Blagojevich Wanted 'Chicago Tribune' Writers Fired

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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is also accused of trying to have Chicago Tribune editorial writers he didn't like fired. The revelation is detailed in a federal corruption complaint released Tuesday. He's accused of, among other things, trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Read all about it. The Chicago Tribune put out an extra edition yesterday. The one-word banner headline: "Arrested." It reported allegations against yet another Illinois governor. And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the newspaper itself played a prominent role in the events surrounding the corruption charges.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: John McCormick is a senior editorial writer at The Chicago Tribune, and he's written some pretty tart pieces questioning the ethics of Governor Rod Blagojevich, like this one from October 2007.

(Soundbite of Chicago Tribune report, October 2007)

Mr. JOHN MCCORMICK (Senior Editorial Writer, The Chicago Tribune): Given the multiple ineptitudes of Rod Blagojevich, his reckless financial stewardship, his dictatorial antics, his penchant for creating political enemies, should citizens create a new way to terminate a chief executive who won't or can't do his job?

FOLKENFLIK: According to court documents, Blagojevich was taped in recent weeks ordering his chief of staff to pressure the Tribune Company to - well, let's let U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald take it from there.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): In the governor's words, quote, "Fire all those bleeping people. Get them the bleep out of there. And get us some editorial support," close quote. And the bleeps are not really bleeps.

FOLKENFLIK: John McCormick was the only bleeping person mentioned by name. The Tribune Company owns other big papers, but it also owns the Chicago Cubs. And the Tribune Company wants - well, needs really - to sell the Cubs and Wrigley Field to help pay down its staggering debt of $13 billion. That debt came from controlling owner Sam Zell's takeover of the company a year ago, which required him to put down very little of his own money.

Tribune filed for bankruptcy on Monday. State help in financing the sale of Wrigley Field could have been worth 100 million to 150 million dollars to Tribune. In exchange, Blagojevich was demanding he be rid of the nuisance on the editorial page. Prosecutors say the governor's chief of staff, John Harris, recently boasted of speaking with a senior financial advisor to Zell about looming corporate reorganizations for Tribune. Reading between the lines, Harris said, quote, "He's going after that section." Here's Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. FITZGERALD: I laid awake at night worrying whether I'd read in the paper in the morning that when there were layoffs that we'd find out that that person was laid off.

FOLKENFLIK: At Fitzgerald's request, The Tribune delayed by several days reporting that the governor had been bugged. But the paper says it didn't know that it had come up in the wiretaps. That suggested quid pro quo involving Wrigley Field triggered the second criminal count against Blagojevich. Through his lawyer, the governor has denied all charges. And there is no public proof that that conversation between the aides to Blagojevich and Zell took place. But Tribune's impending bankruptcy and corporate reorganization was not widely known. John McCormick says he's thankful still to have a job.

Mr. MCCORMICK: You don't have to be a grassy knoller in order to think that if someone came to your boss and said, I'm happy to cut you a $150 million favor, but this guy, these people, they're going to need to go, a lot of bosses might say, you know, really? Today or yesterday?

FOLKENFLIK: But it seems Zell didn't, says Lois Wille. Wille is a retired editorial page editor of The Tribune. She won a Pulitzer for her editorials on the corruption of public officials there.

Ms. LOIS WILLE (Former Editorial Page Editor, The Chicago Tribune): Sam Zell and a few of the others he's brought in are not used to running a newspaper. And I admire sorely the fact that the editorial page editor and the editorial board members didn't even know this had occurred.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet Wille admits Fitzgerald's account gives her pause.

Ms. WILLE: It almost suggests there was some conversation, but that it may not have been going any place.

FOLKENFLIK: For the record, Tribune says no company official or Zell adviser ever pressured the paper's news executives or editorial section. But it did not say whether Zell's associate actually did talk to the governor's top aide last month about the stadium deal or about those troublesome editorial writers. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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