The Tribune has changed so much since Colonel Robert McCormick died in 1955 that if the press baron were given to spinning in his grave he’d be a dervish already. But Joseph Aaron, editor of the Chicago Jewish News, is sure the Colonel will be set off by the flying feet of Sam Zell, the real estate mogul and self-described “grave dancer” who’s buying the Tribune Company. “Colonel McCormick was pretty anti-Semitic,” says Aaron. “I enjoy the irony of his paper being in the hands of wealthy Jews.”

Six years ago, when relations between the Tribune and the area’s Jewish leaders hit bottom over the paper’s coverage and commentary on the intifada, I wrote that those troubles were rooted “in the era of Colonel McCormick, whose isolationism blinded him to everything about the Nazis, including the Holocaust, that required opposing with arms.” Joseph Bendersky’s ironically titled The “Jewish Threat” (published in 2000), says that “McCormick was known to mimic and mock American Jews. Privately, he considered Jews a powerful force behind America’s anti-German policy, suggesting after the war that Jews had America bomb Germany into rubble.” In her 1986 book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, Deborah Lipstadt says that even though on the eve of World War II McCormick’s reporters on the scene “wrote about Jewish persecution in Germany with clear eyes,” to get McCormick himself to turn against the burgeoning Nazi party, Berlin correspondent Sigrid Schultz had to tell him Hitler was surrounded by homosexuals.

In a column in the April 9 Wall Street Journal, Chicago author Joseph Epstein recalled that when he was a boy “the Chicago Tribune was not allowed in our house.” As recently as the 1980s, Epstein went on, “Jewish funeral directors advised families of the deceased not to bother placing paid-for obits in the Chicago Tribune, since no Jews read it.”

It would be ridiculous to accuse a newspaper whose editor is a woman, Ann Marie Lipinski, and whose editorial page editor from 1991 to 2000 was an African-American, Don Wycliff, of failing to change with the times. It would also be unfair to the Tribune to say that if any sort of gentlemen’s agreement existed in the Chicago press it was only there. Tribune Magazine writer Rick Kogan recalls attending a pool party at Marshall Field IV’s North Shore estate as a kid back in the 60s, and Field telling him–in an unguarded, perhaps unsober moment–that if his dad, Herman Kogan, weren’t a Jew he’d be editor of the Sun-Times instead of just the books editor and drama critic.

Former Tribune editor Howard Tyner says it never occurred to him that there was any kind of corporate glass ceiling for Jews to crack their heads on–though on second thought, he says, “I have to say there were times when I thought the Irish Catholic mafia was a little thick in there.” As for Jewish board members? Tyner, an Episcopalian, stopped to think. “Newton Minow was a player.”

In his column, Epstein called the Tribune the “least Jewish of newspapers,” not because it’s anti-Semitic but because “Jews have always seemed to have so small a hand in running it. . . . Tall laconic, Midwestern Irishmen with names like Madigan have been at the helm.”

Jim Squires, the Tribune’s editor for most of the 80s–he was chased off in 1989 and later wrote a snarky book about the company–says he noticed a whiff of something during his tenure, but it wasn’t anti-Semitism. “There is a culture there,” he says, “the midwestern Waspish tradition. All the executive cookie-cutter 42-long guys with great haircuts and tailored suits. But they were midwestern in the sense that they wore heavy wingtips and the suits were glen plaid, not pinstripe. The management structure of the Tribune is pure kiss-Wall-Street’s-ass corporate climbers.”

I told Squires what I’ve been told, that some Tribune Company execs have shown consternation and outrage as their empire shifted hands. “I think it doesn’t have a thing to do with ethnicity or religion,” Squires said. “The consternation would be if he comes in and fires all their asses, which would be a wonderful thing to happen.”

Squires isn’t alone in his thinking. “Tribune culture places a greater premium on loyalty than brains,” says a senior journalist who believes a change in the culture will be a good thing, and that Zell can’t help but provide it. The new owner isn’t simply someone from beyond the company; he’s from far outside its way of life. Just as his blue jeans and motorcycles stamp him as different, so, surely, does his religion. “He’s not what you call a Jew who passes,” says an old friend of Zell’s.

If Zell had made his run at the Tribune Company six or seven years ago, I think a lot of Jews in Chicago would’ve prayed for him to get it and set the Tribune straight. One local leader, Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview–a moderate in most eyes–was leading demonstrations outside the Tribune Tower in 2001. After Yasser Arafat responded to Ehud Barak’s peace deal with the second intifada, Siegel told me then, “I realized the war being fought was not only being fought with bombs and suicide bombers and the rest, but it was being fought in the pages of American newspapers. So when the Tribune continued to lambaste Israel for its policy of quote, assassination, end quote and not allow its readers to fully appreciate that the people being killed were terrorists themselves and not simply political leaders, I found that to be unconscionable.”

An interview with a mournful West Bank communications company technician whose 19-year-old son failed as a suicide bomber was one Tribune story that many Jewish readers particularly despised–Siegel had denounced it in front of his congregation a few weeks before we spoke. “Abdel-Fatah Toubassi wishes his son would have blown himself up and taken Israelis to their deaths too,” it began. Siegel told me, “It was far too sympathetic, and I feel it was dangerous.”

I wrote then that the Jewish case against the Tribune was “built on a perception of the paper as naive, ahistorical, and sophomorically attracted to the Palestinians as plucky underdogs.” In 2003 Siegel was back out in front of the Tower protesting a wretched editorial cartoon that suggested the way for America to bring about peace in the West Bank was to manipulate Israeli greed. That one “crossed all the lines,” wrote Wycliff, then the public editor.

Siegel’s much happier with the paper today. “The Tribune has come a long way in attempting to balance its reporting about Israel,” he tells me. “It can be critical of Israel, like any other paper, but it’s a little more fair-minded. They are very open to at least discussing Israel with the established Jewish community in a way they weren’t in the past.” I asked what had happened. “I think part of it was a change of personnel,” Siegel said. “Their editorial board is now much more balanced and open for discussion.”

The specific change of personnel Siegel had in mind involved Wycliff. Though he gave up command of the editorial page in 2000, Wycliff remained on the editorial board, and his new role as public editor and columnist made him even more visible than he’d been before. Abuses of power angered him, and in his view the Israelis behaved like bullies. Fourteen months ago he left the Tribune to take the top public information position at Notre Dame, his alma mater.

Bruce Dold took over the editorial page from Wycliff and still runs it. “From my vantage point, relations are better,” he e-mailed me. “I think there are two reasons. First, we spent a lot of time listening and talking to Jewish leaders and we’ve kept that dialogue going, as we do with other community leaders in Chicago. Second, there has been a shift in the editorial page’s perspective on the Middle East, placing more emphasis on how terrorism retards progress on peace. That shift dates to 2000, but I think it took a couple of years for it to be widely recognized.”

Says Siegel, “I don’t think a good response to a challenge at a newspaper is to hope a Jewish person will buy the paper. It’s that the editorial board will listen to you and respond. They made changes without new ownership, and they’re to be commended.”

The only person I’ve talked to recently who doesn’t think Jews have significantly softened their feelings about the Tribune is Joseph Aaron, who says the community “believes unanimously the Tribune is anti-Israel.” Aaron concedes that with Zell taking over this conviction will be harder to maintain, “but they’ll continue to believe it. There’s an innate Jewish sense that the media, and especially the Tribune, has this genetic predisposition to hate Israel. They’ll say Zell will be bending over backwards not to show favoritism. It’s very illogical but that’s the way it is.”

Does he expect the Tribune to change?

“No,” says Aaron. “I don’t think they’re anti-Israel so I don’t think they need to.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sam Zell photo/AP Photo/M. Spencer Green.