By Michael Miner

Basic Unfairness

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause made a big mistake last month on national television. He’d just beaten the odds and been handed the first pick in the next NBA draft, and he looked gleeful. Krause quivering with ecstacy is a strange and infuriating sight, and the next day the Chicago papers let him have it. “It was like handing a new hammer to the guy who knocked the nose off Michelangelo’s Pieta,” Bernie Lincicome wrote. Skip Bayless chimed in, “Cover your eyes. Bar your doors. Egomaniac on the loose.”

“It’s finally your stage, Jerry Krause. Don’t blow it,” warned Jay Mariotti, who on the whole was surprisingly temperate. Lincicome taunted, “Your move, Jerry. Everybody’s watching.”

Four days later another prominent Chicagoan who’d brought a temple down around him took center stage at the groundbreaking for the new one. E. Ratcliffe Anderson Jr., CEO of the American Medical Association, spoke at a press conference called by the AMA to announce a historic reorganization. I missed the 10 AM press conference because the Fed-Exed letter announcing it didn’t get to us until 10:30. As the AMA building is across the street from the Reader, I’m not sure such a pricey courier was required.

At any rate, the handsome packet of materials told the story. Anderson’s prepackaged words of enthusiasm jumped out at me: “This collegial process has resulted in the development of a new model that may well be emulated by other journals in its ability to ensure the best possible leadership, integrity of research and continued editorial independence.”

It seems the AMA had decided to give the next editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association the kind of insulation from busybodies that editors of other medical journals take for granted. For taking this overdue step, the AMA was claiming a place in the vanguard. A statement of “editorial governance” signed by Anderson and a battalion of other AMA dignitaries asserted that the AMA was making not just history but history that was bold and epic. “Editorial independence and journalistic responsibility continue to be hallmarks of the publications of the AMA, and insuring that valued tradition into the next millennium is of utmost importance.”

Obviously impressed with the ring of this blather, the AMA rang it again one paragraph later: “A highly viable environment has been set for the next millennium, which will serve as a model for journalistic independence and freedom in the medical-scientific publishing world.”

Just as Krause earned his chance to draft first by assembling one of the worst teams in NBA history, the mess the AMA was boldly digging its way out of is one that Anderson got it into in the first place. Last January he peremptorily fired Dr. George Lundberg, JAMA’s longtime editor, humiliating doctors who’d supposed their 116-year-old journal served no master but the truth and earning the AMA international scorn. To demonstrate it’s learned from that fiasco, the AMA has now placed a seven-member oversight committee–a buffer composed mostly of outsiders–between Anderson and Lundberg’s successor. And Anderson has been called on to pretend that editorial independence was a stroke of genius he’d helped think of himself.

Anderson’s statement made me imagine Krause having to stand before writers he loathed and announce that Phil Jackson had just signed a new five-year contract to lead the Bulls into the 21st century. A Lincicome would have known how to squeeze that doleful moment until its pips squeaked. There’s so much attitude in Chicago’s sports pages that just looking joyous can be asking for trouble. Why, I wondered, is there no Lincicome to say what there is to say about an E. Ratcliffe Anderson? Why is there so little attitude in the rest of the paper?

And then I found some. David Greising’s business column in last Sunday’s Tribune happened to be on Anderson and the AMA, and it read like the work of a press-box wise guy. Greising laid out the AMA’s new editorial plan:

“There’s a Journalistic Oversight Committee (JOC), which serves as a buffer between the Editor-in-Chief (EIC) and the Board of the American Medical Association (BAMA). And there’s a special role for the AMA’s executive vice president (EVP)–the aforementioned Dr. Anderson.

“If the JOC wants to fire the EIC, they’ve got to run their beef by the EVP. Everyone then goes to BAMA, which must approve the firing by a supermajority vote (SMV).

“What’s the point of all that? Everyone knows that if some EVP or JOC ever again says R.I.P. to the EIC, the future of JAMA will be D.O.A.”

Greising’s in on the secret that most people are as silly as athletes, and his tart wit has become one of the Tribune’s more reliable commodities. Sports is the only place in the daily papers that wouldn’t be helped by a little more sportswriting.

The Real World

The Memorial Day ceremonies in Lakeside, Michigan, ended oddly this year. The River Valley High School band played the usual patriotic tunes, three volleys cracked from the muzzles of the aging Legionnaires, each of them too gaunt or too paunchy, and then the old cemetery fell silent. In the misting rain we waited for the mournful cry of taps.

But we waited in vain. The commander of the riflemen at last shouted, “Order arms!” The perplexed chaplain maneuvered his walker back up to the microphone and offered the benediction, and the commander said, “Fall out!”

The bugler, whom we never see, as he always raises his horn in some spot where the graves and oaks and rolling hills conceal him, hadn’t shown up this year, and no one knew it. The biggest crowd the rite had drawn in years–a sign of wartime, perhaps?–dispersed bemused. It’s what we see and hear–and thereby feel–that draws us to that cemetery year after year, but this year there was no dramatic climax. If we’d wanted a purely cerebral observance of Memorial Day we could have stayed home and read the editorials in the morning papers.

But reading an editorial isn’t witness. Going out among the fire trucks, bands, flags, crumbling shafts of granite, and rustic warriors cinched into old uniforms is. And not for the first time I considered the solemn importance of being there. Technology hasn’t advanced us to the point where we can be someplace truly if we’re merely there virtually. And as we can still be in only one place at a time, we have serious choices to make about where that place is. The honored dead that the chaplain reminded us were now at their eternal rest in far-off fields and beneath rolling waves might have interesting things to say about the choice between dying where you need to be and living where perhaps you need not to be.

The Pentagon these days is much criticized for waging wars in which our troops know no terrain and the enemy is merely blips on console screens. Wars such as the one we’re fighting now, waged to avoid American casualties, are wars in which our forces are too remote from the battlefield to grasp either the violence they do or to whom they do it. But soldiers aren’t alone in being remote from the scene. Today’s journalists are enormously proud of their ability to work the phones (I’m one), or of their skill at rooting through obscure documents for hidden revelations, or of their flair at finding anything on the Net. Many of today’s editors would rather pay for buses than cabs and would be happiest not paying for either–certainly not for the old-fashioned purpose of getting a reporter to where the story is. It’s possible these days to stalk an errant public servant and never leave your desk or lay eyes on him–he’s merely the bogey in your gun sights. A whole newsroom can be kept busy at cutting-edge stories that don’t require a single reporter to pull on a coat. A deft interrogator can provide an endless flow of human-interest stories yet never see another human face.

Jim Yuenger, the late Tribune foreign editor, was a journalist who went places and, when he could, chose them thoughtfully. One year his choice was to stand in the Lakeside cemetery on Memorial Day because it offered the kind of bedrock he was looking for. I’m no foreign correspondent, but years ago I wandered into the village of Mondragon deep in the Pyrenees where a prominent innkeeper had just been shot by masked vigilantes of the far right. The innkeeper was identified with the opposition in Spain’s Basque provinces to Franco’s rule. There’d been violence lately on both sides, and now a leader of the community lay dead.

Notepad in hand, I visited the funeral mass. Ruddy Basques in sweaters, tweed jackets, and black berets filled every foot of the church and formed lines at the open doors in hopes of hearing what they couldn’t see. But when I approached, they made way and let me pass. It’s likely that no American journalist had ever come to their town to observe the repression and defiance that marked it. But there I was, standing in space given me in trust, being treated as any stranger would be whose duty was to go back to where he came from and tell the truth. Some say journalism is about afflicting the comfortable, exposing the wicked, or reducing the complex to layman’s terms. What I’ve thought since that day in Mondragon is that journalism really comes down to witness and testimony. If that sounds dangerously close to religious, it is.

And to witness you have to leave the office.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Siergey.