Tribune Suspends Lee Abrams Over E-mail Sent in 'Extremely Bad Taste'

Chief Innovations Officer Finds 'Loose, Fun, Nonlinear Atmosphere' Has a Limit

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Tribune Co., the owner of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and a bevy of local TV stations, has suspended Lee Abrams from his position as senior VP and chief innovations officer two days after Mr. Abrams sent a companywide e-mail linking to material that some staffers found offensive. A Tribune spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Lee Abrams
Lee Abrams
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That companywide e-mail, one of a weekly series Mr. Abrams sends to encourage fresh thinking among staff, included a link to a video clip from The Onion, a link Mr. Abrams labeled "sluts," about the fictional crash of a bus packed with VH1 reality show contestants. It appears to show, among other things, a woman pouring alcohol on her bare breasts. (If you want to decide for yourself whether you think it's offensive, the video is here.)

The e-mail came less than a week after an extensive New York Times report about the company, headlined "At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture," which recounted incidents of lewd behavior by Tribune management.

In another e-mail yesterday, Mr. Abrams apologized "to everyone who was offended."

But today the company told employees that despite Mr. Abrams' apology, the e-mail required a response. "Lee recognizes that the video was in extremely bad taste and that it offended employees -- he has also apologized publicly," CEO Randy Michaels said in a memo. "He reiterated those feelings again to me privately today. But, this is the kind of serious mistake that can't be tolerated; we intend to address it promptly and forcefully."

Too little, too late?
Some employees weren't satisfied by the suspension -- not because Mr. Abrams may or may not have acted in an offensive manner, but because they felt he wasn't a constructive force atop the company. "He's demonstrated no understanding of the industry or what we're about, so the fact that he gets in trouble for whatever he sent is too little, too late," one Chicago Tribune employee said.

Mr. Abrams and Mr. Michaels, radio industry veterans, were installed after real estate magnate Sam Zell took the company private in December 2007. The recent New York Times article about Tribune reported that the new regime had updated the employee handbook to warn that staffers might hear words they wouldn't use or hear jokes they don't consider funny. "That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process," the new handbook said. "This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment."

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008. It is expected to file its plan to exit Chapter 11 soon.

Mr. Michaels' memo:

I want to let you know that today we made the decision to suspend Lee Abrams from his position as Tribune's Chief Innovation Officer. He will remain on suspension indefinitely and without pay while we review the circumstances surrounding the email and video link he distributed on Monday. We're in the process of determining further disciplinary action.

Lee recognizes that the video was in extremely bad taste and that it offended employees -- he has also apologized publicly. He reiterated those feelings again to me privately today. But, this is the kind of serious mistake that can't be tolerated; we intend to address it promptly and forcefully.

As I said last week, a creative culture must be built on a foundation of respect. Our culture is not about being offensive or hurtful. We encourage employees to speak up when they see or hear something that they find offensive, as a number of employees did with regard to this particular email. I can assure you, you will be heard.

Randy

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