Ethical Amnesia

Armstrong Williams, the syndicated columnist and TV personality paid $241,000 by the Department of Education to tout No Child Left Behind, has defended himself by saying he was a babe in the woods. “I’m a commentator and pundit–not a journalist,” he said January 10, as he took the public’s questions at a Washington Post Web site. “I was just inducted into the media elite over the weekend given that wall-to-wall coverage, so I’m just beginning to learn their rules and guidelines.”

In other words, the journalists’ rule against taking money under the table is one of those arcane taboos no one outside the brotherhood could possibly know. But I doubt if anyone buys Williams’s excuse, and Michael Petrelis, a self-described “unrepentant gay Naderite” in San Francisco, set out to debunk it. Petrelis likes to root through campaign financial statements looking for unseemly donations. He tells me that Williams has thrown a few bucks in the direction of conservative candidates and he listed himself as “journalist” in 1998, when he gave $200 to a Republican running for Congress in Georgia. Williams, says Petrelis, “seems to have a selective memory.”

Apparently. In his New York Times column last Sunday, Frank Rich noted that Williams has gone on CNN and CNBC several times to condemn journalists for violating the ethical principles he now says he just found out existed.

The Wages of Synergy

Reviewing In Good Company in the Tribune on January 14, Allison Benedikt describes a young, upstart executive who’s expected to slash the budget while jacking revenues by 35 percent. “He plans to achieve this through–pardon my French–synergy.” Having established “synergy” as a word that makes her skin crawl, Benedikt tells us the movie’s about a subject “infuriatingly en vogue and . . . topical for us working hacks: conglomeration.” And she goes on: “(Full disclosure: My boss, Tribune Co., boasts a roster of newspapers, including this one, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun, television stations and the Cubs.)”

That might be full disclosure, but it stops short of a genuine confession. The Tribune Company isn’t just a conglomerate with a lot of papers. It’s a company that in the late 90s fetishized “synergy,” planting it on the lips of every executive who knew what was good for him. Benedikt wasn’t in town then, so she can’t be expected to remember when her company believed “synergy” would turn water into wine and heal all sores.

Benedikt, by the way, isn’t the winner of the Tribune’s national search for a woman movie critic to be Michael Wilmington’s number two, which I wrote about last August. As the finalists were being identified and interviewed Tribune Company stock was plunging, and the paper battened down. A revamp of the Friday section that had been planned for months was scrubbed last fall, job offers for new staffers to put out the revamped section were withdrawn, a few employees were laid off, and the search for a critic was halted. Benedikt is a Friday editor who’s filling in.

Good Hustle

I was heading into the United Center for a Bulls game when a bedraggled fellow flapping some sort of badge under my nose asked me to buy a copy of Chicago Sports Review for $2. So I did. Afterward I called publisher Tom Alexander and asked if by any chance the guy was legitimate.

“You were definitely hustled,” he e-mailed back. “It’s been a huge problem for us. There’s really no way that I can think of to combat it, and it’s a hot seller in certain parts, so people are really making a lot of money on it. I’ve actually had people try to sell me it . . . and asked them to stop, but they refuse to. I actually wrote a column about it once, about being a liberal, bleeding-heart journalist who started a small business, and yet being upset when someone is trying to get themselves a couple of dollars by selling the publication.”

It’s a common hustle. Off the top of her head, an editor here remembers being hit on to buy copies of New City, the Onion, and N’Digo–all of them freebies like Chicago Sports Review. Says CSR’s executive editor, Chris Sprow, “We had a guy at the ESPN Zone who sold one for $20 and went running down the street.”

But here’s the twist. The December issue of Chicago Sports Review was the only thing I bought that was worth what I paid for it, an hour of smart reading at way less than half the cost of a Polish. The alternative to CSR during time-outs was to watch doughnuts–or was it hamburgers?–chase each other around a track.

“The idea is to find writers that enjoy sports but read elsewhere and can put sports in a proper perspective,” Sprow says. “Peter Bernstein, who did the story about Cubs ticket prices this month, is an econ prof at DePaul. His wisdom to opine on this sports subject has little to do with his sports knowledge.”

In addition to the monthly paper, CSR exists as a Web site that Sprow tries to add to every day. Writers who show up in the paper get paid a little; the ones confined to the Web site don’t. The key to the operation, says Sprow, is “a good solid vehicle for print we respect. We’re all for the Web revolution, but there will always be a renaissance for print, because every month there will be something people need to read while they’re sitting on the toilet or riding on the train.”

There’s a word that captures this collaboration between bodily functions and the printed word. Synergy.

News Bites

On January 12 the Tribune published and posted online a John Kass column that concluded: “No one would ever say [Dan] Rather sold his reputation for cash. But he sold it for a half-baked story.”

Touting this column on its home page, the online Trib posted the headline: “John Kass: ‘Rather sold his reputation for cash.'”

Which was wrong and arguably libel. Before long the Tribune caught its mistake and replaced the headline with one that said: “John Kass: Rather sold his reputation ‘for a half-baked story.'” And the Tribune added: “(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this description was incorrect.)”–an admission that must have bewildered everyone who read it. Everyone but a litigious attorney.

The Boston Globe reported on January 4 that its parent, the New York Times Company, intended to buy a 49 percent stake in Metro Boston, that city’s free newspaper for commuters. Reporter Robert Gavin noted that “metropolitan newspapers in several markets, including Chicago, Washington, and Dallas, have in recent years launched free papers similar to Metro, a tabloid targeting young readers with short news stories and a heavy diet of arts, entertainment, and lifestyle features.”

If all you know about RedEye and Red Streak is what you’ve gleaned from spotting them in honor boxes, you might be under the impression the papers cost a quarter each. The Reds’ readers know better. In the latest report from the field, a RedEye hawker and a quarter box at the busy Fullerton el stop have been replaced by two free boxes.

I’m occasionally asked about my Neil Steinberg policy. It’s to ignore everything he writes about me when he’s wrong, and everything else he writes when he’s right. So I’m left with few opportunities to mention him at all.

It would be a violation of policy to share my thoughts about his Prince Harry item on January 14. So I’ll go straight to his quasi confession about Iraq. “I supported the war,” he explained, “because I thought it would be a tonic to oppose one of these Middle East fascist states. To my defense, I didn’t think that meant we’d stay forever.” Steinberg went on, “Whether Saddam Hussein had [weapons of mass destruction] or not, he acted as if he had them. He fooled us, to both of our misfortunes. If a man runs into a schoolyard and yells he has a bomb, and a cop shoots him, and it later turns out the guy had no bomb, nobody is going to fault the cop because the bomb wasn’t there.”

But Saddam didn’t yell he had a bomb. He lurked around the schoolyard fence like a guy who might be hiding something under his coat. Cops who fire at guys who turn out to have nothing under their coats lose their badges.

My advice for Steinberg is to keep his chin up. We’ve been in Iraq less than two years, which isn’t exactly forever. (We’re still in Germany. We’re still in Japan. We’re still in Korea.) War almost always lasts longer than a long weekend.

Steinberg thinks the nation did the right thing for what’s turned out to be the wrong reason because the public would never have accepted the war if it had been started for the right reason (to be a tonic). What difference does it make? Another curious fact of war is that after one’s been going on a while no one can remember exactly why it started.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP–William Wilson Lewis III.