Gourmet Gossip: Ann Gerber Eats Her Words

The five commandments of column writing:

(1) Don’t miss a deadline.

(2) Don’t offend more readers than you attract.

(3) Don’t make mistakes you can’t get away with.

(4) Know when to keep your mouth shut. Remember the magic words, “My column speaks for itself.”

(5) Don’t expect an editor to save you from yourself.

We asked Ann Gerber to tell us about The Rumor. She said, “It was time for me to write a column for Sunday, May 14, and I thought, this might be an interesting Sunday rumor. And I posed it as a question because I hadn’t been able to verify it.”

Gerber had been hearing The Rumor for a good month. “I think a rumor that becomes that widespread, and it has a life of its own, is news,” she reasoned. “Everybody was talking about it, and by airing it it would kind of be laid to rest,” she decided. Thirty-five years in the business, Gerber easily found the words that would condemn The Rumor to a swift demise:

“Can it be true that the lover of one of our richest women was found in bed with her hairdresser when she returned early from a trip abroad?” she wrote. She said she told her copy editor, Joe Pixler, “This is the famous Oprah rumor everybody is talking about. I’m changing two details to blur her identity. I think it’s the best way to handle it.” She remembers telling Pixler, “If I could prove it, it would be on the front page of every paper in the country.”

The Rumor appeared under the heading “Gourmet Gossip.” No one else in town has “Gourmet Gossip,” says Gerber proudly.

Despite Ann Gerber’s craft, Oprah Winfrey saw fit to express dismay. Gerber soon heard from several friends of the TV hostess, all of whom said there was nothing to The Rumor. One of them knew of a cop who’d gone looking in the police files and come up dry. Winfrey’s publicist screamed at Gerber over the telephone. At this critical moment, Gerber’s fortunes might have been better served had she been paralyzed by uncertainty or perhaps turned to a senior editor in panic. Instead she acted decisively. Her column the following Wednesday contained the following report: “Rumors that TV talk show star Oprah Winfrey and her hunk Stedman Graham had a major rift (one version has Oprah shooting him) just aren’t true, friends insist.”

To an alert reader such as Oprah Winfrey, these specifics eliminated all mystery as to the victim of the rumor that Ann Gerber was determined to extinguish. Winfrey, relentlessly aggrieved, denounced The Rumor (which she did not describe) on her own TV program the following Friday morning. After watching this show, Gerber was questioned by Channel Five’s Phil Walters, who was more aggressive in his questioning than Gerber would have liked, and by Entertainment Tonight.

“I gave them a long interview but all they used was me saying ‘I’m glad I ran the rumor. I’m glad I put a stake through its heart. Oprah has put the coffin lid on it.'”

Ken Towers, executive editor of the Sun-Times, was not so certain that everything had been set right. That Friday afternoon, Towers called Gerber at her Skokie home, which is where she writes, and summoned her to the paper. Sensing his uncertainty about her professionalism, Gerber made it plain to Towers that The Rumor was not just something she’d made up.

“I gave him names, people who’d given me the rumor, when I first heard about it. The calls that I had gotten. . . . Once, when I was at the Ritz phone booth–they have nice phone booths there, you can sit down and close the door and I often go there and call back all the people who call me when I’m downtown–and I called Northwestern Memorial Hospital and asked if there was an S. Graham there and the woman said no and I said ‘But wasn’t he here a month ago? Wasn’t there an S. Graham?’ And she said ‘Well, I don’t know, I only have today’s records. I can’t tell you anything.’ I mean, I did do that just thinking I might have found a needle in a haystack, somebody who would say ‘Oh yeah, it was Stedman,’ but nobody ever said anything like that. Anyway, I gave him [Towers] all kinds of information. I admitted that I couldn’t verify it. After all, as I kept saying, if I could verify it, it would have been on every paper everywhere . . .

“And I said to him, ‘How serious is this? Why are you so concerned?’ And he said, ‘Well, we want to see what happens. It’s serious.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know there is no question of libel. It was a rumor. It was printed under the heading of gossip.’ I gave him all my reasons. I said ‘I’ve been in this business 35 years. I’ve run 300 rumors since I’ve been here–you see, I run an average of two or three an issue. I come up twice a week and I’ve been there a year and a half. So I figure I’ve run about 300 items [rumors], a half or a third of them blind. Because I use names wherever I can. I only run a blind item when I, you know, have to, and when I don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings.”

The following Tuesday, Towers fired her. Ann Gerber thinks that what’s really behind this is that she was originally hired by Bob Page. She points out that she used to reign over three pages of the Sunday paper, and as soon as Page was bounced as publisher last summer, Towers cut her back to less than one. “It’s not like I got in anybody’s hair,” she reflects. “I only went there twice a week, for 20 minutes, maybe half an hour. Do you know there was a time when I had to read my page proofs in the ladies’ room–because they would not give me a desk.”

The dismissal of Ann Gerber was the day’s top local news story in Chicago. “If I made a mistake,” she told the reporters at her press conference, “it was in trying to help Oprah with her pain about the rumor and in agreeing to run a second story.” She went on, “If I made a mistake, my editor Joe did so as well. . . . Joe Pixler did not choose to reject this story after hearing all the facts.”

Gerber was badly overstating Joe Pixler’s authority. She was a famous columnist. He was a mere copy editor and he assumed she knew what she was doing. Because Towers and features editor Steve Duke would not return phone calls, we cannot be sure why a more senior editor reading Gerber’s page proofs did not spot trouble. But why should that have happened? Carefully read Gerber’s first item about The Rumor, and then the second. The Sun-Times paid Ann Gerber something more than $50,000 a year, and each item by itself is an unexceptional example of the journalism they were paying her for.

Tribune Stooping

Our first impression was that the Tribune’s flag editorial on Memorial Day must have been written by the marketing department. But that can’t be right. Marketing is much too busy launching the Tribune’s Subscribers Only program.

Newspapers are pretty good at concocting games, gimmicks, and cut-rate deals to grab new subscribers. What’s frustrated the industry lately has been hanging onto them. Subscribers Only takes a frequent-flier approach to the problem. “No other newspaper has ever tried such a program,” boasted Tribune president John Madigan in a trial solicitation sent out recently to a few hundred subscribers.

“Subscribers Only works like this: after you enroll, all you do is keep subscribing,” Madigan’s letter explained. “Each week of your subscription, you earn Chicago Tribune ‘TRIB Points,’ which you can cash in for awards–baseball tickets, gift certificates, best selling books, airline discounts, to name but a few. That’s it, pure and simple. It couldn’t be easier.”

In other words, the only thing you have to do to play is not cancel your subscription.

“Consider for a moment just a few of the exciting awards for which you could be eligible,” urged Madigan’s letter. We thought it over. Heck, we’d already been buying his rag for Royko and William Pfaff. If the president of the Chicago Tribune wants us to buy it instead for “superb dining for two at your choice of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants,” we won’t embarrass him by saying no.

How fast do these TRIB points pile up? Madigan’s letter doesn’t get into that, but we found out it’s pretty slowly. You get a 250-point stake for signing on to Subscribers Only. After that the points accumulate at a niggardly rate of 25 a week. One of the more attractive awards, “gift certificates worth up to $100 at Marshall Field’s,” requires 15,500 points–that’s ten solid years of Tribune subscribing.

Fortunately, Subscribers Only offers some shortcuts. You can rack up extra points for bringing in new subscribers, and you can score in the monthly promotions. Nab a fast 250 points just by buying something advertised in the Tribune.

Anyway, the last thing the Tribune would want to hear about right now is some true-blue reader canceling a subscription over a lib-symp editorial. So about that Memorial Day message . . .

At issue was the ludicrous action of the Illinois senate in voting the School of the Art Institute and the sympathetic Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation $1 apiece. The senate was huffy because the SAIC had let student Scott Tyler publicly display a flag on the floor. The Tribune rightly called the vote “offensive and childish.”

But it felt obliged to remark: “The flag exhibit was awful. It was appropriate, too, [for the senate] to question the school’s policy of displaying any piece of junk, no matter how offensive or utterly devoid of artistic merit.”

That’s the same spirit shown by the fellow in the bar who rose to his feet and declared: “Sir, you have struck this hyena, this rank, scrofulous imbecile who sucks from decent society like a rabid tick, with your boot and I object.”

The Tribune understands nothing about Tyler’s exhibit except that he “invited viewers to trample upon the flag.” Tyler’s simple installation consisted of a flag, a floor, and a ledger. It’s as fair to say he gave the public the rare choice, which everyone took, of not trampling upon the flag and instead writing down what they thought of it. “As soon as people began writing in those books the piece was a success on its own terms,” observes Tribune critic Alan Artner.

Yet on Memorial Day the Tribune couldn’t say so. We thought the paper was surer of itself than that.

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