Guild to Red Streak: Not So Fast

Red Streak capitulated last week–not to the Tribune’s competing RedEye but to the Chicago Newspaper Guild. The parent Sun-Times sent 12 of its 17 Red staffers back to their home papers when the week ended and brought 4 others into the Sun-Times’s newsroom and guild unit. There was no change of status for editor Deborah Douglas, a Sun-Times feature editor and guild member before Red Streak. And two of the former Red Streak staffers, twice-weekly columnists Mark Konkol and Mike Danahey, will test the guild’s tolerance by freelancing one column to Red Streak a week.

“This is not the solution we want,” says Michael Cooke, editor in chief of the Sun-Times. “We built a wall between Red Streak and the Sun-Times newsroom, and the union knocked it down. We just can’t afford to play with all the benefits and all the money for what is essentially a newspaper that’s free at the moment. We’re not the Tribune. We don’t own everything they own. Our view was to save union jobs. It’s not a good situation.”

When the Tribune announced its RedEye edition last fall, Cooke promptly pulled together a riposte, summoning journalists from Hollinger International’s papers in suburban Chicago to put out Red Streak. The problem, from the guild’s point of view, was that Red Streak claimed to be an edition of the Sun-Times, yet its staff members weren’t earning Sun-Times scale; they were getting what they’d been getting at their home papers.

“We thought the whole paper should be guild,” says business reporter Bob Mutter, chairman of the Sun-Times’s guild unit. “We were willing to give them a certain amount of time, but they asked for spring. It really didn’t get terribly unpleasant, but it probably was just about to. We were overly patient, but our patience was wearing very thin.”

Now that Red Streak’s moved from its seventh-floor office into the fourth-floor newsroom, Mutter says, “I imagine more Sun-Times people will be doing Red Streak now.”

Lucky them, I say.

“But it’s what we asked for,” he replies. “Better be careful what you ask for.” He thinks twice about that, then says, “Actually, it probably puts it in a less precarious position. It will be a more integrated effort. We’ll all be working together, rather than they being on a different floor and us not communicating at all.”

In Cooke’s view the guild is a handicap the Tribune isn’t burdened with, and the changes it forced will make it harder for the Sun-Times to fight a battle it can’t afford to quit or lose. “As long as RedEye publishes, Red Streak publishes,” he says. “There’s very little downside to the Tribune losing this and folding RedEye. Only one set of readers is in play here–Sun-Times readers. We’ve got them–they want them. They’re not satisfied with owning 70 percent of the advertising market. They’re not satisfied with owning the Cubs. They’re not happy that they’ve bought Los Angeles and they’ve bought Long Island and they’ve bought Baltimore. They want to buy the downtown young Chicago readers as well. So we have to react to this.

“Red Streak stacks up very well with a quarter of the resources,” Cooke continues. “We’re fighting like you wouldn’t believe. I’m sorry the union takes the position they’re taking. It harms the paper, and in the end it might harm their own members. But they don’t see it that way.”

“I don’t agree with that,” says Mutter, “but I can see where he’s coming from.”

Despite Danahey’s column in this Monday’s Red Streak, he’s back at his old paper, the Elgin Courier News. He really liked coming downtown. “There was a lot of criticism of these publications to begin with, that it was all McNews, but in our case that was definitely not true,” he says. “Mark and I joke around that compared to what Trib writers have been writing about, we’ve been more like the big boys, if you will, writing about topics beyond who we’re dating and what our cats are up to.

“It’s unfortunate that it came to this. I wish that someone would have talked to us from the union, because from all I know I could have agreed with them. They have a position–and more than likely I would probably respect that position. But to not even talk to the staff, it surprised me, I guess.”

Chances are Cooke will hear from the guild about Danahey and Konkol continuing as freelancers. “Columnist” is a guild position.

“It will be a problem,” says Mutter, “because–well, we don’t like freelance columnists in the paper. We’ve grieved in the past over freelance columnists.”

Such as?

“Ted Pincus in business. That was a grievance we filed not too long ago.”

Even “Scurrilous,” the bitchy back-page Red Streak column identified with Cooke himself, became a guild issue. “Not with respect to Red Streak itself,” says Gerald Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild. “We’re willing to make the concession that Cooke can continue ‘Scurrilous’ for Red Streak.”

But from time to time “Scurrilous” has been picked up by the final-markets edition of the Sun-Times–which is not just nominally but in every sense an edition of the guild paper–and the guild has grieved this practice.

“I’m disappointed he believes we have an interest in any way, shape, or form in damaging the paper,” says Minkkinen. “We’ve bent over backward for these people.”

“Scurrilous” isn’t something Cooke wants to take much credit for. “I collate it,” he says. “It’s very easy to take an item and add a little punch line at the end. I’m not being falsely modest here. It’s just pulled-together stuff, and the guild’s after me for that.”

He calls me back to say that at least half the work on “Scurrilous” was done by Brian Kappler, a former Hollinger International writer based in Montreal, and from now on Kappler will do it all. “Next thing there’ll be a grievance to Kappler,” Cooke muses–and there could be. More enthusiastically, Cooke goes on to announce that the Sun-Times has just rounded up a few hundred secondhand news boxes that it’s spray painting red. “So when you see the lonely RedEye boxes, of which there are quite a few now, Red Streak will be there too.”

Bob Greene’s Brilliant Moment

I’m writing to defend Bob Greene. Not for the womanizing or the bathos or the toupee–the stuff he’s been ridiculed for–but for the piece of his history some experienced journalists have been willing to condemn as journalistic fraud.

The other day I came across a “Media Mix” column by USA Today’s Peter Johnson. Johnson was contemplating recent articles on Greene by Steve Rhodes and Marcia Froelke Coburn in Chicago and Bill Zehme in Esquire. “Both stories,” writes Johnson, “are sad and depressing takes.”

Rhodes and Coburn, Johnson continues, “detail several incidents in which Greene wrote columns based not on what he believed but on what he knew readers would want to hear. In short: ‘a phony,’ Rhodes says.” Chicago dwells on just one Greene column, the one he wrote in the Sun-Times right after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

It began: “It was not supposed to be very strong in us, for we cannot remember. We are the young Jews, born after Hitler, and we have never considered the fact that we are Jewish to be a large part of our identity. A lot of us have not been near a temple in 10 years, and we laugh along with the Jewish jokes to show that we are very cool about the whole thing. We are Americans, we have told ourselves, we do not go around calling ourselves Jews, that is for the elderly men with the tortured faces, the old Jews we feel a little embarrassed to be around. Let them recall the centuries of hurt, we think; it is over now, so let them recall those years while we live our good todays.”

The first four paragraphs began with the phrase “It was not supposed to be very strong in us.” The headline, “It Took This Night to Make Us Know,” quotes Greene: “And for us, it took this one night to make us know that maybe it will never go away….This is the oldest hate the world has ever seen.”

Rhodes and Coburn spoke with Alan Rosenberg, an editor at the Providence Journal-Bulletin. In the mid-70s he was a student at Medill, Greene’s alma mater, and Greene came by. When the Tribune bounced Greene last fall, Rosenberg wrote a story recalling what Greene had said about the Munich column: “He’d been sitting in a bar having a drink and watching TV when he heard about the deaths, he said, and the thought that had come to him was this: If I handle this right, I could be famous.”

Rosenberg told Rhodes and Coburn, “It seemed so ethically bankrupt, to have this wonderful forum and to just calculate it, to weigh it, and to say what you think would bring you to prominence.”

Sun-Times radio and TV columnist Rob Feder was at Medill back then, and he corroborated Rosenberg’s account. Feder told Rhodes and Coburn, “It made us feel like we had been taken in.”

Greene was far more derisive about the Munich column in a 1977 interview in the Reader. “I get all kinds of calls from Jewish organizations, askin’ me to come talk to them about being a Jew, which I won’t do,” he said. “I say, ‘My religion ain’t Jewish, my religion is bein’ a newspaperman.’ And when they say, ‘Oh, that was a beautiful column,’ I say, ‘That’s right, it was a beautiful column. Period. I wrote it in ten minutes, drunk. And I felt nothing.’ The only thing I felt was that this had better get good play because it’s a hell of a newspaper column.”

And it was. It was reprinted in textbooks. But why should we now assume that Greene was insincere writing the column but genuine bullshitting about it a few years later, or that he wasn’t the familiar sort of entertainer who’s most real in performance, giving us a story or a song or an act?

Zehme, quoted by Johnson, makes it clear that we shouldn’t look to Greene to search his soul and give us answers. “He has a deep-seated inability to share of himself,” the Esquire piece says. But columnists aren’t paid to be in touch with their feelings. They’re paid to be in touch with the public’s. Whether a tear caught in Greene’s eye was beside the point back in 1972, so long as a tear caught in the eye of his readers.

As an editor, I’ve read too many incoherent manuscripts by writers swept up in some personal maelstrom (and written one or two myself) to believe in pure and deep emotion as a guarantor of printable journalism. After September 11 I contacted columnists who’d been expected to show up in the next day’s papers and did. I admired the craftsmanship that let them step back from themselves and function at a time when most people’s minds were numb.

Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote a column every bit as powerful as Greene’s ’72 piece–and then some. Lately I’ve wondered what I’d think if I discovered that Pitts’s piece had been a concoction–every word calculated to make his readers feel angry and proud and united and defiant. I’ve decided that since it was exactly what I was grateful to read I’d still like to shake his hand.

Great books and symphonies have been written by artists not exactly in the grip of the emotions these works portray. This isn’t inauthenticity. It’s technique. It can be hard to talk about later to an audience eager to hear about the gush of ardor onto paper. Greene’s solution was to stress how phony everything was.

News Bites

A public forum on regulatory changes under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission will be held next month at Northwestern University’s law school. It’s at 9:30 Wednesday morning, April 2, in Lincoln Hall, 357 E. Chicago, an inconvenient time for many, though perfect for announcers who lost their jobs in the consolidations of recent years that have left two companies owning 13 radio stations in Chicago.

No one denies that the new regulations would help big media get bigger, but there are those who say they hold advantages for us all. Count the Tribune among them. In a July 2001 editorial it stated: “The Public is not served when the government is determining–limiting–who can speak via the airwaves and in print.” The Tribune Company would have to sell off recently acquired properties in New York, LA, and Hartford if the Newspaper Rule, which forbids common ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in a single market, isn’t nullified by the FCC or by the federal courts–which FCC chairman Michael Powell says are breathing down the commission’s neck.

“We are working hard to make sure that the broadcast ownership rules are not completely swept away by the hand of the court,” Powell asserted during a January forum at Columbia University. “Give us something we can actually use to defend ownership rules.”

Powell isn’t expected in Chicago, but the media groups organizing the forum say an FCC commissioner will attend.

The Community Media Workshop, based at Columbia College, picked an exemplary trio of journalists to receive this year’s Studs Terkel awards for coverage of “Chicago’s diverse communities.” The Tribune’s Rick Kogan and independent TV producer Tom Weinberg have made careers of exploring Chicago; Telemundo’s Jorge Mota is a Cuban refugee who brought investigative journalism of a high order to the local Spanish-language media during his five years at Exito. The ceremony is next Wednesday evening at the Arts Club of Chicago.

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