Over-Zell-ous? Real Estate Mogul Felled by Media Biz

Sam Zell might have never become a billionaire real estate magnate without the help of "grave dancing" -- a term he coined for making money off distressed properties.

"Grave dancing is an art form that has many potential benefits," Zell wrote in 1976. "But one must be careful while prancing around not to fall into the open pit and join the cadaver."

Some 30 years later, the pit is calling.

Zell's foray into the media business, the Tribune Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday. The company owns 10 major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as more than 20 television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Tribune will continue to operate its media businesses during its bankruptcy restructuring while the profitable Cubs franchise -- which was put up for sale last year -- is not a part of the filing, the company said.

VIDEO: Media mogul Sam Zell curses at one of his photographers during a staff meeting.
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In a statement issued by Tribune Monday afternoon, Zell blamed the company's decline on "a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis that makes it extremely difficult to support our debt."

But critics argue that it was more than that -- Zell himself, some say, is also largely to blame.

"We know that he was a real estate person and I think he's demonstrated that in his short ownership of the Tribune Company," said Bernie Lunzer, the president of the Newspaper Guild of the Communications Workers of America. "I just don't think he really fully understands what he got into. ... I think a lot of us predicted that the Tribune Company would get to this point."

A Tribune spokesman did not respond to a request by ABCNews.com to interview Zell.

The company's bankruptcy filing comes after a stormy year under Zell's leadership. In December 2007, Zell engineered a private takeover of the ailing, once publicly held company. He invested $315 million of his own money into Tribune, secured billions more in financing for the takeover and installed himself as the company's president and chief executive officer.

Known for brash, aggressive tactics and colorful language -- he has been caught on videotape saying "f--- you" to a reporter during a speech before newspaper employees in Florida -- Zell's take-no-prisoners style initially proved exciting to some but ultimately angered many in the media business, including his own employees, some of whom eventually sued Zell.

Zell's Employee Relations

His takeover of the Tribune Co., a group of Los Angeles Times employees argued in a lawsuit filed in September, was a deal "designed to benefit corporate insiders at the employees' expense."

In a statement after the suit was filed, Zell dismissed the employees' claims as "frivolous" and "unfounded."

The infamy brought on by 2007 Tribune deal followed what had been more than four decades of deal-making glory in the real estate business, starting in his college days. His business savvy dates back even further.

Zell's parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants who fled their home country on the eve of the 1939 Nazi invasion. They settled in Chicago, where Zell was born in 1941.

"My father made a life-and-death decision at age 34, and he was right," Zell told Dividend, a University of Michigan business school alumni magazine, in 2006. "My dad was very, very strong and very confident. I had to be very confident and strong to succeed in his shadow."

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