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 theonion.com. 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.