An Unimpeachable Source

In a pristine world there’d be no corporate relationship between the Tribune and the Chicago Cubs. Or between the Tribune and the Tribune Company’s dreams of empire. But the Tribune is entangled. A mayor angry at it over whatever John Kass snarled or the editorial page pronounced can turn his guns on the disintegrating ballpark the company can’t live with, can’t live without, and can’t remember to pull a permit for before spackling. And because the Tribune Company crawled out on a limb by buying up newspapers and TV stations in the same cities in defiance of existing FCC rules, the Tribune’s support of proposed new rules can’t be taken at face value. The company doesn’t simply want those rules; it needs them.

The Tribune is also entangled with the Republican Party. It was present at the creation a century and a half ago and has supported the party ever since, lecturing the best of its standard-bearers and discerning virtues in the worst. I’ve mocked the Tribune for this predictable fidelity, just as I’ve mocked it for its prissy ethics. But some entanglements are righteous and fundamental. Thanks to its existential proclivities, the front-page story “Swift boat skipper: Kerry critics wrong” was more trustworthy appearing in last Sunday’s Tribune than it would have been in any other newspaper in America.

“Kerry’s critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown.” This was William Rood, a Tribune editor and former swift boat skipper, writing about the day in February 1969 when John Kerry’s actions won him the Silver Star. “It’s gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there.”

Three swift boats took part in the operation that day, and Kerry and Rood commanded two of them. According to Rood, the three skippers set out having decided that instead of fleeing the inevitable ambush, their boats–under Kerry’s command–would turn toward shore and counterattack. Rood won a Bronze Star, and the Tribune published the citation from Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt that praised his “courage under fire and exemplary professionalism” as well as the message from task force commander Roy Hoffmann, now one of Kerry’s critics, calling the “extremely successful raid and land sweep…a shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy.”

I spotted the headline in the Sunday Tribune’s first edition early Saturday afternoon. “That’s it,” I thought, naively, after reading the first few paragraphs. “The issue’s off the table.” Journalism is many things, but first of all it’s witness. And this was pure witness.

By carrying uprightness to the point of neurosis–going so far as to impound complimentary Christmas calendars as if they were smuggled diamonds–and by declaring the GOP its party, right or wrong, the Tribune immunized itself against accusations of either sensationalism or bias. The certainty that in October the Tribune would endorse President Bush for reelection made Rood’s story all the more unimpeachable.

It Would Have Written Itself

Rookie reporters get noticed by busting their butts on stories they’re expected to cheap out. A CTA service disruption on August 17 could have been one of those stories. It wasn’t.

The dailies published what the CTA told them: that a fire in a two-flat alongside the Red and Brown lines at 2600 north forced the CTA to turn off its third rail on that stretch of tracks for about four hours while firefighters worked their hoses. And that shuttle buses carried Brown Line passengers between Southport and Fullerton and Red Line passengers between Belmont and the Clark and Division stop.

The Tribune and Sun-Times each gave this tale 23 lines deep in the paper. I’d have taken what I read at face value, except that at around 8 PM, an hour and a half after the fire broke out, I was turned back from the Red Line station at State and Grand and then from the Brown Line station at the Merchandise Mart. The service attendant at the Merchandise Mart frantically waved people away from the turnstiles, bellowing that there was no service north from the Loop and he had no idea when it would be restored. Here was someone who clearly had a shaky grip on the big picture, but what could we do? We paraded outside and flagged cabs.

The next morning I called the CTA and asked for a more comprehensive description of the disruption. Getting one took research. That afternoon spokesperson Noelle Gaffney called back and told me seven Red and Brown line trains had been caught in the “grid” when the CTA shut off power between Belmont and Fullerton at 6:42 PM. Until power was briefly restored at 8:25, those trains just sat there. Gaffney estimated that each car contained 40 to 50 passengers. Assuming four eight-car Red Line trains and three six-car Brown Line trains, that meant 2,000 to 2,500 passengers trapped on the el for nearly two hours. “A lot of people were inconvenienced beyond the limits of their patience,” she allowed.

Good quotes make good stories, and those passengers would have been a lot less understated about their ordeal than Gaffney. But no reporter tracked them down. Maybe a few tried to call the city desks and were rewarded with recorded messages announcing that the switchboards were closed for the evening.

Gaffney told me it wasn’t true that there was no northbound service–some trains were kept running from downtown to Fullerton. I asked her if any passengers in the stalled trains got out. The el tracks are always precarious, and it was raining, she said, so hiking to the nearest station wouldn’t have been a good idea. But did some passengers do it anyway? “We heard that at Diversey, some people on the middle tracks–the ones not adjacent to the platform–were told to stay on the train by CTA and city cops.”

Think of passengers trapped for hours on an el train a few yards from a station deciding to make a break for it but being turned back by cops–what an angle. But no enterprising reporter came upon it.

The CTA restored power for five minutes so the grid could be cleared of trains, then turned it off again until 10:37 PM. “During that time frame,” Gaffney said, meaning the full four hours, “the combined ridership of those two lines is 39,500.” The passengers trapped in the grid suffered most, but thanks to the ripple effect of their disaster, thousands of others suffered little less.

The Reader’s Michael Beaumier was traveling north from the Loop on a Brown Line train soon after the fire began. As his train turned west to head into the Sedgwick station he saw smoke to the northwest. Just before the Brown Line tracks join the Red Line tracks south of Armitage, his train stopped.

“We didn’t move for about 90 minutes,” he e-mailed me. “I was in the last car, which was pretty empty, but most of the cars ahead had people who were standing; how those people made out, I have no idea, but it had been raining, remember–and I doubt anyone could sit on the floor. Every 30 minutes or so the driver would mumble that there was an emergency at the Diversey station, that the fire department was there, that we couldn’t move forward, and we were thanked for possessing patience that very rapidly didn’t exist.

“People started to get antsy after the first hour; by the time the train finally backed into the southbound platform of the Sedgwick station, it was very bad. Several people were pacing the length of the car repeatedly, back and forth and back and forth, and cell phone conversations became more and more animated and urgent….As we were backing up, there was an announcement that buses would be waiting to take folks to their Brown Line stops. At the same time that the train I was on began to empty, another train arrived on the opposite platform and emptied–hundreds of people were on the street, and there were no buses to be seen. There was a very quiet moment, and then people began running–running–to North Avenue to compete for taxis.”

The papers might think CTA service disruptions are too common and inconsequential to be newsworthy. They print what the CTA gives them, and the CTA has an interest in making these situations sound like no big deal. The CTA also has a left hand and a right hand that don’t communicate well. That’s another reason reporters should never make one phone call to the CTA and think the work is done.

“I’ve heard mixed reports of whether people felt adequately informed,” Gaffney said. “We have some employees who are great at providing information and others that are not.”

News Bites

Steve Chapman in the Tribune, August 22: “From listening to both sides, you’d think Kerry and President Bush were running for trustee of VFW Post 836. Though the differing war stories may be endlessly fascinating to anyone who served in Vietnam, or anyone who strove heroically to avoid serving in Vietnam, the rest of us would rather hear the candidates recite from a volume on patent law.”

The Sun-Times made roughly the same point in an editorial August 24: “Nothing is more unappealing than the thought of this bickering over 35-year-old history extending any closer to November….Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether John Kerry was a war hero or a self-aggrandizer half as much as his views on the economy, education, health care and the war on terror matter.”

But it does matter. Anyone can have views. Views clash and confuse, leaving voters looking for something specific that will cut through the confusion–some kind of tiebreaker. Like character. A lot of uncertain voters would believe Kerry lied about being a war hero because it would let them make up their minds. As it happens, Barnes & Noble can’t keep the anti-Kerry book Unfit for Command in stock.

Chapman again: “They can muster all the former sailors they want to carp about whether Kerry deserved his medals, but the chief consequence is to remind us that he went to Vietnam while Bush found a comfy spot in the Texas Air National Guard.”

Let’s cut Bush some slack. A comfy spot’s what Bill Clinton had at Oxford. To guys who signed up for the national guard, those six years of meetings and summer camps looming ahead were a huge millstone. Bush learned to fly a fighter jet in the guard–no small thing–and if he skipped meetings for a year, he attended them for five.

The Sun-Times again. Its second editorial on August 24 argued that William Rood, having given his own paper his scoop, “should now be willing to answer questions about his story and about how he came to tell it. Doing otherwise casts doubt on the value of his testimony.” That’s going too far, but even so, Rood’s silence is curious. “When a man’s honor is being besmirched, as John Kerry’s has been,” said the Sun-Times, “you would expect his former buddies to leap to his aid.” Yet Rood “said nothing and did nothing until the campaign came looking for him and asked for his support.”

In his account Rood was vague about his motives for writing it. Calls from Kerry to him and other swift boat crewmen had some effect, he acknowledged, “but that is not why I am writing this. What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did.”

One of those crewmen was Jerry Leeds, the senior petty officer on Rood’s boat, who also was contacted by Kerry. I found Leeds as silent as Rood. Rood didn’t respond to my e-mail; Leeds hung up on me. Among the things they didn’t write or say was anything to indicate that Rood and Kerry are or ever were “buddies.”

A reader who noticed the August 19 announcement in the Tribune’s Weddings & Engagements space of next month’s wedding, in Toronto, of Gail Schiesser and Virginia Brubaker wondered if they were the first gay couple to appear there. Tempo editor Tim O’Bannon says no, they’re the second. The first such announcement ran about a year ago.