All Eyes on Bob

Al Qaeda could have made a major move in Chicago last Sunday or Monday, and nobody in the media would have noticed. “I knew him at the Sun-Times 30 years ago,” I told a TV producer about Bob Greene. She asked, “Do you want to go on camera?”

Pam Snow, who with her husband runs a floral shop in Grand Island, Nebraska, spent a hectic Monday dealing with the national press. Snow was an organizer of the Nebraska Book Festival, held in her town last Friday and Saturday, and her connection with Greene was that he’d been the keynote speaker Friday night and made a separate appearance Saturday morning. She was, so to speak, the last person to see Bob Greene while he was Bob Greene.

Another of the last people was my mother-in-law, who’d read Greene’s latest book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen, and was so excited she drove 40 miles with a friend to hear his talk and ask him to inscribe her copy. This he did with great aplomb–and though I’d alerted him that she was coming, the aplomb was enjoyed by all. “Everybody at the banquet felt he gave a wonderful, wonderful speech,” says Snow. “He was very gracious. We had absolutely no inklings that anything was coming down.”

Once Upon a Town tells the story of a Nebraska community that set up a canteen and served six million soldiers and sailors on the troop trains that briefly stopped there during World War II. It’s a sweet story about a time Greene recalled as simpler and better than our own, and it’s the sort of story that writers who loathe Greene are happy to ridicule him for.

By Friday evening, when he was posing for pictures with the poet laureate of Nebraska, Greene must have had a very good idea that his career was crashing. Earlier in the week he’d offered his resignation; on Saturday editor Ann Marie Lipinski would accept it. As has happened to so many Catholic priests of late, an adolescent he’d apparently taken sexual advantage of many years ago had returned to haunt him.

Thirty years ago Greene was the enfant terrible of Chicago journalism–our Holden Caulfield, someone called him. The part of him that didn’t exist to write didn’t exist. Not merely a self-promoter, he wrote gleeful columns about his self-promotion–such as the song he commissioned, “The Ballad of Bobby Greene.” His good friend Paul Galloway, who started work at the Sun-Times on the same day in 1969, remembers Greene bringing a singing dog into the newsroom one day and an investigative reporter trying to wrap up a story screaming at Greene to shut the mutt up. “It was a hyperactive study-hall kind of atmosphere, full of problem children,” Galloway remembers. “And I said to myself, ‘This is where I want to be.'”

Greene’s ambition then was to publish five books before he was 30, and he did. Or was it ten? His stories were tough, funny, and assertive. Guys joked about his toupee, my dates angled to meet him.

Looking back at the early Sun-Times columns collected in Johnny Deadline, Reporter, I can see he was sentimental even then–sentimental about the boyhood the rest of us were shaking off our boots. Thirty years later his was still clinging.

This Monday I heard from four TV stations, one out-of-town newspaper, and the AP. There was also plenty of E-mail, and it cut both ways. Here’s a note that came in, unbidden, from a woman who used to live in Chicago. “When I was 19, I met Bob Greene at the K&B bookstore across from Trib Tower. He was there re-arranging copies of one of his books to get better shelf placement (no kidding!). Anyway, it was a Sunday and I talked to him for a minute about how I was a journalism student and he said, ‘I’m just about to go write my column now. Would you like to come back to my place with me and watch me write it?'”

Unfortunately, too many anecdotes like this one circulated.

The column that eventually did him in was written in 1988. A journalism teacher had told her students to go out and interview somebody, and a 17-year-old senior aimed high and chose Greene. She arrived at his office with her parents. Greene, being a columnist, got his own story out of the visit, but apparently the column wasn’t the end of it. Lipinski’s cryptic note on the front page of the Sunday paper announcing Greene’s resignation said “he acknowledged engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct.” She called his behavior “a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists” and continued, “We deeply regret the conduct, its effect on the young woman and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers placed in Greene and this newspaper.”

The note read like something dictated by lawyers: Say he admits it, say he resigns, say you’re sorry. Reporters read it and went crazy. Lipinski let her staff go ahead and chase the story along with everyone else. Newspapers rarely cover themselves well, but on Monday the Tribune outreported the opposition. After interviewing their own colleagues, Jim Kirk and Monica Davey told this tale: It seemed a long, anonymous E-mail had arrived the previous Monday describing “encounters” between Greene and a schoolgirl in her late teens “more than a decade ago.” She’d visited Greene in his office in connection with a school project, Greene had written about her, and “soon thereafter” he’d asked her out to dinner. Greene was now acknowledging that “a sexual encounter followed.”

“Sources” told Kirk and Davey that, for whatever reason, the woman had phoned Greene twice in the past year. “According to the e-mail, on the day after the second time, she received a call from the FBI suggesting she may be posing a threat to the columnist.”

By Monday afternoon it was common knowledge at the Sun-Times as well as the Tribune when the column ran and who the woman was. A Web search of her name turned up a 1996 letter on the home page of a well-known poet and lyricist: “While my classmates are preparing their thesis on topics like the Penelope chapter in Ulysses or Jane Austen and men, I am heavily interested in you. You, as an artist, a writer, a lover of Celtic mythology….I love your poetry. To me, you are on the same plateau as Yeats.”

Go ahead, replied the poet, “long as I don’t have to lift a finger or do an interview.”

“No, no interview–I can’t stand those,” she replied. “Once…I interviewed a BIG TIME (whoop-de-do) athlete over lunch and all he could do was pour the wine and grab my breasts.”

I couldn’t reach the woman, but I talked to her high school journalism teacher, who told me she’d just come home and wondered why there were so many messages on her voice mail. She remembered being so impressed by her former student’s enterprise in talking to Greene that she wrote a letter recommending her for a college scholarship.

An anonymous caller who apparently works at the Tribune called to tell me of a “similar case” the Tribune had “brushed under the table.” He named a prominent Tribune editor and told me how to reach the alleged victim. She said there’d been an incident that amounted to nothing, but after the Tribune received an anonymous tip (from someone she assumed was the same person who called me), Human Resources had investigated to a fare-thee-well. Powerful people have enemies, she reminded me.

One piece of E-mail that came in was really steaming. It was written by Lew Koch, an anchor of the old Chicago Journalism Review in the early 70s: “Bob Greene has a record, I would argue, second to none, in his dedication to infants and children who have been physically and mentally tortured by their parents, guardians or by the child care systems that were supposed to care for them. In a real sense, his columns prevented their continued butchering.”

And now he’s gone, wrote Koch. “Perhaps Lipinski needs to be reminded that reporters and columnists are not priests….No one in journalism takes a vow of chastity. They take a vow to get the story.”

Koch was pointing to basic questions that hung in the air despite Kirk and Davey’s efforts to look behind Lipinski’s opaque announcement. These questions had been put to Lipinski at a Tribune staff meeting Monday afternoon that the two reporters described in their Tuesday story. The questions kept coming back to this: “What part of Greene’s behavior in particular violated Tribune policy?” The Tribune had just issued its revised seven-page “code of business conduct” and six-page “editorial ethics policy,” and though they go on at length about relative minutiae, they’re not very clear about sex. The ethics policy says this: “Staff members should not write about [anyone] with whom they have a close personal or financial relationship unless they have made the relationship known and received a ruling from a supervisor that there is no cause for concern about a conflict or the perception of one.”

Did this apply? Was there a relationship to disclose when Greene wrote his column 14 years ago? Or did he write it to promote one? Who called whom, and when? A day after they met? A year? Is there a statute of limitations on misconduct?

And what about that supposed call from the FBI? Was it the FBI? Was it a buddy? Had Greene exploited his position to get someone in the bureau to do him a favor? Apparently, this was about misbehavior too basic to be measured by an ethics policy. Lipinski told her staff that Greene had used “his status and position at the paper in a way that causes conflict” for the Tribune. Trying to flesh out Lipinski’s studied vagueness, Kirk and Davey did something you don’t see often: they quoted their paper’s editorial running in the same issue. The editorial explained that the Tribune could say no more because the “urge” for full disclosure was colliding with fundamental privacy rights, yet “a newspaper cannot maintain the trust of its readers on issues like those if it does not judge itself just as rigorously.” The Tribune put itself in a strange position. It claimed it was protecting the public trust by canning Greene, but it was simultaneously drawing on that trust to sell the canning to the public without providing evidence that it was necessary. The Tribune acknowledged that calls and E-mail from readers were running in Greene’s favor.

At the front of Tuesday’s Tribune, John Kass explained that Greene had to go because “you have to trust us to read us.” He wrote, “It’s quite simple. She was in high school, brought to this newspaper by her parents. They trusted and respected him. They were in awe of him. And he did what he did with their daughter.”

After all of Monday’s scurrying around, the media took the high road. Nowhere on Tuesday did the Tribune name the woman. Neither did the AP. The Sun-Times didn’t run a word on Greene. Four TV stations sent crews to Evanston to interview Loren Ghiglione, the dean of Greene’s alma mater, the Medill School of Journalism, and Ghiglione was a panelist on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. He absolutely supported the Tribune. The other two panelists were columnists Mary Mitchell, who insisted columnists have a right to a private life, and Jack Mabley, who said Greene had had a reputation forever as a swordsman and there had to be more to this than we know.

Paul Galloway spent the last 16 years of his career at the Tribune. “Now that I’ve retired,” he told me, “I would welcome any kind of an investigation of inappropriate sexual behavior throughout the Tribune. I would like to see the paper rid itself of any men who would go around and try to seduce legal-age women.”

Galloway is the sort of old hand who breaks out in a rash whenever a newspaper “delivers a thundering statement of righteousness.” There is always, he concluded long ago, “some sort of agenda we may not know about.”

In Greene’s case, there’s been plenty of conjecture about what that agenda might be. The guesswork turns on the perception that he was an expensive writer who’d been coasting and losing his readers, and on the fact that Tempo editors had wanted for years to move his column off page one but Greene had outmaneuvered them.

I called Howard Tyner, Lipinski’s predecessor as editor, and asked where Greene had stood. “I was always a supporter of his,” said Tyner, now a Tribune Company vice president. “I certainly resisted taking him off [page one]. His readership was very high. He’s hugely popular. Like FDR, you either swore by him or swore at him. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground.

“No one wanted to get rid of him. That’s just nonsense. The last survey I saw, three or four years ago, his popularity was as high as ever. But it was an unfortunate circumstance that had to be dealt with. You and I and Bob and people in jobs like this have an incredible amount of power. You don’t use that power which was bestowed upon you by a newspaper to take advantage of somebody, especially if they’re young and impressionable. He was a really famous guy then [in 1988]. This is a rock star. And you know, it goes back to the old question, what does a newspaper have to sell but its credibility? If you lose that it’s dead.

“Think of what this guy has done. He’s mom, he’s apple pie, he’s the American flag, and most of all he’s the defender of abused children. What does he have left from all that stuff? It’s tragic.”

Because Tyner had been part of the management discussions before Greene resigned, I asked if anything in Kirk and Davey’s Monday account was inaccurate.

“The final sentence was a bit of a cheap shot,” he said. Their story had ended with a “longtime colleague” remarking, “There’s no one in the history of Chicago newspapers with better commercial instincts. If anybody can turn this disaster into a saleable commodity, Bob’s it.”

It might have been a cheap shot, but it’s what lots of people who knew Greene, including me, immediately thought. In Grand Island, he’d shown incredible grace under pressure. Nothing is more real to Greene than his keyboard, and the impact of this debacle on him might not be established until he’s writing about it.

And Speaking of Unethical Passes . . .

Ethics policies aren’t much use when dealing with journalism’s big choices, which are right or wrong for reasons that transcend fine print. But they’re great for the small stuff. One school of thought holds that there’s no human imperfection a freshly minted rule or regulation can’t take care of. The conservative Tribune tends to regard such zealots as fools and menaces, but keeps its staff honest by forbidding them to accept any gift “whose value exceeds that of a key chain.”

The Tribune’s code of business conduct and editorial ethics policy both got a little longer this year, and one new codicil to the ethics policy caused such consternation that a petition was written last week to protest it. This codicil calls a halt to the practice by which journalists and the companions of journalists receive comp tickets to shows they want to see for the hell of it.

Ethically, the Tribune’s reform is unassailable. As a practical matter, it calls a pony ride an Augean stable. “The last thing I want is to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” says deputy managing editor for features James Warren, who asked for the new policy, but a lot of people under him think the Tribune has done exactly that by setting a solution in search of a problem.

Here’s the new language: “Staff members should not accept free tickets to an event for personal enjoyment, nor special offers aimed at members of the news media. Staff members may not arrange for free admission to an event for their families or friends, even if the staff member is covering the event. Guests who accompany staff members on assignment shall pay for their admission. Subject to advance approval from a supervising editor, the Tribune may reimburse the expense for these individuals in appropriate circumstances.”

“Basically,” says Warren, “I was a little bit concerned about what struck me as some of the loose practices in features.” He didn’t show up at last year’s opening night of The Producers, but he heard that “tons” of other Tribune people did–“people who clearly have no professional need to see something but have been stuck on comp lists for years, owing to their being in a particular section years ago.” Granted, says Warren, the attitude of the theaters themselves is “the more the merrier.”

Here is reality, as the theaters know it. Some of the smaller theaters that squeeze every dollar are going to be grateful to the Tribune for cracking down. But at most theaters, certainly the major ones, opening-night tickets are all comp anyway. There isn’t a paying customer in the house. Most of the guests are the invited friends of the theater, and if some of the others are Tribune staffers enjoying a perk, more power to them.

“A good reporter’s always working,” says Marj Halperin, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, with what I assume is a straight face, though we’re talking by phone. “And the Tribune would have nothing but good reporters. So we want to expose them to as much theater as possible.”

She continues, “I don’t see the media as a massive group of freeloaders trying to scam a massive amount of tickets for their personal use.” She prefers to think of them as a set of influential communicators who can be helpful. The more often the media’s movers and shakers get out to the theater, the more likely they are to tell their troops to cover it.

What about that second ticket?

“Attending theater is a community pursuit,” Halperin argues. “It’s not a solitary event. Invitations to theater are like wedding invitations. They’re extended to you and a guest. That’s our tradition, and it is our tradition because of the nature of the theater. It’s something you do with others. You watch TV by yourselves. You go to the theater with others.”

Yes, yes, yes, cry the critics. They’ll give Warren The Producers–reporters don’t like standing in drink lines with assistant publishers anyway. But there’s a huge difference between the horde of newspaper folk who wangle their way into a gala opening and the working stiff slogging night after night from one new show to the next. Must this life be lived alone? “Most people go to the theater with friends,” argues a freelance critic who rarely shows up unaccompanied, “so we’re re-creating the situation of our readers. It’s a social event. The Tribune is trying to make it sound like a hermetic pilgrimage.”

Critics speak of their fear of being regarded as “snobby idiots” and “sanctimonious hypocrites” by the communities they cover. They hail their theatergoing companions as sounding boards, as valuable reality checks in an opening-night audience otherwise composed of the company’s fawning acolytes. They fear that if editors with no business at the theater stop going because the tickets aren’t freebies, their own mandate to cover the theater will erode. If these arguments strike you as lame, then they ask, If it’s unethical to accept two free tickets, why is it ethical to accept one?

If a staff member cannot, as is now written, “accept free tickets to an event for personal enjoyment,” can chief drama critic Michael Phillips, say, accept a ticket to a play he won’t be covering but wants to see? Let’s assume he can. But then what about the third-string freelance critic who might one day review the same play when it’s done on a shoestring in Rogers Park and would like to be able to compare it to the Loop production? Let’s assume he can. But what about the assistant business editor with a vague idea for a story about the theater and neighborhood redevelopment who convinces himself that going to the next opening night at the Oriental will give him valuable insights into the scene in the Loop? Let’s assume he can. Then what about the marketing veep who covets orchestra seats for the same opening in order to establish himself as a dashing man about town?

If a staff member cannot, as is written, “arrange for free admission to an event for their families or friends,” can those companions arrange it for themselves? Can Chris Jones’s wife call the Goodman and ask that a ticket be set aside because she’ll be attending with her husband? “Guests who accompany staff members on assignment shall pay for their admission.” But what if the theater has its own reason for comping this guest? Does the Tribune presume to tell a theater who it can and cannot comp? Or what if this guest “pays” for a ticket with a dollar?

“There will undoubtedly be some ambiguities,” says Warren. “There will be some inconsistencies in application, maybe something we can be chided for being hypocritical about–such as ‘What about the guy covering the Bulls and eating a free hot dog? But I can’t bring my wife to the Goodman!'”

Warren is an intelligent and decent guy, and it wasn’t surprising to hear from critics this week that management was moderating its position, showing a greater willingness to reimburse its critics for that second ticket. But we’ll have to see how this works. If the cost of that ticket seems low, will the Tribune investigate its critic for the crime of trying to save the paper some money? Theaters that have happily left two gratis tickets in an envelope at the will-call desk must now come up with a system that gives away one seat, sells an adjacent seat at a price high enough to arouse no suspicions, and still delivers both tickets together.

“It’s a processing nightmare,” says Cindy Bandle, the Goodman’s press director. Alida Szabo, director of audience development for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, says, “I don’t know exactly how we’ll handle it but we will. Nothing regarding media coverage will ever inconvenience me.”

Whatever it takes to keep the Tribune happy. In the name of its own virtue, the Tribune’s doing what it’s been famous forever for doing–throwing its weight around.

News Bites

So, what does going ethically underboard look like? Try page 93 of the Sun-Times on Monday, September 9. The whole page is an ad for PlayStation 2, though it doesn’t say so and you have to look twice to figure out it’s not sports news. The ad was designed to look like a page of sports stories reporting on the Sunday NFL games, with headlines that said “Bettis frustrated / Carr excited in / Houston upset” and “Williams outruns James / for 31-17 Dolphin victory.” The action photographs aren’t really photographs–but again, you have to look twice.

The Tribune turned down the ad.

That was an interesting cover story in USA Weekend a couple of weeks ago on “the 5 most important buildings of the 21st century.” The piece offered pictures of the buildings (3Com’s midwest headquarters in Rolling Meadows was one) and thumbnail bios of “our distinguished panel of judges.” None of the architects was identified.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.