Condemned With Faint Praise

As a devout advocate of the “big tent” approach to daily journalism, I would never question the right of the Tribune editorial page to insult the Tribune architecture critic. When an editorial can find “only two plausible reasons” for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to have recommended landmark status for the “nondescript McGraw-Hill Building”–one of them ignorance and the other politics, neither of them Blair Kamin’s aesthetic and historical argument–well, it’s up to Miss Manners to arbitrate.

But by the time urban affairs writer John McCarron had finished last Sunday’s editorial he’d entered looking-glass logic. He listed various political calculations that might explain the unanimous vote to protect the McGraw-Hill, then concluded: “Trouble is, none of these are legitimate concerns of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, whose vote to designate the McGraw-Hill must be reversed forthwith by the City Council if the process is to retain its credibility.”

Credibility these days must be made of one of those amazing new plastics that get stronger the more they’re stretched and twisted. Try to follow this: (1) Commissioners appointed by the mayor because they at least know something about architectural values vote unanimously to protect the McGraw-Hill. Credibility is destroyed. (2) Aldermanic huns who know virtually nothing about those values step in to overturn the vote. As usual, they defer blindly to the alderman on the scene, in this case the dithering Burton Natarus, who’d put a shopping mall on Calvary if John Buck told him to. Yet credibility is regained.

McCarron followed his anonymous editorial with a signed op-ed piece the next day. Here his views were less preposterous. He conceded in passing that Kamin had given the McGraw-Hill an “A-minus,” but argued that continued development is more important to Chicago’s economy than the preservation of A-minus buildings to its soul.

And he sounded less preposterous yet when he talked to me. “Even editorial writers pick up the phone,” McCarron said. “I don’t know anyone who thinks it should be a landmark.” His calling around had convinced him the commission was voting an agenda, either appeasing the constituency it had angered by letting John Buck tear down the Arts Club on the block to the north, or giving Mayor Daley the upper hand when Buck and the city work out details of the Nordstrom Buck wants to build where the McGraw-Hill now stands.

But how does the City Council restore credibility by stepping in? I asked McCarron.

“It doesn’t,” he acknowledged. “That’s the hell of it. You’re sending this to the council, where it will be decided purely on economic grounds. I don’t think the council should be put in that spot. I think it was time for the commission to stand up and say, no, this doesn’t meet our standards.”

Inconveniently for the Tribune editorial page, it does meet Blair Kamin’s. And a couple of Sundays ago Kamin, who wouldn’t comment to me on McCarron’s editorial, argued that the McGraw-Hill was a “significant structure” whose preservation needn’t kill Buck’s project. Kamin, it must be said, got in some licks of his own, scorning Buck’s “media/political handmaidens” and “editorial writers who posed the McGraw-Hill issue as an either-or choice” between economic growth and aesthetics. A refurbished McGraw-Hill, Kamin argued, could be retained as a gateway to Buck’s Nordstrom, which would extend west all the way to Wabash. (Local architect Joseph Antunovich has turned over to the landmarks commission a drawing that does just that.)

When it argues for the eradication of the McGraw-Hill, the Tribune’s own credibility does not stand strong and true. Readers are entitled to recall that the paper’s parent company opposed landmark status for the Tribune Tower–without any doubt an A-plus building–until concessions could be wrung from the city that would leave the company free to build just about anything it wants alongside the tower. Big business hates to see strings attached to real estate.

Readers can also ask themselves who the Tribune can expect more advertising from: Nordstrom or Chicago’s hardy band of preservationists? And by what order of magnitude?

Journalists are highly sensitive to the unseemliness of mere appearances except when the appearances are their own. “Frankly, I think these linkages are more in your head than in reality,” McCarron told me.

Windy City Times Fights Back

How, then, to respond to the latest bizarre eruption from the Near North News? One tried and true rejoinder is derision plated with irony. The broadsword in the Hot Type armory, it could be swung like this:

Funny to see Arnie Matanky, in his running crusade to set the world straight about the gay menace, publish an editorial questioning President Clinton’s “speech” last month to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. “Why was he there?” wondered Matanky, editor and publisher of the Near North News. “He cannot possibly believe that homosexuals in any serious number are going to support his reelection. After all, they were the mainstay of the SS and the SA in Nazi Germany.”

Humdinger of a non sequitur, Arnie. And by the way, check out Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, the new book by Gitta Sereny. Did you know Joseph Goebbels carried on a rip-roaring affair with Czech film star Lida Baarova? And that the spurned Magda Goebbels then flung herself into an affair with her husband’s aide, Karl Hanke? And that Hitler himself then stepped in, decreeing that among top Nazis divorce “was out of the question”? Baarova was ordered back to Prague, Hanke joined the army, and Joseph and Magda were told to go home and make up.

At another point in the book Speer tells Sereny that Hitler once asked him why he and his wife had no children. The Speers responded to this avuncular concern with five children in nine years.

The engine driving the Third Reich was not sexual perversion, Arnie. It was family values.

So that’s one way to react to Near North News. Is there an even better way? Well, yes. For lack of a better term, this other might be called journalism’s high road.

Taking Matanky’s pronouncements very seriously, Windy City Times last week reprinted the full texts of both his October 28 editorial and his “letter from the publisher” that ran in the same issue of the Near North News.

“Racial, religious and gender groups have grown accustomed to the give-&-take of free speech and free press,” asserted this letter. “Only the organized homosexual community reacts with vitriol and threats when it feels it has been criticized.”

Matanky offered no specific examples of “vitriol and threats,” but apparently they could be found in the “mail and phone calls” he received in response to his October 7 editorial “Protect our youngsters.” Here he’d criticized Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations for ruling that the Boy Scouts could not refuse to hire a former volunteer for a staff position simply because he’s gay. “Remember John Wayne Gacy? How about Larry Eyler?” Matanky warned. “The Gacys and the Eylers killed some of the young men they lured and fondled. So have other homosexual killers.”

This editorial, Matanky said in his letter, attracted “an unusual amount of publicity not only in the homosexual media but in the supposedly straight press.” The latter meant Hot Type, among others, and “supposedly” sounds like Matanky’s idea of a wickedly clever parry.

Hot Type had responded to Matanky’s original editorial with this column’s house sarcasm, ridiculing the circulation of his neighborhood weekly and alluding to “raving homophobia.” I was not the only commentator to make such a thrust, and Matanky’s “letter” routed us all with one counterstroke.

“Sorry, fellows,” he wrote. “There is no such word [as ‘homophobia’]. Neither the 2400-page Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary nor the 2500-word [sic] Oxford Universal Dictionary include it.”

Windy City Times could easily have met bluster with bluster. But the gay and lesbian weekly decided the occasion called for serious coverage. In addition to the texts of Matanky’s recent statements, it carried a page-one article challenging them.

Windy City Times asked Klaus Muller, director of Western European research for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, to comment on Matanky’s allegations concerning the SA and SS. “That’s historically false–period,” Muller replied. The article went on to say that according to Müller, “the allegation that gays ran the SS and SA has its roots in anti-Nazi propaganda developed by Stalin in the 1930s. The Nazis, in turn, published propaganda linking homosexuality to Stalinism.” Muller told the paper that historians estimate the Nazis interned 10,000 to 15,000 gay men and executed most of them.

Windy City Times then consulted its own dictionaries. It found “homophobia” defined in both the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (“unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality”) and Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (“irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexuals.”)

The paper also reported that a senior adviser, not President Clinton, had addressed the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Ridicule is a handy tool to use against blowhards who don’t directly threaten your own interests. But history teaches persecuted minorities the hard lesson that the passions some blowhards stir against them can be lethal. Actually, history teaches all of us that, but minorities pay attention. The dignity due an undignified but pernicious argument is research, facts, and rebuttal. Satirists and bomb throwers might disagree, but I admire the Windy City Times editors who didn’t.

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