Driving Ambition

Something called Tirekicking Today reached our desk and we wondered what need it could possibly fill. The newsstands are stuffed with fat, glossy car magazines; can this eight-page newsletter delivering “news and views on the world of automobiles” at 50 cents a page be anything but self-indulgence?

Yes, says James Flammang. He and his wife Marianne have contributed to those fat, glossy magazines for the last 20 years. Last November they started Tirekicking anyway from their home on the northwest side.

“I wanted to do some things important to consumers that aren’t done in other publications,” says Flammang. “There’s too much writing for enthusiasts instead of regular people.

“For example, the article in the June issue on sales certification classes held by the National Automobile Dealers Association. Those have gotten very little coverage in the press generally and in the automotive press.”

Flammang’s talking about the dawning awareness of auto dealers that many people consider them scum. Ergo the classes the dealers’ association now offers on principles of truth telling and putting the customer first. Once a dealership has graduated over half its sales force it’s certified, a status that merits a seal on the door. The total number of graduates remains tiny–about a thousand salespeople nationwide–but Flammang can see enthusiasm spreading. A few dealers have even shifted their staff from commissions to straight salaries.

“There are plenty of salespersons and managers who prefer to keep things the old way,” Flammang concedes. “I think that’s evidenced by the tone of automobile advertising, much of which is intended as a barrier to understanding.”

In what way?

“Using too much fine print. Terminology that not even people in the industry understand. Gimmicky phrases that have no meaning. Like saying a car has ‘full factory equipment.’ That’s a meaningless term. There are also far too many ads that stress credit instead of the vehicle.”

He goes on, “The purpose of my publication, and other publications that aim directly at the consumers, is to provide more information for them to use so they can gain a more equal footing with the dealer.”

We hadn’t seen anything like Tirekicking Today. But Jim Mateja, the Tribune’s auto beat reporter, told us, “There’s a million out there and Flammang has one of the better ones. He’s very thorough. He packs a lot of information into a little space. A lot of them do no more than rewrite press releases, but Flammang’s shows he does some digging. It’s a cut above the ordinary.”

The monthly Tirekicking Today costs $48 a year, and Flammang has 700 subscribers. That doesn’t sound like much, and Flammang doesn’t think it is; but what he may need more than readers is cachet. Then he could jack his prices.

“There’s a lot of free-lancers paying the mortgage on 300 [subscribers], depending on what they charge,” said Mateja. “Some of these guys charge a small fortune. It’s not uncommon for a yearly subscription of two or three hundred dollars, maybe more.”

Why is there a market? we asked Mateja.

“People want to glom onto car information more than ever. And I think there’s a building mistrust, or distrust, of buff books after all the hullabaloo over car-of-the-year awards. And some people, every car they drive they like. So people are going for some of these little homegrown-variety publications.”

Women With Wheels is another homegrown newsletter. It’s a quarterly going for $20 a year that was founded five years ago by Patricia Stringer and Susan Frissell in Northfield. Stringer said that Wheels, like Tirekickers, is written “in a language free of the technical jargon that you oftentimes find in Motor Trend and Car and Driver.” She described her 300 subscribers as “people, particularly women, who felt they weren’t getting anywhere with dealers in general, who felt they were being taken, and how could we help them be prepared?”

Stringer went on, “Salespeople have a manual a couple of inches thick of [stock] responses. For example–this did happen to me–I was hesitant on this particular car, and the salesperson wanted to know what it would take for me to leave that night with a brand-new car. To make it short, his response was, ‘My granddaughter’s birthday is coming up, and I really would like to buy her a gift.’

“Give me a break!”

Editor Under Fire

This hasn’t been an easy time to be Dick Ciccone. The Tribune has had to answer for its news judgment lately, by critics without and within. And since managing editor Ciccone oversees the coverage, he made those questioned calls.

First came Rosty. A month ago the Washington Post’s media writer began a column this way: “When it comes to hometown investigative reporting, the Chicago Sun-Times has won local bragging rights for some time to come. Leaving its larger rival in the dust, the scrappy tabloid has repeatedly scooped the Chicago Tribune for two years on the Dan Rostenkowski story.”

As presented in Howard Kurtz’s story, Ciccone dripped nonchalance: “I guess we’re not that big on chasing an investigation so we can find out six hours ahead of time that someone may be called before the grand jury. I’m not sure that’s a strength we have, or want to have.” Kurtz’s piece went up on walls all over the Tribune.

Next came O.J. The morning after Simpson’s immortal tour of LA freeways, the Tribune was one of the few papers in the country that didn’t run a picture of the fugitive on page one. The story topped the left side of page one, which under the circumstances was playing it modestly.

“I thought it was slightly underplayed. I thought we should have blown out half the front page on it,” house gadfly James Warren told us. “Dick Ciccone had a different opinion, but it was a very valid point of view.”

An earlier Kurtz column on Rostenkowski had pitted Warren against his own paper. Kurtz noted that the front page described Rostenkowski’s indictment as “new politics taking sharp aim at the old ways” and that columnist Jon Margolis considered Rosty a “giant” and his adversaries “pygmies.” But Warren told Kurtz, “I find preposterous the notion of Rostenkowski as a victim of changing political and ethical mores. If what the indictment alleges is true . . . a lot of this is old-fashioned illegality.”

Then Warren wrote a Sunday column applauding the Washington Post for pulling David Broder off the Rostenkowski beat; Broder liked Rosty too much for the Post to guarantee his objectivity. Warren denies he meant it this way, but his column was received in some quarters as a parable on ethics and cronyism written for the home office.

We called Ciccone.

“Columnists write for themselves,” he said.

He told us Kurtz had asked him about cronyism. “I like Kurtz’s question to me, ‘Aren’t you friends?’ I haven’t had a drink with Dan Rostenkowski in 15 years. As I said to Kurtz [but wasn’t quoted as saying], the Sun-Times had a couple of good stories. I wish we’d had them. But in general, do you have to be aggressive covering a grand jury? No.

“A reporter brings in a story on what some U.S. attorney’s office is up to. That’s a good story. But I can’t espouse a philosophy that says go and find that story. I can espouse a philosophy that says we want John Crewdson to look at the kind of things he does. I think you can espouse a philosophy about the Rostenkowski case where you say, what can we do about this story for our readers? Then you go to the story we ran on February 13 by Charley Madigan that tried to explain to our readers the Dan Rostenkowski story. I know you do not like to hear this, but a whole lot of our readers did not grow up in Chicago. A whole lot of our readers are a lot younger than some of us are. Ghost payrollers is a new thing for some people. So we tried to put in perspective where this Rostenkowski came from. If 20 years from now some kid at Northwestern has to go back to the clips to find out what the Rostenkowski story is all about, I know the single story he needs to read. And we provided it.”

Could your Washington bureau have done more? we asked.

“Especially early in the year, in February and March, it could have been more aggressive. It’s not a cop-out to say we were going through a transition in our bureau. But again, I wasn’t pushing him [Warren]. I wasn’t saying, ‘I want you to focus solely on Eric Holder’s office.'” (Holder’s the U.S. attorney who indicted Rostenkowski.)

As for Simpson . . .

“I don’t know why we had to have a picture of O.J. Simpson on the front page. Everybody watched his car the night before. We’re long past the stage where they have it, and they have it, so why don’t we have it? Maybe we don’t have it because all of them had it. I don’t think we ignored Simpson–we just didn’t have that picture. But it’s a fascinating discussion. You should have been in the newsroom the last two weeks.”

Late last month the Tribune finally did something beyond criticism in the way it covered Dan Rostenkowski. Not that the paper made itself look any better doing it.

Christopher Drew of the Washington bureau produced a piece on a venerable Washington scam: lawmakers showing up at business meetings much heavier on golf, tennis, and swimming than on whatever piece of business supposedly justified the freebie. Drew’s research led him to Rosty, who “in recent years . . . has attended the Kentucky Derby on speaking trips paid for by an organization of horse breeders.”

Drew could have left it at that. Instead he added that Rostenkowski and House minority leader Bob Michel “also have flown to Arizona, compliments of Tribune Broadcasting Co., to talk to WGN-TV advertisers and visit Chicago Cubs players during spring training, said Shaun Sheehan, the company’s Washington lobbyist. Sheehan and other lobbyists say they don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

Inviting a reader to think, “God, they’ve been in bed with him forever!”

Drew says, “I just put it in with the amount of attention I thought it deserved. And no one said anything about it.”

Give the Tribune this much: There are papers where someone would have.

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