Big Questions at a Small Paper

The time to take a newspaper’s measure is when the president’s hit by a scandal. If it’s a college paper that means the college president. Two weeks ago the new boss of Columbia College put himself in a compromising light, and the weekly Columbia Chronicle was equal to the occasion.

Just a few years ago the Chronicle was “unreadable,” according to its faculty adviser, Jim Sulski. Editor Amber Holst says, “The Chronicle was a joke when I came here in ’97.” But the annual budget has risen from $20,000 in 1995 to roughly ten times that, the top editors are now paid salaries, and a business manager hustles ads to cover costs. “We take a lot of respect in what we do,” says Holst. “Most of us are incredibly driven.”

Sulski says, “I’m just the guy who orders pizza on Friday. It’s their paper. Friday night at 11 o’clock, when every other college student is drunk on their ass, they’re in here proofing pages.”

The source of president Warrick Carter’s troubles was a letter he E-mailed Thursday morning, January 11, from New York to a Georgia mortgage company. The letter seems to have been Carter’s attempt to explain away blemishes on his credit report. He copied the letter to his own E-mail address at the college, and somehow–glitch or blunder–Carter’s faculty and staff all got it too. This was triply regrettable. The letter went into details of Carter’s divorce settlement several years ago that might be useful to a loan officer but were nobody else’s business. It was laced with misspellings and poor grammar. And it contained a startling revelation. “The entries during late 1998 and early 1999 were the result on my being laid off from the Disney Company,” Carter wrote. “I was later rehired as a consultant at Disney, a position I held until my present appointment as President of Columbia College Chicago.”

Laid off? The story around Columbia when it hired Carter last year had him stepping down as Disney’s director of entertainment arts. Apparently that job hadn’t been his to give up. And nobody knew.

“The E-mail surfaced at about 8:40 AM,” says Holst. “People were coming up to us in the hallway and handing us copies of it.” And for the first time she fully understood the impact a newspaper, even a college paper, can have when it’s taken seriously. “Countless people called me and said, ‘Are you going to do this?'” Meanwhile, “a considerable amount” of the faculty was calling to urge her not to write anything. “I was working on a story on a new course instituted this semester, and the person I called changed the subject and said, ‘I hope you’re not going to do anything with it.'”

But of course she was. She had to. With one day to tear up the next week’s paper and put it back together again, she wrote the front-page story herself. To her exasperation, Carter remained out of town and out of reach, but she dutifully gave his principal champion plenty of space. Chairman of the board Alton Harris, who’d headed the presidential search committee, said he’d known about the layoff but hadn’t mentioned it even to the other trustees because he’d considered it an insignificant technicality. Harris said Carter lost his position because the Disney company dissolved his division, but that Disney then rehired him as a consultant with the same duties–if not necessarily the same title and benefits.

Kimo Williams, the teacher Holst had been talking to about a new course, wound up in the story too. Doing Carter a dubious favor by comparing the E-mail flap to the “Bill Clinton situation,” Williams insisted that Carter’s E-mail was “nobody’s business” and that “I don’t think it should be talked about in media in any way, shape or form.”

But the Chronicle’s only hesitation was over whether to print the entire E-mail verbatim. “We weren’t sure if it would be an invasion of privacy or unethical to do so,” says news editor Ryan Adair. By Thursday afternoon the letter was all over the school, so arguably there was no privacy left to protect. Nevertheless, Holst decided not only to withhold it but to quote from it very sparingly. “Some people wanted it run,” Holst says. “Maybe they were just bitter and angry. But that was a personal E-mail not written for publication.”

If Holst’s careful article had been all there was to the Chronicle’s coverage, the paper could have been accused of being scrupulous to a fault. But back on the Commen-tary pages, the Chronicle sounded genuinely collegiate. Essays titled “Carter, come home from Never-neverland!” and “To our little president who is carved out of wood” ridiculed Carter for submitting an imprecise resumé, for his gram-mar and spelling, and also for lying low when a statement would have been welcome. A letter from a student demanded an “apology and explanation.” The topic of the photo poll was “What is the worst lie you’ve told on your resume?”

The Chronicle has a Web site, and Holst refused to post anything on it until Friday afternoon. By that time the Sun-Times–surely tempted less by the story’s significance than by its goofiness–had put it on page one, and the Tribune had carried an item in Inc. “She was reluctant,” says Sulski. “She said, I won’t feel good about this until I talk to Dr. Carter.” Which she was never able to do.

“I was being fair,” says Holst.

An aggressive campus newspaper is an unworldly paradox. The butt of its coverage is so often the administration–in effect, its owner and publisher. Unlike college presidents, publishers do not allow themselves to be embarrassed by their newspapers. “I say this is the last opportunity you’ll have to have this kind of freedom. Have a ball with it,” says Sulski. “Ten, twenty years from now you’ll still love doing this, but you’ll think back and–wow, that was the last time you could say pretty much anything you wanted to.”

Sulski says he has a policy. “I don’t answer the phone on Monday morning.” That’s when the Chronicle comes out and the fur flies. “I have caller ID,” he explains. The morning Carter’s E-mail hit the school, Sulski again went incommunicado. He didn’t want to get caught in the middle. He knew something about human nature, something Holst soon found out.

“I learned a lot about reporting,” she says. “Different personalities come out when people get a little nervous.”

Meaning that everyone’s not as brave as she’d thought?

“Exactly. Plus a lot of people skirt around issues. This time when I called people I deal with on a regular basis, they were really nervous. That was strange to me.”

Jesse’s Love Child vs. Your Right to Know

A caller wondered why last week two New York dailies, the Daily News and Post, beat the Chicago papers by a day to the big story in our own backyard–the one about Jesse Jackson’s love child. But let’s be precise: the story the New York papers had first was that the National Enquirer was about to break the news of Jackson’s love child. The Enquirer is published in Florida, no more in Chicago’s backyard than New York’s.

Even so, the Chicago Tribune might have been first. Washington columnist Clarence Page began hearing rumors last summer. He told me his bureau chief, James Warren, heard them too. “I feel as humiliated as any good Chicago reporter over being beat,” Page said. “It’s painful to own up to this. I put this in the context of having covered Jesse for 31 years off and on and hearing other rumors of sexual escapades and following them up as far as I could. For one reason or another, I didn’t pin down those stories either.”

Of course he didn’t. His heart wasn’t in it. “It’s the kind of story I’m not that psyched about,” Page conceded. “I didn’t get into journalism to chase down stories the Enquirer was after. The only reason that I really got an interest in this story was that I heard Jackson was carrying on an affair and conceived the child at the same time he was giving Clinton counsel in the Lewinsky affair. Otherwise, it’s not the kind of story I generally go after.”

If you and Warren and your paper had genuinely wanted to get to the bottom of Jackson’s rumored love child, you would have, I said.

“I fully agree with that,” he said. “You know how the Tribune is.”

In Washington, he explained, rumors “are part of the atmosphere,” too numerous to all be chased down and useful even when they aren’t. “In Washington, any rumor that may have saliency to it gives you currency to trade,” he said. “I remember saying that around here there are no rumors, only unconfirmed reports.”

Mere rumor being coin of the realm, the respectable press is more than willing to allow the supermarket tabs to do the scut work of nailing them down. When the proper papers weigh in it’s to assert their own worldliness–we’d heard the rumor too, they promptly tell us. And it’s to seize the high ground by allowing their pundits and editorialists “to make sense out of things,” said Page, “to stimulate discussion.”

You might say privacy doesn’t count for anything anymore, but it does. Privacy is what makes most of the Jackson story unknowable and the moralizing coverage of it seem fraudulent. Jackson didn’t confess publicly until the Enquirer found him out, and nobody in his right mind would say he had an obligation to. And when he did confess he told us very little. It appears that he and Karin Stanford enjoyed a durable, substantial relationship that was a far cry from Bill Clinton’s thing with Monica Lewinsky. But who knows? And though he and she could have dealt with the pregnancy the way many a public man and professional woman do–by arranging for a quiet abortion–they didn’t. And what’s a pious pundit to do with that?

Charles Madigan contributed a lovely fugue on Jackson to the Tribune’s Perspective section last Sunday. He wrote barely a word of his own. He simply listed harsh words such as “lust,” “adultery,” and “deceit,” followed by the stark dictionary definitions that our morning papers wrap them in. Then he added lines from Shakespeare, from Blake, from Virgil, contemplating them as human behavior. The point I took from Madigan’s exercise was that the media have no choice but to cover stories such as Jackson’s when they come along, but there’s no other kind of story in which the facts seem so inadequate to the truth.

Ashcroft’s Other Victim

Sometimes the dog that doesn’t bark deserves to be noticed too. Unlike Ronnie White, the Missouri Supreme Court judge whose appointment to the federal bench John Ashcroft torpedoed as a Missouri senator in 1999, James Hormel didn’t make waves and didn’t make headlines when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general last week.

A former assistant dean at the University of Chicago law school, Hormel was nominated by President Clinton in 1997 to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Ashcroft denounced the nominee, complaining that he “has been a leader in promoting a lifestyle” Ashcroft didn’t want representing the United States abroad. Hormel’s a homosexual. Ashcroft and Jesse Helms stalled Hormel’s nomination in the Senate for two years, until Clinton went around them by making a recess appointment in 1999.

Judge White went before the committee to defend his record and reputation. His testimony was dramatic, it was damning, and it was news. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Republican senator Arlen Specter wound up telling the judge, “The Senate owes you an apology.”

Hormel didn’t testify, and he barely surfaced as an issue. Did you oppose Hormel’s nomination because he’s gay? Senator Patrick Leahy asked Ashcroft. “I did not,” Ashcroft replied. Then why? “Well, frankly, I had known Mr. Hormel for a long time. He had recruited me when I was a student in college [to attend the U. of C. law school].” Ashcroft continued, “I made a judgment that it would be ill-advised to make him ambassador based on the totality of the record.”

Hormel was a passing mention in a Clarence Page column on Ashcroft written days before the hearings even began. Otherwise there wasn’t a peep from Chicago’s press. But New York Times columnist Frank Rich called Hormel and asked him to comment. Hormel told Rich that he hadn’t recruited Ashcroft to Chicago’s law school, that he hadn’t known him there, and that he hadn’t seen him in the three decades since. He said he’d repeatedly asked to meet with Ashcroft during his own confirmation process, but Ashcroft hadn’t responded.

Rich told us all this last Saturday, while observing that the Judiciary Committee hadn’t asked Hormel to testify and that none of the senators on it followed Leahy with any questions of their own. Their silence doesn’t justify the nonexistent coverage in Chicago and doesn’t even quite explain it. The Judiciary Committee was obviously a lot more comfortable talking about racism than homophobia, which could have been a story in itself.

News Bites

The Tribune editorial Tuesday unenthusiastically supporting the confirmation of John Ashcroft called him a “political opportunist” when he kept Ronnie White off the federal bench. (The editorial didn’t mention James Hormel.) “He let White’s nomination by Bill Clinton blind his judgment,” said the Tribune. “Ashcroft, who was expecting a re-election fight against Gov. Mel Carnahan, used White to his political advantage. White was denied a federal judicial post because Ashcroft wanted to look tough on crime.”

So at what point was Ashcroft’s judgment blinded? It sounds as if the clear-eyed senator saw what he needed to do and did it.

The same editorial complained about the self-righteous interrogation of Ashcroft by Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee. “Sen. Dick Durbin, who’s up for re-election next year, made sure no one confused him with former Sen. Alan Dixon, who lost his seat after voting to confirm conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.”

Was this a poke at the New York Times, which did confuse him with Dixon? A piece by R.W. Apple Jr. last Friday discussing the Ashcroft hearings referred throughout to Senator Dixon, who left the Senate eight years ago. The Times’s correction the next day noted a second trifling mistake. It was segregation Ashcroft had said he deplored, not desegregation.

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