The Players: Dean Baquet, Managing Editor of the New York Times who once defied corporate orders at the Tribune Company and was ousted because of it, Gerould "Gerry" Kern, Editor of the Chicago Tribune often seen as a Tribune Company loyalist.
The Opening Serve: At a journalism forum at the University of Southern California, Baquet began speaking about the craft of journalism--how to write ledes, nut grafs, and suppressing an "eye-roll" because "people who seem ridiculous to you because history may not judge them that way." He continued to make his point, albeit at Kern's expense. "The guy who's the current editor of The Chicago Tribune, Gerry Kern, knows zero about newspapering. It was staggering to me. He was a guy who, you know, just kept giving the right answers to his bosses," said Baquet, trying to explain the different species of journalists out there in the world. He continued, "And never, and never—he knows I feel this way, I’ve said it to him . . . he was a guy who just gave the right answers to his bosses and never learned how to really be a journalist—to my way of thinking."
The Return Volley: Kern had a brief response in The Chicago Reader: "I am disappointed that Dean Baquet feels compelled to attack me personally," wrote Kern. "We disagreed on many issues when he was at the Los Angeles Times, but I always respected him as a person and his viewpoints as a journalist. I still do." Kern closed out his response with an allusion to Baquet's fundamentals. "Fair-minded people will disagree at times about ideas and methods. In time, history will render its judgment," wrote Kern.
What They Say They're Fighting About: If Kern is a good journalist. And obviously that's an emphatic "no" from Baquet's end.
What They're Really Fighting About: Their history and the Tribune Company. It hard to get any more different than how Baquet and Kern dealt with the Tribune Company. Baquet, back in 2006, was the editor of the Los Angeles Times and was forced out for defying his corporate bosses' orders to cut more jobs. Meanwhile, Kern rose to the top of the Chicago Tribune in July 2008 a few months before the not-so-favorable Sam Zell and the company filed for bankruptcy protection. One employee explained the dynamic to The Chicago Reader, "It was frustrating and disappointing that Gerry and other editors wouldn't openly acknowledge how ugly the frat boy crowd was and HOW THAT AFFECTED THE REPORTERS. The frat boy behavior created an odor in the newsroom, and the sense that it was dangerous to speak out against it made the odor worse." That unnamed writer added, "I do think Gerry has sunk his heart into running the paper—as long as he didn't push against the guys above him ... I think he's a guy who genuinely doesn't like that kind of behavior, but didn't allow himself to see it as long as it seemed to his benefit to ignore it." The account from the Chicago Reader coincides with Baquet's accusations that Kern was more concerned with moving up the ladder than he was about doing what Baquet considered right, and "journalistic".
Who's Winning Now: Baquet. Even though Kern gets in a smirky barb about "history rendering a judgment", his answer still seems, as Baquet puts it, very "right answer" and very boss-friendly. At the time of their very different paths up the Tribune Company ladder, it might have been safe to stick with Kern's assessment of letting things just play out. But in this case, we've sat around and waited long enough. We've just now celebrated the third anniversary of the Tribune Company's bankruptcy case. The company has already spent $213.5 million (and counting) on legal fees without any resolution (fees which have been spent on laid-off journalists or restructuring the current business model). And we've all seen how Zell and his corporate decisions have sunk the company--we don't need history to tell us that one of the most important newspaper companies has crumbled under the leadership of Zell. All of which makes Baquet's point about asking the right questions (no matter how ugly the repercussions are), and Kern's decisions (or lack of them) all the more poignant.