Harmless as he may look, Rupert Murdoch is the dog no newspaperman wants sniffing outside his tent. Now news reports out of New York say the News Corp. mogul is interested in joining California’s Chandler family in bidding for the Tribune Company. (The Chandlers are collectively the largest Tribune shareholder.) Murdoch's ambitions are described as modest--a minority stake that would give him the opportunity to combine the back-office operations of Tribune’s Newsday in Long Island with those of his own New York Post. But modesty has never had much to do with Murdoch’s empire building. To think of him owning any piece at all of the Chicago Tribune makes me queasy.
Richard Longworth, a former senior writer at the Tribune, remembers 1984, when Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and debased it overnight. "The [Tribune] company's spokesman reassures us that, whatever happens, the board intends to achieve its goal of enhancing shareholder value," Longworth wrote me. But Marshall Field V sold the Sun-Times to Murdoch "for roughly the same reason, to get maximum value to enable his co-owner, his brother [Teddy], to buy the snazziest possible cars."
Longworth recalled something that happened back then: Field shared an elevator with Nick Shuman--then the Sun-Times’s top editorial writer and before that the Daily News’s foreign editor--and made a lame joke about not being the owner of the building anymore and not having to worry about maintenance. Shuman blew up, and then wrote him explaining why he had.
"In your incredible insensitivity to other people, you probably did not understand the meaning of my outburst . . ." Shuman wrote in his memo, much of which was published in the Reader by my Hot Type predecessor, Neil Tesser. "I was arriving for my last day of work after 32 years of employment on the Daily News and the Sun-Times, having resigned because you--yes you, in spite of your protestations that Teddy did it--sold an honorable American journalistic enterprise, a precious voice in the community, to be sodomized by Ruper Murdoch."
Shuman and about 70 other journalists were walking out rather than work for Murdoch, and many of them had nowhere to go. "They are leaving, as you are not, with their integrity intact. Over the years, you have often prattled about your ‘legacy,’ by which you meant your money. You never understood. The legacy left by Marshall III and Marshall IV was honorable, creative service to their community. You have pissed on that legacy."
Longworth thinks this would be a good time to reprint Shuman’s memo, "if only to remind [Tribune Company CEO] Dennis FitzSimons and his board members that there is more to the sale of a newspaper than maximizing shareholder value." he wrote. "The Tribune, even more than the Sun-Times, is dug deep into the history and character of Chicago. . . . It remains home to some of the best journalists between the two coasts and, even through its current turmoil, carries their work daily, to the enormous benefit of this city and this region. In short, we're not dealing with the narrow interest of shareholders: we're dealing with the broad interest of society. If the board sells to Murdoch (or the Chandlers, or Gannett), it sells more than shares. It sells the soul of Chicago. I hope they understand this. I'm not sure they do."
When the board bought the Los Angeles Times and other properties from the Chandlers in 2000, did it realize it was trafficking in the soul of Los Angeles? Probably not. In the Tower here in Chicago, delusions of synergy ran wild. But synergy didn’t take hold. Bitterness did.
"The sale of the Sun-Times, tragic as it was, didn't destroy good journalism in Chicago," Longworth went on. "Many of the best people there crossed the street to the Trib, which had the wit to hire them, to its longterm benefit. If FitzSimons and his mates do to the Trib what Marshall V did to the Sun-Times, there is no place for the good people there to go. The S-T, scrappy as it is, has never really recovered. Neither will the Trib. FitzSimons, his executives and his board have never shown the slightest understanding or consideration of what their paper does. But they need to know that the Tribune's sale will be part of Chicago history. When that history is written, their names and reputations will depend for all time on what they do in the next few weeks."
(If anyone out there has a complete copy of the Shuman memo to Field, let me know. I'll post it.)