Tribune Co. exec apologizes for ‘offensive’ memo

By Phil Rosenthal
Posted Oct. 12, 2010 at 9:04 p.m.

Days after Tribune Co.’s corporate management was characterized in a newspaper article as fostering a sexist “frat house” atmosphere, one of its top executives sent a company-wide e-mail with links to off-color satirical videos.

Among the videos was one the executive, Lee Abrams, labeled “Sluts” in which a gyrating woman appeared to pour liquor on her bare breasts.

Abrams, chief innovation officer of Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, apologized “to everyone who was offended” in another company-wide e-mail Tuesday.

Abrams conceded “poor judgment” on his part after the memo spurred complaints to the company’s human resources department from Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern and other employees upset at the sexual content.

“I thought it was offensive and I thought it was completely inappropriate to be sent out in a workplace setting to everyone in this company,” Kern said. “We’ve had some employees complain as well, and I took it to HR.”

Kern said he also complained to Abrams, whose e-mail followed by less than a week an unflattering New York Times front-page story on changes to Tribune Co. corporate culture since real estate billionaire Sam Zell took the company private in December 2007. Zell installed a new management team led by former Clear Channel and Jacor radio executive Randy Michaels.

Abrams, a long-time radio industry consultant who joined Tribune Co. in March 2008, sends weekly notes to employees encouraging them to reinvent the media business and not be chained to convention. The memos are generally an impressionistic pastiche of ideas, observations and links to outside sources.

In his missive Monday, Abrams included links to what he called “pretty inspirational or at least interesting” videos he said he and Ray Brune, whom he described as executive producer of Tribune Broadcasting’s “new morning concept,” assembled for new staff.

Included were clips of newscast parodies from One was a satirical panel discussion of the need for educators to accept that “students don’t give a (expletive).” Another was a fictional report on the crash of a bus full of reality-show contestants “spilling more than 2,000 pounds of slut” on the highway.

The Onion’s bus crash story included women grinding against each other and kissing. It concluded with the fake anchor urging the fake correspondent on the scene to “stay safe out there, and don’t (have sex with) any of those sluts.”

Abrams said in his Tuesday apology the Onion videos were among those shown attendees at “the initial creative meeting for our new morning program” to convey the show’s concept.

“The video in bad taste was a parody of a cable-type reality show,” Abrams wrote. “It is not something that we would ever air on our TV stations — in fact quite the opposite — we show this as an example of what NOT to do. But still, I understand that it was very inappropriate to distribute a link to the video to a wider audience.”

Abrams said he has asked Tribune Co. to delete the e-mail from its servers and promised to make certain his future e-mails “contain nothing like this” again.

Kern sought to distance his newsroom staff from Abrams’ Monday memo.

“This is not the way it is at the Chicago Tribune and it is not the way it is in the newsroom, and the way you communicate that to people is by complaining about it and getting it stopped,” Kern said.

On Oct. 5, before the New York Times story on Tribune Co. management was posted online, Michaels, Tribune Co.’s chief executive, sent a pre-emptive e-mail urging employees to “ignore the noise” in anticipation the Times would “apparently paint the work environment at Tribune as hostile, sexist and otherwise inappropriate.”

Citing the company’s employee handbook and harassment policy, Michaels wrote “it is our intention to create a fun, non-linear creative environment” and “our culture is NOT about being offensive or hurtful.”

The Chicago Tribune Media Group entered a partnership this summer to take over ad sales, publishing and distribution of the Onion’s print edition in the Chicago market. Tribune Co. has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since December 2008.

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  1. Mom Oct. 13, 2010 at 8:37 a.m.

    Maybe the better reporters should move over to our other paper. The Trib has a history of some nice investigative work.

  2. OKA Oct. 13, 2010 at 8:55 a.m.

    I love how Abrams apologized “to everyone who was offended”. This indicates to me that he’ll just be more careful next time to send his trashy emails only to those employees who he knows will appreciate them. Does he realize that this CONTENT is completely unprofessional? How does porn increase the productivity or creativity of his workforce? It would be nice to hear that Abrams recognizes that his behavior was simply offensive, PERIOD. Not just problematic for those who are “too sensitive” or “too easily offended”. Why is the Tribune keeping this kind of trash around? Get over him.

  3. PJ Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:18 a.m.

    Gee, remember the good old days when the Colonel trashed FDR, the New Deal and the Democrats every day? Remember when the Trib only meant tons of right wing Republican propaganda as news? Now? WELCOME TO MORON JOURNALISM!!! IQ 70 RULES!!!

  4. JS Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.

    And this is just one more reason that I do not subscribe to the Tribune anymore

  5. cc423 Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:31 a.m.

    How is it possible that Lee Abrams is employed ANYWHERE much less Tribune? This guy is a complete joke.

  6. Ela Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:43 a.m.

    “How is it possible that Lee Abrams is employed ANYWHERE much less Tribune?”
    Agree 100%. What kind of family grows an idiot like that? And what kind of idiots support and hire him?

  7. James Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:45 a.m.

    This is the quality of the executive suite at the Tribune.

    If I was an advertiser of the Tribune or any of its subsidiaries, I’d ask for (and get) my money back.

    These people are not competent, and not worthy of public trust.

  8. bigdog0319 Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:45 a.m.

    OKA said: “I love how Abrams apologized “to everyone who was offended”. This indicates to me that he’ll just be more careful next time to send his trashy emails only to those employees who he knows will appreciate them. Does he realize that this CONTENT is completely unprofessional?”

    Good post, OKA — I couldn’t agree with you more.

    This is the same media rag that recently endorsed misogynist and animal hater Bill Brady. When you can endorse someone opposed to women and their health and someone interested in mass slaughtering dogs and cats by carbon monoxide gassing, well…that endorsement could have been written by Abrams himself!

  9. Brian Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.

    Just to be sure we’re not taking this *too* far, unless I misunderstood, the satirical video (with the sluts references, etc.) was from the Onion. It’s certainly not pornography.

  10. ugottabekidding Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.

    The sluts video was hysterical.

  11. Rance St. Ambrose, IV Oct. 13, 2010 at 9:55 a.m.

    The ‘Teacher’ who passed this potty minded clown out of the fourth grade should be standing at the his side, offering her apology

  12. shopgirl Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

    Phil, why don’t you publish some of the other long-winded and offensive diatribes that Lee Abrams sends out regularly? This is just the tip of a very large iceberg. If the Tribune is a Watchdog that “speaks truth to power”, you owe this story nothing less.

  13. Doug Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:10 a.m.

    Rush week at the Tower continues with middle-aged fat white guys gone wild. In this episode, Flounder goes too far…

  14. catholicgirl Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:18 a.m.

    Would the Tribune like us to believe that it was a saintly place to work before Sam Zell? There were plently of sexual harrassment situations and inappropriate relationships.

  15. spellin' Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    The only thing this guy is sorry about is that the memo got leaked.

  16. Huh? Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:24 a.m.

    So, is Abrams sorry because he understands that what he did is wrong or is he sorry because he got his hand slapped? As a former employee, I find it amazing that anyone read far enough into his weekly brain regurgitation to find the offensive parts. The first two paragraphs were usually enough for me to stop reading his diatribes of the completely nonsensical philosophy he thinks is clever writing. These guys don’t care about anything except that they will walk away from what they destroyed with a boatlaod of money. And they’ll do it with a smile on their faces and nary a look back. Disgusting.

  17. Hmmmm Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:29 a.m.

    The public now thinks of Abrams as crude, rude and lewd. His parents must be crying.

  18. Tom Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:32 a.m.

    Sounds like the perfect place for Jay Mariotti to begin his restoration to elite status…

  19. Yummy Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:37 a.m.

    Aren’t the Tribune staff all adults, probably almost all with college degrees? They’ve all seen R rated movies, right? They work for a media company, right? Isn’t “off-color satirical videos” fair game? What if the Tribune wanted to do a project like The Onion? Is that illegal because they aren’t run by college students? What if the Tribune wanted to go into adult entertainment? They certainly could – and they would have to subject some of their employees to that content. This sounds to me like making a mountain out of a molehill. If they sent this to a bunch of high school students in Salt Lake City, maybe that would be poor judgement. But this was a bunch of adults in Chicago. I think they can take it.

  20. TheBunster Oct. 13, 2010 at 10:41 a.m.

    If anyone else had sent this email, that person would soon be unemployed . . . and he’s the Chief Innovation officer? Maybe Idiot would be more appropriate . . .

  21. Mark Oct. 13, 2010 at 11:00 a.m.

    Some of you people are nuts. Seriously.

    While I will admit, he used poor judgment in sending the email “office wide”, I think it is silly to say that the man should be terminated. You don’t evaluate the work of an employee based on a few emails that may have offended some people. And as to assertion that some people were offended, I am highly dubious of that. With all the openness about sexuality and violence on TV, in the movies, and and related, I find it nearly impossible to believe that many, if any people were “offended” because of the receipt of this material. All of a sudden all these people have such “virgin ears/eyes”? Give me a break. Harassment is not even an issue. If the email was targeted and sent to one person, I could understand it, but when it is sent office wide, the standard of harssment in a legal sense can never be met. One cannot harass an entire office….at least not in a sexual manner.

    Mistakes are made. Poor judgement happens regularly. The person has been embarassed substantially. That said however, if he is indeed a good employee that has done much for the company, he should be retained.

  22. Tim Oct. 13, 2010 at 11:08 a.m.

    Zell just keeps screwing this company/newspaper. Can you please sell it to someone who gives a crap and doesn’t hire incompetent former radio execs? There’s a fabulous business solution, Sam, hire execs from one failing industry to another failing industry…brilliant. Stick to real estate, Zell. Again, sell the company to people who actually give a crap about making the Tribune Company a viable operation.

  23. M Oct. 13, 2010 at 11:27 a.m.

    “If the email was targeted and sent to one person, I could understand it, but when it is sent office wide, the standard of harssment in a legal sense can never be met. One cannot harass an entire office….at least not in a sexual manner. ”

    It’s called a hostile workplace environment, and it’s very much sexual harassment, even if it wasn’t intentional. Look it up.

  24. Tom J Oct. 13, 2010 at 11:29 a.m.

    I enjoy The Onion, as it does satirize much current ‘news reporting’. Mad Magazine used to do that with movies years ago, as I remember (and I suppose one could be offended by some of those taken out of context).

    Obviously he should have linked to the main page of The Onion, rather than specific pieces which could be spun as simply ‘off color’, implying a very different sort of website purpose.

  25. Kris P. Oct. 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Sounds like the Tribune is now being run by a bunch if misinformed, ignorant bullies who have no idea how to motivate employees and make them feel respected. This is a recipe for disaster. If they continue to make poor decisions about their organization’s culture and communication to staff, they will definitely see lawsuits and lose talented people. I can’t believe that in the year 2010 they don’t know how much risk this poses in terms of harassment lawsuits. Having formerly worked at a company that spent $10M to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, I know these things are no joke and they lead to horrible publicity.

  26. RealityBites Oct. 13, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    The Onion is a satirical publication, yes. But is it really the best judgment for a Trib exec to be sending out racy (even if satirical) videos directly after a damning story about them has been published in the NY Times? And then his defense is that the Onion videos were used as “examples of what NOT to do” for new employees?? Exactly how stupid are the new hires that they would need examples from a fake media outlet? No matter how you slice it, it is insulting, it is sophomoric and it is astonishingly poor judgment. How much more proof do we need that the sinking ship has sunk?

  27. Mark Oct. 13, 2010 at 12:45 pm


    I beg to disagree with you. You are quite simply wrong.

    I never attempted to differntiate a hostiel work enviornment from sexual harassment. A hostile work enviornment cases IS sexual harassment. It is merely a different form of harassment as opposed to sexual harassment based on quid quo pro, (among other forms) for example. Indeed, it is you that is misinformed.

    A hostile work environment occurs when A PERSON is subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to such an extent that it alters the conditions of the person’s employment or creates an abusive working environment. Sending out dirty depictions or videos to an entire office in and of itself, does NOT satsify the above requirement. In a hostile work environment, the harasser may be a woman or a man. Furthermore, hostile environment sexual harassment cases MUST be severe or pervasive to support a lawsuit. As such, one isolated instance of non-intrusive sexual comment is insufficient to support a hostile work environment sexual harassment case.

    So once again, emails that are sent to an entire office or contact list, would not fall into the description described above. I can say this with 100% certainty in instances where 1 or even several emails were sent to a particular person and that person never attempted complained to her superiors or human resources about the situation.

  28. Mal Oct. 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    He should get an award for this video. Its hilarious!


  29. OKA Oct. 13, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Mark – Your protests that people should be able to send links to satirical publications (e.g., The Onion) misses the mark. If Abrams sent out a link to the main page of The Onion with the message to take a break and laugh a bit, that would not have raised eyebrows to any big degree. But, to send out a message to specific videos and articles and naming them “Sluts”, etc., is a different animal… This sends a message to an entire workforce about the atmosphere in the workplace. The idea was not highbrow satire. Rather, it was smut.

  30. ImpudentObserver Oct. 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Of course he apologized only “to everyone who was offended.”
    What’s with this default assumption that everyone WAS offended — just because it’s the sanctimoniously politically correct line?
    The email was in poor taste, yes, but hell, about 40% of TV commercials are in poor taste [exhibit A:
    Where’s the uproar and calling for ad execs heads over that?
    In fact, Lee is very much like an ad man, or comedian. In his attempts to be ‘cutting edge’ or to break out of mindless conformity, he runs the risk of skidding out of the bounds of good taste.
    He certainly deserved a good chastising. But that’s all.
    As you were.

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