Be a Scab, See the World

A display of scrupulosity you may have missed was a brief article by labor reporter Stephen Franklin and media writer Tim Jones that the Tribune carried on November 12.

The article as it appeared had been cut by half, Franklin told us. Its placement in Saturday’s business pages guaranteed that little attention would be paid. Franklin said editors hesitated to address the subject at all. “I went to them. They thought about it an hour. I said, ‘We have to write about it.'”

The subject was scabbing–or, to put it more genteelly, the Tribune Company’s decision to intervene in a newspaper strike that was none of its business by sending employees to help keep San Francisco’s Chronicle and Examiner publishing. The article by Franklin and Jones noted that four production workers were already there and “newsroom volunteers” would soon arrive.

The company’s vice president for corporate relations, Joseph Hays, offered Franklin this rationale: “We received the request, as we have in past where there have been strikes and fires and disasters. We think that newspapers, indeed, have a right to publish, and it is important to maintain the flow of information in every community.”

Such high-mindedness is praiseworthy. But the Tribune Company’s intervention is open to contrary interpretations, such as the one that appeared November 30 in the sports pages of the New York Times.

Columnist Harvey Araton wrote about the solidarity of the striking baseball players and guessed that the owners count on that solidarity crumbling. He claimed to know from experience: he’d belonged to one of nine unions that struck the New York Daily News in 1990. “Anyone who experienced the Daily News strike would recognize baseball’s agenda as the same that the Tribune Company of Chicago plotted for months at The Daily News.”

Araton went so far as to call the baseball owners’ conduct “ideological warfare.” He continued, “This is Tribune-style hardball, all right, executed with a far greater fervor than its Chicago Cubs ever demonstrated.”

Then he wrote, “Recently the media writer Howard Kurtz reported in The Washington Post that the Tribune Company had offered reporters at its papers in Chicago, Florida and Virginia bonuses if they would volunteer their services to a couple of union-struck newspapers in San Francisco. These newspapers were not remotely connected to the Tribune Company.

“That’s how fanatical an enemy of labor the Tribune Company is. That’s the mind-set the players are up against.”

The one thing Franklin and Rice’s article lacked was the voice of the volunteers. So we turned to David Young of the Tribune’s Wheaton bureau. Young spent five months working at the strikebound Daily News in 1990 and ’91, and he was one of a half-dozen Tribune Company reporters who went west last month to help maintain the flow of information in San Francisco.

Young wasn’t privy to the company’s mind-set. When he was asked to go work at the Chronicle, he says, “My first reaction was, ‘My God! Why are we involved in the Chronicle?'” He briefly supposed the Tribune Company intended to buy it. “I asked a couple of questions, and there was no answer. What was told to me in San Francisco was that it was some kind of arrangement between publishers.”

But Young didn’t dwell on the whys and wherefores. He knew employees and employers in San Francisco were having what he prefers to call a “disagreement.” And it wasn’t his disagreement. “I’ve never belonged to a union,” he explained. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve withheld my services from an employer.”

He didn’t know what the strikers’ grievances were, and he didn’t try to find out. He wasn’t going to San Francisco to pass judgment. “I have no particular feeling one way or the other for the Newspaper Guild or any of its chapters,” he said. “I’m totally neutral. Agnostic would be a good term in this respect.”

Yet taking the place of a striking worker is not a neutral act. We asked why he’d do that, and Young said, “Just the adventure of working for another newspaper. If, let’s say, there had been a strike in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I don’t know if I would so readily go. But New York and San Francisco are nice cities, and there’s lots to see, and I have a number of friends out there.”

Young’s group arrived in San Francisco the day after Franklin and Jones’s article appeared. The strike, which began November 1, was virtually settled by then, and by being there the newcomers put a little extra pressure on the unions. If the settlement had collapsed Young would have joined the Chronicle’s editorial department, but instead he returned two days later to Chicago.

Young wasn’t in San Francisco long enough to establish exactly how much and by whom he’d be paid. During his months in New York he’d received his regular Tribune salary, plus a salary from the Daily News, plus living expenses. But it sounds like more than it was, he said. New York is an expensive place.

“The benefit is you’re in an interesting town and can do things you’re not doing in Chicago,” he reiterated. “You can go to the San Francisco Opera. I went to the Met in New York. I saw quite a few shows. We did a lot of tourism stuff in New York, less in San Francisco–we weren’t there so long. That was part of the attraction for me, to get away from Chicago for a while. Take a look at other newspapers for a while, see how they work. It’s a free ride, so to speak, because you’re going back to your original paper. I think that was the best thing about New York–seeing how another big city paper works, seeing how their management does things.”

Young allowed that before he left for San Francisco–just as before he’d left for New York–“a couple of workers expressed surprise. I inferred they were not pleased with what I was doing.”

Stephen Franklin tells us several Tribune coworkers were appalled by the role their company played in San Francisco. “People came to me and said they were thinking of raising money for the unions there. Others said if the strike had continued they’d thought of going out [to help the strikers] on their own vacation time. The feeling of most of the people I talked to was that this was something they really disliked. It hurt them.”

Franklin was “astounded” that his colleagues were so outspoken. “Traditionally this is something people here don’t speak up about.”

News Bites

God willing, the passionate newspaper reader will never vanish from this earth. Two Mondays ago the Sun-Times made an embarrassing mistake: it published a brief article about funeral services for Elsie Orlinsky, the Hyde Park woman found dead after a carjacking. Rabbi Elliot Gertel conducted the services, and the mistake lay in the headline: “Mass for Activist.”

The Sun-Times heard the same day from the Orlinsky family. It also heard from reader Fred Scheaffer of West Lakeview. Scheaffer didn’t call once: he called on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Originally he called to request a correction. Later he called to find out what was holding up the correction. Finally he called because he didn’t like the correction. On Tuesday, as his net widened, he began calling us. On Wednesday he reached Rabbi Gertel and urged the reluctant rabbi to add his voice to the protest.

“It’s a terrible mistake in my judgment,” Scheaffer told us Tuesday. “I’m Jewish, and I run into a Christian presumption that the natural order of the world is Christian. People should know better. It’s a terrible, sloppy mistake, especially on the part of wordsmiths, whose words are their profession.”

When we heard from Scheaffer on Wednesday, he’d just talked to Rabbi Gertel. “He needed a little urging to call the paper himself,” Scheaffer conceded. “He said something to the effect that mistakes like this are made and there’s no malice involved.”

On Thursday the Sun-Times finally acknowledged its error. Scheaffer picked up the phone and reached a deputy city editor. “I asked why an expression of regret had not been included,” he told us afterward. “She said it was ‘not our policy.’ I said the Tribune routinely expresses regret.” The conversation ended, Scheaffer said, “when she started asking me about myself.”

He added ruefully, “This has not been an entirely satisfactory experience for me.”

We heard from the Tribune’s Charles Madigan, who fared poorly in the Forbes MediaGuide 500 discussed here last week. Madigan points out that although he’s described as a Washington correspondent he hasn’t been stationed there for nine years. Madigan was annoyed with the MediaGuide for not noticing this and with us for not noticing that they didn’t notice this. Our view, which we think we conveyed, is that the MediaGuide is silly and unreliable; but we’d be happy to hear from all writers who feel abused at its hands.

During the critical early years of the Reader, Mike Lenehan demonstrated that (1) a Reader cover story did not have to go on forever, and (2) if it did you might want to finish it anyway.

A Reader associate editor in the early 1980s, Lenehan strayed to write for the Atlantic, but returned as managing editor in 1987 and became editor in chief in 1990. By our lights he paid a supreme sacrifice: he virtually stopped writing. Instead, he administrated, while eyeing the paper’s institutionalization and brooding about habit’s power to erode success.

About a year ago, even as he thought of stepping down, he decided it was time for the Reader to begin a process of self-appraisal. As of the first of this month, having laid the groundwork for a retooled newspaper, he’s given up the editorship. Lenehan says he’ll stay involved in planning; we hope he also goes back to telling stories.

His successor, Alison True, came here as an editorial assistant ten years ago and rose to the top on the basis of merit. She represents a new leadership–as distinct from ownership: one that’s not just younger than the old but has largely replaced men with women. Alternative papers aren’t so alternative that this transition isn’t close to unique.

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