The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: Sam Zell's ownership of Tribune smacked

"The Deal from Hell; How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers"

James O'Shea, Public Affairs Books, 395 pages

Lifelong newsman James O'Shea offers an insider's view of the machinations behind the take over of a California institution, the Los Angeles Times and its since-merged parent Times Mirror Company.

O'Shea was managing editor of the Chicago Tribune until October 2006 when he was installed by Tribune Co. executives as the Times' editor. He quit in January 2008, shortly after Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell took control in leveraged buy-out that saddled the company with billions in debt and hastened its bankruptcy.

O'Shea tells the story in a memoir-like fashion, mixed with investigative details about some of the controversies that swirled around the company, including debauchery by Zell-appointed executives, who commandeered executive suites at Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for poker games and a tryst.

O'Shea's book is less about Wall Street and the hubris of deal-makers who thought they were slick, and more of an ode to the newspaper business, including its declining fortunes. He notes that Tribune spent less on the foreign staff of the Los Angeles Times than it did when it owned the Chicago Cubs and paid Sammy Sosa to hit homeruns.

"It really comes down to values," he writes. "What, in your soul, are you as an editor and the newspaper company that employs you trying to do report the news needed to sustain a democracy or make and save money? If the latter is more important, then you have an identity crisis."

"The Deal from Hell" is a worthwhile addition to all the many tales of greed and mismanagement from the past decade. O'Shea rightly portrays individuals, notably including former Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky, a one-time Capitol reporter, as heroes who fought to maintain quality. However, the full story of Zell's take-over and his mismanagement of Tribune Company remains to be told.

Dan Morain

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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