David Evans’s Dishonorable Discharge

The military affairs writer of the Chicago Tribune reported last January that the son of “one of the most prominent warlords in Somalia” happened to be a U.S. marine.

Not only that, Corporal Hussen Farah–son of the now notorious General Mohamed Aidid–had volunteered for duty in Somalia and served as the personal translator of the ranking marine general there.

Unfortunately, David Evans reported this delicious story before Aidid became America’s archenemy and a household name. We had forgotten about Hussen Farah until we began reviewing Evans’s weekly columns in the Tribune. We were looking for reasons why a month ago editor Howard Tyner saw fit to fire him.

Sixteen months ago Evans wrote that “the feeling among many current and former naval officers” is that the chief of naval operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, should resign. “Kelso was the man at the helm when the Navy’s credibility ran aground spectacularly at the 1991 Tailhook convention,” Evans explained–as a retired marine officer he’s equally comfortable with military values and military metaphors. A few weeks ago, the secretary of the Navy agreed. He recommended that Kelso be dismissed.

Can premature pertinence be counted among Evans’s sins? Or did he make the wrong enemies? Evans ferociously attacked profligate spending. In his last three columns he accused the Marine Corps of trying to dodge its fair share of budget slashing, accused the Clinton administration of ordering a $2.4 billion submarine the Navy doesn’t need, and argued that Clinton could as easily say that defense spending is out of control as health spending. Evans hounded the C-17 program; he wrote often and ardently that the Air Force is squandering $40 billion on a jet transport that won’t do the job it’s being built for.

Consider this passage from Read All About It!, the book by former editor Jim Squires that is in large part a stinging memoir of his Tribune Company years:

“Finally,” Squires wrote, “I hired a bright marine retiree [Evans] from the office of the secretary of defense to cover military affairs. If [Stanton] Cook wanted military expertise, he could have it. The problem was, the marine colonel turned out to be one tough reporter, who often knew and reported what the Pentagon was not telling as well as what it wanted everybody to know. Almost from his first column, he became the source of a two-year running dispute between myself and the publisher [Cook] over his credentials as a journalist. Cook seemed to think he ‘just isn’t catching on,’ while I thought he was magnificent. I never had orders to fire him, but the suggestion was planted in my office at least once a month, for no other reason than the constant battering Cook was taking from Pentagon public affairs officers and their friends in the defense contracting business.”

The prime contractor for the C-17 is McDonnell Douglas, and at one point that company’s president wrote the Tribune protesting Evans’s coverage. “He’s always inaccurate and out-of-date on his information,” corporate spokesman Ron Mueller told us. “This company’s experience with this particular reporter is that we rarely know he’s working on anything until we read about it in the paper. It’s not his habit to get his facts checked or updated prior to reporting them.”

To which Evans replies, “There’s not a single one of those C-17 stories that was wrong. I’m sure they’re popping champagne at McDonnell Douglas, but I felt the Tribune was solidly behind me as long as my facts were right. And they were.”

Or perhaps Evans’s fatal flaw was being politically incorrect. He questioned a combat role for women on grounds that few women are physically strong enough. “Standards may be corrupted to increase their numbers,” he wrote last May. “And any man who points out the erosion of fighting capability of mixed-gender units seems likely to be disdainfully ignored as a lout who would belch during chamber music.”

Furthermore he “did a 180,” in his own words, and concluded that the Pentagon’s gay ban should stand. He wrote that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was legally absurd and would never satisfy gay activists, who–he claimed–seek to rewrite the Uniform Code of Military Justice, establish a gay review board inside the Pentagon, and require balking troops “to stack arms and march off to homosexual-awareness training.”

Evans told us, “My whole ethic is maximum efficiency at the least cost. I felt a lot of this social experimentation was just as inappropriate as our overpriced weapons boondoggles.”

And here is yet another reason Evans may have been deemed expendable. He was arcane. Readers who have never worn a uniform and whose children never will are vital Tribune constituents. How interested can they possibly be in the military culture that fashioned Evans? “Stack arms”? Do you even know what that means?

It is almost unheard-of for the Tribune to fire anyone who has not been accused of some act of professional turpitude such as plagiarism. No one suggests Evans did any such thing. The Tribune’s public position is that the post of military affairs writer was dropped in favor of national security writer–which Evans apparently was deemed unqualified to be. Tyner would not discuss Evans directly, but he told us this:

“It’s my feeling that the way the Chicago Tribune at this stage ought to cover military affairs is as part of a package that includes national security, the economy, diplomacy . . . and that we don’t need to have as tightly focused a beat as we’ve had in the past. The person who will be assigned to the broader job will be well qualified in all those areas.”

Is the new beat too broad for one person? we asked Tyner.

“It may be. We’ll see,” he said.

Is this change being done to save money?

“No. It’s simply a question of me having to take a hard look at how we deploy our forces.”

But if money weren’t a consideration, we wondered, would you assign more than one reporter to national security–among them, perhaps, a specialist in military affairs?

“I don’t know if I would or not,” Tyner said. “The Chicago Tribune’s readership is not the New York Times’s readership or the Washington Post’s readership. If you subscribe to the notion the best newspaper coverage is the most newspaper coverage, you’d do it. But I’m not sure I subscribe to that notion in 1993.”

Evans never did become much of a lightning rod for social reformers. On the contrary. Paul Varnell, a columnist for Windy City Times, argued with Evans over gays in the military, but he admired him so much as a principled muckraker that after Evans was fired he called him in Washington to commiserate. “I’m deeply sorry,” Varnell told us. “He was one of the few aggressive, independent reporters on the military. Most military reporters are Pentagon sycophants.”

Two days after Evans lost his job he was on Chicago’s North Shore speaking to a disarmament group called the Shalom Project. Afterward, executive director Sally Mann wrote publisher John Madigan to protest Evans’s dismissal. “An informed citizenry is essential to a democracy,” she reminded Madigan. “The facts he furnished about the Pentagon and the military budget are not generally available in the popular press and we shall really miss his column.”

Unfortunately for Evans, the column that became his passion was supposed to be only a small part of his job. As a beat reporter chasing breaking defense stories he was considered inadequate–too clumsy a writer, too tendentious, in need of too much guidance from Chicago. Exasperation flowed both ways. “Clearly there can be differences in opinion on what constitutes a major story, and I did not regard my judgment as infallible,” says Evans, recalling stories that were spiked, buried, and rewritten. “But I felt I had a nose for stories that would be of interest. And that feeling was reinforced by seeing the same stories I had suggested given greater play in other publications” –as much as a year or two later. “I wanted to excel. I was frustrated.”

Evans went on, “We were often told to write authoritatively, to surprise the reader, to try to present a newspaper where the reader would get the kind of story that he or she might not find anywhere else. These words were music to my ears. We were expected to bring more knowledge to the issue and to write more authoritatively about it–as in, you don’t need a quote to support every point.”

And the Tribune didn’t back you up? we asked.

“Not really. Many of us felt that we had a consistent, clear policy that was applied inconsistently.”

Evans’s undoing was to be judged too narrow. Just as he wasn’t a facile beat reporter, he didn’t cut it as a pundit who could toss off thumb suckers asking, whither America now that the cold war’s over? His singular skill was to spot and protest $40 billion swirling down the toilet. Tyner was hired to hold down the Tribune’s budget, not the Pentagon’s.

Women in Journalism

The Association for Women Journalists was founded in Dallas five years ago, and now five Sun-Times employees are trying to get it going in a second city, Chicago. An organizational brunch (bring a dish) will be held this Sunday at noon in the auditorium of Northwestern’s Fisk Hall, 1845 Sheridan Road in Evanston.

Editorial writer Cindy Richards, who called us, said not to jump to conclusions. Proximity but not site-specific discontent brought the local organizers together. “This is not an anti-Sun-Times thing. It’s much more basic,” Richards said. “One of the first women we approached was [managing editor] Julia Wallace. She was very supportive. Our goal is not to be an us-versus-them. But we do hope to be a voice for change. Oftentimes women begin to feel a little bit isolated.”

The AWJ will be limited to “working journalists,” a term that includes free-lancers and students and is most clearly defined by who’s excluded–anyone in PR, advertising, marketing, or corporate communications.

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