Friday, October 31, 2008

Tribune Company: That Was Then, This Is Now

The following is cross-posted from our parent blog, Drive and Dish (Drive and Dish is a basketball-oriented blog with a light and breezy tone---this is a dense post about politics which belongs on this site far more than it belongs on Drive and Dish):

Drive and Dish started out as a blog devoted to offering commentary on the game of basketball -- with a heavy emphasis on dishing out commentary about college basketball. But we found that when basketball was out of season, we didn't have much to write about. So after slumming through the summer of 2007, Drive and Dish's editorial staff decided that when the 2008 Final Four was in the history books and the NBA Finals' game clock hit 00:00 for the last time, Drive and Dish would expand its reach to include subjects other than basketball -- at least until basketball resumed.

We'll get back to being basketball intensive once college basketball tips off (the NBA regular season just started, but our core readership is primarily made up of college basketball fans, and as such, our NBA material goes largely unnoticed). But for now, our crack team of writers (me) is chomping on the bit to weigh in on so much non-basketball material that it would simply be an untenable position for Drive and Dish's editors (me again) to force them to remain focused exclusively on the hardwood.

Lately, Drive and Dish has been following the rapid decline of the once great Chicago Tribune (more here).

Now the Chicago Tribune's parent company, Tribune Company, is embroiled in a controversy over the Los Angeles Times' (the Los Angeles times is a Tribune Co. newspaper) refusal to release a videotape that purports to show Illinois Senator and Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama offering a toast to -- and lavishing praise on -- Rashid Khalidi, a college professor and political activist who has been both an outspoken opponent of Israel, and a supporter of Palestinian terrorist activity.

Mr. Khalidi currently serves as the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and as the Director of the Middle East Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. But as the New York Sun reported in 2005, Mr. Khalidi was a director of the official Palestinian press agency, WAFA, from 1976 to 1982 and later served on the PLO "guidance committee" at the 1991 Madrid peace conference (more background on the PLO here, more background on Mr. Khalidi's involvement with the PLO here).

The videotape in question was filmed in 2003, at a Chicago going away dinner for Mr. Khalidi (who, at the time, was departing the University of Chicago to take his current post at Columbia). The event was hosted by the Arab American Action Network,* a political advocacy and community organizing group which Mr. Khalidi founded in 1995 with his wife Mona. Allegedly, the dinner featured several speakers who voiced fervent anti-Israel sentiment, as well as disapproval for America's support of Israel. One speaker is said to have compared Israeli settlers on the West Bank to Osama Bin Laden. Another speaker supposedly voiced her anger over U.S. support for Israel and warned that if Palestinians can't reclaim their own land, "you will never see a day of peace."

Although the L.A. Times refuses to release the videotape, Times staff writer Peter Wallsten did acknowledge the tape's existence in an April article in which he examined Senator Obama's position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In his account of the videotaped going away dinner for Mr. Khalidi, Mr. Wallsten did his best to pave over the assorted speakers' rough edges. But he hinted at the incendiary nature of some of their remarks by stating that Senator Obama "adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground."

Throughout his run for the Presidency, Senator Obama has done his best to ameliorate fears that he may not favor the continuation of America's longstanding support for Israel. Officially, Senator Obama has positioned himself as a pro-Israel candidate, which has helped him keep Jewish voters -- an important constituency within the Democratic party -- and other supporters of Israel more or less happy. Yet in his L.A. Times piece, Mr. Wallsten implied that Senator Obama's videotaped remarks at Mr. Khalidi's going away dinner may have left some room for doubt about the veracity of the Senator's support for Israel:

"(the) warm embrace Obama gave to Khalidi, and words like those at the professor's going-away party, have left some Palestinian American leaders believing that Obama is more receptive to their viewpoint than he is willing to say."

What's more, the L.A. Times piece quotes Mr. Khalidi as having pointed to Mr. Obama's sympathy for the Palestinian cause when he instructed the primarily Palestinian American crowd to support Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, in his bid for the U.S. Senate:

"You will not have a better senator under any circumstances."

So what does all this have to do with the Chicago Tribune?

Well, Chicago based Tribune Company is the parent company of both the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. And in the case of the L.A. Times' embargoed videotape of the Rashid Khalidi going away dinner, a Tribune Co. owned newspaper is refusing to release information -- in the form of a video that would likely go viral within minutes of its release -- that could damage Senator Obama's chances of becoming the next President of the United States. The Times cites its desire to preserve "journalistic ethics" as the basis for its decision to withhold the potentially incendiary video (the paper maintains that the anonymous source who leaked the videotape to them requested that the video not be released).

But the L.A. Times has already cited the videotape as evidence that Senator Obama's official position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- and by extension, his position on U.S./Israeli relations -- may be little more than political window dressing.

Thus, by refusing to release the videotape, the Tribune Company's L.A. Times gives the appearance that it is attempting to lend a hand to Senator Obama's bid for the Presidency -- a bid which the both the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune have endorsed -- by shielding the Senator from the political fallout that the videotape's release could prompt.

But in 2004, the Tribune Company's Chicago Tribune lent Senator Obama a hand in his bid for the U.S. Senate by filing suit to gain access to the sealed divorce records of Mr. Obama's Republican opponent, Jack Ryan. Prior to the Tribune's lawsuit, Mr. Ryan had refused to answer questions about his divorce. So the Tribune hired a team of high-powered lawyers and sent them to Los Angeles to pry Mr. Ryan's divorce records open. Mr. Ryan and his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, fought to keep their divorce records sealed, citing their concern that the records' release could have an adverse affect on the welfare of their disabled 9 year old son. But despite acknowledging that "(p)eople are desperate to prevail and are often willing to say almost anything" in divorce cases, that "(f)alse allegations may arise in as many as 80 percent of custody battles," and that "a growing body of evidence (demonstrates) that high-conflict divorces create more long-term problems for children," the Tribune argued that the Ryans' privacy and the well being of their son were less important than the "public interest."

Ultimately, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that the Ryans' divorce records should be partially opened to the public. Among the contents of the Ryans' divorce files was Mrs. Ryan's allegation that Mr. Ryan had taken her to sex clubs, where he had attempted to persuade her to engage in amorous behavior in front of crowds.

Mr. Ryan denied that specific allegation, charging that it was employed as a tactic by his ex-wife in an attempt to gain the upper hand in their child custody dispute.

But the damage was done. The Tribune's headline read: “Ryan File a Bombshell; Ex-Wife Alleges GOP Candidate Took Her To Sex Clubs.”

Jack Ryan was forced to drop out of the U.S. Senate race four months and one week before the 2004 election.

And Jack Ryan wasn't the first political opponent of Barack Obama's whose sealed divorce records were uncovered by the Chicago Tribune. Indeed, the Tribune exhibited a bipartisan interest in the sealed divorce papers of Mr. Obama's political opponents: Mr. Obama's chief rival in the 2004 Democratic Senate primary, Blair Hull, saw his campaign implode after an anonymous tipster informed the Tribune that Mr. Hull’s ex-wife had filed for an order of protection during their divorce proceedings. It is widely believed that the source of the Tribune's leak in the Blair Hull's divorce proceedings was long-time Obama adviser and current chief political strategist for the Obama campaign, David Axelrod (who is, himself, a former City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune).

In a 2007 profile of Mr. Axelrod, the New York Times acknowledged that the Obama campaign -- and perhaps Mr. Axelrod himself -- had been responsible for leaking details of Mr. Hull's divorce proceedings to the Chicago Tribune:

"Axelrod is known for operating in (the political) gray area, part idealist, part hired muscle. It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull’s second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had “worked aggressively behind the scenes” to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role — that he leaked the initial story. They note that before signing on with Obama, Axelrod interviewed with Hull. They also point out that Obama’s TV ad campaign started at almost the same time.
(Emphasis mine).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines irony as:

"1a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning. b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning. c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect. See synonyms at wit1. 2a. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs ..."
(Emphasis mine).

Considering the zeal with which the Chicago Tribune pursued, uncovered, and reported on the sealed divorce records of Barack Obama's opponents in his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate, one might have expected that the Tribune owned Los Angeles Times would have adopted a similar urgency toward releasing the videotape of Rashid Khalidi's going away dinner -- especially since Peter Wallsten's April, 2008, L.A. Times article implied that the videotape opens the door to the possibility that Senator Obama's official position on American foreign policy toward Israel may not actually reflect his true feelings on the issue.

How ironic, then, that the L.A. Times refuses to release the video. When Barack Obama's opponent Jack Ryan, and his ex-wife sought to keep their divorce records sealed, a Tribune newspaper sued to have the records unsealed on the grounds than the Ryans' privacy -- and their young son's well being -- were less important than the "public interest." But now a Tribune newspaper is refusing to release a videotape that could further illuminate Senator Obama's position on American foreign policy toward Israel on the grounds that doing so would violate their "journalistic ethics."

In fairness, the Tribune Company is now under different ownership than it was under in 2004. But one thing that hasn't changed since 2004 is the Tribune's apparent imperative to lend a hand to the candidacy of Barack Obama.

* Through his service on the board of the Woods Fund, Barack Obama voted to grant more tha $70,000 to the Arab American Action Network, an organization created by Rashid Khalidi (more here, and here).

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