidence prudently to reach a sensible and fair decision?  When it is the Tribune and Eric Zorn writing over the Chicago Police Department, evidently not.  

While Zorn found fault with every feature of police behavior on the night of October 20, 2014, and the investigation which followed McDonald’s death, one point the Tribune’s florid columnist routinely appeared to emphasize is the direction in which the armed McDonald took as he confronted Chicago police officers six years ago.  Like many of his like-minded chums in Chicago’s media, Zorn frequently used some form of language to describe McDonald’s bearing as “angling away” or “walking from” police.  While an argument can be made McDonald’s path was on a gentle angle as he was fatally struck, a convincing counterargument can be submitted to demonstrate the armed teen was in fact closing the gap with police officers as he walked (sometimes jogged) north to the spot at which police had taken a position on South Pulaski Road, and thus a growing danger to officers at the scene.

Though the narrative constructed by figures in media consistently portrayed McDonald as “walking away” from police when the armed teen was fatally shot, the police dash-cam provided conclusive evidence McDonald was in fact closing the gap with officers present at the scene.  Even if we presume the armed McDonald posed no threat to police, and if we accept McDonald would have never continued on a trajectory which placed the teen on a direct collision course with Van Dyke, a statement declaring McDonald was “walking away” from police is utterly false.  Though the dash-cam videotape capturing the incident views McDonald from behind, as police arrived on the scene from both the north and south, McDonald continued to march in the direction where police were positioned on South Pulaski Road.  Dash-cam video capturing the incident clearly reveals McDonald at a distance of approximately forty feet at the moment Van Dyke’s vehicle slowed to a halt.  Although Van Dyke took several steps toward the armed teen, and his colleague remained situated nearby, in the moments between Van Dyke alighting from his vehicle, McDonald continued to narrow the distance with police, all of whom were either stationary or inside police vehicles.  McDonald, as most recognize, was shot at a distance of approximately ten feet.  Thus, the gap with police was closed by McDonald.

Unsurprisingly, Zorn acknowledges none of this, nor does he ever retreat from his firm conviction a conspiracy took place to strengthen the belief among his audience police acted imprudently, if not outright criminally.  Though the entire matter has been litigated in court, and a sober judge had ruled no conspiracy took place, Zorn has nevertheless continued to uncritically advance the yarn that police corruption once again went unpunished.  The repudiation of irrefutable evidence, by Zorn’s impeccable logic, it is difficult  to see how anyone could deny the existence of the Lost City of Atlantis, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the tooth fairy, UFOs, ghosts, goblins, and unicorns, leprechauns, elves, trolls, the Easter Bunny, and the Oak Island treasure, all of which have been “seen” by hundreds of people.  Yet, let us not dash Zorn’s dreams on the rocks.

Although both Eric Zorn and Dan Hinkel may consider their commentary and reporting a triumph of journalism, their coverage of two delicate incidents involving the Chicago Police Department reads more like bathroom graffiti and represents a nadir of Chicago journalism.  Exceptional journalism demands factually sound reporting and responsible social commentary.  Unfortunately for the Tribune, it allowed Messrs. Hinkel and Zorn to vent their anti-police animosities at every turn, and as a result the newspaper’s bias was exposed.  A downfall of a newspaper which could have been avoided, if the Tribune sends a final message before it slips beneath the waves, it should read it failed to be a good example so its liberal bias should serve as a stark warning.

A sinking ship drowns all in its wake.  If the Tribune does finally drop beneath the surface, some spectators may delight in seeing some of the Tribune deck hands spend a little longer drowning.

[Crain’s] [Poynter] [Chicago Tribune] [Chicago Sun Times]

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