Bob Black’s Pink Slip: A Color Thing?

Years ago we used to ride into the night with Bob Black. He was the photographer and wheelman, we carried the notepad, and as the two of us hurtled toward whatever mayhem the Sun-Times’s night desk had sicced us on, that happy warrior enlightened this young newcomer to Chicago on the ways of the city and the ways of the world.

Bob Black is 53 now and almost half his lifetime has been given to the Sun-Times. But last week Black was fired for a “gross breach of trust.” He was dismissed without severance for what the Sun-Times Company described in a statement as “dozens of unauthorized uses of the company’s Federal Express account and outside photo lab,” going back more than three years and costing the company “more than $1,400.”

According to the newspaper, Black was warned last November when two supervisors noticed “a $175 messenger charge for personal business.” But “our records show Mr. Black continued to use the company’s Federal Express account for personal business on at least a dozen additional occasions.”

Black called us the day after he was fired. He said, “Over the years I’ve been using the Fed Ex number at work to send out various things, one of them a project, ‘Songs of My People,’ a photo documentation of the African American experience. Or when people feature my work or ask me to speak, as one of the few African Americans doing my work, they’d ask for biographical information. I thought, well, it’s OK to use the Sun-Times’s Fed Ex number. They always wanted it yesterday.

“The company is using the number ’78 times’ over a period of three years. I counted 17 situations that were actually purely personal, but there was no serious gain to me in money. . . . The company takes the position I stole services from the Sun-Times. The [Chicago Newspaper] Guild takes the position it was a case of bad judgment, which I have admitted to. I also offered to pay back the money involved. That didn’t seem to work. Yesterday I gave them $500.”

Normally the Sun-Times refuses to comment on personnel matters. It changed its policy with Bob Black because “unfortunately”–management’s word–Black’s dismissal “has become something of a public issue.”

Stories on Bob Black have appeared twice on the front page of the Chicago Defender. Last Saturday Operation PUSH called for a Sun-Times boycott. The Chicago Association of Black Journalists wrote editor Dennis Britton asserting that Black had not been treated fairly and asking for his reinstatement. African American colleagues at the Sun-Times submitted a letter urging management to reconsider.

Was this racial? we asked the Chicago Newspaper Guild’s executive director, Gerald Minkkinen. The guild is grieving to save Black’s job, and short of that to get him dismissal pay. “If you’re asking me if I think the dismissal was racially motivated, I don’t see any evidence of it,” Minkkinen replied. “I have to be honest. Would they have dismissed a white employee for having done the same things? Probably.”

Black isn’t so sure. Put yourself in his shoes. You do a good job for 25 years, and then you’re drummed out in disgrace. You’d fight back too, any way you could. To Black, race was both an explanation and the weapon at hand. He started making calls.

“The Sun-Times doesn’t understand where they get their basic readership from. It’s the black community. They don’t seem to understand that,” Black told us. “They’re always going after the suburbs.”

Is this a racial issue? we asked him.

“Well, you know, to say it’s cut and dried would be hard, but in my experience I’ve never known them to do this to any of the white staffers. . . . I’m senior man in the photo department. I happen to be African American. It’s not something that has to be resolved in this way. They could have asked for reimbursement, and that should have been the end of it. But they want to make me out to be a common thief, and I’m not.”

Was this racial? we asked a black colleague of Black’s who signed the letter protesting his dismissal.

The colleague said it wasn’t but went on, “Bob is one of our own. It is incumbent upon us to weigh in when we feel one of our own has been wronged. We are a minority, and if we don’t stand up for ourselves no one will.”

Does anyone else there feel as strongly as the blacks do?

“I don’t know. We haven’t talked to anyone else. I do know some of my white colleagues have said that they feel Bob has been wronged. They’ve expressed basically the same idea that the punishment was too harsh for an employee of his background.”

Will they act on that conviction? we wondered.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope so.”

But you doubt it?

“I do doubt it. They will leave it to the union leadership to handle. As is correct procedure.”

And that disappoints you, we said.

“No. I’m not disappointed. I’m the type of person who never expects anyone to stick their neck out.”

Pundits on the Plan

Nothing’s more dreadful than a lockstep press. We know that. Disagreement should reign and up out of the froth will eventually bob the truth.

And yet we were sort of hoping the pundits of America would speak with one voice in hailing the new economic program of President Clinton. We liked his reforms philosophically without having any idea whether they’d actually work. We think it’s pretty crucial that they do, and that’s what we wanted to hear.

The speech itself was reverently reported on front pages everywhere. The Tribune was especially grand: “Seeking to reshape the economic and social destiny of the nation at the end of the Cold War, Bill Clinton risked his young presidency Wednesday night by challenging a nation at peace to sacrifice for domestic renewal.”

But the president’s credibility was already under attack. “Not Leveling Gave Clinton Uphill Job,” said the headline to a Jeff Greenfield column in the Sun-Times the day before Clinton’s speech. “What’s upsetting about Clinton’s economic proposals isn’t so much the content as the dishonesty of it all,” said the same paper’s Dennis Byrne the morning after. “Clinton operated on the principle that you should say whatever you must to get yourself elected.” George Will concluded that Clinton’s presidential campaign had been “the most disingenuous since at least 1964.”

But then came a volley of headlines that rang like fanfares! Tribune: “Greenspan says Clinton’s budget plan is ‘credible.'” Sun-Times editorial: “Industrial Policy Is Right for America.” Sun-Times: “Economic Allies Back Clinton’s Program.” Tribune: “Builders warm to Clinton’s plan.” New York Times: “Clinton Blueprint Wins New Respect–Emphasis on Shared Sacrifice Pleases Business Leaders.” New York Times: “Bentsen Sits Tall at Group of 7 Talks–Clinton’s plans gave the U.S. new credibility with its trading partners.” New York Times: “Cheers From States for Clinton’s Plan.”

Herbert Stein, a former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in the New York Times: “Bill Clinton’s economic program is probably the most far-reaching effort ever made by a President to control the Federal budget deficit.” Robert Eisner, past president of the American Economic Association, wrote in the Tribune: “President Clinton’s economic plan is generally a winner. It charts a basically new direction.”

So we dared hope. But there were other voices. Consider these three headlines from the same page of the Tribune: Over a Joan Beck column, “Clinton’s Rx for ‘change’ may be just a placebo”; over a Stephen Chapman column, “Clinton stands for thrift, except when he wants to spend”; over a David Broder column, “Clinton plan is in danger of causing another deficit: Public trust.”

A Boston Globe columnist appearing in the naysaying Tribune asserted: “It is possible to agree with every measure President Clinton set out in his talk last week and still consider the speech a smug disaster. . . . Aside from abandoning nearly every campaign promise it made to get elected, the Clinton administration is notable so far mainly for its determination to put Democrats everywhere and its willingness to use politics anywhere.”

Eugene Kennedy wrote in the Tribune: “It is . . . extremely dangerous for President Clinton to excuse himself for immediately breaking his campaign promise of not increasing taxes on the middle class by saying that the voters did not expect him to keep his pre-election pledges and that it wasn’t as if he had ‘made a read-my-lips promise’ to the American people. . . . This statement, whether intended or not, telegraphs a disdain for the dignity of the American people on a par with that of the infomercial host who varnishes heads to cure baldness.”

So we despaired. But an occasional pundit tried to square the circle. Commented the Tribune’s John McCarron: “Nobody’s telling it like it is, beginning with Bill Clinton. From the start, the selling of his economic program has been fogged with white lies and petty deceptions. . . . But he’s being a lot more honest than those who pine for the ’12 fat years’ of Reagan-Bush.”

“The public seems far ahead of the politicians in wanting change,” observed the Tribune’s William Neikirk. “It doesn’t even seem to matter that Clinton broke a slew of campaign promises or gave a distorted picture of his plan in his speech to Congress, or failed to mention that the final cost of the savings and loan bailout are not included in his plan. All is forgiven by a populace eager to be led.”

The press’s emergent position seems to be this: the patent medicine might actually do some good, but don’t trust the confidence man peddling it. We’re not comforted. We advise Clinton to pay attention to his clipping service.

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