T Dog’s Think Tank: Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase looks like a Sam Zell redux


Brash billionaire likely to send social media platform to ruins, similar to what Zell did to the Tribune

As you know by now, billionaire Elon Musk has bought Twitter, Inc. for $54.20 a share, or for $44 billion. The outright purchase of the social media platform by the world’s richest man came after Musk acquired shares in the company, making him the biggest shareholder. After the board used a poison pill to keep him at arms length – and complaints from Florida GOP members who threatened an investigation, the board accepted (or were forced to accept) Musk’s offer.

There’s a lot of handwringing on what Musk would do with Twitter once he takes control of the platform, given his brash personality and his involvement in controversy, including a racial discrimination lawsuit against one of his companies, automaker Tesla in California. He’s not a progressive person, stupidly blaming “woke programming” as the reason for Netflix’s subscriber decline, which sent their stocks sinking (I guess to him, “woke programming” involves anyone who isn’t a Caucasian male in a starring role.)

And Musk is known not to headquarter his operations in union-friendly or progressive states such as California, where Silicon Valley is and where Twitter is currently based, in San Francisco. Musk recently moved his Tesla headquarters to Texas, in the state capital of Austin where taxes are far lower and guessing he’s going to move Twitter there as well.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter reminds us of the last time a billionaire bought a major media company – and it was right here in Chicago.

Chicago-based Tribune Co. was once one of the biggest media companies in the Midwest, owning WGN-TV, WGN Radio, the Chicago Tribune and other media properties including WPIX New York and KWGN Denver. They expanded by buying the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Times, several more TV stations, partnering to launch The WB, and investing in new media technologies.

Enter Sam Zell.

Sam Zell.

The billionaire real estate developer bought Tribune winning via auction (paying $8.2 billion), taking it private and immediately put the Cubs up for sale (they were bought by the Ricketts family in 2009) and closing the syndication arm of Tribune Entertainment. After officially taking over in December 2007, it didn’t take long for Zell to fill positions with his cronies from the days he worked for radio owner Jacor and Clear Channel¬† Communications: installing Randy Michaels as CEO, who in return hired Sean Compton, Kevin Metheny, and Lee Abrams in key positions.

A year after taking over, Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the deal soured given the weak economy at the time and the global credit crisis.

Throughout the Zell era, questionable ethics plagued the organization including “poker parties” at the penthouse suite at the Tribune Tower and Abrams sending out racy e-mails to staff forcing him out, and Michaels sending out a memo to WGN Radio staffers banning the use of 119 words on the air, and hiring ex-alderman – and convicted felon Jim Laski to host a nightly show.¬† Jobs were lost and the Chicago Tribune started to decline. Michaels was later forced out after allegations of sexual harassment, while Laski and Metheny were canned shortly thereafter. and for good measure, hyperlocal news-focused TribLocal, was caught in a byline plagiarism scheme.

In 2012, Tribune came out from under Zell’s control as the company was handed over to creditors, but the damage was done. Tribune was split into two companies in 2014, marking the end of one of Chicago’s biggest media companies. Tribune Media received the television, radio, and internet properties while the newspaper and publishing division becoming Tribune Publishing. Tribune Media was sold to Texas-based Nexstar in 2019 after an unsuccessful sale to Sinclair; Tribune Publishing was sold to New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital last year.

Knowing Musk, we’ll see the same kind of nonsense we saw when Zell ran Tribune. People loyal to Musk would take command and ethics would be thrown out the window, while scrapping the moderation tools Twitter created to fight misinformation – meaning we’ll see more of it. We’ll likely see the restoration of banned accounts including President Trump’s – who said he’s isn’t coming back to Twitter – though we all know he could change his mind at any second (wink, wink.) We’ll also see the escalation of attacks on minorities and LGBTQ community, and he may do away with advertising, which opens up the platform for even more disinformation and hate speech as it’s poison to marketers.

In other words, if you think Twitter is toxic now, you haven’t seen anything yet but I guess you all get that stupid edit button everyone wanted. With Musk in control, you wonder what the over/under is on when Twitter completely collapses.

What’s just as distributing is wealthy people now think they can buy they way into anything and force their ideals down our throats – especially if they don’t like what they see. We’re seeing this in politics with hedge fund executive Ken Griffin pouring millions into the Illinois governor’s race because a crime occurred outside of his luxury apartment downtown. And we could see more of this when it comes to broadcasting – we’ve seen how that turned out with Zell, and the Tribune Co. went down the tubes as a result. Who knows? Musk could wind up targeting one of the major Hollywood studios or a major radio or TV group for his next acquisition. And given his anti-union stance and his willingness to ignore racial and sexual harassment issues, a Musk takeover would indeed be a dark day for media – even more so than now.

Remember when the evil hotel magnate Leona Helmsley referred to those who pay taxes as “the little people”? Thanks to Griffin, Musk, and their power-grubbing ilk, we “little people” are getting smaller and smaller with each passing day to the point we might as well not exist.


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