Fickle Trib Irks Ryan

The Tribune editorial condemning the prosecutors of Rolando Cruz was about as tough as an editorial can be. Denounced by name, Attorney General Jim Ryan asked to meet with the Tribune’s editorial board.

Among the staffers Ryan and his delegation confronted were Don Wycliff, the paper’s editorial-page editor, and columnist Eric Zorn, who for 21 months had argued that Cruz was twice convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit.

At Ryan’s request, the meeting was off the record. But you can be sure Zorn wanted to hear Ryan defend his performance as Cruz’s top prosecutor. And that Ryan wanted to hear Wycliff explain why the Tribune had turned against him so harshly.

“The threadbare nature of the state’s case was obvious long ago to anyone who read the powerful, passionate work of Tribune columnist Eric Zorn,” declared the Tribune’s November 6 editorial. It was written by Wycliff two days after a Du Page County judge described the original police investigation as “sloppy, very sloppy” and acquitted Cruz of the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. Yet if “DuPage authorities had had their way,” said the Tribune, “Cruz and [codefendant Alejandro] Hernandez would be dead now, executed…on the basis of ‘evidence’ that was never more than a tissue of lies.”

The editorial praised Zorn for performing “in the noblest tradition of journalism.” It saluted Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who’d represented Cruz, and an assistant attorney general and a Du Page County sheriff’s investigator, both of whom had resigned rather than assist a prosecution they believed was unjust.

Then the Tribune said, “But it is not enough to praise the heroes. Those who did wrong or were derelict also must be held to account. At the top of this list must be Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who as DuPage County state’s attorney mounted the first two prosecutions of Cruz. Ryan needs to explain why getting a conviction was more important to him than getting justice.

“One thing is clear: None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”

Ryan deserved an explanation. Sixteen months earlier, when the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Cruz’s second murder conviction and Ryan announced he would try him a third time, the Tribune editorial page endorsed the court’s decision but asserted: “Ryan’s decision to try Cruz again is also proper. The high court found trial errors; it didn’t find Cruz not guilty.” So much for the “threadbare nature of the case” being obvious long ago. Not even the Tribune had noticed it.

Yet by that time Zorn had already written well over a dozen columns on Cruz’s behalf, calling his conviction a “massive miscarriage of justice” and denouncing “the shifty, disingenuous, opportunistic prosecutors behind this sham prosecution.” The editorial page had not been moved. Without even mentioning the Cruz case the Tribune would soon endorse Ryan for attorney general, and last November he would be elected.

As attorney general, Ryan had left the Cruz case behind. So what could he have done lately to offend the Tribune so deeply?

Obviously Ryan got no satisfaction from the Tribune. The paper stood behind its editorial and stood behind its columnist. Soon I received a phone call from Ryan’s press spokesman, Dan Curry, who objected to them both. He didn’t question Zorn’s facts. He questioned his ethics.

“To our knowledge here at the attorney general’s office, Eric Zorn, in two years of columns, has never once contacted Jim Ryan’s office, here or when he was state’s attorney, on that side of the story,” said Curry. “He’s making some very serious allegations that the prosecutors are railroading an innocent man. I think he owes it to the people he’s making those charges, insinuations, or shadings about to get the other side.

“I don’t know what the response would have been along the way, but certainly the attempt should have been made.”

Curry added, “I think, in his defense, in one of his columns he says he’s no longer objective on this.”

Curry was making a point that can’t casually be dismissed. Reporters are always supposed to get both sides (as if there are only two). But a second maxim of Journalism 101 holds that columnists are somehow different. “I guess a columnist is entitled to their opinion, and to use whatever argumentation methods they want to, and to back it up as much as they want to,” Curry mused. “And they’re only effective to the extent they’re believable.”

But, he said, “When the editorial board takes Eric Zorn at face value I think it should be pointed out that Eric Zorn has basically presented one side of the story.”

My own opinion is that the transcendent ethicality of saving an innocent man from death row carries all questions of methodology before it. If Zorn sinned, so be it; God forgives. But Zorn, we should remember, was making an argument, not reporting one. Would Zorn have made his own argument less forceful if he’d diluted it with Ryan’s? And if a less forceful argument had failed Cruz would ethics have been served? Did the state in its decade of prosecuting Cruz once pause in court and say, “But now let’s try to look at this from the defendant’s point of view”?

“I read every single filing his office ever had on that case, so I’m totally acquainted with the prosecution’s side,” Zorn told me. “They had ten years of opportunities to make their arguments in court, and I read every document. I don’t know what Mr. Ryan thinks he has to add to that. Let him sit down and debate with me. Let’s hear him talk about the facts of this case. What facts made him, Jim Ryan, think Rolando Cruz should be put to death for this crime? That’s what this boils down to. It doesn’t boil down to what his opinion is on this case, or Larry Marshall’s opinion on this case. I had the entire trial transcript in my house for about three months. I lived with this thing. Why is this unethical?…For Dan Curry to call me unethical when it was his boss trying to kill an innocent man and turning a blind eye to the facts that were so compelling to so many people–I have a problem with that.”

Curry told me Ryan would never have prosecuted Cruz if he’d believed Cruz was innocent. What does Ryan think now? I asked. “The evidence has changed,” Curry said. “He’s concerned about the statements of Montesano–he’s the Du Page County deputy who changed his testimony on the stand at the recent trial. And the DNA [testing] has changed since Jim Ryan left office. The DNA when Jim Ryan was state’s attorney did not exclude either Cruz or [Brian] Dugan.” Dugan, in prison for two other murders, confessed ten years ago in hypothetical language to also kidnapping and murdering ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.

“The prosecutor just evaluates the evidence in front of him at the time,” Curry went on. “That’s what Jim Ryan did in this case.”

Then why was it unethical for Eric Zorn to do the same thing? I asked him.

“I just think it should be noted that he didn’t attempt to get hold of the other side,” Curry said. “I’m guessing here, but I surmise Eric Zorn probably had fairly extensive conversations with people connected with the defense. He got their shadings, their thought processes. But he didn’t do it with the prosecutors. He didn’t attempt to do it.”

Curry was right: Zorn did spend a lot of time with the defense attorneys. And very early on, Zorn told me, he got a letter from former assistant state’s attorney Thomas Knight, one of Cruz’s original prosecutors. “He wrote me saying I was trying to boost my career, these guys were guilty. I wrote back saying, if you have anything to add that’s not in the trial transcripts and arguments, let me know. I haven’t heard a word from Tom Knight.” And he never heard from Jim Ryan or Dan Curry either, until they came in for that editorial board meeting Ryan insisted be off the record.

Talking to me about Ryan got Zorn so steamed that he immediately wrote a column daring the attorney general to take him on in public. He wrote that Curry had been complaining about Zorn’s ethics to the Reader, to ABC News, and to Zorn himself. Enough was enough. “So I’m not calling Ryan today, I’m calling him out: Me and him. One on one. No lackeys or advisers. On the record. Two hours. Live on a major Chicago radio station that has agreed to play host to this discussion. Topic: The facts and only the facts–his interpretation, my interpretation–no one else’s.

“Let the public decide who has been ethical and who has not.”

Milt Rosenberg wanted Zorn and Ryan to meet on his WGN show, but Ryan declined. “The Cruz case was litigated in the courts for ten years, and we’re not going to retry the case and debate the evidence in the media,” Curry told me.

“I think Jim Ryan’s a coward when it comes to this case,” said Zorn.

And what was the epiphany that accounts for the sea change on the Tribune’s editorial page?

“The outcome of the Cruz trial,” Don Wycliff said. “I recognize fully that there is a seeming contradiction. There’s been disagreement among us on the board for some time, and the earlier editorial reflected a consensus view of things. The last one reflected my view of things.

“The thrust here is that a prosecution was pursued for a decade or more when there was a powerful reason to question the wisdom of it, and in fact a man was on death row for a good part of that time. The people of Illinois were asked to execute this person, and it turned out to have been invalid. The Tribune supports the use of the death penalty in extraordinary cases, but by God we also depend on elected officials to exercise the utmost judgment to see that things like this do not happen.”

I asked Wycliff if he felt any freer to condemn Ryan when Ryan did not happen to be running for state office on the ticket of the Republican Party.

“I gave myself the freedom. We had discussed the issue periodically several times. I had made it clear I was skeptical of the wisdom of this prosecution. I had deferred to other members of the board who had greater and longer knowledge of the case than I.” These members presumably included Wycliff’s deputy editor, Bruce Dold, who at one point covered the Cruz prosecution. Dold told me Wycliff spoke for the board.

This time, I wondered, did those members willingly defer to you?

“I didn’t ask them,” Wycliff said. “I did the editorial. I came in on a Sunday and did the editorial, and it was in Monday’s paper.”

Holy Cow! What a Goof!

Journalism at its best is breaking a good story exclusively. At its worst it’s breaking a good story exclusively and immediately finding out you had your facts wrong.

On November 29 the Tribune’s sports media columnist, Steve Nidetz, employing one of the stock weasel words of his trade, reported that Chip Caray was “expected” to be named the Cubs’ play-by-play announcer by WGN radio. The story got major play on page one of the Tribune’s sports section.

The Cubs and WGN radio and TV are all owned by the Tribune Company. WGN AM is located downstairs from Nidetz’s office. Given these intramural advantages, the accuracy of Nidetz’s inside information could hardly be doubted. Paul Harvey was so charmed by the idea of Harry Caray and his grandson airing Cubs games together that he broadcast Nidetz’s story to the entire nation.

But apparently no one “expected” Chip Caray to get the job but Nidetz himself. Before the day was over WGN had held a press conference to announce that Pat Hughes of the Milwaukee Brewers was the new play-by-play man. That evening the Tribune Company’s local cable channel, CLTV, opened its sports report with these words: “You can’t always believe what you read in the papers.”

What happened?

“Basically, it was adding two and two and getting five,” Nidetz told me. “I found out they were going to make the announcement on Wednesday. I made calls. Chip said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m coming in on Wednesday.’ I said, ‘To WGN?’ And he said, ‘You’re not supposed to know about it.’ He may have misunderstood which WGN job I was talking about.”

WGN television, Channel Nine, also was looking for a new Cubs announcer. The Sun-Times’s Robert Kurson had reported a few days earlier that Chip Caray was speaking to the station and the Cubs about the TV job.

Nidetz knew Hughes was a top candidate for the radio position, and he tried to reach him the day before his story ran. But Hughes didn’t call back. Nidetz talked to Tisa LaSorte, WGN AM’s program director, who refused to confirm or deny his information. “I didn’t tell her specifically I was writing this for Wednesday,” he reflected. “If I’d done that she might have said, ‘You’re going in the wrong direction.'”

In retrospect, Nidetz realized he’d ignored plenty of evidence to the contrary. “Up until Chip told me he was coming in, if I had to pick one of the top candidates I’d probably have gone with Pat, seeing he’s much more experienced on radio and knows the midwest. And I’d talked to someone at the Brewers who told me, ‘Oh yeah, he’s the number-one candidate.’ But Chip told me he was coming in.”

Yet Harry Caray was in Palm Springs–“which should have tipped me off it wasn’t going to be Chip.”

“As I said to some people here, it wasn’t brain surgery. Nobody died,” said Nidetz, affecting a nonchalance I can’t imagine he felt. “It’s only rock and roll.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.