Off with their heads! Demands to fire Tribune editorial writers: normal or abnormal?

Many news outlets appear to be shocked and outraged at the revelations that
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had apparently demanded that the Chicago Tribune fire certain critical editorial writers.

Where have they been? There isn’t a news organization on earth that hasn’t been pressured by politicians and/or financial interests to change coverage to favorable. When that doesn’t happen, the demand is often the proverbial “off with their heads.”

Even the greenest reporter must realize that there’s always pressure to bend the news in a certain way. True, it’s usually the top editors or executives who hear directly from these people. But it happens with depressing regularity.

Blagojevich and his lovely wife Patti perhaps used more profane language in their demands. But remember, it was on a tapped phone line.

The key question is the response of the news organization. The first time I heard directly about a corporate demand was years ago when I was a young correspondent for Business Week magazine. A major Detroit automaker threatened the late editor Lou Young that he would cancel a huge annual advertising campaign with the magazine if coverage didn’t change. It didn’t. We lost the advertising. But several months later the contract was quietly reinstated. The writers kept their jobs.

When I was the editorial director and VP/News for The Financial Post (back in the days when it was an independent financial newspaper, not a limp section of another newspaper) there was constant pressure to change coverage. It came from both politicians and business executives. Fortunately, the consummate politician Paul Godfrey was the top dog at the parent company. Godfrey, who’s about to become CEO of the National Post, has the uncanny ability to talk people out of things before they realize what he’s doing. My publisher at the time, Doug Knight, held a firm line against corporate intrusions into editorial matters. Knight is now president of St. Joseph’s Media and I am sure he’s still fielding demands from advertisers who want something “special” in their coverage.

Bottom line is any media commentator or academic who thinks Blagojevich has acted shockingly in regards to the Chicago Tribune needs a reality check. He’s not unique – although he may be a bit stupid.