By Michael Miner

A Debate with Linda Bowles

Chicago attorney George Thomson learned a hard lesson the other day. The truth about newspaper columnists is they’re paid to write, not care.

Thomson read a Linda Bowles column in the Tribune last month and was troubled by it. Bowles’s subject was homosexual marriage, her position absolute opposition, her logic circular. “The human sex drive is extraordinarily powerful,” she wrote. “It may become inappropriately and sometimes immutably affixed to socks, corpses, animals, children, footstools and members of the same sex. No society in its right mind would do anything to encourage the formation of these aberrations.”

Bowles reasoned, “The issue of homosexual marriage involves a great deal more than ‘live and let live’ tolerance for that which is different. It opens doors that are best left closed. What will we say to the bisexual who demands the right to marry the man and woman of his choice? What will we say to the pedophile who swears he never chose to be what he is?

“True, we are all flawed. But it is our task to overcome our demons–not to embrace them. The rationalization and reinforcement of that which is wrong in ourselves and others is not a virtue. Homosexual marriage requires the surrender of cherished principles and the abandonment of fundamental values. It makes a mockery of the natural family, corrupts the church, endangers our national health and further lowers the moral bulwarks that hold back a rising tide of human depravity. It is a monstrously stupid idea.”

Homosexual marriage was wrong because it mocked the natural order. It mocked the natural order because it was wrong. Thomson felt a need to respond. He sent Bowles, by way of the Tribune, a two-and-a-half-page, single-spaced letter in which he tried to remain “as deadpan and low-key analytical as I could.” He recognized Bowles’s powers of derision, and he didn’t want them used against him.

Identifying himself as someone “for whom being gay is an aspect of my life,” Thomson explained that “church approval for any committed relationship which I may have with another person” isn’t something he seeks, but he strongly favors “state sanction.” He cited advantages with regard to taxation, probate, insurance, and the transfer of property.

“I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but I do take issue with a number of your assertions about the psychology of homosexuality,” he wrote. “The analogies you attempt to show with drug addicts, sexual voyeurs and pedophiles are not properly drawn. The circumstances of choosing to act upon an inherent trait and to live openly as a homosexual person are different than those of becoming a drug addict. As to the comparisons with voyeurism and pedophilia, that is misplaced because these do not involve interactions between two consenting adults.”

Thomson went on, “Your paragraph concerning psychological research on the subject of homosexuality is grandiose in its generality. The assertion that, ‘the case has not been made that a homosexual is anything other than a misdirected male or disoriented female’ is unsupported, and how can we debate your premise if you do not provide your supported documentation and you require gay people to prove a double negative. Similarly, your dismissal of the genetic studies about sexual orientation with the cavalier and again unsupported assertion that they ‘do not stand up to the most casual and perfunctory examination by anyone familiar with experimental methodology’ does not in any way advance a meaningful debate on the issue.

“Finally, by way of tying up loose ends, your argument that gay marriage opens the door to bisexual bigamy and legal pedophilia is not a logical extension of the current debate. Those advocating some sort of legal recognition of homosexual unions premise their position on the fact of two consenting and competent persons seeking such recognition. I also have never understood how legal recognition of same sex relationships diminishes the value and importance of committed and loving relationships between men and women. Further, I would like to know how same sex domestic partnership ‘makes a mockery of the natural family, corrupts the church [and] endangers our national health.’

“I am not usually a letter writer. I would rather engage in a bilateral discussion of the issues face to face. However, your piece struck something in me. I hope you can find some time to advance the debate with me.”

Bilateral discussion? Advance the debate? Bowles had time for that. When her letter arrived Thomson tore open the envelope.

“Dear George, Get help. Very sincerely, Linda Bowles.”

If she’d wanted to suck all the air out of him she succeeded. “I would have accepted virtually any other response from her but that,” Thomson told me. “No response would have been better. A form letter saying ‘I disagree with you’ would have been better. ‘I disagree with you, fucking faggot’ would have been better.

“But this stops any discussion dead in its tracks. She makes it clear she doesn’t want to debate the issues with me because she considers me incapable of debate.”

But Bowles told me that wasn’t her intent at all. She said she’s too busy to debate, but because he wrote such a civil letter, she sent back a helpful reply. “I certainly didn’t mean it in a vicious way,” she said. “That’s why I signed it ‘Very sincerely.’ I think it’s good advice.”

I told her that “fucking faggot” would have been easier for Thomson to accept than what he got. Bowles expressed astonishment that I would consider quoting him saying this.

“I don’t want to participate in a piece that uses that kind of language,” she said. “I didn’t realize that kind of language is legal.”

Bitter Pill

Like many a well-meant gesture, this one was doomed to fall flat. Tribune reporter Casey Bukro, founder of the Ethics in Journalism Award, rose at last month’s Lisagor dinner to reveal the first winners.

“In the print-news category,” he announced, “the winner formerly worked for American Medical News. He was cited for laying his job on the line by writing stories that were contrary to American Medical Association policy on medicare and other health issues. His editor said he was writing stories that he was not assigned to cover and that he was fired for insubordination. The winner is Harris Meyer.”

To this day Bukro praises his citation of Meyer for its scrupulosity. To be fair to Meyer’s old editor at AM News, he’d withheld her name and told her side of the story. “I don’t know any other contest which says critical and pejorative things about the winner,” he tells me. “This is supposed to be an award for fairness, ethics, and accuracy, and we felt we had to go beyond what is normally done in contests.”

But out in the audience Barbara Bolsen fumed. Plenty of journalists at the dinner knew she ran AM News, whether Bukro named her or not. And what if he had told her side? He’d also made it clear he and the other judges didn’t believe it. To give Meyer not just a journalism award after she’d fired him but an ethics in journalism award tarred her as an unethical news suppressor, a lying toady for the AMA.

“The Headline Club has defamed me before an audience of my peers,” Bolsen wrote Ed Avis, president of the Chicago Headline Club, after stewing for a weekend. (The Headline Club sponsors the annual Lisagor awards.) “I want to make it clear that I am objecting in the strongest possible terms to the process used by the awards committee. My professional reputation, the reputation of my newspaper, and the reputation of every one of my staff members was on the line…. Surely, the fact that Mr. Meyer was actively campaigning for this award should have raised suspicions. I don’t think the extent of checking done on Mr. Meyer’s attractively packaged ‘David-vs.-Goliath’ story would have passed muster in most newsrooms in America. As a result, I believe the committee was taken for a ride.”

Bolsen (who wouldn’t speak to me) complained in her letter that aside from a couple of conversations she initiated with Bukro late in the judging process–after hearing that Meyer was already a nominee for the ethics award–there was no communication between the judges and anyone “with direct knowledge of the grounds for Mr. Meyer’s dismissal.” Had Bukro shown her the letter and documents Meyer submitted to the judges in support of his nomination, “I could have pointed out the selective nature of the materials provided and the numerous inaccuracies and manipulations of the facts contained therein.”

Bolsen told Avis she was resigning from the Chicago Headline Club in protest.

Bolsen is concerned for her good name, and Meyer is concerned for his. After Bolsen fired him he took steps to protect it. He hinted at a libel suit (never filed). And, as Bolsen would say in her letter, he put himself in the running for the ethics award by asking two friends who once wrote for AM News to nominate him. Then he wrote the judges, telling them why he’d make a deserving winner. From September 1994, he wrote, “AMA leaders tried to suppress my articles and get rid of me because they believed my work undercut the AMA’s political positions on issues before Congress, notably the AMA’s opposition to health care reform.”

Last November, Meyer went on, “an AMA board member told me he didn’t want me doing a Medicare article I was interviewing him for because it wouldn’t advance the AMA’s political agenda. The AMA’s general counsel called my editor and told her to kill it or alter it. I told my colleagues about this by E-mail.” The piece eventually ran, but Bolsen put Meyer on probation for not telling her it was politically sensitive.

The probation memo, which can be read as Bolsen’s acknowledgment that a crumbling wall shields AM News from the AMA, found her reminding Meyer: “As you know, the newspaper’s relationship with members of the AMA Board of Trustees requires careful management, a task I am responsible for. The sensitivity of this relationship is heightened before Board meetings during which the newspaper is to be discussed. I cannot carry out my responsibilities when information about staff members’ interactions with trustees is withheld.”

Bolsen’s memo to Meyer went on to assert that he’d “repeatedly and heatedly expressed [his] frustration and anger about Congress’ and the AMA’s current direction on Medicare and Medicaid legislation to me and your colleagues….Your ability to separate your personal beliefs from your professional performance has been impaired….Neither I nor your supervising editor should have to struggle with you over each assignment, before and after it is completed.”

She advised him not to “characterize” to other employees any future “incident” he might have with her without discussing with her the “characterization” in advance. Nevertheless, Meyer then notified colleagues by E-mail that he’d been put on probation. He says his announcement wasn’t a “characterization” at all, just factual reporting. But it’s the reason Bolsen gave for firing him.

Today Harris Meyer is a senior writer at Hospitals & Health Networks magazine. He’s an exceptional journalist by every account, and that includes his 1995 AM News performance evaluation, which describes him as an “outstanding enterprise reporter and analyst…a leader in helping shape AMN coverage.” The night he won an ethics award he also won a Lisagor for a story on the impact of medicare changes on the elderly, and more recently he received a $5,000 first prize from the National Institute for Health Care Management for six stories on medicaid.

But Meyer can be a real load. “Harris Meyer has been known for a long time as a very abrasive reporter. He ticks people off,” says Bob Knight, one of the judges who gave him the ethics award. A friend of Meyer’s told me he has the marvelous insensitivity common to investigative reporters that allows them to move comfortably through a crowded room oblivious to the fact they’re offending everyone in it. Meyer had been suffering at the AM News, and not in silence. Long before he was fired he was looking for other work. (The fact that he didn’t find it, despite his mastery of health-care issues, reflects the shameful willingness of the nation’s newspapers to dumb down the health-care debate to a political story rather than come to grips with it.)

Meyer’s relationship with AM News had worn to a nub. It’s not only possible to be a tireless truth teller while being intolerably insubordinate, it’s easy. Said Casey Bukro, discussing Meyer’s dismissal, “There’s a heavy element here which indicates a conflict between an employee and a supervisor.”

Recall that it was an ethics award Meyer won. What Bolsen’s letter implies is that there’s an important difference between firing a writer to shut him up and firing him because he drives you nuts. The difference is martyrdom. If the ethics award judges had scratched a little harder, Bolsen maintained, they’d have arrived at a deeper truth.

But Bukro believes he asked enough questions of enough people–including Bolsen–to establish what needed to be established. He told me, “One of the first questions I asked Barbara Bolsen was, ‘Was he fired?'” If he hadn’t been, I asked, would he have gotten the award?

“Probably not. The award was given for the fact that he took a stand, which goes to the issue of ethics. He was nominated for essentially putting his job on the line by writing stories contrary to American Medical Association policy.”

Two other judges say it made no difference whether Meyer lost his job. To Sherry Goodman, a director of the award’s cosponsor, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, Meyer’s ethics lay in “the apparent determination to air all aspects of a very complicated issue of monumental importance to the citizenry.” And the City News Bureau’s Bob Knight, who teaches at Medill, acknowledges that “we were sort of developing criteria as we went along,” and that it was enough to identify “a pain factor.” Meyer was fired, but “it could have been that he suffered some stress without being fired.”

After the dinner Knight got a call from a former student of his, Greg Borzo, a senior reporter at AM News. Like many current staffers, Borzo was furious that Meyer had been honored for his ethics. “He really took me to task on it,” says Knight. “I probably lost a friend.”

There’s a certain incoherence to the ethical standard that Meyer met, but then the Ethics in Journalism Award is still a work in progress. The nominating forms distributed last fall asked for “a kindlier, gentler journalism,” and I wrote then that Bukro seemed to be looking for journalism “whose first virtue is inoffensiveness.” Not so, says Bukro, who today happily holds my words against me. “This is not a pussycat award, and we did not intend for it to be a pussycat award.”

Clearly if the award were given for “exemplary journalism under uncomfortable working conditions partly of the journalist’s own making” Meyer’s triumph couldn’t be questioned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of George Thomson by Jon Randolph.