I said the other day that a Sun-Times strength is its packaging. Certainly the paper has others. One’s its willingness to let its stars have at each other–always exciting to see, in the way it’s cool whenever superheroes from different comic books bump heads for supremacy over Metropolis, or Gotham, or the Free World. Back in 1991 I wrote that as it was passé for papers to rail against injustice the Sun-Times had become “a lot more exciting by railing against itself.” As a fer instance, I cited a Mariotti column ripping Michael Jordan for ducking the Bulls’ White House visit after they won their first championship. Mariotti had immediately caught a one-two-three to the chin: op-ed columnist Vernon Jarrett, editorial cartoonist Jack Higgins, and a Sun-Times editorial all ridiculed the idea that Jordan owed the president deference.  Then there’s the bilious relationship between Mariotti and Rick Telander. A year ago Ozzie Guillen called Mariotti a fag for avoiding the White House Sox clubhouse, and Telander’s column was more on Guillen’s side than his colleague’s. 

Here we go again, and now we have Sun-Times columnists lambasting each other even when Mariotti has nothing to do with it. On June 26 Mary Mitchell compared the media treatment of Bobby Cutts Jr., suspected murderer of the missing Jessie Marie Davis, with the treatment of Christopher Vaughn, suspected murderer of his wife and their three kids. “By the time Cutts was arrested, he had already been pilloried in the media,” Mitchell wrote. “Cutts is a black man who is accused of killing his pregnant white girlfriend and unborn baby.” On the other hand, “although just about everyone I spoke with thought Vaughn must have killed his family, he was given the respect due any grieving father by the media.” Said Mitchell, “The difference in these sensational crimes isn’t character. It’s race.” 

The next day, Neil Steinberg offered a lecture on racism. “Treating dissimilar individuals in a dissimilar fashion is not racism, even if they are of different races,” he said. Cutts “has a checkered past of adultery and abuse.” Vaughn “has by all accounts a pristine record.” He helpfully instructed Mitchell (who went unnamed) and his readers, “Awareness of race should help us perceive the world, not blind us to it.” 

A day later Mitchell wondered in print if the right way to respond to Steinberg (whom she named) was to “walk down the hall and punch him in the nose.” She said that Steinberg had become a “self-appointed critic of my views on race” and in fact had “used his position to label me a racist.” The fact is, she argued, that “the Vaughn case was shrouded in mystery, while the Cutts case was wide open, we knew his personal business almost immediately.” She gave two reasons why the Cutts case was “wide open”–the suspected killer was black and the victim was white. “Had Cutts married a pregnant black woman, we wouldn’t know what she looked like,” Mitchell said, suggesting “cable news channels” might have ignored the story altogether. “I’m comforted,” Mitchell wrote, “that a lot of black people knew where I was coming from.”

They’re both more right than wrong. Yes, Cutts had a record and Vaughn didn’t, and that made a big difference to the media. But yes, I agree with Mitchell that if Davis had been black her disappearance probably wouldn’t have become a national story.  And true enough, the media opened the gates to anecdotal evidence of Vaughn’s creepiness the instant he was in cuffs. But that’s typical not only of journalism but human nature–as soon as someone’s led off we exhale and agree we always thought he was a little weird.  And you know what? Everyone’s a “self-appointed” critic in this business: nobody in journalism needs a license  to say what he or she thinks of anybody else. Did Steinberg actually call Mitchell a racist? He wrote that to think what he said she thought is to “succumb to an inverse kind of racism.” So, yeah.

Commenters turned my blog post about something completely different into a forum for Mitchell v. Steinberg, with early opinion favoring the view that if the feud went on she’d kick his butt. Let me add here, because it sort of fits, a mention of a call I got the other day from a retired Chicago homicide detective who’d seen my recent column on hate crimes. I’d made the point that Illinois and federal hate crime laws are a lot more evenhanded than some recent Tribune stories had made them out to be: these laws make it an additional crime to commit a crime of violence for reasons of racial hatred–whatever the race of the victim and the perpetrator. That’s swell, said the detective, who made liberal use of the phrase “politically correct.” But the thing is, he said, if it’s a white-on-black crime police and prosecutors are asking for trouble if they don’t file hate crime charges, and if it’s a black-on-white crime police and prosecutors are asking for trouble if they do.