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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The robber baron strikes back

You knew it was coming: A month after Los Angeles Times publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson told Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons to take his job cuts and shove them, Trib executives have fired him. I'm sure resumes are being updated all over the newsrooms in L.A. and Washington: After all, what journalist in his or her right mind would stick around for the inevitable bloodletting? We know from other "restructurings" at the chain's other papers that what comes next will be bad for both morale and the daily product (for evidence, see the once-venerable Baltimore Sun fight its daily uphill battle). We also know that the end result won't make Tribune much more money than it currently sucks out of the Times and other papers. But FitzSimons, whose reverse Midas Touch may ultimately have the effect of bringing down the entire Trib empire, will press on. After all, Johnson's replacement (the current publisher of the Chicago Tribune) will presumably be far more amenable to slashing staff in an effort to cut costs.

The Times story says the paper's top editor, superstar Dean Baquet, hasn't decided whether he'll follow Johnson out the door. He should. While I imagine he feels some obligation to continue fighting the good fight, it's obvious that FitzSimons and his minions don't plan to let anything stand in their way.

Now, the Times is partially responsible for its own mess: The idiotic Chandler family, the founding owners of the paper, managed to royally screw up Tribune Co. by dragging its gigantic tax liability into the 2000 merger between Tribune and their own Times Mirror. Tribune, which was a profit-making machine before the merger, has never even gotten close to touching its pre-merger stock price since. The delightfully moronic Chandlers have also helped worsen the current crisis facing Tribune; their moaning and groaning about profits essentially forced FitzSimons to consider major changes to the company, which many anticipate will eventually include the sale of some of the underperforming newspapers.

This is not a surprising result from people who had already done everything they could to squander the newspaper's legacy before cashing in. Remember Mark Willes?

That said, the Times has managed to escape the brunt of the painful cuts that other Trib papers have suffered in recent years; when the company built a fancy new Washington bureau, the staffs of nearly all of the other papers, besides the Times and the Tribune, were noticeably smaller when they moved in. But Times staffers continued to complain -- loudly -- about their loss of autonomy and how horrible it was to have everyone in the same office. Former Tribune employees (some of whom wound up out of journalism altogether as a result of being laid off) were decidedly unsympathetic.

Hopefully, Johnson's departure means the official beginning of the end of the uneasy marriage between the Times and Tribune. The blockheads up in Tribune Tower were never able to come to terms with the fact that the Times was the company's flagship paper, and the L.A. folks never got used to being managed from outside California. The union has been a miserable failure from a business standpoint, and there is simply no case to be made that other Tribune newspapers are in any way the better for it.

But if Johnson's career is over, he should be followed -- quickly -- out the door by FitzSimons. If it's really all about money, then the company's financial performance during his tenure should spell his doom.

Update: Michael Kinsley offers an interesting and thoughtful take on the whole mess here.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bigots

Josh Marshall excerpted the following graf from today's WSJ Editorial (helpfully subtitled: "Could a gay Congressman be quarantined?"):
But in today's politically correct culture, it's easy to understand how senior Republicans might well have decided they had no grounds to doubt Mr. Foley merely because he was gay and a little too friendly in emails. Some of those liberals now shouting the loudest for Mr. Hastert's head are the same voices who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys. Are these Democratic critics of Mr. Hastert saying that they now have more sympathy for the Boy Scouts' decision to ban gay scoutmasters? Where's Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on that one?
So there you have it. Gays=Bad. Boy Scouts=right to worry about whether gays are "clean" and "morally straight".

I knew that the WSJ ed board was nutty in its support for up-the-ladder redistributive fiscal policy and beat-them-down policies for military/CIA prisoners. But I hadn't realized they challenged Dobson, Perkins, et al in their bigotry.

For shame.

Update:
By contrast, in its editorial calling for Hastert to resign as speaker the Wash Times somehow manages to avoid using either the word "homosexual" or "gay". (And as for the Wash Times, this is what brings them to call for Denny's head? The corruption, failure of oversight on the war and everything else, fracture of House rules, and all the rest -- none of that was enough, but this is? The Foley issue is bad, no doubt. But it pales by comparison to the rest of Denny's sins, be they of omission or commision.) This is one of those moments when it really feels like our nation's politics has simply jumped the shark. Calling Henry Winkler, we have a job for you.....

Monday, October 02, 2006

The passion of Mark Foley

I can't manage to work up a full course of schadenfreude over the sordid situation that prompted Mark Foley to resign, largely because anyone who ran in Florida or DC political circles knew that, sooner or later, he was headed for an embarrassing series of revelations. What's shocking to nearly everyone, though, is the form it took. Everyone knew Foley was gay; unfortunately, he clearly thought that hiding that fact was necessary to protect his political viability. But staying in that closet also meant that he could never be more than a congressman: he dropped out of the race to replace Bob Graham in 2004 because it became very clear that he would be outed if he didn't.

Now, the tragic irony is that Foley has done far more damage to the GOP through his insane interactions with underage House pages than he ever could have by admitting he was gay. It's fairly unlikely that Foley -- who was popular in his district -- would have been voted out had he come out, and Jim Kolbe proved that it's possible to be gay and a Republican (he even managed to score a committee chairmanship).

There's no question that Foley is an idiot of epic proportions -- and, depending on your definition of pedophilia, may in fact have problems that are in no way related to his homosexuality (despite ongoing Republican efforts to link the two as part of their gay-bashing agenda). He was right to resign, and from the sound of it, he'll be amazingly lucky if he doesn't end up in jail for violating some of the very same laws he championed in Congress.

The much bigger problem here, though, is the actions of GOP leaders in House, who did their very best ostrich impersonation when confronted with Foley's unfortunate penchant for cozying up to pages. The bottom line is this: Parents across the country who send their children to Washington to become congressional pages do so believing that their kids will be safe, that the people elected to write our laws will protect them from harm. Denny Hastert, John Boehner, Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt, Tom Reynolds and John Shimkus failed these kids, and their parents. I'm sure that when GOP officials asked Foley about his contacts with pages, he huffed and puffed and insisted that it was all innocent, and I understand the urge to trust a colleague and defuse an unpleasant situation.

But the fact remains that these pages are very vulnerable when they walk the halls of the Capitol -- vulnerable because securing a spot as a page is considered a major deal, a super resume builder for kids anxious to get into a top college. By definition, these young men and women want to please the lawmakers they work for, because a recommendation letter from Congressman X or Senator Y is the ultimate score. If you're a page, and a congressman wants to keep in touch, you do it -- and you're likely to at least try and maintain whatever kind of relationship he wants, because not only do you need his support, pissing him off could lead to the unthinkable possibility that he'll do something that could block your upward career trajectory.

That's all the more reason why House GOP leaders should have done something: Not because it was politically expedient (although in hindsight, it probably was), but because it was the right thing to do, and the necessary thing. Suppose Hastert et al got word that a congressman was buying alcohol for a 15- or 16-year-old page -- or was even discussing the possibility via instant messaging. They would never have put up with that. What Foley did was exactly the same in one key way: What he was doing was against the law. The fact that publicly reprimanding Foley would have been extraordinarily embarrassing because of the sexual nature of his contacts with the pages is irrelevant, and it's deeply disturbing that anyone in the House would try and sweep this under the rug when children were involved.

Playing at the edge of the rules when it comes to lobbyists, campaign contributions and lawmaking is one thing. Pushing the envelope when it comes to living up to a promise made to young people and their parents is another, and Hastert and friends should be deeply ashamed.

It's also unfortunate that Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, would even consider keeping Foley's tainted campaign cash, let alone vacuuming up what's left in Foley's considerable war chest to fund ads before next month's elections. I can't imagine that "values voters" will think much of that.

Update: According to Drudge, the young man with whom Foley had cybersex before a House vote (all together now....EWWWWW! And trust me, if you were among the people who had occasion to shake hands with these folks in the Speaker's Lobby while trolling for interviews, you'd be grossed out, too) was over 18 when it happened. While the chief point here is that ABC News looks completely ridiculous (since the initial report said he was under 18), it also adds to the general confusion over whether a criminal prosecution of Foley is even possible. I stick by the notion that, at least in theory, Foley was working hard to violate the very law he pushed so hard for, but I'll concede that the legal waters here are very muddy.