Journalists learn things on the record, off the record, on background, and by keeping their ears open in the john. Journalists become used to truth acquired with strings attached. Covenants and conventions that might seem preposterous to the outsider govern the way it’s used.

“Anatomy of a Smear Campaign,” an essay in the premier issue of Chicago Ink, took a long look at Clemente high school and recent Sun-Times coverage of it. The Sun-Times had printed a page-one story in February that suggested poverty funds were being used by the high school to support a proindependent, proterrorist Puerto Rico agenda. “To many Humboldt Park residents,” wrote Lillith del Cerdo in Chicago Ink, “the Sun-Times charges smack of ignorance, red baiting and an attack on Puerto Rican culture.”

Among the opinions collected by del Cerdo for her article was that of “West Town community activist” Dick Reilly. Like almost everyone else quoted by del Cerdo, Reilly was scornful. “This paper has consistently treated Mayor Daley and his proxies including Paul Vallas as if they’re Teflon,” Reilly said. “And all signs indicate that both the Sun-Times and Daley tacitly co-sign Vallas’s grab to centralize power over local schools and their councils and reverse school reform.”

Del Cerdo didn’t mention it, but she and Reilly live together. That’s the sort of truth a reporter always needs to tell. Better yet, del Cerdo should have left Reilly out of her article. And perhaps the next person she quoted as well.

“Other residents,” she wrote, “have raised concerns about the objectivity of the oversight team that Vallas has sent to review conditions at the high school. One team member, Charlie Kyle, a former candidate for Clemente principal, commented just two days after he arrived at the school that the LSC was ‘worthless’ and that he could see few options besides closing the school and dissolving the LSC.”

For Kyle to say this was astonishing. An administrator in the Board of Education’s office of policy, Kyle’s a former priest who’s written a book on school reform, applauded the concept of LSCs, and wrote his PhD dissertation on the problem of dropouts from Latino schools. He’s well-known among activists in Humboldt Park, and he was supposed to be one of the good guys.

Del Cerdo’s article must have stunned him. He wrote a letter to the editor of Chicago Ink that said, “Reporter Lillith del Cerdo falsely and libelously attributed to me comments which I never made and are totally contrary to my views. I demand a published retraction. For the record, I believe the Roberto Clemente Community Academy has a bright and viable future as an institution renowned for academic success. I am confident that the continuation of positive contributions from the Local School Council in collaboration with the administration, faculty, and students will insure such a future.”

When Kyle wrote this letter, was he certain he’d never said anything to anyone that could be construed as a denunciation of the Clemente LSC? I don’t know. I do know that he couldn’t possibly have remembered saying any such thing to Lillith del Cerdo.

Lillith del Cerdo doesn’t exist. She’s the pseudonym of Christine Anne Geovanis, someone Kyle has known for years. Geovanis wrote under an alias, she told me, because she works at an office that doesn’t appreciate her political activism.

Instead of a retraction from Chicago Ink, Kyle got a stiff letter from Geovanis. “Let me remind you of that conversation,” she wrote him. “My companion, Dick Reilly, and I ran into you at dinner at El Nandu restaurant on Fullerton Avenue the weekend after the story first surfaced in the Sun-Times, and only days after you had arrived at the high school. We stopped by your table to say hello to you and your wife. I remarked that I’d seen your name in the paper, and the floodgates opened. You regaled us for the next fifteen minutes with your take on the situation.”

In other words, whatever it was Kyle said to her, he was saying it socially to someone he believed to be a friend.

I asked him if he felt sandbagged.

“Sure, it never dawned on me–” he began, but caught himself. He insists he didn’t say and doesn’t think what Geovanis wrote, and he wants to leave it at that. “As a matter of fact, we did chat, and I have a witness too,” Kyle told me. “What was attributed to me was false and incorrect.”

“I feel kind of bad,” says Geovanis. “Because my background isn’t in journalism, I’m not sure I’m playing by the rules.” But if she doesn’t stand by her ethics, she stands by her story.

“We stopped by [his table] to say hi and bye. And I said in passing, ‘So Charlie, I’ve been seeing your name in the paper quite a bit.’ That literally opened up the floodgates. I was stunned. I was completely taken aback. I wasn’t surprised he was so candid. I was surprised at the opinions he uttered. I was stunned that just literally having arrived at the school he had formed this opinion of the LSC. They were completely worthless–those were the words he used. I asked him what Vallas’s intentions were, and he said there doesn’t seem to be any way the board can avoid reconstituting the school–which I thought was an astonishing assessment.

“The other thing that bothered me was that he opened the conversation by saying that he was basically so pleasantly surprised with the students–that they’d been clever enough and shown enough intellectual sophistication to not allow themselves to be baited by either side of the conflict into staging a walkout–that he’d decided to devote a chapter on it in his next book. And I thought, why would you be surprised that these students are not idiots? To me, there’s something almost latently racist about that.”

While she was writing her story (a revised version of which appeared under her own name in the Chicago Flame, a student newspaper at the University of Illinois at Chicago), Geovanis thought about giving Kyle a chance to reconsider what he’d said to her at El Nandu. “Then I decided, you know, if Charlie’s so comfortable saying this to me, a white woman he knew–I had absolutely no reason to think Charlie was dissembling. I wasn’t sure he needed the opportunity to retract his words. I don’t believe it would have been an honest retraction on his part. I’m sure Charlie meant every word he said to me. If that was an opinion that he felt comfortable broadcasting, it was an opinion that ought to be shared with the public.”

So she shared it. Geovanis’s eye is on the big picture–which as she sees it is a picture of developers and politicians and newspapers conniving to break the LSC’s grip on Clemente in order to change the “multicultural” nature of the school and accommodate the gentrification of the neighborhood. “In some ways I look at Charlie as an unwitting tool in this,” she says. If Kyle had gone over to the other side that was news, she reasoned. Was it news she should suppress because of how she came to know it–because Kyle thought he was talking to a friend?

There are two acceptable answers to this difficult question: “No, but…” and “Yes, however…” I think Geovanis made a huge mistake in not getting back to Kyle. It would have been honorable, and it might also have turned out to be useful: indiscreet sources protected out of the goodness of a reporter’s heart often show their gratitude by saying a great deal more on background.

Kyle might even have persuaded her he’d been misunderstood.

“I met Kyle while I was doing precinct work for [state senator] Miguel del Valle,” Geovanis told me. “We’d run into each other over the years. We were friendly, not close, but it certainly had been a cordial relationship.”

She thought she knew him. “I had to rethink some assumptions,” she reflected.

So did he, I told her.

“I’m sure he did,” she said.

Tribune’s Rock-Solid Values

A.E. Eyre quivered with enthusiasm. I’d expected to see a bitter old man the next time he dropped in, but one glance proved me wrong. An old hand at humiliating defeat, he’s become a master at the overnight recovery.

Eyre waved a copy of the Chicago Tribune under my nose. “The Tribune seeks ‘words of wisdom,'” he bellowed. “That’s wonderful! Words of wisdom are my stock-in-trade.”

Eyre longs for literary immortality. His most pathetic scheme finds him coining epigrams and submitting them to Bartlett’s, a campaign he’s roped me into in the misbegotten belief that I’ve “got connections.” Last Christmas he took an even more desperate tack, penning a cloying fable he hoped would become a yuletide classic.

But Eyre’s bedrock cynicism seeped through his tale and ruined it. I feared the utter lack of response from anthologists would break him once and for all.

But here he stood, shrugging it off. “I was licked before the start,” he explained. “Once the secular humanists take over the sacred, literature flies out the window.”

He slapped the Tribune down on my desk and jabbed a finger at the notice printed there. “The Chicago Tribune invites you to help us find words of wisdom to be etched on the walls of our new Nathan Hale lobby,” said the advertisement.

“For many years, famous words have graced the walls of the main lobby of Tribune Tower, celebrating the role of a free press in a democratic society. Now we’re asking our readers to suggest quotes to be permanently engraved on the walls of the Tribune Tower’s renovated Nathan Hale lobby adjacent to the main lobby.”

Eyes glistening, Eyre said, “There’s no such thing as forever. But ‘permanently engraved’ comes pretty darn close.”

I went on reading. “These quotes should express the ideals and obligations of the press, be attributable and run no longer than one paragraph.”

He reached into his bulging briefcase and produced various bits of paper.

“Choose your credo,” he said grandly. “Each attributable to none other than A.E. Eyre.”

He hawked once and began. “‘Better a penny of truth than a dollar of profit.’ A.E. Eyre.”

He beamed. “Should I continue? Or do you want more time to digest that?”

Go on, I said.

“‘The treasure of a free press is a free people.’ A.E. Eyre.”

He paused expectantly, as if half hoping a mob would form behind him and begin chanting his name.

“I like the ring of this next one,” he confided. “‘Put away your purse, sir. I am a journalist.'”

The interior assonance builds nicely, I said.

“And here is Eyre at his most exquisite,” he announced. “I trust the Tribune chiselers are standing by.” Again he cleared his throat. “No newspaper is too poor to afford honor, nor so rich that it can survive a day without it.”

I nodded approval. But as so often happens when Eyre is carrying on, my mind wandered. My gaze had fallen on a Tribune Company press release that announced the promotion of Jack Fuller from Chicago Tribune publisher to chief of the Tribune Publishing Company. Fuller is a man after Eyre’s heart, a sensitive essayist who has pondered long and hard the ethics of his trade.

In the announcement executive vice president James Dowdle sang Fuller’s praises. “‘Under Jack’s leadership, the Chicago Tribune has achieved record revenues and profit while furthering its reputation as the best regional newspaper in the country.'” (In gaining that reputation the Tribune has helped matters along by defining any paper that might be better as either national or local.)

The press release went on to say that Fuller will be succeeded as publisher by Scott Smith, a former chief financial officer for the Tribune Company. If Smith has spent an hour of his life in a newsroom, the announcement didn’t see fit to mention it.

I told Eyre I couldn’t be certain the Tribune’s priorities were exactly as he was trying to construe them. I showed him the press release. Let’s not jump to conclusions, I said, but this might be the rare newspaper that puts mammon first.

“Of course it does,” Eyre cackled. “What serious paper would ask the public to tell it what its principles are?”

News Bites

For a paper whose sports section pretends to greatness, the Tribune turned in a shabby performance last week when Dennis Rodman strained his knee. Tribune team coverage of this cataclysmic event amounted to a mere five articles and columns. The Sun-Times package of eight stories beat it silly.

Kudos to Leslie Baldacci and Tom McNamee of the Sun-Times for their occasional railing at the fiasco that American telephone service has become. I fault McNamee’s Sunday piece on Ameritech’s preposterous new 411 national directory assistance only for its dispassion when the subject deserves biting, kneeing, and gouging. Call 411 and you’re at the mercy of the world’s dumbest computer, which doesn’t know the difference between Charles and Charlene or–as McNamee mentioned–between the White House and the White House clothing store.

I wish McNamee had pointed out what happens when you call the wrong number you were given. Getting credit requires two more calls: one to the long-distance operator, and the other back to 411–so you don’t wind up paying for its useless assistance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Christine Anne Geovanis photo by Randy Tunnell.