By Michael Miner
The biggest sports story–probably the biggest domestic story–in Britain last month was Rupert Murdoch’s bid of more than a billion dollars for the Manchester United soccer club. Murdoch is no sportsman, but pro sports are, in his words, the “battering ram” for his cable-TV operations. A Murdoch network already has exclusive rights to Britain’s Premier soccer league; buying Manchester United would put him in the position to create an international superleague and claim the immense pan-Europe audience.
Man U is the most hallowed name in British soccer, and the British press was aghast. “The future’s here, and it stinks,” wrote Chris Maume in the Independent. Hugo Young predicted in the Guardian that “Manchester United, if [Murdoch] gets the club, will take its place on the lengthening list of subjects where his papers have taken their own self-denying ordinance against the truth.” The most temperate voices I spotted during my visit to London were in the Times, whose wise men reminded readers that change is inevitable and progress is always at odds with sentiment.
Trouble is, Murdoch owns the Times–and those other papers compete with it. Knowing that, but almost nothing more about either the subject, the writers, or the cynicism of British publishers, I couldn’t trust any paper to be giving me the story straight. Not the Times, certainly–but also not the Guardian, Independent, or Observer.
Here in Chicago, how can a stranger take on faith anything he reads in the Tribune about the Cubs? Integrity doesn’t assert itself, it simply is, and constant readers come to know it when they see it. Whenever a special relationship between paper and subject compromises coverage, it’s up to the paper to persuade the reader it observes no “ordinance against the truth.”
Sometime early last year, when Rick Pearson was the Tribune’s man in Springfield, I received a complaint that he was partial to Secretary of State George Ryan. They’re “very tight,” a journalist who knew Pearson told me; in fact, Pearson’s wife worked for the state library, which is under the secretary of state’s jurisdiction. But Pearson told me he saw Ryan only occasionally, and that his wife was merely an assistant communications specialist whose main duty was organizing the annual Illinois Authors Book Fair. Pearson had had nothing to do with her getting the job, he insisted, adding, “I believe the Illinois authors fair to be the least politically intrusive thing that’s done in state government.” I didn’t write a story.
Now Ryan’s running for governor, and Pearson’s the Tribune’s top political writer. Margaret Pearson, appropriately, has resigned from the state library. But polls say Poshard’s behind, and there’s a feeling at headquarters that the Tribune has stacked the deck and that Pearson’s wife is a sign of this. I haven’t spotted Pearson writing anything aslant. Even so, the Tribune hasn’t shown it can cover the story straight.
What compromises isn’t the Pearsons; it’s simply this: the Tribune and Ryan are both Republican, and soon the Tribune will endorse Ryan for governor. The Tribune always endorses the Republican candidate for governor. There was a time when I thought this predictability was reprehensible, but now I see it as a virtue. The Tribune knows itself. It’s a paper that measures the Republican candidate for high office against the progressive conservatism that it thinks of as its guiding light. Then, as a matter of duty and public service, it constructs the strongest argument that can be made for the Republican’s election. If the argument fails to persuade you, so be it. At least you’ve given it thought, so the Tribune has served you well.
But why shouldn’t Poshard–and the public–assume that whenever the Tribune comments on an anointed candidate’s race, a thumb rests lightly on the scales? The paper surely thinks of itself as fair, but the public takes convincing. Evenhanded coverage isn’t an exact science; it’s a series of imbalances that even out, more or less, in the end. In the governor’s race the inevitable small lapses have consistently favored the side the paper’s backing, and readers have every right to think that’s no accident.
The favoritism has shown up on the editorial page, in ways so subtle they might have been inadvertent. The Tribune’s first editorial comment on the Ryan-Poshard race appeared two days after the primary. “Democrat Glenn Poshard said something remarkable Tuesday night after winning the Democratic nomination for governor,” it began. “He said that his Republican opponent is an honorable man.” The Democrat was praised for telling the truth about the Republican. (If only Truman had done the same for Dewey!) In the guise of a high-minded appeal for a high-minded campaign, the editorial put the onus on Poshard–“Let’s hope Poshard’s victory speech sets the tone for his race against George Ryan. They are honorable men.” Then a brief overview of the issues the two men should be honorably debating somehow turned into a catalog of Ryan’s strengths (a more reasonable abortion policy, years of support for gun control, the “sound shape” the state’s in after decades of Republican management) and Poshard’s weaknesses (Johnny-come-lately on gun control, a draconian abortion policy, supported a big income-tax increase, opposed free trade). “If they can resist the modern-day political urge to scratch, claw and kick their way into office, there should be a great debate this year.”
They couldn’t resist the urge. “Labor Day is looming, and Illinois’ candidates for governor still haven’t given the public much reason to vote for them this fall,” spoke the Tribune in late August. “They sure have, though, spent plenty of time and money trying to convince voters that the other guy is a snake.”
This editorial complained about “nasty attacks and cheap shots” and went on, “The latest example of this pettiness is the fax attacks Ryan and Poshard traded over the past few days. Last week, Poshard, a U.S. congressman, demanded a state police investigation because a Ryan staffer in the secretary of state’s office used a state-owned fax machine to transmit a campaign memo. Poshard’s outrage looked a little silly when it was disclosed that U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) used his taxpayer-financed office fax machine to send a letter to Poshard about potential campaign contributors. Is this really the most pressing issue facing Illinois voters?”
Now we know what Poshard did. But what spiteful conduct of Ryan’s drew the Tribune’s rebuke? Strangely, the editorial didn’t actually mention anything. The paper cursed both houses, but didn’t find fault with one of them.
I don’t mean to overdraw this. Last week a comparison of attack ads by Flynn McRoberts found Poshard’s spot to be “a relative model of forthrightness.” McRoberts was harder on Ryan, accusing him of something that possibly no newspaper can countenance–misrepresenting one of its own articles. He said that in a TV ad ripping Poshard for playing dirty, Ryan “misleadingly” used the Tribune headline “Attacks get personal in race for governor.” In fact, McRoberts reported, that article had “described Ryan attacking Poshard strategist Joe Novak.” (More accurately, it described Ryan and Novak attacking each other.)
Furthermore, John Kass has championed Poshard in his column. Last May–on the same day a Tribune editorial took Poshard to task for his record on guns and beamed that Ryan, “to his credit, is not a late arrival to the issue of gun control”–Kass published a letter Ryan wrote in 1990 to the Illinois State Rifle Association: “Freedom flees when people have no defense against their government….One of Adolph Hitler’s first acts to consolidate his power was to abolish the private ownership of firearms….I support the fundamental promise that American citizens have the right to keep and bear arms.”
The Tribune still praises Ryan because he supports gun control, but now it dutifully mentions that there was a time when he didn’t.
For the most part, however, the Tribune has given Poshard the short end of the stick. Consider the August editorial headlined “Hands caught in the cookie jar.” It was about candidates lusting after money, and at first glance looked balanced. “Then there is Glenn Poshard…whose campaign admitted recently that it failed to disclose about half of the $200,000 that labor unions poured into advertising on Poshard’s behalf in the primary.” The Tribune wondered “whether a candidate who boasts about his self-imposed contribution limits simply didn’t want people to know how much money the unions were spending to get him the nomination.”
As for Ryan? “And then there is Poshard’s Republican opponent…the beneficiary of a genteel shakedown attempt by the McDonald’s Corp. McDonald’s hit up its suppliers for contributions to the Ryan campaign.”
Read the editorial carefully and the hands swiping cookies turn out to belong to Glenn Poshard and the Golden Arches. The Tribune doesn’t blame Ryan for anything.
And when Ryan spoke to veterans at the state fair and took a position on veterans’ benefits that the Tribune admired but Poshard ridiculed, the Tribune asserted that Ryan’s mistake was to be high-minded “in the vicinity of Glenn Poshard, who was only too ready to rack up easy mileage on that other, not-so-high road.” Poshard wasn’t merely wrong; he was a jackal to whom an opponent’s principles are easy pickings. A flyer distributed at the fair began: “VETERANS Should Our Flag Be Protected Against Desecration? Glenn Poshard Doesn’t Think So!” This flyer didn’t find its way into the Tribune editorial.
Altogether, these flyspeck examples of skewed journalism signal a mind made up. The low point in the race–to my mind as low as the Democrats’ desperate new ad linking Ryan to a 1994 highway catastrophe in which six children died–was the Ryan ad titled “American.” It began, “Glenn Poshard says he’s one of us?” But he’s wrong on guns, taxes, and the environment, said the ad. “And Glenn Poshard even supports the right to burn the flag.”
Poshard opposes a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning–just as the Tribune does. “Flag-burners…can’t destroy the flag or weaken the allegiance it inspires,” the editorial page said in July. “The supporters of the amendment, by contrast, would do real damage to real liberties.” Ryan is one of those supporters.
This week the Tribune spanked Poshard for the “cruel” highway ad. Addressing Poshard this time as a man of scruples, though for rhetorical purposes only, the editorial page urged him “to examine his conscience….He has to ask himself: Is the governor’s office worth defaming your opponent and trying to ride the deaths of six children to victory?” Yet when Poshard defends freedom of speech and Ryan impugns his patriotism, the paper remains silent.
The Sun-Times’s coverage differed from the Tribune’s in one important respect. The Tribune mentioned that the women were forced “to dance topless or naked” at the Skybox and Admiral and other clubs. The Sun-Times simply said they were “put to work in local strip clubs.”
The articles were pointed out to me by a reader more amused than angry at the Sun-Times’s deference to the Skybox and Admiral, both of them steady advertisers. So is Thee Dollhouse, another club mentioned in the federal complaint.
I called Simpson, and he was persuasive. “That was a decision I made,” he said. “It seems pretty clear the clubs were duped into hiring the women. There was no indication that the clubs where these women danced knew about the scheme or that they were in any way involved in it. I didn’t have the opportunity to call them all–I was on deadline–and I was afraid it would be unfair to put in the names.”
They advertise, I told him.
“They might,” he said, “but that had absolutely nothing to do with my decision. I think an editor might have asked me about putting the names of the clubs in, and I said I didn’t think that was fair. Believe me, that didn’t come from above. I don’t take that shit. I would have taken my name off the story in that case.”
I’ve looked at the complaint. It’s true that the clubs aren’t accused of anything; Simpson makes a reasoned, principled argument for leaving them out. He was the victim of his paper’s reputation on this one–the Sun-Times hadn’t earned him the benefit of the doubt.
One excess was the Crusades, and here the church has some catching up to do. The Times of London reported last month that a group of 16 Westerners was already in Lebanon, buttonholing passersby and apologizing for any ancestors put to the sword 900 years ago. The penitents hail from several countries, including the United States, and are readily identified by the T-shirts they wear that say “We Apologize” in Arabic. “My people killed men and women in your land a long time ago, and I am very sorry for that,” a cleric from Guildford, England, told a couple of men he found in a Beirut cafe, and then he showed them snapshots of his family back home.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.