Black Ink at the Sun-Times: How Much Is Enough?

The other day, Professor William Sampson drove to Des Moines, Iowa, to pick up his daughter from college. Three times he noticed a squad car on his tail, the local police apparently made curious by the sight of a black man in a Porsche.

“A lifetime of discrimination has made me sensitive to those things,” Sampson told us. “I’m accused of being oversensitive. I might be. I don’t know where the line is between sensitive and oversensitive.”

A white man who wrote a newspaper column for a while and lost it might sulk in silence. That’s just happened to Sampson–who moonlighted for the Sun-Times twice a week while teaching sociology at Northwestern–and he’s proclaimed it an offense to every black in Chicago. Perhaps it is. He and Vernon Jarrett and Carl Rowan were the only blacks writing commentary in the Sun-Times. Sampson counts something like 20 white columnists.

“It’s not bad to be insulted,” Sampson told Operation PUSH last Saturday. “But it’s bad to pay your money to be insulted.” Sampson went on to point out that there are no blacks on the editorial boards of either the Sun-Times or Tribune, and no blacks in significant decision-making positions (the May Chicago Reporter had a dreary report on minority employment at the papers).

“How can we accept this in a city that’s 40 percent black?” Sampson wondered.

There might have been a black on the Sun-Times’s board–Sampson himself. The job was his for the taking. Editorial page editor Krishna Gaur reminded him at the beginning of June in the letter taking his job away: “As you know, our idea was to have you work here as an editorial writer and columnist.”

But that would have made Sampson a full-time newspaperman, and he wanted to teach. Besides, he did write a couple of editorials, “and to be honest with you, I don’t think I wrote editorials all that well.”

Signing up Sampson was one of the last official acts of former editor Frank Devine a year ago. “Not to beat about the bush,” Devine wrote Sampson, “your blackness . . . seems to me as important to the column as your scholarship, original thinking, and ability to write simply and clearly.” Sampson points out that Devine’s letter said nothing about writing editorials.

Sampson phoned in his columns from home, his computer talking to Gaur’s. By and large, black journalists at the Sun-Times didn’t know him, one reason they aren’t rallying behind him now. Another is that they didn’t all like his column.

We confess, we did not follow William Sampson closely. We’re told management considered him “provocative”; we thought he was often a little dry. Still–now and then he really smashed the pottery. Like declaring Larry Bird isn’t that good–he’s just white! But the Bird columns (June 6 and 9) were written after he got his walking papers.

Gaur, on his way out of town June 2, tried to call Sampson from the airport but didn’t get through. So Sampson found out he was being dropped when he read the letter Gaur sent him the same day. This impersonality did not help matters. Sampson was to have kept writing until July 1; but Sampson started noising around his fate and the calls started coming in, and then publisher Robert Page ordered the column ended at once. As an editorial writer told us, “There was no sense having a lingering-death approach to it.”

Why was he axed? “The reason I’ve been given is financial, and I believe that as much as I believe in the tooth fairy,” Sampson told us. “I understand the paper has economic problems. But the money they paid me was pocket change compared to what they paid Michael Sneed. They hired Michael Sneed after they hired me. They hired Lynda Gorov after they hired me. They hired two replacements for Ann Landers after they hired me. What’s more, I wouldn’t be surprised if I sold more papers than any of them.”

Sampson wouldn’t say, but our guess is the Sun-Times paid him around $200 a column. A trifle to him, perhaps, but not to Bob Page, who’s made the Sun-Times schizophrenic about money. Economies are everywhere: travel’s shrunk to almost nothing, maternity and sick-leave benefits have been cut back, and in the most dramatic layoffs, six clerks lost their jobs in the library. It’s understood the real reason for the unnegotiable June 1 smoking ban was to save on insurance premiums. Some of the staff went in to see Page last month and discuss the fiscal crisis, and he boasted that profits were seven and a half times what they’d been in 1983 under Marshall Field.

People don’t know what to think. Either Page is just cheap or he’s so leveraged that normal “profits” mean nothing. At the same meeting, Page hinted at other acquisitions (the Sun-Times had already bought Star Publications); he may want to build an empire off the sweat of his minions.

Of whose number angry Bill Sampson is one no more. “I’m sort of the symbol now,” he told us without regret. “I didn’t go out of my way to become a symbol. . . . But if that’s the way it must be, it must be.”

He’s not the only writer taking measures. Auto columnist Dan Jedlicka got to Italy’s Mille Miglia last month by privatizing the financing. He signed on with the crew of Joe Marchetti, the owner of the Como Inn and famous Ferrari buff who paid most of Jedlicka’s bills and appeared conspicuously in his columns.

Marchetti runs his own event, the International Challenge in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in July, and Jedlicka has talked the Sun-Times into cosponsoring it. It’ll be a great way to impress upscale readers, the Sun-Times believes; Jedlicka even plans to compete–probably driving an old Ferrari Marchetti helped him buy.

The Sun-Times may be trifling with its old southside readers, but it’s hot in pursuit of new ones. What could they have been thinking, giving up a columnist who drives a Porsche?

Horns: A National Dilemma

Our first big TV deal is coming together. Some producers on the coast agree it is time for a sensitive look at a public health menace of increasing concern.

The title we have chosen for our movie of the week is Swollen With Shame.

It is estimated that 37 percent of American men suffer from priapia. Compulsive sexual excess is the hidden cause behind the deaths each year of at least 300,000 American males due to strokes and coronaries. It has destroyed millions of marriages and shattered as many careers. In medieval times it literally changed the face of Europe. These facts and figures probably should be regarded with some caution since we just made them up. But they give you an idea.

We’re all pretty excited about the way our plot sets up. On the one hand there is Ambassador at Large John Henry, a handsome young diplomat with a beautiful and faithful wife. On the other hand there is a journalist named Dean Ferrit. He is impotent.

The setting is historic Vienna, which can be evoked by various settings in and around Los Angeles. Ambassador John Henry arrives to negotiate deep cuts in nuclear arms with his Soviet opposite number and rescue the human race from the abyss. The nation’s prayers ride with him. But Dean Ferrit is there too, and by night he discovers Ambassador Henry eluding his wife to make uncontrollable forays in the direction of his opposite number’s.

The Soviet negotiator, a man not without redeeming qualities, is prepared to forgive these indiscretions in the name of peace on earth. But Ferrit is driven by other ends. There is a devastating exchange between Ferrit and Madame Rapscalnikov in her boudoir while the American legate hides under the bed.

Madame Rapscalnikov: “You tink for dis ve made de glasnost!? Zo zum zcum-zucker like you can vin de–vut do you call it?–Pulitzer Prize?”

Ferrit: “I don’t expect you to understand.”

This tension between Eastern and Western values is broken only when Ferrit drowns in the Danube (was it an accident?) and Ambassador John Henry listens to reason from an old Irish priest. In a heartwarming scene, the priest reveals that he too once suffered from priapia, but overcame it.

Father Mike Mulligan: “If you can give up your Jupiter missiles, son, you can give up this thing you do.”

Ambassador John Henry: “It’s a lonely life, father. . . ”

Father Mike Mulligan (a twinkle in his eye): “One thing an old priest knows, my son–it’s where a man can turn [a glance heavenward] when a man needs someone to talk to.”

We’re waiting on the casting. If he’s impeached, Ronald Reagan will be available to play the priest.

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