By Michael Miner

BAT Man Returns

Dave van Dyck was on the phone being informed that he’d received one of journalism’s two ultimate accolades. He said, “Could I get back to you in a minute?” and hung up. A call had come in on his other line.

The interruption allowed Hot Type to ponder the essential difference between the coveted Pulitzer Prize and the coveted BAT. Van Dyck would not have hung up on the Pulitzer Prize Board, so notorious is that august body for capricious subjectivity. Sensing an insult, the board could easily change its mind. But the BAT measures excellence with cold, inflexible objectivity. Van Dyck reigned supreme in picking the winners of ’95’s so-called pennant races, and he knew well that the BAT would still be his even if he called Hot Type back an hour later, the next day, or–it’s been known to happen–never.

An old hand in the BAT competition, van Dyck is triumphant for the third time. “Can we retire the trophy now?” he asked, for he did indeed call back, his emotions under control. “You can retire the gold trophy now and go with the bronze.”

Alas, he betrayed an uncertain grip on BAT history. Hot Type established the Golden BAT 15 years ago, and it swiftly became one of the rites of spring. It was the pennant hoisted, the cap doffed, the anthem rung, the dove flung free–in honor of the scribe who the year before had least inaccurately predicted the upcoming pennant races. The Golden BAT honored prognosticative competence less than it did the relative lack of incompetence, the guiding philosophy of this column (then in other hands) being that high-priced sportswriters don’t know any more about baseball than you or I. But the BAT has evolved–acronymically from Baseball Aptitude Test to Baseball Accountability Test to Baseball Accuracy Test to Baseball Acumen Test, and materially from gold to cupronickel and, last year, to molten lead.

These compositional changes reflected the steady debasement of the national pastime. Expansion, realignment, and the Strike plunged the national pastime to such a nadir that a ’94 BAT champion could be awarded only by comparing the preseason picks to the standings as they happened to be when the season collapsed in August.

And so spiritually the BAT has also evolved. No longer risible, the BAT salutes the one constant in chaos, the sturdy yeomen who ply their trade through even the worst of times for five-figure incomes and cold cuts.

Van Dyck picked four of the six conference champions, naming Cleveland in the AL Central and running the table in the National League with Cincinnati, Atlanta, and LA. Sun-Times colleague Joe Goddard turned in an identical performance, but van Dyck pulled away in the tiebreaker, nailing an Atlanta triumph over Cleveland in the World Series.

The original spirit of the BAT awards is kept alive by the Whiffle BAT, given to the scrivener whose performance falls flattest. Last spring we were hailing the Tribune’s Bernie Lincicome for his “great, great historic effort” in ’94. This spring we look back on a year in which he could pick only one of six conference winners. To him, the thorns. Such is the fickle nature of the soothsayer’s art.

“I certainly didn’t win from knowledge,” van Dyck allowed humbly, “because I went to the dog track the other day in Phoenix, and I even came home with money from that.”

Edgar’s Tax Bombshell: Who Lit the Fuse?

The day after tax-busting Al Salvi toppled Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra in the Illinois primary, Governor Edgar dropped in on the Sun-Times and Tribune to discuss taxes and education. He and Stanley Ikenberry, head of the task force Edgar had appointed to study state support of public schools, briefed the editorial boards of the two papers on a plan to overhaul the state’s tax structure and make Springfield carry more of the load.

Everything said at these meetings was off the record. Berated in the past by these boards for neglecting education, Edgar now wanted them as allies. But he didn’t want a word in the papers about the constitutional amendment he’d decided to propose until he could announce it the next morning at a press conference.

Unhappily for the governor, a promise made by one department of a newspaper imposes no obligation on another. Rick Pearson of the Tribune’s Springfield bureau already had wind of the governor’s plan and was nailing down its details from other sources. Pearson wouldn’t identify these sources for me, but if their attitude can be inferred from the tone of his writing–and in journalism such an inference is a fairly safe bet–they possessed little of the governor’s enthusiasm.

At his press conference Edgar had hoped to announce the good news that his task force had found a way to restore Illinois schools to a sounder, more equitable financial footing. But he was upstaged by the Tribune exclusive, which put the same facts in a very different focus. The page-one headline shouted, “Edgar readies tax bombshell,” and the subhead added, “$2 billion increase would fund schools.” The governor, said Pearson’s lead paragraph, “plans to dump plans for a big tax increase” into the laps of legislators running for reelection. Edgar’s initiative was described three paragraphs later as “the political equivalent of a midlife crisis”–an attempt midway through his second term to leave something of value behind.

Perhaps no news story can ever display its contents in a transparently neutral vessel. Pearson didn’t make the attempt. “I think you have to present the ideas as well as the context of where the ideas come from,” he told me. “You don’t just write what happened, but why and what happens next.”

To stress the political context of Edgar’s announcement, other dimensions had to be slighted. Although Edgar was proposing to shift much of the burden of financing public schools from the property tax to the income tax, this shift would not be shoved down the people’s throats. First they’d have to approve a constitutional amendment in November, a critical public role acknowledged in Pearson’s long article after it had jumped from page one to page 25. A promised $1.5 billion in property-tax relief was mentioned on the front page–but not in a headline. Comment from educators was nowhere to be found.

Pearson made these important political points: (1) Edgar had ridiculed a similar education plan when Dawn Clark Netsch proposed it during their 1994 race for governor, (2) Republican legislators were terrified that if they sponsored a major tax increase they’d lose control of the General Assembly to the Democrats, and (3) their terror was well founded: Representative Salvi, who’d accused Edgar and Kustra of keeping a tax hike under wraps until after the primary, had upset Kustra for their party’s Senate nomination.

Pearson told me the nature of the coverage was inevitable. “Even if I didn’t get the beat on the story, if it had gone according to plan [if Edgar had been out front with his press conference] everybody would have written basically the same story. That’s in light of the refutations the administration had put out only the weekend before–that there was no secret plan.”

Salvi had accused Edgar of helping Kustra by “cynically” hushing up a tax hike. “There were a number of us who did what I guess you’d call knockdown stories, in which we were told that, you know, Salvi’s allegations are ludicrous, the report isn’t finished, and there’s a lot more work to be done,” Pearson said. He’d written a knockdown story himself. Then it turned out Salvi was right. Someone who’s been sucker punched doesn’t pick himself off the floor feeling high-minded.

But what about the rest of us? We’ll concede that Edgar’s schools plan was born in hypocrisy and duplicity–but even so, not a minute too soon. When the state’s biggest newspaper introduces a school funding strategy as a “tax bombshell” it’s shedding heat at the expense of light. When readers recoil in horror, then bark “nothing doing” to craven politicians, ignorance is riding high.

As the Tribune acknowledged. That paper’s editorial board performed just as Edgar had hoped it would. Calling the status quo “arcane, unbalanced and grossly inequitable,” the first of two editorials on Edgar’s proposal lambasted legislators reluctant to allow a referendum on the November ballot. “They think their constituents aren’t smart enough to make the choice themselves,” said the Tribune. “They think the quality and funding of public education is not something the taxpayers of Illinois should have a say in.”

A second editorial, written after Edgar’s funding plan was effectively dead, found fault everywhere but at the Tribune. “Legislators reacted with shock and horror to the plan….Their horror was aimed…at the prospect of seeming to be in favor of a tax hike in an election year.” As for the governor, “he failed to do the groundwork needed before its public release to give this plan half a chance.”

At least columnist Thomas Hardy had the grace last Sunday, in his postmortem, to acknowledge his paper’s hand in the defeat. He observed that Republican leaders, “as well as many in their ranks who face re-election in November, were spooked by a Tribune headline that called the proposal a ‘tax bombshell.'”

What made it a bombshell? Senate president James “Pate” Philip and House Speaker Lee Daniels may not have welcomed the proposal, but they knew it was coming. (It’s widely assumed that Pearson got his information from their staffs.) For that matter, any taxpayer who’s been paying attention had an idea of what was in the works. In his state of the state speech in January Edgar spoke plainly to the General Assembly about educational funding: “It is time to squarely address these issues. And I am optimistic you and I can do so during this legislative session.”

A Tribune editorial the next day praising the governor for his “uncharacteristic boldness” accurately predicted that Ikenberry’s task force would call for both property-tax relief and a state obligation to pay half the cost of public education. Where would this money come from? Possibly an income-tax hike, said the Tribune.

In February a Peoria paper had suggested that a swap of income and property taxes was in the works.

Mike Lawrence, Edgar’s press secretary, doesn’t begrudge Pearson his exclusive. He knew it was coming; Pearson had called him for comment. “My complaint is that he wrote a story that was misleading. People who read the Tribune that morning would assume the governor was calling for a tax increase that would be put into effect if the General Assembly approved it. It wasn’t until deep into the story that Rick noted it would take a vote of the people to put a tax increase into effect. The Tribune headline called it ‘tax bombshell.’ Rick knew better than that. His editors should have known better than that.”

Lawrence said the Tribune story “was a significant setback. It framed [the proposal] in a way that made legislators run for the hills. If it had been framed as ‘Edgar wants legislators to put an amendment before the voters’ it wouldn’t have had the same reaction.”

The day Pearson’s story appeared, a Springfield newsletter accused the Tribune and Edgar’s office of collusion. “Members of the news media were furious that Edgar had given the Chicago Tribune an exclusive look at the plan before other outlets were briefed,” said Capitol Fax. Lawrence found this ridiculous.

“My God, if I’d leaked that story and got the spin we did, I shouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today,” he said. “If I leaked it, I would say, ‘In the first two or three paragraphs say that this will require a vote of the people. You can write what you want beyond that.’ When I talked to Rick I told him that it would require a vote of the people. He apparently didn’t think that should be moved up high. He apparently thought it would make the story a little duller. A little duller, but a little more accurate.”

I wanted to explore Lawrence’s tradecraft. When you leak stories, I asked, do you try to dictate how they’re written?

“I don’t want to make it sound that crass,” he said. “But I would think that the person who stands to be the beneficiary of the story [he meant the reporter who gets the exclusive] would at least give you that much, that he’d make that point up high.

“If that story came from me,” he went on, “I should be looking for work. And not in PR. Probably not even in journalism. I should be looking for work as a shoe salesman.”

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