By Michael Miner

Fog Over Meigs

The Sun-Times editorial position on Meigs Field has become so strident yet obscure that the paper’s own publisher didn’t seem to know what it was. “It’s a bloody good thing to have in a city,” said David Radler of Meigs. “Most cities would die to have it.”

Radler was speaking for himself. If that’s also your paper’s position, I asked him, why doesn’t it come right out and say so? He thought the Sun-Times had. It hasn’t.

Then where does the Sun-Times stand on Meigs Field? Radler wondered. He was speaking by phone from Vancouver, where he’s based as president of Hollinger Inc., the parent firm. Some things in Chicago get by him.

I told Radler what his editors have told me. They say they still stand by the editorial they ran last March 1 applauding Mayor Daley’s proposal to turn Northerly Island into a nature park. “We’re already sold on the idea,” said that editorial.

But what the paper’s been publishing lately on its editorial page doesn’t convey an ounce of support. Instead the paper grumbles that Mayor Daley is attempting to shove his vision of the landfill beautiful down people’s throats. Since I wrote about the subject two weeks ago, the Sun-Times has gotten even snarlier and less credible.

Headlined “FAA stand on Meigs reeks of politicking,” the lead editorial of August 2 excoriated the Federal Aviation Administration for its “incomprehensible collapse in the face of the Daley administration’s planned shutdown of the lakefront airport.” It concluded, “If a politicized FAA…now can’t even gather up enough gumption to carry out its mandate to promote aviation, it might as well close up shop” (overlooking the Department of Transportation’s decision after May’s ValueJet crash to ask Congress for a new FAA mandate, one that forgets about promotion and concentrates on safety only).

Three days later an editorial proposed basing the Coast Guard’s rescue helicopter at Meigs Field. This would be a strange recommendation from a paper that wanted to see Meigs turned into a nature park.

But who can still believe the Sun-Times wants this? If the Sun-Times now believes Northerly Island should remain an airport, saying so straight out shouldn’t be as hard as the paper’s making it. When the mayor announced his plans last winter everybody at the Sun-Times didn’t gush. Naysaying editorial columnist Dennis Byrne wrote that “when Chicago’s principal asset is its central location and transportation system, it makes no more sense to close an airport than it does to shut down a lane on the Dan Ryan Expy. Or to ask a railroad to stop bothering us with its trains.” And Sunday columnist Neil Steinberg wrote that “every Chicagoan gets benefit from Meigs, even if it is only the joy of casting an appreciative eye at the Cessnas and GulfStars arriving and taking off. They’re part of what makes the city vibrant.”

The paper has only to explain that the fullness of time has made these pundits’ wisdom clear, and therefore it’s changing its mind. As issues go, Meigs is a close call; a serious argument can be mounted either way. The only intolerable position for a newspaper to take if it wants to be read seriously is one so convoluted its own publisher can’t follow it.

Conventional Maneuvering

A Michael Sneed item jumped out at me last week, and now I read it to David Radler. “Only in America!” Sneed exclaimed. “Sneed hears the majority [her emphasis] of the money raised by Chicago ’96 to pay for the Democratic National Convention was donated by Republicans.”

What about the $100,000 you gave to Chicago ’96? I asked Radler. Was that Republican money?

“Well, I can’t claim to be a Republican, since I’m a Canadian,” he said. “I’d certainly call it conservative money.”

Through Radler, the Sun-Times contributed so handsomely to Chicago ’96 that it became one of 73 “vice chairs” of the host committee for the Democratic National Convention. The paper’s largesse gave it the right to fete a state delegation to the convention, an opportunity Radler is making the most of.

“We chose the Mississippi delegation,” he said. “We have newspapers in Mississippi. Lots of them. I think eight dailies.”

Nevertheless, he stressed civic responsibility as the reason for the paper’s handsome contribution. “It’s totally to support the community,” he told me. “That’s it. There’s no other reason. We’re a factor in the city of Chicago. If we’d been in San Diego we’d have done the same thing.”

Put aside the waspish question of whether a newspaper can properly cover a community initiative it’s bankrolling (the Tribune, for what it’s worth, did not contribute to Chicago ’96). Sun-Times reporters point out that only four writers were sent to San Diego to cover the Republicans; though local coverage of the Democrats will be much heavier, it won’t be so great that an extra $100,000 in the budget wouldn’t be noticed and appreciated by the news desk.

“This doesn’t take away from any coverage we’re going to have,” Radler insisted. “This is nothing more than being a good corporate citizen. It’s totally unrelated to the news budget. We also give money to lots of other things. Truthfully, they’re not related.”

Once again grousing journalists don’t see the big picture.

Editor in Exile

I was illegal myself,” said Luis Rossi. “I was illegal a few years until I got my papers. This was not a story in the Hispanic market. Nobody made it a story, it’s so common.”

But by Anglo–and even by some Hispanic–standards, the trials of La Raza’s Gabriela Bustamante are very much a story. For two years the editor of Chicago’s most prominent Spanish-language newspaper, Bustamante was detained in Nassau on July 20 as she was about to fly back to the U.S. with a group of Latino journalists who’d been visiting the Bahamas on a trip sponsored by American Airlines. Bustamante’s working papers weren’t in order, and she wasn’t allowed to reenter this country. (Apparently Immigration and Naturalization Service officials surmised from the company she was keeping that she was a working journalist, not simply a Mexican tourist with a visa.) She’s now in Mexico City living with relatives.

Rossi was her boss, the publisher of La Raza, and also president of the National Association of Hispanic Publications. He fired her and dropped her name from the masthead. But almost a month later his paper still hadn’t carried an account of what happened to its editor. “We will announce it,” Rossi promised this week.

However common the deportation of undocumented workers might be, Rossi wanted me to understand the personal devastation it inflicts. “If you hate somebody else the worst thing you can do to humiliate him is to do something with immigration,” he said. “You can go and get a gun and shoot that person, and it’s not worse.”

Rossi acknowledged knowing after La Raza hired Bustamante five years ago that she was undocumented. But he thought she’d subsequently received her working papers, and before she left for the Bahamas he asked, “Did she get the papers? She said yes. You ask that, just in case, when somebody goes out of the country. Do you think if I know she was illegal I let her go to the Bahamas?”

He said that when he talked to her by phone in Mexico City, she was more honest. The papers hadn’t come, but she was waiting for them. “She’s going to get the legal papers sooner or later,” Rossi said. “She’s coming back.”

But not to La Raza?

“Not to La Raza.”

Rossi emigrated from Uruguay in 1970, an era, he said, when a tourist visa could be parlayed into a job and a resident visa far more comfortably than it can now. Today even legal Hispanic residents are excoriated to political advantage. “We don’t take it personally,” he told me unconvincingly. He was no more convincing when he asserted a blanket lack of interest among Hispanic media in Bustamante’s plight. The story was broken last Saturday by the Chicago Tribune in a page-wide article, then carried the next day by local TV stations. (The Tribune Company’s Exito is La Raza’s principal competitor.) But the Tribune had been notified by El Heraldo, one of La Raza’s smaller competitors. Marta Foster, managing editor of El Heraldo, told me she called Inc. hoping that Tribune reporters could add meat to the bones of the rumor that had just reached her.

“It’s OK,” said Rossi, speaking of Foster. “I hope God forgot about her.”

Stalking the Plank

Dennis Byrne, in Tuesday’s Sun-Times, page 23: “Did you know that the GOP platform does not contain an amendment that would ban all abortions, as the media have been saying? That it, in fact, does not contain an abortion amendment of any kind? What the platform does, however, contain is a plank–whose text is rarely quoted by reporters–that supports an unspecified ‘human life amendment’ and legislation to apply 14th Amendment protections to unborn children….Instead of giving their readers and viewers such important information, too many reporters are content to repeat the media canard that the platform would ban all abortions. Or they simply adopt the pro-choice rhetoric that asserts the platform would ‘criminalize’ abortions, when that word appears nowhere in it.”

Molly Ivins, same paper, page 25: “I am sitting here looking at this plank–the abortion plank in the Republican Party platform. It calls quite clearly for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion in all circumstances, including to save the life of the mother. Any doctor who performed an abortion, even to save the life of the mother, would be subject to criminal prosecution. I think ‘not even to save the life of the mother’ makes a stronger impression on me as to just what the Republican Party thinks of women, how much the party values women, than will the pretty videos to come.”

Give Byrne half a point. Neither Chicago paper bothered to publish the Republicans’ right-to-life plank, which I had to go on-line to unearth. And score Ivins higher. Her “not even to save the life of the mother” suggests she’s quoting from the plank when she isn’t. That aside, Ivins does a lot better job than Byrne in reading the plank.

The plank: “The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life….We oppose abortion, but our pro-life agenda does not include punitive action against women who have an abortion.”

With due respect to Byrne, this is an abortion plank. It’s a plank calling for legislative and constitutional guarantees that a fetus’s “right to life” will be safe against any infringement. Any infringement can only mean any abortion, including any performed to save the life of the mother. This is also a plank that persists in the curious strategy of threatening the hit man while absolving the client. But no, it does not mention criminalization. Perhaps Republicans simply want to make it easier for the victimized mother to sue the abortionist for damages.

News Bites

The American Medical News patted itself on the back the other day, noting in an article that it’s “been cited for excellence in design, reporting and editorial writing in recent contests.” It couldn’t have been lack of space that made the News overlook the most glittering award of all, Harris Meyer’s $5,000 prize from the National Institute for Health Care Management for his 1995 series on medicaid reform. The News also failed to mention the Lisagor award Meyer won last May (though not the author of an American Medical News editorial that won a Lisagor) and, needless to say, the Ethics in Journalism award given him at the same dinner for “laying his job on the line by writing stories that were contrary to American Medical Association policy on medicare and other health issues.” That’s to quote from the citation, which went on to note that Meyer eventually “was fired for insubordination.”

It’s safe to say where next year’s ethics award won’t be going.

Guess which one is perky, too. Two headlines from the same page of Tuesday’s Tribune: “Powell a potent symbol of inclusiveness.” “Molinari, though feisty, is first a party loyalist.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of David Radler.