Beetle Bailey MIA

“Beginning Sunday,” the Tribune told readers on Friday, June 14, “we are dropping ‘Beetle Bailey’ from our comics lineup as part of an ongoing effort to test the popularity of selected strips or to introduce new ones. We will make a decision on whether to resume running the strip at a later date.” Beetle Bailey hasn’t been seen since. Six weeks later, the Tribune is still making up its mind.

Cartoonist Mort Walker doesn’t get it. King Features, which syndicates Beetle Bailey, doesn’t get it. Don’t count on me to make everything clear; I don’t get it either. “Times change, and so does the Tribune,” says the paper’s delphic comics czar, Geoff Brown, who knows he’s being exasperating.

Beetle Bailey is one of the most successful strips in the history of American cartooning. Walker launched it in 1950; three years later he was named the National Cartoonists Society’s cartoonist of the year, the first award of many–in 1999 he was given France’s Order of Chevalier and a year later the U.S. Army’s Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service. The strip, which runs in 1,800 newspapers, has spun off more than 90 paperbacks and a second hit strip, Hi and Lois.

Yes, you say, but 52 years later Beetle Bailey is old and lame, and those Miss Buxley gags stopped being funny three waves of feminism ago. Maybe, maybe not. In late 1998 the Tribune asked its readers to vote on which comics they liked, and males of all ages among the small, self-selected, arguably meaningless sample of readers who responded put Beetle Bailey first. Among men and women 18 to 34 years old it was down in 18th place, so it obviously was extraordinarily popular with older guys.

“I want to get Tribune comics-page readers accustomed to change,” says Brown, an associate managing editor. “Instead of ‘I’ make it ‘we’–I don’t want to sound like some rogue editor. It’s not a Beetle Bailey thing. Beetle Bailey just happens to have been tested during this time when our philosophy has changed.”

Comics have been tested before. They’ve been pulled for a week, and after outraged fans shook their fists, either dropped or restored. The world still waits for a decision on Beetle Bailey.

When will we know?

“Later in the summer,” says Brown. “There’s not much of it left, is there?”

Beetle Bailey had been gone only a couple of days when T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III, president of King Features, came to the tower and met with Brown. Shepard brought along assistant sales manager John Killian, who would speak often with Brown over the following weeks. After the meeting was over, Shepard had lunch with James Warren, the Tribune’s deputy managing editor for features. They’ve known each other since Amherst.

“He was not a happy camper,” says Warren. Shepard wanted answers, and Warren insisted he had none to offer, because he’s not in the comics loop. “Ignorance was sort of bliss,” says Warren. They’ve continued to talk, and Warren says the only thing he actually knows that he hasn’t told his friend (and won’t tell me) is the amount of reader response when Beetle Bailey disappeared.

Warren allows that the price of the strip has come up. King and the Tribune both regard that price as proprietary information, but Walker says it’s about $400 a week, or about $20,000 a year. It’s money, Warren observes, that in hard times a paper would want to think twice about spending. “What’s playing out with Beetle Bailey,” he says, “is sort of the early part of an attempt to be more rigorously assessing everything we’ve got in features.”

I called Shepard, but it was George Haeberlein, King’s vice president for syndication sales, who got back to me. He says King is willing to deal; it’s dropped the prices of some other King features the Tribune runs, and it’s offered to drop the price of Beetle Bailey too, putting the ball in the Tribune’s court. “We have settled on the others with the Tribune, but we haven’t been able to settle with Beetle Bailey.”

Why not? Haeberlein’s been “racking my brain” over that one. “It’s been hinted,” he says, “that there was sexism. It came from within the Chicago Tribune, I don’t know what level. We think it came from a pretty high level. It was hinted at at one of the meetings that John Killian attended.”

For the sake of argument, Haeberlein considers the hint on its merits. “They can say what they want about if it’s sexist or if it’s older. You know what? It’s established, it’s successful. Mort Walker is the best-known cartoonist working in the world today, and it’s the only comic strip that has a military setting”–a plus, in Haeberlein’s eyes, in times like these. “Yet they would cancel it, or drop it from their lineup.”

Brown responds to most questions with “No comment,” including questions about whether the strip is being done in by a woman, such as an editor in chief, or women within the paper. But this is not about money, he insists.

“If only you knew…”

If only I knew what?

Brown considers his words.

“If only you knew how nothing was there, you would be amused at how much noise and light is being generated over something that doesn’t exist. There’s no enemy.”

Just before the Tribune stopped running Beetle Bailey Mort Walker announced a contest to name a new character, Camp Swampy’s IT whiz. “We were astounded–we got 84,000 entries,” he says. Including more than a thousand from Chicago, adds Haeberlein; the contestants still don’t know the new guy’s now Spec. Chip Gizmo. The winning entry was sent in by four guys from the State Department, and Walker showed up there to make a presentation. “Colin Powell heard about it. My wife and I went into his office, and the first thing I know he’s quoting my gags to me. ‘I remember when Lieutenant [Jack] Flap got there and he says, “How come there’s no blacks in this honkie outfit.”‘”

That was in 1970. Some southern papers dropped the strip.

Walker, who’s 78 and a World War II vet, tells me that when he ran his contest he asked the readers submitting names to contribute to the Fisher House Foundation, which offers lodging to families visiting patients in army hospitals. He raised $105,000. “There’s a lot of good feeling for Beetle out there,” he says.

But what about Miss Buxley and General Halftrack?

“I sent the general for sensitivity training a couple of years ago, and he hasn’t leered at her since,” Walker says. “He doesn’t drool over her anymore. I’ve even toned down on some of the other characters, like Killer. I don’t know what it is, but you’re not allowed to look at women anymore. So I’ve stopped that. In the beginning I didn’t have any girls in the strip, and my editor said, ‘This is an army strip. These are young men. You’ve got to get some pretty girls in there.'”

Walker says Shepard and Killian have sent him the discouraging news that “‘they don’t care how popular it is. You’re fighting an iron curtain.’ What gets me is I don’t understand how an editor can run a paper for himself and not for his readers.”

In this case, for her readers, I tell Walker, though I have no reason to believe that Ann Marie Lipinski has any personal objection to Beetle Bailey or would be ruled by it if she did. She tells me she had nothing to do with pulling the strip, and the only thing she said to Brown was “Keep us posted.”

But Walker toys with the idea. “Well, I can see where a woman might not understand the army,” he says. “This is a male comic strip.” He tells me about a run-in he had with a woman comics editor of another

big paper. “She claimed she had a committee of women–I think they were all women–who oversaw the comics and looked for things that were not politically correct. They even knocked out the word ‘dutch’–they went to extremes with political correctness. I don’t think people understand comics are there to make fun of people.”

Ready for a Feast

An upbeat memo from chairman John Madigan and president Dennis FitzSimons of the Tribune Company to the minions beneath them is reproduced in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine. It was annotated and submitted by a lowly Tribune Company employee in Connecticut.

The occasion for the March 14 memo was the second anniversary

of the Tribune Company’s takeover

of Times Mirror. Madigan and FitzSimons, who preferred to call the deal a “merger,” boasted that over the two years since, the company’s “total return to shareholders is approximately 24%, which compares with a negative 14% for the S&P 500.”

In the margins of Harper’s, reporter Edward Ericson Jr. of the Hartford Advocate comments that one reason daily newspapers manage to keep their heads above water in bad times is that most “are already monopolies, and thus can often increase ad rates even during downturns.” He doesn’t look far for an example. In 1999 the daily Hartford Courant extended its hegemony by buying up the weekly Advocate–“the first-ever sale of a major alternative weekly to its local metro daily.” So much for playing one paper against the other. Since the sale, Ericson says, Advocate ad rates have gone up 9 percent, despite a lousy economy.

There’s a bigger reason the Tribune Company has prospered. “Also influencing our stock performance is the recent court decision vacating the cable/broadcast cross-ownership rule and remanding the television ownership to the FCC for justification or amendment,” Madigan and FitzSimons continued. “These rulings are encouraging given our opposition to newspaper/broadcast restrictions. We expect a decision on this issue sometime this summer.”

Most of Ericson’s marginalia are devoted to this issue. He notes that the company’s opposition isn’t simply philosophical; it has banked its future on those restrictions being lifted, and to that end it’s gone to court and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby Congress. The Courant reported last Sunday, after the FCC unexpectedly put off a decision until next spring: “The delay frustrated companies such as Tribune and Gannett, which base their growth strategies on expectations that the barriers to cross-ownership will be reduced.” The Courant quoted FitzSimons: “The added value in the equation is the combined power of our media assets, and what they can do together. We’re cross-selling advertising, we’re building audience share through cross-promotion and we’re building our brands by sharing content.”

Content is a lot easier to share–and so are newsrooms and reporters–when companies are allowed to own as many newspapers and TV and radio stations in one town as they please. Which means that if and when the rules are relaxed, an orgy of buying, selling, and swapping is expected as media companies consolidate their fiefdoms. Chances are, they’ll also be trying to swallow one another. Madigan and FitzSimons noted that the pending changes have “raised the level of takeover speculation within the media industry, and our name is frequently mentioned. We have done everything we can to protect the company from a legal standpoint, and we have a substantial amount of ownership that believes strongly in our remaining independent.”

Independent? Ericson lets the idea go by without comment, but think about it from his point of view. He works for a paper (the Advocate) that in 1999 was bought by another paper (the Courant) that in 1979 had been bought by LA-based Times Mirror, which in 2000 would be consumed by Chicago’s Tribune Company. How much independence do Madigan and FitzSimons think most Tribune Company employees feel they have left to lose?

“We remain confident,” they concluded, “that Tribune is positioned well for the long term.” The two of them are. They “have a compensation plan,” Ericson says, “that, in the event Tribune is acquired, guarantees them each a sev-erance package of no less than three years’ pay plus twice their ‘targeted bonus.’ For Madigan that would likely amount to $9 million, not including stock options; for FitzSimons, $4 million.”

News Bites

How the Sun-Times stays in business…

The story: Spanish police arrest three suspected Al Qaeda members, one of them in the possession of five-year-old videotapes that detail the World Trade Center and other possible terrorist targets.

Tribune, July 17, page four headline: “3 Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Spain.” Story: from the New York Times and datelined Madrid. Local angle: “Officials described the taped images as a possible indication that Al Qaeda’s planning for a major terrorist strike in the United States dated back years and involved careful scouting of targets such as Disneyland and Universal Studios, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Sears Tower in Chicago.” Photo: none. Additional coverage: brief sidebar on California state police doubling the patrol at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sun-Times, July 17, front-page headline: “DID AL-QUAIDA HAVE US IN THEIR SIGHTS?” Photo: Sears Tower. Additional coverage: stories that cover all of pages eight and nine, with the two-page-wide headline “Al-Qaida suspects had video of U.S. landmarks” and the lesser headlines “Sears Tower on tapes, but no ‘credible threat,'” “President lays out security strategy,” and “Man arrested here in terrorist probe may be deported.” Plus seven additional photos, including another portrait of the Sears Tower and a picture taken September 11 of workers fleeing that building. Plus comment from Mayor Daley: “You get those little reports on CNN. I mean, you can’t jump off a bridge.”

But somebody at the Tribune knows how to run with a story.

When assistant sports editor Steve Nidetz came to work at the Tribune Sunday night, July 14, he remarked that he’d been out at the Cubs game that afternoon and noticed a brown spot along the center-field wall. He’d asked a security guard what happened, and the guard said some Sox fan had poured weed killer on the ivy during the Sox-Cubs series in mid-June.

“I lit up like a Christmas tree,” says sports editor Bill Adee. “But I realized I had to wait.”

Adee had just been hired away from the Sun-Times to pump some juice into the Tribune’s languishing sports section. Here was his moment to shine. But Adee recognized that a story of the magnitude of the dead ivy couldn’t hang on the testimony of a security guard. On Monday morning Cubs reporter Teddy Greenstein called the team’s executive vice president, Mark McGuire.

“By noon he had it all wrapped up,” says Adee. “Mark McGuire, God bless him, filled in the blanks for us.”

By “blanks,” Adee isn’t referring to actual information. He means golden quotes. “We think someone leaned over from the bleachers and dumped something that killed some of our ivy,” McGuire told Greenstein. Not that he had any proof, but he suspected a White Sox fan. “No decent Cubs fan would damage the ivy.” Besides, the ailing ivy was first noticed a couple of days after the Sox series ended.

Could the Tribune say for sure when the ivy was poisoned? No. Could it say what poison was used? No. Could it say who used it? No. “It’s a possibility that a Sox fan did it,” Adee allows. “It could have been a Cardinals fan, or even a dis-gruntled Cubs fan working from within.” Could the Tribune even say for sure the ivy was poisoned at all? No. Adee understood that none of this mattered.

It was the biggest sports story in the Tribune Tuesday morning. “Whodunit,” cried the headline. “The case of the poisoned ivy.”

Needless to say, this wasn’t a one-day story. It was a two-day story. On Wednesday the Tribune’s Rick Morrissey contemplated the “villainy.” Not one to dismiss “the importance of hard evidence,” he was nonetheless willing to set aside “due process” in order to “ponder the possibility” that a bitter Sox fan had been driven “to a crime of passion” because “it’s a lot more fun this way.”

Meanwhile, on the west side of Michigan Avenue, Ron Rapoport was reminding Sun-Times readers for the three millionth time what newspaper owns the Cubs (technically, they’re both owned by the same corporation, but the Sun-Times doesn’t let itself get mired in details), and quoting outraged Sox fans. One suggested that Sammy Sosa “took a leak there and his steroid-laced urine killed the weeds.”

In a season such as this one, when both Chicago teams are already hopelessly out of contention–in short, in a typical season–a sports editor who knows how to keep readers interested is worth his weight in stock options.

Adee says, “I haven’t gotten that excited about a story in a long time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Sergey; photo/courtesy King Features Syndicate.