When the term “free market” is used to describe an exchange of any sort, we advise our readers to respond with a hard, skeptical look at the terms. The marketplace of ideas is no exception.
The conflict between truth and big money has been a central theme of the Occupy movement since it began. In a country in which the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the material wealth, those with deep pockets can dictate the popular narrative, while those without are marginalized or shut out of critical political dialogue. Corporate media consolidation—just six conglomerates are now behind 90 percent of the content Americans see, read, and hear—has produced a near-uniform set of news talking points, and the Citizens United ruling has allowed a breathtaking influx of cash to turn our democracy into human history’s most expensive charade.
The Occupied Chicago Tribune aims to occupy popular print media to serve as a forum in which the stories of the 99%—and not their material resources—are what drive the news.
We’ve reported on senior citizens resisting cuts to critical social services, neighbors and families coming together to resist foreclosures by predatory banks, and educators and parents standing up to well-funded school “reform” efforts that would transfer our city’s schools to private hands.
But recently the Occupied Chicago Tribune has itself become a part of the story.
Following the publication of our first issue last December, our staff has contended with threats of litigation from the Tribune Company, a media corporation whose assets include more than 25 television and radio stations and a dozen U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. The company, through a representative, has demanded that we radically redesign our publication, including abandoning our title and shutting down our social media pages.
In one particularly surreal bit of discussion in January, their representative informed our staff that they would be open to legal action were we even to use the name “Occupied Chicago Times.” A title beginning with the letter T could lead, they alleged, to reader confusion between the two papers. This suggestion betrays the farcically low regard in which Tribune Company’s executives hold the analytical skills and faculties of their own readers.
Their lawyer insisted that the Tribune Company has an interest in “protecting the brand,” confirming what disappointed readers have known for years—that the Chicago Tribune is first and foremost a marketable commodity, and only secondarily a news source. What remains of journalism at the company has fallen to its rapidly diminishing newsroom workforce.
For more than three years, the Tribune Company has been entangled in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and attempts to regain profitability have resulted in multiple rounds of layoffs to Chicago Tribune writers and editors. In the months surrounding the bankruptcy filing, more than 100 members of the newsroom lost their jobs. Last July, the company axed 20 more positions. And in January of this year, the paper’s editorial staff received a memo giving them two options: Volunteer to leave—an option that included a buyout package of as little as two weeks’ pay—or risk layoff. [Update: Management followed through with the threat, laying off fifteen journalists on March 15—Ed.]
Yet, at the same time as the Tribune Co. struggles to issue paychecks to the journalists who create the paper’s contents, the company has appealed to the courts to allow its managers to claim tens of millions of dollars in bonus pay.
From what we can tell, the company hasn’t hesitated to shell out for billable hours to keep a trademark lawyer after our publication.
As this issue goes to press, we have yet to be formally served with legal papers, though our fellow Occupy publication, the Occupied Oakland Tribune, has been hit with a cease and desist order from a major local news company. They pledge to fight the order.
In a rational world, fair and honest reporting about our communities would be a public asset. In a city as large and diverse as Chicago, we could never run out of stories to tell.
But, as is so often the case, the public interest and the market have run into a deep conflict. We support Occupy Chicago and the Occupy movement in presenting a credible challenge to such an arrangement. Now, as we represent the conflict in both form and content, we’re even prouder to be a part of that effort.
– Editorial board of the Occupied Chicago Tribune