Horning: Not Gone and Not Forgotten

When Mark Hornung resigned under fire as a plagiarizer last March from the Sun-Times, Charles Nicodemus E-mailed him a note that praised him as a talented journalist, regretted his loss to the paper, and expressed confidence that he would bounce back in his career.

This message of commiseration crossed a considerable divide. As editor of the Sun-Times editorial pages, Hornung was management. Nicodemus was the militant chair of the Sun-Times unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

Soon after, the guild took the remarkable step of filing a grievance over Hornung’s departure. The grievance, however, was not a further expression of sympathy. The guild denounced Hornung’s farewell column–which Nicodemus hadn’t yet read when he offered his condolences–as blatantly disingenuous, and it accused the paper’s editors of undermining the Sun-Times’s good name by printing it. The guild further accused management of applying a double standard.

Management did not respond, and on March 31 Nicodemus reported to the membership on the guild bulletin board. He said the guild was making three points:

“(1) The explanation [Hornung] offered for the plagiarism . . . was patently unbelievable, and to endorse that version by printing it indicated to the public that the paper accepted its truth . . . which further eroded the credibility of the paper and the staff, beyond the damage done by the original plagiarism.

“(2) In this circumstance, for the paper to print material that it knew or had every reason to believe was untrue–even in an “opinion’ column–was unethical, particularly coming from a management that has been emphasizing ethical concerns.

“(3) To permit the company-endorsed publication of such a column, followed by an offer of continued employment at an American Publishing Co. property here, displays a double standard on ethical conduct. Because the Guild believes that any Guild member forced out for such an infraction certainly would not have been afforded similar charitable, kid-glove treatment.”

About 85 percent of the Hornung column on the balanced-budget amendment that ran February 24 was lifted from a Washington Post editorial of the day before. Hornung’s last column, on March 10, attributed this breach to “writer’s block,” “deadline pressures,” and the distracting demands of other duties. He wrote that he didn’t know what he would do next, but he revealed that Larry Perrotto, head of the American Publishing Company, which owns the Sun-Times, “has graciously invited me to remain in another capacity outside the editorial department.”

The Sun-Times’s top editors still haven’t responded formally to the guild grievance, may not know how to respond, and probably don’t want to give the guild the satisfaction of a response. Informally, management is furious at what must seem to it an astonishing attempt to conjure ill will out of thin air. Surely allowing Hornung a chance to explain and apologize was humane; and if his explanation fell short of total self-abasement, that was human nature. As for any invitation from Perrotto, that was his idea, not theirs.

Executive editor Mark Nadler, chuckling coldly, said he had no comment on the guild grievance. Hornung, who had read Nicodemus’s statement, wouldn’t discuss it either. Nor would he talk about what he’s been doing since he lost his job. However, he was back in the building this week, with a telephone listing in circulation administration.

The backdrop to the grievance is last fall’s contract negotiations, which inched to within the usual hair of a walkout before the guild and management settled. One issue management raised at the time was ethics, and out of the talks came a joint ethics committee that has yet to meet. The guild viewed management’s stress on ethics as a sanctimonious insult, but insisted that when new ethical guidelines were written they apply to guild members and management equally.

If that joint committee does sit down to begin writing guidelines, the consideration the guild believes Mark Hornung received will quickly come up.

“We have no tolerance for that kind of thing [plagiarism] among our own members,” said Jerry Minkkinen, executive director of the guild. “But it is really outrageous when we see exempts [journalists outside the guild] being treated in that way. They hold themselves out to having a higher standard. They hold themselves out to being leaders. And this flies in the face of everything.”

Hollywood Bombs Defused

The terrible explosion in Oklahoma City has sent reeling the Hollywood Militia, a shadowy outfit that preaches God, freedom, and grassroots American values while hawking mindless violence. Many of the more feckless terrormongers are now bailing out, although a hard core stands firm in its convictions. Here’s a rundown, with details from the New York Times.

HBO dropped In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco from its movie schedule.

CBS yanked Deliver Them From Evil: The Taking of Alta View, a show about a gunman threatening to blow up hostages in a maternity ward.

ABC immediately rewrote All My Children to delete the story line in which Janet Green sends her baby’s father a bomb on his wedding day.

Fox Television and Spelling Television irresolutely agonized over whether to redo the already taped two-hour season finale of Melrose Place. To launch a summer of speculation over which of the main characters will be back in the fall, Kimberly explodes a bomb in their apartment house.

Fox yanked a Critic episode that finds the hero caught up in a bomb scare.

Producers OK’d the release of Top Dog, which begins with neo-Nazis bombing an apartment building. The moviemakers decided the essence of their heartwarming family film lay in the relationship between Chuck Norris and his canine sidekick.

Die Hard With a Vengeance, which finds Jeremy Irons blowing up a good part of New York City, will open this month as scheduled.

Producers of this Bruce Willis thriller haven’t explained their decision–not that it’s unfathomable. They might wish to declare: “Would the makers of last summer’s smash hit Speed or the makers of the smash flop Blown Away have let themselves be intimidated by senseless cowards? Neither will we. If Die Hard With a Vengeance opens, those senseless cowards lose. If a hundred bombing movies open, those senseless cowards lose. If every American takes away from Die Hard With a Vengeance the message “Never again!’ they lose. Die Hard With a Vengeance deserves to be seen and pondered by every American.

“Besides, the bombing craze has just about run its course in Hollywood anyway. Next year we predict the weapon of choice for insane mass killers will be deadly gas.”

News Bites

Buyout fever has driven the decimated Sun-Times newsroom to raid other parts of the paper. Deputy features editor Cristi Kempf posted this memo:

“Features Staff: City side is in need of our help to fill a reporting position. As much as I’d hate to see any of you leave the features fold, this would be a great opportunity for someone looking for a different challenge or change of pace.”

Meanwhile, the fever has spread into Kempf’s own department. Food editor Bev Bennett is the latest highly paid senior staffer who took the bribe and quit. A popular choice to succeed her would be deputy metro editor Joycelyn Winnecke, who writes a weekly syndicated food column for the Scripps Howard News Service. One of Winnecke’s pieces even showed up earlier this year in the Tribune.

For the time being at least, Bennett’s job is being filled by her longtime copy editor Barbara Sadek.

I won’t argue the need for more copy editors at the Tribune. The other day a picture was captioned “a wheel of an Air Force jet . . . lays upside down in an Alabama woods.” And the following incoherence was allowed into a report by the paper’s excellent media writer, Tim Jones:

“The biggest percentage of daily readers–68 to 69 percent–is age 45 or older. In an ominous sign for growth, 18-to-24-year-olds make up only 52 percent of the readers, the figures show.”

But it’s a shame to see the Tribune fill the gap by appropriating as solid a reporter as Charles Storch. “I thought it was a strange time to be taken off my beat–cultural affairs and foundations–when arts coverage is about to be expanded,” Storch told me, referring to plans to turn Tempo into a daily entertainment section. “Here they are, starting this section that’s supposed to be a showcase, and I’m on the copy desk. I’m on the suburban copy desk, by the way, to make my dream complete.”

Storch answered the summons to deputy managing editor Gerould Kern’s office expecting to hear he was being transferred from the metro desk to Tempo. Instead he got an earful about “a desperate need for copy editors” that he was expected to fill.

“I know some things,” says entertainment editor Geof Brown, a champion of Storch’s. “I don’t know the real reason. I personally wish it weren’t so.”

Department of Missions That Sound a Lot More Exciting Than They Are. The Sun-Times has launched its own SWAT offensive. That’s for Sales War Attack Team. If you’re one of the few, the bold, you get to climb aboard a delivery truck at two in the morning and ride it and try to figure out why circulation’s down (from 523,709 daily to 500,969, according to this week’s Audit Bureau of Circulations figures). “They wanted volunteers,” said acting editorial pages editor Michelle Stevens, who took a ride. “Do your part for the paper.”

Did the paper profit from your part? I asked her.

“Well, we’re not done yet,” said Stevens, who was going out again.

Twenty years ago this issue Hot Type made its first appearance in the Reader. Progenitor Marshall Rosenthal called the milestone to the attention of his descendant, and we agreed it meant nothing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Bruce Powell, Jim Alexander Newberry.