By Michael Miner
Into the Arena was touted to me by a literary agent as Chicago’s Primary Colors. It isn’t, and not only because Greg Kinczewski, though certainly no household name, isn’t Anonymous. Primary Colors, which I haven’t read but have read plenty about, soars in a gale of topicality. Into the Arena is poignantly dated.
Kinczewski told me this is for the best. “I did read Primary Colors last week. How can someone with a straight face try to claim that’s fiction? I really did try to make mine fiction. I hope that gives it more of an enduring quality.”
Fiction? Of a sort. Enduring? What is? At any rate, Into the Arena’s obligatory disclaimer that “any resemblance to real people or incidents is coincidental” can safely be ignored. Kinczewski wrote from “inspirations,” the most powerful being his memories of Abner Mikva’s congressional campaigns of the 1970s. These were truly dramatic. Redistricted out of Hyde Park, Mikva shifted his base to the North Shore’s newly created Tenth District, which had the second highest median family income of any congressional district in the nation.
Mikva lost by four percentage points in ’72, won by two in ’74, and was reelected in ’76 and ’78 with barely over half the vote. Finally Jimmy Carter rescued him from these Sisyphean labors by making him a federal appellate judge. He was last in the public eye as counsel to President Clinton.
Kinczewski had a hand in Mikva’s campaigns and until 1990 was a Democratic committeeman in Evanston. “I juggle times, personalities,” he told me, explaining the strategies that shaped the book he worked on for five years, a book just published by a new local house, Chicago Spectrum Press. “The 70s congressional elections of Abner Mikva–I threw that into the council wars of the 80s and threw that into a 1994 time span. I’m not trying to tell anybody that if they want the real lowdown on somebody they should read this, but I’m certain I caught the politics of it right. I’m waiting to hear from a literary type about the writing.”
Not that Mikva doesn’t deserve a book. To win on the North Shore he fielded an army of volunteers, brilliantly organized the district’s college students, and won on the strength of their absentee ballots; victory or defeat for Kinczewski’s fictional “Sidney Marks” comes down to how many of those absentee ballots conniving Henry “the Rocket” Miklavic can see to it will never get counted.
But Mikva’s last election was 18 years ago. Richard J. Daley, suggested in the book by the late, omnipotent Francis X. Silverio, died 20 years ago. The book’s current mayor, the mercurial Lily Russell, is an engaging amalgam of Jane Byrne and Harold Washington that reminds the reader both are history. And Russell’s cunning nemesis, “the Rocket,” is based on an aldermanic mastermind who now jabbers on radio. Scandal turns pages faster than nostalgia.
Who was the inspiration for Michael Grove? I asked Kinczewski hopefully. (Grove is the Neanderthal incumbent Marks takes on in ’94, a good year for Neanderthals.) But if he had in mind anyone in the public eye he’s too smart to say so. “That was actually based more on some legal people I knew, contractors–totally unsuited for politics. In my legal practice I ran into a variety of people I drew upon.”
And in politics too. “When I basically retired from politics after the 1990 elections, when I ceased being a committeeman in Evanston, I felt essentially burned out,” Kinczewski said. “The Mikva campaigns and Abner Mikva were worth trying to get down on paper, but initially I was trying more to sort out my own feelings.
“I was glad I did it,” he said, meaning politics, “and I was really glad I wasn’t doing it anymore. My initial feeling was, boy, am I glad I don’t have to deal with this creep or that jerk any longer! And then I thought, that’s crazy to have a few jerks ruin the memories and all the other good experiences….Anyone reading Primary Colors will think, gee, I don’t think I really want to get involved in politics. I hope people will want to get involved in politics when they read mine.”
That may turn on how much credence they give Sidney Marks, whose luminous character is established immediately by a career organizer briefing a volunteer in a bar: “He’s the best I’ve ever seen–best I ever hope to see.”
Kinczewski said of Mikva, “In a sense he almost spoils you for other candidates. He has a lot of ethics, and he knows how to work politics, the nuts and bolts, as well as anyone I ever saw.”
Was he as good as they get? I asked Kinczewski.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “In fact, when I sent Mikva a copy of the book I said, there’s only one candidate who could get me back into the arena. So stay retired.”
When newspapers write about themselves there’s no bad news. Last month Associated Press sports editors voted on the nation’s top sports sections. These are critical awards in a competitive city like Chicago. It’s one thing to rout the rascals, free the innocent, and champion the little guy. But God save the editor whose Bulls coverage isn’t up to snuff.
It wasn’t close. The Tribune had the edge in actual sports reporting, but in the all-important category of weasel wording and outright misrepresentation of the results, the Sun-Times won hands down.
The AP sports competition is pretty simple. Sports editors around the country vote for the ten papers with the best daily sports sections, the ten with the best Sunday sports sections, and the ten with the best special sports sections (such as the annual spring baseball preview). In addition to each top ten they choose ten honorable mentions. The winners aren’t ranked in order.
The Tribune’s daily sports section finished in the top ten among large papers. Its Sunday sports section and a special section previewing the NBA season received honorable mentions.
The Sun-Times’s Sunday section finished in the top ten. Its daily sports section got an honorable mention.
Here’s how the papers dealt with these results. The Tribune reported that its daily sports section and the Sun-Times’s Sunday sports section had each been named to the top 10. The Tribune added that both its Sunday and special sections had finished in the top 20 and that the Sun-Times’s daily sports had been “cited for honorable mention.” These were two ways of saying the same thing, but the Tribune left that unexplained.
What of the Sun-Times? “The Sunday section received the top honor,” it reported, “as it was named one of the 10 best sections in the country.” If a reader were to conclude that the Sun-Times had finished first among the ten best Sunday sections, the language that misled him was unlikely to be held against whoever wrote it.
The Sun-Times went on, “It was the only Chicago newspaper to win an award for its Sunday section.” This is true only if in the Sun-Times’s eyes an honorable mention doesn’t count. Which it clearly does. For the Sun-Times also boasted, “The Sun-Times daily sports section, which has been honored five of the past seven years, also was cited….It was named one of the top 20 sections in the country.”
Although the Tribune acknowledged the Sun-Times’s accomplishments, the Sun-Times didn’t deign to mention the Tribune’s.
The same editions of the Sun-Times that carried the page-two article “Sun-Times Recognized for Sports Excellence” announcing the AP results also ballyhooed them in a half-page ad back in the sports section. The ad said:
Still The Hottest Team In Town!
Once again, it’s a slam dunk for the Chicago Sun-Times…
Daily Sports: AP top-10 honors, three out of the last four years.
Sunday Sports: AP Top-10 honors, third consecutive year.
“Top-10 honors, three out of the last four years” is the gentlest possible way of saying, “Damn! Didn’t win it this time.”
Two Sides to Every Story
An admirable article that ran in the Tribune two Sundays ago explored the unfamiliar social phenomenon of Asian street gangs. “The center of the pinwheel, about which the story would revolve,” reporter Paul Salopek told me, explaining his approach to the subject, was the murder last month of a Filipino youth outside a Burger King in Albany Park. Five Cambodian-American youths were charged with beating David Torres to death, apparently because they mistook him for a member of a rival gang.
Salopek’s research took him to the Cambodian Association of Illinois, in Uptown, where he acquired an interpreter, Pheap Chhorm. With Chhorm he interviewed two sets of parents whose children were, in Salopek’s words, “out of control.” He sat in on a class on cultural awareness that Chhorm teaches. Ultimately he conducted an interview that Chhorm arranged with the parents of one of the boys charged with Torres’s murder.
“At first the mother declined,” Chhorm told me. “But I convinced her it would be something about the history, the culture, and the traditions of the Cambodian people. The family asked the reporter that the interview would not be involving the murder case. And the reporter said, no, it’s nothing about it.”
Salopek, at least technically, kept his word, Chhorm acknowledged. Without bringing up the Torres murder, he asked the couple about their background in Cambodia and their lives in Chicago since 1979. The father, who speaks English, did most of the talking. But inevitably, when he came to write his article, Salopek attached this material to the center of his pinwheel: “In the case of Sophan Mok, the father of the 15-year-old implicated in Torres’ homicide, the horror of Cambodia’s genocide still unspools in vivid dreams of dead men crowding the foxholes of his early soldiering years. His wife…still succumbs to anxiety attacks, hiding in the corners of their apartment.”
Chhorm claimed that Salopek did break two promises: to keep Sophan Mok’s son out of the article and to call the parents before the article appeared. He also feels “betrayed” because the first two families interviewed didn’t appear in Salopek’s article at all, and because its subject wasn’t what Salopek supposedly had said it would be, the cultural background of Cambodians in Chicago.
“I think he tricked me to write a story, to get me to get the family,” Chhorm said.
I hadn’t read Salopek’s article when I talked to Chhorm, and I assumed I’d find that Salopek had put Sophan Mok and his wife under a brutal and unrelenting spotlight. But the passage on Mok and his family was fairly brief, less than a seventh of the entire article. But no attention at all was what Mok’s wife had wanted, and after the article appeared “she and her husband did not talk to each other,” Chhorm said. He felt responsible.
Salopek told me he didn’t promise to keep Mok’s son out of the article entirely. “I said he would be one facet of many. I feel I kept that promise to them.” If that was the promise made, he did.
“The promise was made to call them back with quotes,” Salopek acknowledged. “And the call was attempted on the Friday before the piece appeared. They were not home.”
How much of an effort did you make to reach them? I asked.
“I made one call,” he said.
The other families that he interviewed with Chhorm’s assistance didn’t show up in his article because of space, Salopek explained. “When I came down to choosing who to include it was obvious I had to go with the families involved with the death of David Torres, although I had material equally nuanced from families that were not involved in the death of David Torres. It was a matter of priorities.”
Bewilderment and annoyance on the part of those who’ve given a reporter their time and thoughts and seen nothing come of it are common aftereffects of journalism. And so, unfortunately, is a bitter sense of exploitation; for even when reporters and their subjects share a language, culture, and sophistication, separate agendas often divide them. To the reporter, the proof is in the pudding, and on these terms Salopek can rest easy: even Chhorm admired what the Tribune published. “The article I think is not bad. He showed one side as kind of the good side and the other side as the very bad side. As my friend said, ‘He painted a picture of the Cambodians as people.'”
But to Chhorm, who might have misunderstood Salopek’s terms, that picture didn’t make things right.
Last Sunday’s lead story in the Sun-Times reported that the state supreme court “has used its power to bypass voters and create ‘temporary’ appellate judgeships that have lasted more than two decades.” But despite this concern for the right of voters to choose their own judiciary, the Sun-Times won’t endorse judicial candidates in next week’s primary.
This remarkable decision wasn’t made until questionnaires had already been mailed out to the judicial candidates, asking them about such things as their “judicial philosophy” and the amount of pro bono work they’ve done.
“How can you with integrity find your way through this maze of candidates, many of them little known even to legal bodies?” editor Nigel Wade asked me. It’s a question many voters have always answered with, “You can’t,” which is why they’ve taken the papers’ endorsements with them into the polling booth.
But Wade was speaking of his own paper. So instead the Sun-Times will publish the recommendations of organizations such as the Chicago Bar Association and the Chicago Council of Lawyers. “We will not attempt to pretend we are all-knowing,” Wade went on. “What you will get from us is a very reader-friendly handout on what the expert groups have made of the candidates. That’s as good as anyone can do.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.