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Are Tribune Co. & NBC5 Chicago Censoring Local News?

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Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

beachwoodnodateToday, Beachwood Reporter editor & publisher Steve Rhodes announced he was walking away from his paid gig as an NBC5 Chicago news blogger. According to Rhodes, earlier this month NBC5 removed specific posts of his from its local news blog without his knowledge or consent, allegedly due to personal request from upper NBC5 management--and Tribune Company execs.

The two posts in question were critical looks at incoming Tribune Company head honcho Randy Michaels and the death of Chicago Board of Education chair Michael Scott. (See a cached version of the Randy Michaels post here.) As Rhodes tells it, originally his NBC5 website editor approved of both posts. However, the Michaels post was subsequently "de-targeted" from the website and the Scott post was never allowed to go live at all--with no notice given to the author.

When pressed about what happened to the two posts, NBC5 allegedly told Rhodes both had been scuttled, essentially, to satisfy the comfort level of upper management. Rhodes was told the Michaels post was removed at the request of the Tribune Company, itself, and the Scott post was killed because a senior NBC5 manager didn't like the way Scott's death was being reported in the media.

Reread the above sentence, folks, because if it's true, it means that NBC5 Chicago has actively refused to report news due to personal and political concerns. And that's a big, fat red flag in the albeit crumbling ivory towers of American journalism.

Rhodes reports on the response from his NBC5 handlers:

"Phone conversations with the NBCChicago.com managing editor and his boss followed that day and the following Monday (December 4 and 7) in which I was told that 'someone from the Tribune sent an e-mail to New York' and 'somebody in New York was contacted by somebody - you can read between the lines.'

There was not a 'comfort level' in Chicago with what happened, I was told, but it happened at 'the highest levels' of the company. And that 'the highest levels of the company' made the decision 'to remove' the Michaels post.

I was then told that the Michael Scott story had been scotched because he was a friend of a high-ranking station official here in Chicago who had been 'ruffled' by the coverage of Scott's death to that point. On the heels of the Tribune controversy, I was told, the folks (or perhaps just one folk) here in Chicago didn't want another battle on their hands."

Regular readers of the NBC 5 news blog know well that the site treads a fine line between hard news and snarky-blogger opinion. The question here is which end of the scale did Rhodes' posts tip? Did Rhodes cross a line into fantasyland with these two critical posts?

Or was it the (according to NBC5's own web editors) carefully researched citations supporting the criticism contained in each post that got them removed from the NBC5 website? In essence, were the verified facts contained in the posts too embarrassing to NBC5 and Tribune management to remain published? (For example, that Randy Michaels once walked around the office or a former employer with a rubber penis tied around his neck?)

If the latter reason proves true, that would immediately call into question every news story brought to you by NBC5 Chicago, and even more importantly, every news story squelched by NBC5 Chicago...without your knowledge.

Other unanswered questions here:

  • Why did the Tribune ask a competing news outfit to remove a news story, anyway?
  • Why did NBC 5 agree to the Tribune's request?
  • Why did NBC5 management remove a news story for personal concerns?
  • How often has all of this happened in the past? Has Tribune Co. asked other local media to squelch stories? Has NBC5 Chicago pulled other news posts unflattering to personal friends of upper management?
  • How naive is it for traditional media senior managers to think that attempting to silence fact-checked news stories wouldn't simply get reported on other major bylines that their contracted staff probably also write? And thus, go public anyway--with the punch line of making their traditional media companies look bad?

And above all, why would any major media company think doing anything described above would be within the bounds of free and unfettered media? Just asking.

You should be, too.

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3 Comments

Brent D. Payne said:

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Well, even if Randy Michaels did do those alleged things that NBC5 wrote about. Wasn't he hired to do them? Wasn't that his job? Clearly he did it well and I'd even argue he did bring in a new era of radio with the antics. Anyone heard of Howard Stern? If Stern, in the future, becomes president of a major media organization should we all cut him down for what he did in the 90s/00s to become the success he was?

As for censoring . . . maybe, maybe not. To think it never happens in American journalism or any country's journalism is way too idealistic for me to buy it.

Perhaps, if it was requested to be removed, it was because some or all of the allegations weren't true. But that's not nearly as exciting to debate about is it?

SteveRhodes said:

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Brent: Go back and read the post in question and try again.

Our Man In Chicago said:

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Let's all mourn for times gone by when wandering around the office with a rubber penis around your neck was just part of the job. Those were the days! I think I saw that in an episode of Mad Men once.

Let's take this out of the realm of the maybes and perhapses and put it bluntly:

Why did NBC Chicago let the Tribune Company edit its website?

Because that's what we're talking about here. The substance of Steve's post on Michaels is based on reporting that has not been challenged. (Note the links to Salon, Slate and - via TellZell.com - the LA Times)

And we're not talking about an NBC editor who didn't want to make waves with a controversial post and "censored" a writer. The post passed muster with NBC until the Tribune called. This wasn't an internal disagreement with a writer and editor.

So again, the question is: Why does NBC let the source of a story decide what it will and will not report about it?

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