Burying the Bomb
An AP story out of Washington on December 6, 1941, that began “If the Japanese ever launch a sneak attack against Pearl Harbor, experts say it’s a sitting duck” wouldn’t have been plastered across the front pages because no newspaper would have accepted the premise. A September 10, 2001, story warning of hijacked planes used as missiles would have gotten an equally cold reception.
Today it’s a given that 9/11 was merely the first assault and the enemy will come again, but stories that sound an alarm still go begging. This month the 9/11 Commission did the work newspapers have refused to do and gave Washington a homeland-security report card full of Cs, Ds, and Fs. The story AP offered papers for December 6 began “Time, money and ever-present terror threats have done little to close gaping holes in the nation’s security system, the former Sept. 11 Commission said Monday.” The Sun-Times ran this story on page 30, below a piece on Tom DeLay and a story with the headline “Are we ready for movies about 9/11?”
I don’t know why this performance astonished me. On August 5 I wrote a column marveling that almost four years after 9/11 American newspapers still weren’t thinking seriously enough about homeland security. My exhibit A was a Sun-Times editorial touting the wonders of Santiago Calatrava’s proposed 2,000-foot Fordham Spire. Build it, said the Sun-Times, to show we’re not “caving in to the shallow threat of terrorism.” Was putting the 9/11 Commission’s report on page 30 its way of showing us it still refused to cave?
The Sun-Times wasn’t the only paper to misjudge the news. The New York Times put its version of the AP story on page 22 of the national edition on December 6, and plenty of other papers didn’t think the story deserved page one. The Tribune properly topped its front page with the headline “9/11 panel: U.S. not safe,” but it still fell short. The Tribune borrowed its story from the Washington Post, and there was no sidebar covering the Chicago angle–as if a report giving the government a D for cargo and luggage screening and an F for communication between first responders didn’t suggest one. Papers in other cities quoted former Illinois governor Jim Thompson, a member of the panel, but on December 6 the Chicago papers didn’t.
The Salt Lake Tribune was a model of competent journalism. Its story ran on page one (with an editorial in the same edition), and the local angle dominated. It identified Utah’s Orrin Hatch as one of a “handful of senators” standing in the way of a change in federal law that would allow homeland security funds to be distributed on the basis of risk, instead of on the basis of what commission chairman Thomas Kean called “pork barrel spending.”
This change obviously matters to Chicago. The Sun-Times figured that out in time to publish an editorial on December 7 that was longer than its news story the day before. The editorial denounced the “obstinacy of Congress” and quoted Thompson wondering, “What’s the rationale? What’s the excuse?”
The Unfilled Hole
The last vestige of Chicago’s hallowed City News Bureau disappears at the end of the year, when the Tribune pulls the plug on its New City News Service.
The Tribune says it no longer wants to pay reporters to provide content to TV and radio stations that put it online in competition with the Tribune’s own Web site.
When I wrote about New City News’s death sentence on December 9 I thought the chances were good that the hole it was leaving in Chicago journalism would be filled by City News Service of Los Angeles. I was wrong. City News Service boss Doug Faigin tells me he ran the numbers and decided the only way he could afford to set up shop here would be to increase rates by about 50 percent. He rounded up 11 potential clients–New City News has had 14, City News Service well over 100–but they balked at the price. “Their  budgets are pretty locked in,” he told me. “It’s hard for them to come up with the money. More than one said they’d like us to contact them again in late summer.”
At that point they’ll be writing their next budgets, and they’ll have a good idea how much they’ll need the package of local hard news and future events Faigin wants to sell them. “We’re leaving this door open,” he said.
His business plan–which he’s hanging on to–was to operate at a manageable loss for a couple of years while his operation demonstrated its competence, then start adding clients. Like maybe the Tribune, which he told me didn’t say yes but didn’t say no. And the Sun-Times, which said no. And the Daily Herald, which he didn’t ask.
Last August the Tribune told its critics that while things were slow the paper was going to shift a few chairs around and see what happened. First-string theater critic Michael Phillips would review movies for a couple months, second-stringer Chris Jones would handle theater by himself, and film critic Michael Wilmington would focus on Sunday essays. “I was told not to read anything into it,” Wilmington told me at the time, though of course every critic affected by the job shuffle did.
Two months turned into four, and the lassitude of summer gave way to the frenzy of Christmas openings. But the new order still stands. “Arts critic” Jones covers theater. “Arts critic” Phillips covers film–with a lot of help from “staff reporter” Allison Benedikt. “Movie critic” Wilmington handles art films and writes essays.
“We’re happy with the way things are playing out on all fronts,” says James Warren, deputy managing editor for features. Though he still describes the arrangement as an experiment, a return to the old status quo isn’t likely. Jones and Phillips seem comfortable in their new assignments, and even Wilmington, who got the short end of the stick, is in a job that suits him better: he’s writing about ideas now instead of airheaded $200 million blockbusters.
Now That’s a Team Player
Last January 14 in these pages Scott Eden told the story of prep football guru Tom Lemming and the kid he believed in, Libertyville High standout Santino Panico. Panico was so determined to reach the NFL he already had his own personal trainer, dietitian, and speed coach, yet none of the major football schools wanted him. Miraculously, largely thanks to Lemming, he wound up at football powerhouse Nebraska, playing for a new coach who’d arrived too late to recruit anyone but leftovers. The coach, Bill Callahan, showed his appreciation for Panico’s sure hands by installing him as Nebraska’s punt returner.
Panico didn’t fumble away a punt the entire 2004 season. But he didn’t run any back for big yardage either. What scouts other than Lemming had said about him was true: he didn’t have breakaway speed. Nebraska had a horrible season, finishing 5-6 and without a bowl invitation for the first time in 36 years, and if Panico wasn’t the reason for the disaster, in the fans’ eyes he was a symbol. After the season Callahan brought in one of the country’s top recruiting classes, and Panico, reading the handwriting on the wall, dropped out of the program and out of school.
But there’s more. During that dismal season Panico happened to have lunch one day with John Cook, coach of the women’s volleyball team. “He was a real character,” Cook recently told Lincoln Journal Star columnist John Mabry. “Anytime he was at the training table, he was talking about something.” That day Panico was talking up a book he swore by, Gary Mack’s Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence.
Cook checked it out and gave copies to his players for Christmas. The book didn’t hurt. Nebraska’s always strong in volleyball. This year’s team wound up 33-2 and played for the national championship.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.