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Tribune CEO Is Expected to Keep His Cool in Fight

Dennis FitzSimons, who has been something of a mystery despite his job, faces public criticism.

June 20, 2006|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

People who admire Dennis J. FitzSimons say he works like an ox, is dead honest, inspires deep loyalty in the people around him and, when pushed, will fight.

His critics say that, in addition, the chairman and chief executive of Tribune Co. can be self-confident to the point of arrogance and touchy about being challenged. Some doubt his strategic vision and, as the first Tribune chief to rise through the broadcast division, his "feel" for newspapers.

Even in Tribune's hometown of Chicago, where everybody has an opinion about what goes on inside the iconic Tribune Tower, FitzSimons is something of a mystery despite his role as head of a $6-billion media giant that owns the Los Angeles Times, KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Cubs and other properties.

"He's gone unexamined here in Chicago for someone in that position," said Steve Rhodes, a former writer for Chicago magazine and the Tribune who now heads the Windy City online journal the Beachwood Reporter.

That is changing, as FitzSimons, who turns 56 on Monday, has found himself the target of dissident Tribune directors who have publicly criticized the performance of management -- and FitzSimons by extension -- in provocative and insulting terms.

On FitzSimons' watch, they said, Tribune has flubbed opportunities "to invest aggressively in growing new businesses" and has been unable to arrest the decline of its core newspaper and broadcast TV units. This "strategic failure has had disastrous effects," the dissidents -- representing members of California's Chandler family -- said in a letter to the Tribune board made public in a regulatory filing last week.

After the feud broke into the open, Tribune's stock reversed course after a two-year slide, apparently on hopes that the dissidents would force a quick breakup of Tribune or an outright sale.

FitzSimons declined to be interviewed for this article, but said through a spokesman that he would make his views public today in New York as a speaker at a Newspaper Assn. of America conference.

Friends think they know how he will respond to having his leadership publicly called into question: He'll come back swinging but won't lose his head.

"I don't think anybody's going to intimidate Dennis; he's a street fighter," said Jack Sander, vice chairman of Dallas-based television and newspaper company Belo Corp., who has known FitzSimons since they were TV-ad salesmen 30 years ago. "Dennis is not going to walk away from a fight. He will step back and evaluate the situation."

Newsman Geraldo Rivera, who credits FitzSimons with organizing the national syndication of his talk show using Tribune's WGN superstation in Chicago as the flagship outlet, recalls one fight in particular that he astutely assessed.

In the mid-1990s, Rivera's program was making inroads against the "Oprah Winfrey Show," the prized property of syndication mogul Roger King of KingWorld Productions, now owned by CBS Corp. King launched what Rivera regarded as a self-serving campaign to rid the airwaves of cheesy, sensationalistic -- and popular -- programs such as those hosted by Jerry Springer and Rivera. The campaign began getting traction in Washington, with the support of such politicians as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Tribune didn't need the bad publicity, much less potential legislation that could crimp its operations. But instead of getting mad, FitzSimons got creative, Rivera said in an interview.

"He figured the way to get Roger King to shut up was to invite him to participate in our distribution," Rivera said, adding, "once the sniping was done, the show took off."

Rivera cautioned against drawing too close a parallel between the King incident and the challenge from the Chandlers.

"It's become a public fight now," he said. "They've got him backed into a corner and that's exactly where they don't want him."

FitzSimons grew up in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, N.Y., the youngest of four sons of a beer-truck driver for Anheuser-Busch Cos. and a stay-at-home mom. After high school at Fordham Prep, he majored in political science at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx.

He joined Tribune in 1982 as a sales manager for WGN after several years as an advertising sales agent. After a stint at a Tribune station in New Orleans, he returned to Chicago and soon became general manager of WGN, which he once described as "the best job I ever had."

FitzSimons is one of the executives most closely associated with Tribune's broadcasting growth spurt in the mid-1990s, when it went on a buying spree that took it from six stations to 26. Highly focused and detail-oriented, FitzSimons had a keen sense for buying stations, consolidating and cutting costs.

He rose to become head of Tribune Broadcasting before taking over as CEO in 2002.

Married with a son and two daughters, FitzSimons lives in the exclusive New Trier neighborhood on Chicago's North Shore and summers in Westhampton, N.Y.

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