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Back at the Sun-Times, years ago, I had a friend who ran the city desk weekend nights, and his wildest dream, he told me, was that two 747s would collide directly over the John Hancock Center and he’d be the editor on duty directing the coverage.
Tuesday was like that, only better — no fatalities. It was the first time in ages when if you were a reporter at a newspaper in Chicago you wouldn’t have wanted to hold any other job in the world. We’ve had other governors go down — though come to think of it, they were out of office when they fell. And not like this. Blagojevich’s arrest — at home, in cuffs, 6 AM — broke like the DC-10 crash, or the Speck murders, or the Our Lady of the Angels fire. It was sudden and astonishing, and nothing mattered in your newsroom but the story.
This was no mere arrest — it was an intervention. Corruption indictments can take years to put together, and Pat Fitzgerald has been investigating the governor for the past five. But the material in the criminal complaint that takes your breath away all went down in the last month! The complaint says Blagojevich, knowing he’s a target, was caught on tape talking about leveraging Sam Zell’s need for cash to make him clean house on the editorial page. Was caught on tape putting Barack Obama’s Senate seat up for bids.
“We acted to stop that crime spree,” said Fitzgerald at Tuesday’s news conference.
Reading the complaint, I think first that the governor’s nuts. I think of Hitler in his underground bunker at the end, sending divisions that don’t exist into battle against the Russians at the gates of Berlin. And then I think that delusion is an illness, not a federal crime, and I wonder if Fitzgerald will be able to make any of this stick. So Blago ranted about parlaying his Senate appointment into a ton of money, or into a spot in Obama’s cabinet, or into a presidential run of his own in 2016. What did he actually do? And can Fitzgerald prove it? But does that matter? Fitzgerald’s purpose seems to have been to save Illinois from its governor. And this he may have accomplished.
For a brief, sweet moment Tuesday at the Tribune, Monday’s announcement that the Tribune Company was filing for bankruptcy must have seemed a million years away. Now, of course, the paper knows it owes us a peek behind the company’s carefully worded statement in response to the arrest: “No one working for the company or on its behalf has ever attempted to influence staffing decisions at the Chicago Tribune or any aspect of the newspaper’s editorial coverage as a result of conversations with officials in the governor’s administration.”
But were there conversations? Such as the one the complaint leads us to believe in which a quid pro quo was proposed: you get $100 million but it’s going to cost you deputy editorial page editor John McCormick (at a minimum)? If there were, between whom? What exactly was said? If the deal was proposed, why didn’t Sam Zell or the people around him tell the Tribune‘s editors? Or did they? Was this story one of those stories that editor Gerould Kern says “in isolated instances” the Tribune granted the request of prosecutors not to run?
Maybe no deal was ever proposed. Or maybe Zell said no and it never occurred to him that the Tribune newsroom might want to know about it. Or he might have figured it was none of the newsroom’s business. On Tuesday Fitzgerald sure made it sound as if the Tribune never got a heads up from anyone that Blagojevich wanted McCormick’s head. “There is an editor that they’d like fired from the Tribune,” Fitzgerald said, “and I laid awake at night, worried 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.”
All we have so far about this is Zell’s no comment. Expect more. Fitzgerald has handed the Chicago press a gift that will keep on giving.
UPDATE: On CNBC Wednesday afternoon, Sam Zell said he’d been contacted by the FBI, but he offered no details.