Behind the Times

One of the regulars at Savories coffeehouse in Old Town was explaining Liesel Pritzker’s lawsuit to somebody who didn’t know anything about it. Her account was so lucid that I interrupted. You must have read yesterday’s New York Times piece, I said. She had.

Anyone who reads the Times regularly is used to seeing it do Chicago stories better than either of the big Chicago dailies. Why? “A lot of my sourcing is not about me. It’s about the New York Times,” says Jodi Wilgoren, the Times Chicago bureau reporter who wrote the Pritzker piece and recalls that years ago, when she was in Los Angeles covering city hall for the LA Times, the local New York Times guy drove her nuts. “He was writing about California smarter than we ever did,” she says. She also mentions that on this story she had a collaborator, financial writer Geraldine Fabrikant, who’s “extremely well sourced in the financial world the Pritzkers travel in.” She adds, “Sometimes people talk more readily to the national press than the local press.”

Good reasons all. But we can assume the Tribune could also scratch up a couple of reporters with sources in the family’s ambit. The Times must have something more than clout going for it. Let me state the obvious: it’s always easier to write a coherent narrative when you understand what you’re writing about. The local press often doesn’t–not because it’s stupid, but because it can’t afford to wait until it knows what’s going on. The local press is obliged to get a breaking story into print as it breaks. This kind of story often reads less like the first rough draft of history than notes scribbled on the back of a matchbook.

“Every story we decide to do, we’re deciding to do,” says Wilgoren, speaking for the Times’s national staff. “We’re not doing it out of obligation.” She says Times correspondents ask themselves, “‘What’s the bigger thought here? What’s the point?’ We refer to it as the ‘page-one thought’ a lot of the time.”

She continues, “To the local newspaper, often it is, of course, that they’re doing the story because it’s happening in their town. We have to have a reason. It pushes us to pull things together in a little more of a holistic way.”

The first stories about Liesel Pritzker’s suit were basically celebrity notes. On November 28 the Times and Sun-Times picked up an AP story that began: “An 18-year-old member of the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, has sued her father and other relatives, claiming that they drained her trust funds of more than $1 billion.” The Tribune wrote the same day: “A teenage member of Chicago’s Pritzker family has sued her father and other relatives, alleging they schemed to reduce her inherited holdings by more than $1 billion.” Both stories immediately followed with the but-why-should-we-care? information that, under another name, the plaintiff had starred in A Little Princess and played Harrison Ford’s daughter in Air Force One.

The Times signed off after a paragraph; all it wanted to do at this stage was get on the record. The Sun-Times and Tribune dutifully plowed on. A breaking news story is constructed incrementally: There’s the news peg, followed by paragraphs of elaboration, background, and reaction. And though it would be unfair to call these paragraphs randomly ordered, there’s no deep narrative logic to their arrangement. As calls are returned and information turns up, each new piece of data is slipped into the account wherever it seems to fit.

The Tribune story contained 23 paragraphs, 17 of them one sentence long. Here are some:

“Liesel Pritzker’s late uncle, Jay Pritzker, was the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain.”

“In a statement, her father, Robert A. Pritzker, called the lawsuit ‘a family matter.'”

“Neither Liesel Pritzker nor her lawyer, Jeffrey E. Stone, could be reached for comment.”

“Liesel Pritzker says in the suit that she didn’t learn of the transactions until late last year.”

“Robert Pritzker tried to prevent Liesel from performing the lead role, the suit said.”

A story written like this is easy to read but almost impossible to penetrate. Readers don’t expect it to explain what happened because they can tell at once that the writer hasn’t figured that out himself: assimilated knowledge doesn’t organize itself into one-sentence bursts. “Interesting yarn,” thinks the reader turning the page, perhaps wondering if Liesel Pritzker is a selfish brat or a daughter wronged.

Continuing coverage of a big local story often goes on being incremental. Each day’s story advances (or pretends to advance) yesterday’s. It’s what Tribune business columnist David Greising calls “turn of the screw” reporting. Every tree is noted but the forest often goes unobserved. Meanwhile, a paper like the New York Times bides its time, and once the story has “a good scald on it”–to borrow my wife’s favorite term for a well-simmered stew–it steps in. Sometimes, Wilgoren observes, a single 1,500-word story says more than ten 800-word stories. “You see them every day, and you get muddled by them.”

The New York Times had no reason to pant after Pritzker news–the Pritzkers aren’t a New York family, and their gifts aren’t the backbone of every worthy Manhattan capital campaign. So after getting on the record on November 28, it fell silent. Oddly, so did the Tribune, for its own reasons. “Your forest-for-the-trees point is probably a good one,” Greising E-mailed me. “We had the lawsuit story on Thanksgiving day, written by a Metro reporter. Trouble is, I think we were looking at the wrong forest. With our all-hands-on-deck coverage of United, we didn’t circle back to the Pritzker story quickly enough.”

The Sun-Times kept up the pace with a series of articles that worked the accessible human-interest angle. There was a Bryan Smith Sunday piece, “$5 billion Pritzker suit puts actress in family drama”; a Richard Roeper column, “Life as Pritzker princess may be her toughest role”; and another Smith Sunday story, “Suits expose Pritzker fights.” This last one, running December 8, was of the only-the-very-rich-could-be-so-petty school; Smith dished dirt about a past divorce fight between Robert Pritzker and Liesel’s mom and about another legal battle between Robert Pritzker and Liesel over whether she could act in movies and under what name.

None of this lively reading began to clarify what was going on inside a $15 billion family turning against itself. But Wilgoren and Fabrikant were working their sources. Wilgoren’s December 11 account, pushed up a day to compete with a Wall Street Journal story she knew was in the works, began: “Jay A. Pritzker, the aging scion of Chicago’s wealthiest and leading philanthropic family, called a meeting in June 1995 to hand 11 members of the next generation an important memorandum, outlining the Pritzker principle that family money should be shared among them and appointing a triumvirate to replace him at the empire’s helm.

“But after Mr. Pritzker’s death in 1999 and a nasty squabble between the triumvirate and the other cousins, that blueprint was torn up last year and replaced by a secret plan to carve up the $15 billion empire over the next decade, most likely taking public key assets like the Hyatt hotel chain, and handing each of the 11 a $1.4 billion purse.

“Now a cousin who was left out of that pact, Liesel Pritzker, an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia University, has sued the family….Liesel contends that her trust funds were emptied to benefit the other members of the family’s fourth generation, who are decades older. It contends they are treating her and her 20-year-old brother, Matthew, like members of the fifth generation who are closer to their ages.”

I read gratefully, suddenly aware that until now I hadn’t begun to understand what this was about. “Our national correspondents tend to write once about something,” says Wilgoren. “They say, ‘OK, this is going to be our one take on this.'” The Times did a lot of original reporting, but Wilgoren admits that “some of the stuff had been in Forbes and some had been in Chicago magazine–it had been out there.” What the Times did was pull everything together.

“I can only assume,” says Wilgoren, “that the Tribune would have been happy to have it.” That’s a safe assumption: the Tribune posted her story on its Web site. It then carried three Pritzker stories of its own over the next four days.

“Much of what was in both stories [Wilgoren’s and the Wall Street Journal’s]–the family dissension, the talk about a Hyatt IPO–has been covered here at one time or another,” Greising wrote me. “But we hadn’t synthesized all of these points as both the Times and WSJ did. We did make a nice recovery in the [December 15] Sunday section, I think. It brought some new historical perspective, but there’s no denying that it was a recovery.”

Saved From the Dustbin of History

“Anna was in her cabin at camp,” said Tom Weinberg when I mentioned Liesel Pritzker. Anna’s his daughter. “They were pals. Boy, that’s a good story!”

Liesel’s lawsuit is a terrific story, but it wasn’t why I’d called. Weinberg has been making and collecting independent videos for the past 30-some years. Recently he gave Columbia College, where he teaches, some 4,000 hours of tape belonging to his nonprofit Fund for Innovative TV. Now the college’s television department is making this archive available to the public. Columbia calls what it’s creating a “digital independent video encyclopedia” (DIVE). Weinberg more jauntily describes it as “a jukebox of history.”

Columbia’s been digitizing the old tape, which eventually will fall apart, and creating a database that in a few months the public will be able to search on-line. “Say you’re interested in everything about Harold Washington,” Weinberg explains. “You look through the thing and, say, there are 40 entries. You’ll be able to push a button and say, ‘I want that and I want that and I don’t want that.’ We can make you your own DVD. I would say this could happen within six months or nine months–or a year anyway. Everything’s there except a transactions system to make deals and set prices.”

A few years in the future–contingent on raising a fair amount of money–lies an archive people can download at home and use to make their own DVDs. “With $750,000 we can have something amazing,” Weinberg says. “We can have the first and best kind of repository of 30 years of history in videotape and make it accessible to the world for almost nothing.”

Three-quarters of a million dollars might not sound like all that much, but Weinberg hasn’t lined up anybody to give it to him. “That’s the weakest part for me,” he allows. “I don’t like doing it. I’d rather think of ways to access video that nobody’s thought of before. That’s a lot more fun to me than going to dinner with a Crown.”

Or someone from the family of his daughter’s old summer-camp pal.

DIVE has tape from every video project Weinberg’s ever been involved with, and he goes back to the guerrilla video of TVTV in the early 70s. He created Image Union for WTTW and The ’90s for PBS and did a lot of other shows besides. He’s got tape from Chicago documentarians such as Scott Jacobs and Bob Hercules and, thanks to The ’90s, from all over the world.

What about reproduction rights? The pay-to-play aspect of DIVE is one of the things that make it more like a jukebox than an encyclopedia.

“It’s still a little bit of a question how rights will work out for anybody, starting with mine,” Weinberg said, possibly more blase than he should be. “Nobody involved with this is ultimately out for money. They do it to get their vision out, to get their politics out, to get their cultural take out, to get their emotion out–and that’s why I was always able to pull things together on Image Union.”

The DIVE collection is the best kind of hodgepodge. A sample video shown at a reception last week launching DIVE was a pastiche of eccentric moments. One that any student of history would want offered Richard Nixon idling at his desk minutes before speaking to the nation and resigning in 1974. The live feed to Europe had been established, so somewhere across the Atlantic these moments were being recorded.

“That’s enough,” says Nixon, apparently to someone snapping a picture. “My friend Ollie,” he explains to whoever’s in the room with him, “always wants to take a lot of pictures.” Nixon laughs, a little too hard. American and presidential flags rise regally from the sides of his great desk. “I’m afraid he’ll catch me picking my nose,” says Nixon, and laughs some more.

Thinkin’ Lincoln

From: The Republican National Committee

To: Party stalwarts everywhere

Enclosed, from last Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, is a brilliant column by Mark Steyn that shows us a way past the Trent Lott debacle. Steyn’s a Canadian writer, and it must be this critical distance that gives him such insight into American history. His point is that the Republican Party has always been right on race. It’s the Democrats who have plenty to answer for. “In the 19th century, they were for slavery; in the 20th, for segregation; in the 21st, for the neo-segregation of affirmative action, ‘hate crimes’ and all the other paraphernalia of the modish trickle-down apartheid determined to make racial categorization a permanent feature of the American landscape.”

In a nutshell, race haunts the Democratic Party and makes it unfit to govern. We Republicans don’t give race a second thought.

This is a vital message to get out, but we must proceed carefully. The task before the Republican Party today is to remind the nation that we are the Party of Lincoln without mentioning Lincoln. Records suggest that the last GOP candidate for national office to mention Lincoln was Tom Dewey, in 1948, and we all know what happened to him. Come January, the Republican Party will enjoy total control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, and our resolute policy of not mentioning Lincoln (except in conversation with the Chicago Tribune editorial board) deserves no little credit for this success. Let’s not try to fix what isn’t broken.

Even so, for the public to give us the credit we’re due as the Party of Lincoln, we’re probably going to have to allude to him in some way. This is where the national committee welcomes your ideas. Some of us think an occasional reference to “that old sonuvagun from Kentucky” would be harmless enough, but others aren’t so sure. How would a button that says “Proud to Be a Lincoln-Helms Republican” be received in your area? Would “Helms-Lincoln” work better?

All of us can benefit from a close study of the president’s words last week when he took Senator Lott to task. Here’s what he said: “The founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.” Not only did he avoid mentioning Lincoln by name, he didn’t mention the Republican Party either. No sound bite’s going to come back to bite him in the ass in 2004!