Friend of WFMT?

Is Tom Geoghegan a friend of WFMT? Sure he is. He’s also a friend of jobless steelworkers and dissident Teamsters and the other uphill causes to which his law practice is devoted. He’s a classy guy who unwinds with classical music. We should all have such a friend.

“WFMT is concededly the premier fine arts station in the country today.” Amen, says Geoghegan. Yet where this assertion appears is in a legal document that dismisses Geoghegan and his ilk as “disgruntled WFMT listeners.” The document is a suit that the Chicago Educational Television Association, which owns WFMT as well as WTTW, filed two weeks ago in federal court. Geoghegan presumes to be not just a friend but a Friend of WFMT, and CETA has had enough of that.

CETA, which registered “WFMT” as a service mark in 1988, wants the court to order Friends of WFMT, Inc., to stop identifying itself by those call letters. “The use of call letters is registered to them exclusively for broadcasting purposes,” Geoghegan told us. “We’re not broadcasting. I think the trademark claim is silly. It’s just without any merit. I can’t really imagine why they would have brought this suit except for harassment.

“Even if they won–so what? We’ll change our name to Friends of 98.7.”

We asked Geoghegan for precedents that cut his way. “The Teamsters Union has sued Teamsters for a Democratic Union for using their name. They lost,” Geoghegan told us. “CETA is acting just like them.”

So you’re comparing CETA with the Teamsters, we said. Geoghegan laughed.

“It all comes together,” he told us.

We’re not as confident as Geoghegan claims to be that CETA’s suit–which claims financial harm and seeks damages–is without legal merit. A trademark attorney tells us that the new federal law on which it’s based clearly favors plaintiffs in commercial misrepresentation suits.

CETA’s suit is also tit for tat, if you want to call that merit.

Two months ago, Circuit Court Judge Albert Green tossed out a suit that the Friends of WFMT had filed to rescue their cultural jewel from the predators’ jaws. The Friends had accused CETA of committing fraud upon the public and mismanaging a charitable trust.

The supposed fraud was last year’s WFMT fund-raiser, which alleged a deficit that the Friends say only existed because CETA had diverted into a trust the $9 million profit from the sale of Chicago magazine, a former WFMT possession.

“Literally hundreds of our group gave money on false pretenses from this organization,” Geoghegan said in court.

As for the charitable trust business, the Friends insisted that WFMT became just that when it was sold to CETA in 1969 by the Tribune Company. The Friends were stepping in because the attorney general, whose job it is to see that charitable trusts are managed properly in Illinois, had done nothing.

Judge Green didn’t buy any of this. He ruled that WFMT wasn’t a charitable trust, and that even if it were the Friends of WFMT lacked standing to sue. He noted, “Plaintiff’s cause is not aided by its novel posturing that it has taken up this cause as a result of the attorney general’s abdication of its duty to do so . . .”

As for the fraud claim, Green found no demonstration of injury.

As for the general argument that CETA was ruining WFMT–“WFMT cannot viably exist in a vacuum. To expect no operational or format changes to occur between 1969 and 1989, when this action was brought, is wholly unrealistic and would certainly result in the demise of the plaintiffs’ beloved station.”

The Friends weren’t through; they filed an amended complaint. To demonstrate fraud, “we listed people who made contributions not knowing CETA was sitting on a big pile of money,” Geoghegan told us. To demonstrate standing, the new suit stressed its bloodlines to Citizens to Save WFMT, the group whose suit alleging a media monopoly prompted the Tribune Company to sell WFMT to CETA 21 years ago.

But this new suit smacked of desperation. And meanwhile, CETA counterattacked. CETA had been back on its heels since general manager Al Antlitz’s January housecleaning, which did the sort of harm to WFMT’s public image that the sacking of a lot of experienced, competent, loyal, and popular employees could be expected to do. But now transcripts of Judge Green’s peppery ruling came pouring into our office, along with copies of a letter to Antlitz from Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony, that hailed CETA as “the protector of WFMT’s unique place on the radio dial”; along with four pages of public “misstatements” by a “small, grossly misinformed group” (the Friends), followed by the facts as CETA saw them; along with a reprint of a column in which the editor of Crain’s Chicago Business gave the Friends of WFMT a piece of advice:

“Get a life.”

CETA, it seemed to us, was on a roll.

And now they’ve screwed up. They’ve condescended to their betters, faithful listeners like Geoghegan and Frank Galati and Garry Wills and others, by calling them “disgruntled.”

“You’ve got to be vigorous in protecting your mark,” said CETA’s Sidley & Austin attorney Richard O’Brien, who brought the suit. “You can’t pick and choose your battles.”

O’Brien said, “It’s not just a matter of emotional reaction. There’s a real economic injury. It would not be unlike Friends of the Reader launching some campaign which is acrimonious and antithetical to your use of your service mark. Readers will guess, assume, draw the conclusion this group has your approval, your sponsorship. As a point of fact, there has been a support group–Friends of WTTW–we do endorse that group. But you can’t take somebody’s service mark without their permission.”

Just as Geoghegan now intends to show in court that some Friends of WFMT gave money to WFMT because they were misinformed, so will O’Brien show that some friends of WFMT gave money to the Friends because they were confused. “People contribute a lot of money to them thinking they’re contributing to WFMT,” Antlitz told us. “Many people I’ve talked to on the phone say ‘How do I join Friends of WFMT? How do I help you?’ We’ve even had a few checks come in to us marked ‘Friends of WFMT.'”

Geoghegan tells us that the attorney general’s office has offered to mediate this hapless dispute, which would be fine with the Friends. Mediation presumes some attainable middle ground, and from Geoghegan’s perspective, that exists: it’s an arrangement in which CETA retains formal authority over WFMT but yields control to an independent community-based board “exclusively devoted to WFMT.”

“Basically they claim that we’ve committed fraud, which is not something my clients take lightly,” said O’Brien. “And they’ve also basically charged that they’re entitled to run the station.

“I don’t know where you go from there to find a middle ground.”

We urge the two sides to sit down together and talk it out. Perhaps a cozy room, a few drinks, a little Mantovani on the stereo . . .

Royko Awry

“Outing” is a dubious new tactic endorsed by some angry gays; it means exposing the secret lives of closet homosexuals. As a flagrant assault on individual privacy, outing makes such an easy target that any high school essayist could tar and feather it.

Oddly enough, Mike Royko missed. Subjecting outing to scorn and ridicule, Royko’s tar brush swiped a lot of gay people who merely happened to be in the area.

“This has created a controversy, which delights the militant homosexuals,” Royko observed. “With bumbling Andy Rooney off the hook, things have been quiet on the gay front. There is always AIDS, of course, but it has slowly sunk into the consciousness of most Americans that far more people die of cancer, heart disease, and other afflictions. And that few nonhomosexuals or drug-needle users are in danger.”

Royko’s right. People have calmed down a lot about AIDS. Aside from the death of Halston a couple days before Royko’s column ran, and Ryan White going on a respirator a day later, and a TV show that same night about the AIDS death of the “Bruce Springsteen of Uganda,” AIDS made scarcely any waves at all.

Unfortunately, the welcome epiphany that only gays and drug addicts have anything to worry about (although Ryan White and Philly Lutaaya might argue the point) hasn’t helped gays themselves put AIDS in perspective. Royko’s old enough to understand that if you don’t die now of one thing then you’ll just die later of another. But a lot of gays don’t see this.

“I have to say,” wrote Royko, “that I’ve never really understood the definition of the ‘gay community.’ Presumably, some unemployed gay drug addict would be a member of this community. So would a wealthy gay polo-playing socialite. But other than how they choose to use their sexual appendages, I don’t see that they have much in common, and it’s unlikely the socialite would invite the gay drug addict to cocktails. So how close-knit a community can it be?”

But what if the addict and the socialite shared the same rich boyhood memories of being called “faggot”? What if the addict and the socialite were dying of the same disease at the same young age? What if the same column offended both of them? Are these bonds sturdy enough to create a sense of community?

From what we’ve seen of gays marching side by side and caring for one another on deathbeds, it seems they are. Cocktails aren’t actually the crucial denominator. The other day the movie Glory reminded us that the age-old way in which a belittled people get to prove their manhood is by how they die. There should be a simpler way to earn respect but maybe there isn’t. The niggers of 1864 marched on Fort Wagner. The fruits of 1990 march against AIDS.

Fronts often seem quieter than they are. In the early 50s, there was a front in Korea, where Mike Royko shared latrines and ditches with men he had nothing else in common with–not counting the enemy that wanted to kill them all. Even those days when nothing happened on that front, a few soldiers dropped.

But a lot more people were dying of cancer, heart disease, and other afflictions, and civilians back home had their minds on other things. In our little town, we seldom thought of Royko’s war at all.

But we were very very young.

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