Boo-hoo, Boo-hoo, We Don’t Want to Cover You

Faith Spencer is a founder of a new organization you’ve probably never heard of, dedicated to a cause you have. The organization is Fair Funding for Illinois Schools; the cause is fair funding for Illinois schools, a worthy goal guaranteed not to quicken the pulse of a single news editor in the state.

Yet when the members of Fair Funding held their first rally on June 22 they saw famous journalists everywhere they looked. It seemed, for the brief time they allowed themselves to think these journalists might be interested in them, an unbelievable opportunity to get the message out. They raised their massive banner–a yellow “report card” giving Governor Blagojevich an F in school funding. They chanted and passed out petitions. Their children waved signs.

If a reporter had asked the members, most of them mothers, why they were demonstrating, they’d have explained that four out of five school districts in Illinois are running a deficit, that per-pupil funding in Illinois’ public schools ranges from less than $5,000 a year per pupil to more than $18,000, and that when Education Week ranked the states in terms of equitable school funding, Illinois got the only F. Some reporters did approach the Fair Funding members–to ask what they thought about the Jack Ryan sex scandal.

June 22 was report-card pickup day in Chicago, and Fair Funding had begun planning its rally in the Thompson Center plaza two months earlier. Planning for the Jack Ryan rally in the same plaza began that morning, when newspaper headlines screamed that his ex-wife had accused him of taking her to sex clubs. The state office building was the logical place for a humiliated Senate candidate to make a desperate attempt to demonstrate that he was still the people’s choice in Illinois. But as Spencer, whose two kids go to Burley Elementary, e-mailed me afterward: “Jack Ryan and his staff obviously made no effort to even find out if anything was happening at that location. Instead, his view and that of his supporters was apparently that they could waltz in there as they pleased, without regard to a well-planned and organized citizen protest on an issue he claims to care about–education.”

Fair Funding’s permit allowed its members to demonstrate from 11 AM to 1 PM. Ryan showed up around noon, but his supporters got there sooner in order to give him a raucous welcome. As they waited–and Spencer led her troops in fair-funding chants–the press corps waited too. Spencer knows school funding isn’t sexy, but this blatant disdain was more painful than having no reporters show up at all. “When you have them all standing right there talking on their cell phones it’s so much harder to take,” she says. “While I’m talking into my little microphone–education.”

A guy in a Ryan T-shirt walked over to Megan Cusick, a Fair Funding mother with two kids at Chicago’s Inter-American Magnet School. Cusick told me later, “He basically said, ‘Schools don’t need more money–they need more competition. This is a bunch of garbage, and you should be ashamed of yourselves for using your children this way.’ And he stormed off.” Then an older man came by and assured Cusick that school funding reform was an issue close to Ryan’s heart. “Well, that’s not what one of your campaign workers told us,” she replied. The older man disappeared, and when he returned he announced the guy in the T-shirt was no longer with the Ryan campaign. He then told Cusick that Ryan was hoping to meet with Fair Funding. OK, but we won’t do it here, said Cusick, not about to let the organization be bear-hugged by a drowning politician.

But ignoring Ryan was out of the question. When he showed up, the idling journalists all swarmed around him, and instead of packing it in, Fair Funding decided to make the most of a dubious opportunity. Outnumbering the Ryan contingent, they surrounded it, commandeering the TV cameras by holding their big yellow banner directly behind Ryan. As reporters screamed questions at Ryan, the Fair Funding crowd chanted at the top of their lungs. The effect was made to order for television–incoherent bedlam. But if you listened intently enough to your TV set to notice that a lot of the yelling had to do with public education, you might have wondered what the connection was with sex clubs.

Here’s what it was like to be a working reporter at the scene:

“They gathered around and started chanting so loudly I couldn’t hear a word Jack Ryan was saying,” says Regine Schlesinger of WBBM AM. “When I got back to the station and listened to my tape, out of a 20-minute tape I could use only two 30-second sound bites.” Schlesinger was so angry she called Spencer and left a message on her answering machine. “I let her know that if this was the way they were going to try to get sympathetic media treatment, they were mistaken.”

Spencer called back, and they talked. Says Spencer: “I said I can’t apologize for calling attention to an important statewide issue.” Says Schlesinger: “We were talking past each other. She was feeling very frustrated. They felt Jack Ryan had crashed their event. I thought they behaved rudely by making it impossible for us to do our job. I can understand their point of view, but it’s not for them to determine what the agenda of the newsroom should be.”

Megan Cusick says John Kass came up to her afterward, and the conversation went something like this:

Kass: Don’t you think what you did was wrong?

Cusick: Are you asking me to apologize?

Kass: Do you really think what you did was appropriate?

Cusick: We did what we needed to do to get our message across.

And what you needed to do, I said to Cusick, seeking clarity, was make a lot of noise?

“Yes,” she said. “We’re not giving Jack Ryan his time on our permit.”

Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw was heard advising Fair Funding members that if they wanted better coverage they should come back in a couple of days and hold another rally. This advice struck the mothers who’d spent two months planning this one as preposterous.

Kass couldn’t be reached for comment. Shaw could. “Two days was a metaphor for pick a better time, a time when you’re not overwhelmed by news events,” he explained. “You’re a victim of bad timing. You planned it for two months, and you have no way of knowing Jack Ryan will explode. If you’ve got a good cause there’s no shame in coming back with it and basically doing the same thing again. I’ve said that to lots of groups.” He did allow, “Those people were very, very upset.”

The Fair Funding rally didn’t go totally unnoticed. There was a decent story that evening on Shaw’s Channel Seven, an article the following Saturday in the Sun-Times, and a sharp column by Phil Kadner in the Daily Southtown. What’s more, at 4:30 Fair Funding’s Deborah Shaw-Staley got to see herself on Channel Five. She and her daughter, who goes to Blaine Elementary, had their VCR “poised and ready” that evening in case either of them showed up on TV, and Deborah appeared for a moment screaming “Scandal!” She’d been waving a sign, but deft camerawork and editing managed to hide it. And only if you played her split second of fame three or four times would you realize that she was actually chanting, “This is the scandal. Not that!”–“that” being whatever it was Jack Ryan had proposed doing with his wife.

By five o’clock Shaw-Staley had disappeared from the Channel Five news, but Mary Ann Ahern stepped up with a full report. Here it is: “It was a wild scene in the Thompson Center today. An education rally with parents and children vying for the media attention, screaming all around the reporters, yelling, ‘This is the real political scandal.’ So at least in their case those voters are saying, ‘Leave the candidates’ personal life alone. We’ve got other issues we care about.'”

Ahern left out nothing but every detail.

Fair Funding member Tamie Burian of Plainfield e-mailed me. “We normally do not watch the news because in our monarchy household we censor it,” she said. “The day was worth it for my kids because it was a learning experience. They learned about the First Amendment (we had a right to demonstrate and speak, the news media had a right to talk about things that were inappropriate for children–I had to keep clicking the channel!), they learned about machine politics, and they saw the apathy in so many of the people that came by the rally. It was a home-school moment–but wait, the home-schoolers were not there because they don’t care about school funding.”

The Right Strip

The job Scott Stantis wanted for years was editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Tribune. He thought of himself as a logical successor to Jeff MacNelly, who died in 2000, because he, like MacNelly, like the Tribune itself, is conservative and because editorial-page editor Bruce Dold obviously liked his work. But though Dold frequently picked up cartoons Stantis drew for his home paper, the Birmingham News, whenever a name bubbled up as someone Dold was seriously considering to fill MacNelly’s shoes, it belonged to someone else.

But on July 12 Stantis slips his politics into the Tribune through a side door. He’s launching a new comic strip, Prickly City, and the Tribune is one of about 40 papers that have already picked it up. “It’s obviously a political strip,” Stantis told me. “It’s a cross between a conservative Doonesbury mixed in with Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. There’s a real call for a quality character-driven comic strip with a conservative bent to it.”

I asked what he meant by “conservative bent.”

“Smaller government. Less taxes in your private and business life.” But no soapbox, he promised. “This is very subversive in a lot of ways. It runs contrary to what the last decade of conservative commentary has been, which has been yelling. It’s almost sweet.”

Geoff Brown, who oversees comics at the Tribune, says he wanted a strip that would placate readers who piss and moan about Doonesbury and Boondocks. “It’s not that a conservative strip can’t take potshots at conservatives,” Brown explains, “but I want to make sure it’s not a centrist or seemingly liberal strip in disguise.” He says readers who raise hell when the Bush administration is the target don’t notice when Doonesbury and Boondocks “are running down icons on the left.” Those readers deserve a strip they can be certain is on their side. The pickings were slim–the ham-handed Mallard Fillmore, which the Sun-Times briefly carried and dumped a decade ago, and Stantis’s brand-new strip.

Prickly City’s a two-character strip set in the Sonoran Desert, where Stantis lived for about six years. The characters are Carmen, a little girl, and a coyote pup named Winslow. “Berkeley Breathed [Bloom County, Opus] was asked once what makes a great comic strip. Is it great characters?” Stantis told me. “He said, ‘No. It’s how the characters respond to each other.’ And that’s where I think this strip, Prickly City, works all day. These two characters obviously love each other. He’s not the sharpest spike on the cactus, but she adores him. He’s well-intentioned but dim-witted–in short, a Democrat. Carmen is much more grounded. She’s very steady, very intelligent. She’s very, very comfortable in her own skin. Her ethnicity is always a question. She’s rather brown skinned. She’s going to be the face of America.”

The early strips I’ve seen don’t disprove the proposition that conservative whimsy is an oxymoron. Stantis is struggling to convey anything about Carmen and Winslow beyond their opinions. But Stantis understands where he needs to go. “The last thing I want to be is preachy,” he says. “If you want to be lazy, preaching’s the easy way to go. Boondocks falls in that category. Now it’s just a statement. It’s no longer what I loved about Boondocks when I first saw it. I thought, ‘My God, here’s a strip I can’t write.’ This was an experience and a language I couldn’t write. I thought it was one of the most compelling things I’d seen in my professional life. And [Aaron McGruder has] gotten lazy. Look at Garry Trudeau, who rarely if ever falls into that. I think he’s really been energized by the war. His work wasn’t up to his standards, and then holy schmoly–fantastic stuff!”

I don’t think Stantis has it in him to be unremittingly ideological. He has plenty of Democratic friends and considers Democrats more fun to party with than Republicans, though as he says, the Republicans have cooler toys. “I don’t think because you’re a Democrat you’re necessarily evil,” he says. “Michael Moore is evil, but that’s because he is. You’re not a Nazi because you’re a conservative, and you don’t hate America because you’re a liberal.”

Stantis heard through his syndicate, Universal, that someone at the Tribune had made the startling admission, “We’re not used to seeing a conservative who can see both sides.”

I confronted Brown.

“Gee, that sounds like me,” he said, laughing, “but I’ll be damned if I’ll be quoted saying that.”

News Bite

8 Never read a pundit you respect when he’s writing about something you know more about than he does. Frank Rich’s theme in last Sunday’s New York Times was a familiar one: the hypocrisy of moralizing Republicans. “So the party of Kenneth Starr now tosses worthless family-friendly initiatives to religious conservatives,” Rich wrote, “while countenancing Clinton-style behavior among its own if holding on to power is at stake.”

Exhibit A? President Bush was talking up old-fashioned marriage in Ohio while “fellow Republicans were rallying around a rumored swing voter of another sort, Jack Ryan, the party’s scandal-beset senatorial candidate in Illinois.” George Will, who’d previously flattered Ryan in print, “did not raise his voice in condemnation now. Nor did any major Republican leader.” Robert Novak “stood up for his man.”

Will? Novak? Who cares about either one of them? When Ryan’s divorce file was finally cracked open, Illinois’ Republican Party chewed him up and spat him out in 96 hours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo–Nam Y. Huh, Chris Slowik.