Blame the PDB

Which is more nutritional, a PDB or a PB&J? Peanut butter gives us a dose of niacin and Vitamin E, and the jelly’s good for a quick burst of energy. The presidential daily brief we all just read gave George W. Bush no burst of energy at all.

When the White House declassified the notorious August 6, 2001, PDB that Democrats were calling the warning President Bush failed to heed but Condoleezza Rice insisted was too vague and “historical” to act on, the Sun-Times reproduced it exactly as it would have passed before the president’s eyes. It reminded me of the inside poop dished up in the “newsletters” of broken-down old political writers who’ve lost their newspaper jobs but are desperate to stay in the game.

The memo’s now-famous headline announced, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” But if this language was meant to shock Bush to attention, what followed probably put him to sleep. “Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and ‘bring the fighting to America.'”

The key phrase here is “media reports.” The top-secret brief was put together in part from old news clippings. A lot of long, involved articles on Al Qaeda ran in the American press in early 2001. The president would have known more about the terrorist threat if he’d skipped the PDBs and read a good newspaper every day.

So here are the questions the two-page hush-hush and for-the-president’s-eyes-only PDB makes me want to ask: Are PDBs always this superficial, or was this one tailored to a president who doesn’t like to read? Are PDBs always calibrated to ring with pertinence–even urgency–but never to force the president’s hand by telling him anything “actionable”? A president who has a problem he’s not ready to deal with doesn’t appreciate being told he’d better get on it.

Did Bush fail the country by not responding to the August 6 PDB? Did the PDB fail the country by describing a looming crisis halfheartedly? Do PDBs not get results because they aren’t written so they will?

Green Minds and the Sun-Times

If the Sun-Times has to be sold, why not sell it to dreamers? Why not sell it and every other paper in Hollinger’s Chicago Group to the folks convinced that “there is an incalculable value and growth potential for these newspapers, spurred by the synergy of good journalism, environmental concern, and the capacity for circulation and advertising expansion”?

Environmental concern? Yes. “This unique approach,” says the proposal I just quoted from, “would provide for the continuation of each publication as a newspaper of general interest, but with a distinctive, unprecedented focus on the environment.” The idea is to make the Hollinger papers green, liberal, and classy. Spend money to make money and carry the fight to the Tribune.

Sun-Times staffers who’ve been worked like galley slaves the last decade or two are intrigued. The other day one of them sent me a letter that said: “A number of us who are editorial and business-side managers lunched at the Mid-Day Club some weeks back with the contact person for the group, Paul Kakuris, a business executive, environmentalist and architect of this plan who brought in the group’s main money people, James White, of James J. White and Associates, LLC and with White’s son, Stephen of Whitecap, Private Equity Management. They are investment bankers…

“The Whites supplied our management with details of a number of the deals they have brokered. So their effort seems to be for real, and looks interesting to a number of us. But top management remains cool.”

Accompanying this cover letter was a copy of Kakuris’s strategy, “The Vision, the Plan, the Framework for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Surrounding Collar Newspapers.” Kakuris, who among other things is president of the Illinois Dunesland Preservation Society, describes himself as an environmental activist and consultant with “access to funding sources.” Now he’s tapping those sources in the hope of buying the Chicago Group–the Sun-Times; Daily Southtown; Post-Tribune; daily papers in Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Waukegan, and Naperville; and the Star, Sun, and Pioneer Press weekly chains.

To quote him some more: “With the Sun-Times as the flagship, the Collar newspapers–while largely maintaining their independence and their status as publications of general interest–would operate in a unified manner toward a common goal of environmental awareness, stewardship, and meaningful, pioneering journalism focusing on controversial environmental issues. Such a never-before-utilized approach, always emphasizing the vital importance of the environment, would generate heightened interest and higher circulation…. As part of this program, the Sun-Times and the Collar papers would generate a wave of stories, many of them beginning in the local communities, with content that could reach the flagship paper, where merited. Inevitably some of those stories would become national issues, gaining further attention and prestige for the papers and this unique approach to journalism.”

Kakuris goes on to imagine a “unique partnership” between the Chicago Group and local schools “launched with great fanfare.” The schools would use “cutting-edge educational techniques” to explore environmental issues raised by the papers. “The stimulus to circulation would be impressive.”

What’s more, Kakuris argues, the timing is perfect. It’s an election year. “The current administration in Washington has downplayed, minimized and undermined environmental issues and protections…. Opponents of the President are already seeking to capitalize on this, guaranteeing an increasingly higher profile for environmental issues and concerns.”

Environmental news, Kakuris makes clear, would be one reform among many. “Conventional newspapers can be profitable in two ways,” he says. “One is to promote and practice outstanding journalism, utilizing sufficient staff and leadership. The other approach is to whittle away the editorial and business staffs, virtually eliminate outside promotion of the paper, and cut other corners until there is nothing left but a skeletal workforce that must scramble and seek shortcuts just to get a product on the street.”

The second way has been the Hollinger way, in Kakuris’s view, but he proposes expanding the Sun-Times editorial staff from about 180 employees to 300 or more and that of the other papers by like percentages. “In the process, the Sun-Times needs to replenish its investigative staff, and once more hire and reconstitute a Sunday staff to beef up its long eroding Sunday edition, which should be its best-selling and most profitable publication, not its poorest performer. It must boost the staff of its one-person Washington Bureau (a disgraceful bureau size for a major national journal)…. And the paper must designate and empower the previously-mentioned local environmental editor.

“By bringing all these areas back up to speed, and by hiring the right personnel, consistently outstanding journalism will return to the Sun-Times, once one of the best-reported, best-written newspapers in the nation…. The days when the Chicago Tribune–still hobbled by its bureaucracy, by its ponderous and unimaginative coverage, by its smugness and political astigmatism–can take for granted its dominance of the Chicago market can and should be challenged and ended.”

And one thing more. The Sun-Times needs to call off its fling with the Republican Party. “The paper has editorially lost its way, contributing to its loss of readership,” Kakuris states. “It is just good business for a newspaper with the historic readership of the Sun-Times to be centrist or sometimes somewhat to the left. That’s where it was when the paper was at its strongest; that’s where its historic readership base lies. It has been proven again and again that when faced with a choice among two competing, quality newspapers, readers will usually go where their political or philosophical hearts lie.”

The Sun-Times staffer who sent me a copy of Kakuris’s plan remarked in the cover letter, “Most of us who have been contacted have never seen anything like it. But there seems to be a fair amount of support…especially for an approach that involves utilizing, and providing opportunities for, much of the existing management.”

I called Kakuris last week and told him I’d read his proposal and had some questions. “Things are in motion. Things are in progress,” he said cryptically. “I really can’t comment.”

But much of the motion seems to be Kakuris’s own. He’s had frequent conversations with Gerald Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, though Minkkinen isn’t sure to what end. “I know it’s a relationship that’s important to him,” Minkkinen says, “but I don’t know if it’s associated with raising money to buy the place.” Still, Minkkinen’s intrigued. “He has some access to some decent finances, and he’s an environmentalist who has some good ideas. The problem here is that people have been beaten up at that paper so long that it’s hard to be credible about somebody who wants to do the right thing.

“Here’s the interesting part of it,” Minkkinen goes on. “He would like a much more cooperative relationship between working people and the managers. His view is that everybody has a proper role to play and everybody should be involved with the product instead of spending their energy fighting with each other. He’s asking the guild to be a more participating partner in the overall operation. I suppose that’s revolutionary within the newspaper industry.”

Kakuris has also spent a lot of time on the phone with John Cruickshank, who became publisher of the Sun-Times and boss of the Chicago Group last autumn after David Radler resigned. Kakuris and Cruickshank met soon after Cruickshank took over. “He wanted to know if I was interested in helping lead a management team or management-labor team toward some kind of stake in the company,” says Cruickshank. “I didn’t feel ready to do that.”

Kakuris is sticking his nose into a huge mess. For one thing, Lazard, the investment bank hired by the Hollinger International board to oversee the sale of Hollinger assets, wants to sell everything Hollinger owns to one bidder rather than break the company into pieces. All Kakuris seems interested in is the Chicago Group. For another, Conrad Black and his formerly compliant board are pasting each other with suits and countersuits, and it’s impossible to say who will eventually buy what or from whom. Black could even wind up running the company again. “This is such an atypical situation,” says Cruickshank. “There are so many legal complications. The battle between the contending shareholders is so bitter and unresolved that I don’t think [Kakuris] has got much hope of getting into the process now. I know he’s not in the process Lazard is looking at. But he’s a nice guy with interesting ideas about the interrelationship between the suburban properties and the Sun-Times. His focus on the environment is not inappropriate in any way.”

When Lazard began sending out financial data to prospective bidders, Cruickshank decided that in the name of neutrality he could no longer speak to Kakuris. That hasn’t stopped Kakuris. “He calls me from time to time and says, ‘You sure you can’t talk to me about it?'” says Cruickshank, “and I say, ‘Paul, I have a fiduciary duty to my bosses and to the employees.’ But he’s a very civil guy, and he’s got a great idea. The thing is, he imagines you can put a single page of environmental coverage in the paper every day and it’ll transform your coverage and readership. It won’t–but it’s not a bad thing to do.”

Trib Stung by Cupid’s Arrow

The exhaustive Tribune report last Sunday and Monday on Peru’s new Cordillera Azul National Park, a remote swath of rain forest underwritten by Chicago’s Field Museum, left out a detail or two. The Field’s Debra Moskovits, identified as one of the “masterminds” of the Cordillera Azul project, is engaged to Jack Fuller. A fair number of Tribune writers think the paper should have mentioned that. After all, Fuller’s not merely the president of Tribune Publishing. He’s the resident symbol of high virtue in the Tower, author of the disquisition News Values (which has bigger ethical fish to fry than full disclosure). Fuller, who sits on the Field Museum’s board of trustees, suggested the Tribune do the story.

Don’t blame the reporter, William Mullen. When he set to work, Fuller and Moskovitz barely knew each other. The scandal here, to the extent there is one, might be the Tribune’s willingness to sit on a story until it bites the paper in the butt.

Fuller says that before flying to Peru in October 2002 for a meeting of the Inter American Press Association (of which he’s now president), he told Field Museum president John McCarter that he wanted to visit the museum’s archaeological dig outside Lima. McCarter suggested the Cordillera Azul instead. Moskovitz led him around.

Impressed by the pristine rain forest, which Fuller says is surrounded by an “incredible behavioral sink, the worst pathologies you could imagine,” Fuller touted it to Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski when he returned to Chicago, and soon Mullen was assigned to do the story. He and a photographer spent two months in Peru and Ecuador in early 2003.

By last August, Mullen was done writing. His 13,000-word account of a Peruvian park sat in the Tribune computer, no one knowing what to do with it. “In the middle of all this,” Mullen recalls, “war broke out, and it was hard getting anyone’s attention.”

Meanwhile, Fuller and Moskovitz had begun exchanging e-mail. “Months later we met back in Chicago,” says Fuller. “That’s how it happened.” Managing editor James O’Shea said he didn’t know they were an item until they showed up together a few months ago at a Tribune retirement party.

“I stayed completely away from that story, completely away from it,” says Fuller, when I ask if the Tribune violated the principle of full disclosure. “For me to be opining on this whatsoever is the wrong thing for me to do. Because it was a story that developed over quite a long time, it was a very peculiar situation in which I really had to stay further away from it than Peru is from Chicago.”

When some inside color pages opened up last Sunday, the Tribune suddenly decided to run Mullen’s tale. He says he “was running from pillar to post” making sure that facts accurate in mid-2003 still stood up. But it didn’t occur to him to make sure that in the meantime no one in his rain forest drama had accepted a wedding proposal from a Tribune Company executive. Mullen says he didn’t know about the engagement, but O’Shea and other editors who “raked over the story” did. Says O’Shea (whose wife, Nancy, is the Field Museum’s media relations manager), “If they were married or something, I probably would have mentioned it.”

So if the story had been held until after the wedding, the problem would have solved itself.

News Bite

8 Jennifer Hunter, the former editor of North Shore magazine, has just been named to the Sun-Times editorial board. “It’s a step down for her, having run the magazine successfully for almost three years,” says her husband, John Cruickshank, publisher of the Sun-Times. But she no longer has to commute from Chicago to Glenview every day and can spend more time with their teenage son.

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