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Book review: 'The Deal From Hell' by James O'Shea

The former Los Angeles Times editor in chief examines the Tribune-Times Mirror and Sam Zell deals.

June 28, 2011|By Geneva Overholser, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • James O'Shea pictured speaking to his staff about his departure.
James O'Shea pictured speaking to his staff about his departure. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles…)

As longtime readers of this newspaper know all too well, few marriages have failed more spectacularly — or with greater impact — than that of the Tribune and Times Mirror companies. That is a story James O'Shea — an investigative reporter and a former leading editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times — is well-placed to tell, though his dual role is a weakness as well as a strength of "The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers."

For anyone concerned about the state of newspapering, this is an important primer. The $8-billion merger (really a Tribune takeover) in 2000 created a disparate media giant that never cohered bringing together scores of television stations, radio and newspapers. Two Times editors fell quickly to the ensuing profit pressures. O'Shea, then managing editor of the Tribune, was sent from Chicago to lead the Times newsroom in 2006. The next year, real estate magnate Sam Zell bought the company in a controversial deal that collapsed quickly into bankruptcy proceedings, which dog the newspapers to this day.

O'Shea sets the intertwined details of what unfolded in Los Angeles and Chicago against a backdrop of the societal, technological and commercial forces that have so unsettled the newspaper industry. Beginning where his own career started, at the Des Moines Register, O'Shea quotes early owner Gardner Cowles on an era when journalism trumped profits: "The only newspaper popularity that counts in the long run is bottomed on public respect."

The steep descent from there makes compelling reading. While O'Shea's writing occasionally gets the better of him ("At six-foot-five, well groomed, and trim, [former Tribune Chief Executive John] Madigan has a chiseled face that could be on Mount Rushmore"), his reporting chops are strong. For journalism junkies, there are morsels galore. Picture Times Mirror Chief Executive Mark Willes carting with him the remaining Diet Cokes from his office fridge, along with his $64.5-million severance package, after the 2000 "merger." Or, at about the same time, Madigan, upon hearing of the steep plunge in Tribune stock price, looking out a window over downtown Los Angeles and deadpanning to a colleague: "Shall we jump?"

O'Shea nails a central characteristic of the breed of media leadership he is chronicling: "Instead of developing strategies to produce the kind of content that would protect their most important asset — the public trust — they depreciated it like an aging Linotype."

His dramatic telling of the lead-up to the Zell deal that would so soon sour is staggering. Take so-called leaders — exposed here as fools or knaves (or both) — pair them with vulgar and rapacious bankers, toss in feuding families, and you can only reel at the impact on the lives of millions of citizens.

Regarding the editors involved, the verdict is mixed, in O'Shea's telling and in reality. Jim Squires and Jack Fuller were major players in the Tribune's corporate march toward debacle. John Carroll, during his leadership as editor of the Times, sometimes read his way through corporate meetings he found distasteful and, reflecting the cultural differences between the two papers, refused to run any copy from Tribune reporters.

We journalists have rather often mistaken the petty for the principled, confused keeping things as they have always been with keeping things excellent. As is evident in this book, though O'Shea doesn't put it this way, we've argued vigorously on behalf of our first-class travel and our ad-free front pages but probed only weakly our own role in the departure of our readers and the decline in our credibility.

As for O'Shea's dual investigator/insider identity, the challenge increases as his role becomes more central. Early on, he wisely presents the L.A. side of the story mostly through the eyes of Times veteran Leo Wolinsky. But when O'Shea arrives in Los Angeles, and must speak for himself, things get awkward. Witness O'Shea describing the choice of his successor, the current Times editor, Russ Stanton: "I knew that [my superiors] liked Stanton because he wasn't, well, like me."

The investigative reporter O'Shea would surely have asked the editor O'Shea — were they not one and the same — how he could have been taken aback ("my worst fears were realized") when, upon arriving in L.A., "almost immediately, the Tribune Company pressured me for a staff cut." Or how, given all that preceded, he could have found his publisher's tactics surprising ("I faced a far larger hurdle than I'd anticipated").

In the end, "The Deal From Hell" succeeds on the force of the story and the power of the case that O'Shea builds against the individuals involved. Pushing back at the oft-cited "Internet killed newspapers" charge, he writes: "What is killing a system that brings reliably edited news and information to readers' doorsteps every morning for less than the cost of a cup of coffee is the way that the people who run the industry have reacted to those forces. The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public's are responsible for the state of the industry today."

Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, is a former editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman of the Washington Post and an editorial board member of the New York Times.

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