Defending Otakar

Try to imagine the Baby Richard saga unspooling beyond the public eye. Perhaps one of the adoptive parents, perhaps the natural father, calls a city desk or popular columnist in desperation, seeking an ally. But a memo’s mislaid. Or a famous sports hero is just now returning to action, leaving the city with no heart to be moved by anything else. Or the matter strikes a fastidious editorial assistant as nobody’s business. For whatever reason, the media do not respond. And the parent, thinking “Can this nightmare be happening to me?” feels totally alone.

Imagine the day the little boy is handed over. Neighbors gather at the home of the grieving parents, their hearts brimming with anguish and fury. And as the boy leaves their street, their neighborhood, their lives, led away sobbing by a stranger, they look about in desperation for a witness. And they wonder, “Why is no one here to tell the people what is happening?”

When the press excoriates itself it often forgets just how primitive its function is.

“Reporters from both major Chicago newspapers were present before, during and after Richard’s custody surrender,” the Sun-Times confessed on its editorial page. “What business did they have there? None. But how could they refuse? Both sets of parents invited reporters to protect and project their own self-interest in the public domain. This has been a shameful case, and many people were used. But none more than Richard, the innocent child whose public suffering we were compelled to witness.”

To which the appropriate response is “Get a grip.”

If you think your reporters don’t belong somewhere, don’t send them. If you do, don’t publicly beat your breast about it a day later. Journalists complaining about unpleasant events they were compelled to witness sound like soldiers complaining about big, ugly guns they were compelled to fire. Someone ought to sit them down and tell them what their job is.

Voyeurism is a trespass journalists learn to live with in varying states of discontent. They readily keep secrets; privacy is iffier. A reporter will rot in jail rather than divulge the identity of the government official who for reasons that might be entirely self-serving blows the whistle on another government official. He’ll barge self-consciously into a life whether or not he’s wanted there.

But then, secrecy helps a reporter do his job. Privacy doesn’t.

There is a point, an elusive, shifting point, at which even journalists grant that privacy must be respected. Certainly the media did not go beyond that point two Sundays ago, when the TV cameras and scribbling reporters were the least of Richard’s problems. Much earlier the media had asserted Richard’s right to privacy by referring to his adoptive parents always as the Does. If the media now want to search their souls about their conduct, they should search them over that. Framing the story as Otakar Kirchner versus the Does may have been humane and right, but it subverted the coverage.

“Coverage has been biased,” that Sun-Times editorial properly observed. It was doubly skewed. We learned of Otakar Kirchner’s love life, his gambling habits, his lack of employment, and his immigrant status. About John Doe we learned not even his name. But wasn’t Kirchner the aggressor here? you say. Wasn’t he assaulting the other’s home, threatening to take the other’s child? What right has he to privacy? Those are the terms in which the conflict was most compellingly presented, the predator versus the innocents besieged, and anonymity was the mantle of sympathy draped over the Does that immediately asserted their righteousness.

What’s more, the story was put on the map by a columnist, Bob Greene, who did what columnists do: he wrote early, often, and passionately on behalf of the side he favored. Greene crusaded. Unfortunately when running news stories are popularized by columnists, newspapers have a habit of letting them remain the columnists’ province. Greene’s partisan columns overwhelmed the other coverage, particularly the Tribune’s. Yet the Baby Richard case gripped the public in large part because it appealed to the nonpartisan in readers, who found it easy to identify with the emotions that possessed each side. The rightness of both causes made their collision fascinating and tragic. Perhaps Otakar Kirchner deserved a Bob Greene of his own, for the sake of the balance the press sets such store by.

Kirchner caught the worst of it after he’d taken young Richard into his home, when privacy might finally have descended. Mike Royko waded in with three venomous columns mocking Kirchner, “the roly-poly Romeo,” as an out-of-work hustler eyeing his famous little boy as his main chance to cash in. Dennis Byrne twisted a statement on fatherhood Kirchner once made to Sun-Times reporter Adrienne Drell into an expression of paternal narcissism.

Kirchner had said this: “My son means the continuation of my life. It’s not what I earn or a house I build. I could leave material things behind me after I die–gold, crystal and other riches. But the continuation of me is only through my son. Everything else can be sold, can be changed or can disappear. Only my flesh and blood and the genes within him are the continuation of my life.”

Byrne wrote: “Here is a 4-year-old child who is forced by his father to drop every shred of his life to come take care of the old man. To be the conduit for his seed. . . . We can no more put “Richard’s’ life back together than we can unscramble an egg. But we can prevent future cases in which one man’s obsession with his own “seed’ disrupts, perhaps even destroys, so many lives.”

In other circumstances Kirchner’s remarks would be recognized for what they are: a parent’s familiar meditation on progeny and mortality. Fathers and mothers have for ages held such thoughts as they reflected on the children they raised, the children who would supplant them on earth. Is it scurrilous of Kirchner to think them of a son raised in another house?

Byrne excoriated Kirchner as an emblem of “this Me First society”–one of Byrne’s favorite targets. And perhaps Kirchner is. But Kirchner’s expression of his longing is shoddy evidence for that conclusion.

Burying the Victims

The Tribune’s admirable flurry of articles reflecting on World War II serves as a reminder that no matter how loud the voices insisting it’s time to put the past behind us, it’s always easier to look back than to look around.

Among the stories was the account of Gerda Weissman Klein, who survived three years in a German slave-labor camp and married the American lieutenant who liberated her. Earlier Buchenwald was remembered, and the Tribune’s Robert Blau wrote of his visit there with his father, who’d survived the camp.

On June 14, 1942, the Tribune’s front page carried a six-column story headlined: “Hitler Guards Stage New Pogrom; Kill 258.” The dead were Jews massacred in suburban Berlin on May 28 in an apparent reprisal for the fatal attack on Reinhard Heydrich in Prague the day before. Two days later a nine-line story buried on page six alongside a bourbon ad and another for Lava soap was headlined: “Claim Fascists Slew 25,000 Latvian Jews in 4 days.” And on June 30 an 11-line story, also on page six, was headed: “Estimate 1,000,000 Jews Died Victims of Nazis.”

Did genocide become old news that quickly? “The difference,” said historian Deborah Lipstadt, who brought the stories to my attention, “can be attributed to a number of things. The 258 figure was released by the Gestapo. The 25,000 was released by the Federation of Jewish Relief Organizations. The 1,000,000 was released by the British section of the World Jewish Congress.”

So it wasn’t to be believed? I asked.

“Right. It was news by the victims. If I had seen that story on the bottom of page six–either I would have missed it or I would have said it can’t be true, because if it was true the editors would have given it much more play. So I would have dismissed it.”

Lipstadt, of Emory University, is the author of the 1986 book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945. Lipstadt was especially hard on the Tribune. In December 1942 the Inter-Allied Information Committee issued a report calling Poland “one vast center for murdering Jews.” Coverage everywhere was restrained. The Tribune’s story ran on page 18 next to a marriage announcement. A few days later a story on Dutch Jews about to be “deported to eastern Europe” appeared on page seven next to the weather.

Lipstadt believes the cool treatment the American press gave reports of these atrocities reflected a general reluctance to risk public support for the war by making the salvation of the Jews the reason for fighting it. Also there was the attitude, “Jews are always complaining about what’s happening to them. They’ve been griping since ’33. It’s not a new story anymore.”

Lipstadt acknowledged that the Tribune employed one of the shrewdest and most antifascist of Berlin correspondents, Sigrid Schultz, and that her paper ran her dispatches uncensored. But in the 1930s her boss, Colonel Robert McCormick, “had a very different view of Germany under Hitler: it was an obstacle to the “communist menace’ and therefore deserving of strong American support.” Lipstadt added this footnote drawn from a taped interview Schultz once gave for the Tribune Company archives:

“At a Nazi rally and celebration in Berlin she sat next to the colonel and watched how mesmerized he was by the military display. . . . Fearful of the effect of the parade, Nazi military precision, and the hospitality he was being shown would have on him, she turned to the colonel . . . pointed to where the high-ranking Nazi leaders were assembled, and said, “Colonel, the little man there right beside Roehm is his former lover, and his other lover, the new one, is standing right behind there.’ . . . She believed that subsequently, when Hitler murdered Roehm and those around him, for McCormick back in Chicago “it meant that that nice man [Hitler] had nothing to do with the homosexuals.’ This, Schultz believed, made it easier for the Nazis to ultimately win McCormick’s complete sympathies.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Peter Hannan.