All the News We Feel Like Talking About Today

The best thing about corruption in Illinois government is the opportunity to read all about it in first-class newspapers. On the morning of September 29 the George Ryan trial had just opened, and Mark Brown and John Kass were at the top of their game.

Brown’s faithful Sun-Times readers know he’s a Saint Louis Cardinals fan who doesn’t hide the fact, which, in my book, makes him both judicious and courageous. When he writes that there are “nagging holes” in the prosecution’s case and his “gut reaction” to the opening statements is that it won’t be easy for the prosecution “to connect all the dots,” I take it to the bank. He checked out one of those dots, a blank check that codefendant Larry Warner allegedly signed at the wedding of Ryan’s daughter so that Ryan could pay the band. Brown called the bandleader, who said there was nothing unusual about a guest picking up the tab as his wedding gift.

Kass has been writing grumpy Tribune columns for years about the “bipartisan Illinois political combine,” but the trial’s opening day found him in wonderfully droll form. He wrote maybe his most inspired column ever. It was about Warner’s gray suit.

He noticed that Warner, “the kind of guy who’d use Armani to polish the silverware . . . was definitely suffering a panache deficit.” Kass asked Warner about his suit. “Guess what I paid for it?” said Warner. “It only cost me $150.”

This drab number was what Warner, no fool, intended to stand before the jury in. “I decided I’m not going to spend too much on clothes,” he told Kass. “This one fits. And I’m comfortable.”

Reading these two columnists made me hungry for more. This was the day Ryan confidant Scott Fawell would begin testifying for the state, which supposedly he only agreed to do so the state would go easy on his fiancee, who’d pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury. Fawell’s a piece of work, and I couldn’t wait to see what angles Brown and Kass would take.

Would you know it, the next morning Kass wrote about the White Sox, and Brown took the day off. It was like the Cardinals coming to Wrigley Field, and Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols both sitting out the game. The Tribune has a deep bench, and Eric Zorn stepped in to ably dissect Fawell’s weirdly arrogant performance. But I’d thought wild horses wouldn’t have been able to drag Kass and Brown away from the Ryan trial. They’d written about Fawell before of course, and I suppose that day he was a well they didn’t feel like going back to.

The next report by either Brown or Kass from the Ryan trial was this Tuesday. Brown meditated on a priceless snapshot of Ryan, Warner, Fawell, and some buddies at Disney World, Cinderella’s castle behind them. Kass didn’t write anything. Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business was on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight last Friday, and he astonished me by dismissing the trial as anticlimactic–all the big revelations had already been made. Did Kass feel that way too?

Whenever journalistic intervention brings about some wonderful result–say, since we were already talking about Ryan, some mope not dying for a murder he didn’t commit–government officials who ought to be ashamed of themselves insist the near miss goes to show the system works. But journalists don’t want to be part of any system. That notion turns the public’s right to know into the media’s duty to tell. The next time some innocent guy’s on death row they might have a prior engagement.

Back when Rolando Cruz was on death row for a murder he didn’t commit and Zorn was ham-mering at the injustice, other fine journalists wondered why he didn’t ease up. I’ve always believed the reason Zorn didn’t win the prizes he deserved was his obsessiveness–a quality that makes many journalists uneasy. Like Kass with his bipartisan combine, Zorn was really out to get the SOBs. Columnists are supposed to be like kids with permanent hall passes, wandering the school, peeking into all the classrooms. They personally embody journalism’s most solemn and sacred institutional right, the right to set its own agenda.

Last week the New York Times’s Judith Miller got out of jail after three months behind bars, having agreed, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, to testify before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame expose. “It is humiliating to realize that the rest of the world has been watching the federal government jail a reporter for doing her job,” said the Times editorial page, which called for a federal shield law. “Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia provide reporters limited or full protection from testifying about confidential sources. No state attorney general has ever said a case was abandoned or a trial sabotaged by a reporter’s guarantee of confidentiality to a source.”

The emphasis is mine. The false modesty is the Times’s. Reporters should be protected, it was saying here, because reporters do good and protection comes at no cost. The Times should have argued that what they do is so important that even if there is a cost the shield law is worth it. “First, do no harm” is a nice credo, but it’s not journalism’s.

But when journalism gets that assertive it forces a question: If what journalists do matters that much, why are they so often capricious about how it’s done and who does it?

Do Sports Matter?

Two stories dominated the press in London in early September. One was the flooding of New Orleans, which inspired an enormous amount of broadsheet punditry and an immortal tabloid headline: “Flash Your Boobs or You Drown.” This was the choice a passing police boat reportedly forced on two young British tourists stranded on a rooftop. Their decision must have made the queen proud.

The only bigger story was the Ashes, the ancient cricket competition between England and Australia. Two months earlier dozens of passengers had died when London’s transit system was bombed. On one level, the public’s concern for the Ashes couldn’t possibly have approached its concern for its own safety. On another level, the level at which emotions are worn on sleeves, the Ashes was vastly more palpable. The tangible evidence of the terrorism amounted to signs in subways reminding passengers to keep an eye open for unattended luggage. People at the corner pub weren’t debating Al Qaeda.

I did my best to get caught up in the excitement and decided I favored the Aussies. But back in Chicago, where a story approximately one sentence long reported that Britain had won, I got over my disappointment in an eyeblink. In London screaming thousands filled Trafalgar Square.

You care or you don’t. Baseball’s all-star game used to be one of the top events on the calendar, the best against the best to establish league dominance, but at some point it stopped mattering to anyone. The recent decision to make home-field advantage in the World Series contingent on the all-star game was an attempt to make it matter enough to retain a TV audience and keep the players interested.

But sports analysts who say the all-star game doesn’t matter because it’s a meaningless exhibition have it backward. It’s a meaningless exhibition because it doesn’t matter. A visiting Englishman could tell us what we’re too blind to see for ourselves, which is that the World Series is just as much an exhibition as the all-star game. When you come down to it, every sporting event is an exhibition that means only what we want it to mean. That’s why for the last century it’s been so easy for Cubs fans and White Sox fans to make the annual decision to wait till next year.

News Bites

Last month a car carrying four Mundelein seminarians smashed into a tree and two passengers were killed. The driver was charged with reckless homicide and driving under the influence. The fourth seminarian was charged with impersonating a police officer and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon–police said they found badges and a gun inside the car. Then Mundelein authorities discovered that he’d been an officer in a sheriff’s department in Ohio–until he’d been indicted on several felony charges and pleaded guilty to misconduct. The incident raised questions about what standards the Catholic church is maintaining as it scrounges about for new priests.

The Tribune covered the story almost daily for a week. The Sun-Times kissed it off in a one-paragraph brief.

“In an earlier era,” reflected Loren Ghiglione, “deans used to serve 25 years.” That era’s long gone at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Edward Bassett served five years–from 1984 to ’89. Michael Janeway took over and ran the school until 1997. Ken Bode lasted until 2001. And this week Ghiglione, who followed Bode, announced he’ll be leaving next summer. After taking a year off to work on a book, he’s expected back to fill a new professorship in media ethics.

The book’s a futuristic look at journalism, tagged to the ways in which the business is already being imagined in books and films. For instance? Ghiglione reminded me of a scene in Minority Report where an electronic USA Today flashes Tom Cruise’s picture in a subway and Cruise knows he’d better be on the run again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tim Boyle–Getty Images.