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February 08, 2006

Freedom of the Press At The Tribune Company

In our new age of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, the organizations in which we actively participate are the closest contexts to what we have traditionally meant by the words community and town -- to the experience of sharing meaningful aspects of our fates (political, economic, social and more) with people who are not necessarily friends or family. Organizations can be work-based or volunteer, for profit, not-for-profit, governmental, formal, informal, large, small or otherwise sized. Of these, though, organizations where we work stand out for their importance to our character, our values and our fates. We have much on the line in organizations where we work. And, we have it on the line with others upon whom we depend for our livelihoods, our well being and our actual and not just professed values.

If we wish to understand our actual beliefs and behaviors with regard to any particular value, we need to look at how and whether that value is practiced in the organizations where we work more than the towns and neighborhoods where we happen to reside. In our towns and neighborhoods we are mostly consumers and friends and neighbors. Yes, the shared idea of citizen is powerful and important. We should vote and otherwise participate in local affairs. But democratic practices designed for a world of places require retuning to fit our new 21st century of markets, networks and organizations.

Just do a time and motion study of your life. You do not have time to actively participate in the role of citizen in all the many aspects of local government. Instead, you do have time to be an informed voter -- an informed consumer of local government policy and services. Do that. Be an informaed voter, an informed consumer. But don't kid yourself that somehow you can stop 'bowling alone' if by 'bowling together', you mean governing together some place-based community of folks with whom you actively share fates.

Stop dreaming about places your ancestors used to live with other people. And start taking responsibility for the values of the organizations -- the 21st century 'towns' and 'communities' -- where you actually do share fates with others beyond freinds and family.

Of course, to be an informed voter and an informed consumer, you rely on organizations -- and the people who share fates because they work together in those organizations -- to provide the information you need. That is more likely to happen if there is free speech and free press within those organizations. For decades, for example, there was not free speech or free press within tobacco companies. And, as millions of uninformed consumers died as a result.

All values are hardest to live by when self-interest is vulnerable. For decades, undoubtedly executives and employees of tobacco companies must have worried that information about links between disease and tobacco would hurt their self-interest. So, instead of pay and jobs and wealth, they sacrificed free speech. And that's just a fact. That's just the way it was.

Beyond our own organizations, of all others where we -- as consumers, voters, shareholders, networkers, family members and friends -- ought most to pay attention to free speech and freedom of the press, news-based organizaitons should be high on the list. For example, if you'd like to understand the real values that folks stand for in media companies, look at the values they actually practice where they work. For the folks who work at the Tribune Company in Chicago, the actual and real shared beliefs and behaviors regarding free press and free speech says much more about their character and their values than does their participation as customers in local, state or federal governmental markets.

And so, it's interesting to note what one former Tribune reporter says about the fate of an article on executive pay in a newspaper owned by the Tribune Company -- it was edited to exclude the pay of the top executive at the Tribune Company:

"It started as an assignment to analyze some executive compensation data for the paper’s annual CEO pay section. As I crunched the numbers, it became apparent that FitzSimons’ pay would figure prominently in the article. It seemed like an article we needed to publish, even if it would reflect negatively on the Tribune’s top exec. So I wrote it. My editor signed off on it. The copy desk cleared it and slated it for publication last May. And then, 36 hours before the article was to appear, it was killed. Tribune editors ducked questions about why they hadn’t run the article, and declined to schedule it for publication. As a member of the Trib’s investigative reporting team, I’d often been in the position of demanding answers from public and corporate officials about their conduct. When it became apparent to me, after months of evasive corporate-speak on the FitzSimons article, that the Tribune wasn’t willing to subject itself to the same kind of scrutiny, I resigned."

So, let us ask, "What do the people who work at the Tribune Company really stand for when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of speech?"

Posted by Doug Smith on February 8, 2006 03:17 PM | Permalink