If He Can Make It There

Half a century ago a composer and pianist named Oscar Levant also acted in movies (The Band Wagon), wrote books (Memoirs of an Amnesiac), and made wisecracks worth repeating (“I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.” “I’m a controversial figure; my friends either dislike me or hate me.”). Levant was smart, funny, and talented–and as neurotic as the day is long.

When asked about Neil Steinberg–and Steinberg’s seen to it that I have been–I’ve thought of Oscar Levant. But Levant grew up in New York, went to Hollywood, and is unimaginable in Chicago, where even the most outre elements root for the Cubs and posture as solid citizens. (Levant: “When I was young I looked like Al Capone, but I lacked his compassion.”) Neurosis doesn’t play here.

Because Steinberg grew up in Ohio and worked in Chicago, and his first book explored the pleasures of tipping cows, I mindlessly thought of him as a midwesterner. But Michael Cooke was cannier. The Sun-Times’s editor in chief until he left for New York this month to become editor of the Daily News, Cooke invited Steinberg to write a weekly Daily News column with the general theme of “Steinberg on America.” Cooke saw Steinberg for who he was–someone born to play Manhattan.

Steinberg made it clear in his debut Daily News column, on February 13, that he sees himself that way too. He addressed a New York concern–the scratching of Wal-Mart at that city’s gates–by calling the chain the “Red China of corporate America–an enormous fascist beast rising to its feet and searching for new worlds to conquer.” He ingeniously manipulated the death of Arthur Miller into an occasion to insult his new opposition–the New York Times and the New York Post–as hopelessly thick-witted. And he introduced himself.

“My name is Neil Steinberg,” he wrote. “I’m 44, heavy, Jewish, with a bit of a drinking problem. I say this because I believe in candor. I’m a newspaperman, and have lived in the Chicago area for the past 27 years, though in Chicago, if you weren’t born in the right parish, you’re still an outlander and might as well be a Maori or a Martian. I never argue, because in my heart, I suspect they may be right. I don’t belong in Chicago; I belong in New York.”

Steinberg went on to tell his new readers about his grandfather, a Bronx sign painter, and his father, who moved to Ohio and didn’t look back. “But I did. All my life. I felt restless and exiled, the only Jew in school, rising grudgingly to my feet to make the annual ‘This is a dreidel, this is a menorah’ speech. What I’m trying to say is that I’m glad to be here, if only in print form. Delighted at this toehold in New York City, to have finagled a few square inches of its most coveted real estate, this spot in the Daily News. No rag-wrapped immigrant kissing the ground ever felt happier to arrive in town.”

Unfortunately for Steinberg, if not necessarily for Chicago, he’s still here writing editorials and three columns a week for the Sun-Times. “He is not writing a column exclusively about New York from his rambling beautiful mansion in Northbrook,” Cooke e-mailed me. “Clearly, that would be absurd.”

Absurd or not, Steinberg’s obscuring the fact that he’s a voice from beyond the Hudson. Last Sunday he wrote his second Daily News column. He was smart about gay marriage: “The anti-gay marriage stance strongly echoes the visceral horror white Southerners felt in the 1950s at the idea of sharing swimming pools with their black neighbors. It wasn’t rational–they didn’t really think black children would poison the water. But they shut their own public pools rather than let blacks in.” He lifted a comment on the new nuclear sub Jimmy Carter from his Sun-Times column of a couple days earlier. And he settled further into his illusory life as a New Yorker, hailing the new Gates installation in Central Park for its transience–“The true glory is: it’s only here 16 days”–and doing his darnedest to pick a fight with that “money-hemorrhaging rag,” the Post. “Keith Kelly’s piece this week in the Post was not only pure hallucination, but reveals a frightening ignorance,” Steinberg said of a reporter who’d taken exception to the Wal-Mart item. “Keith, Keith, where have you been?”

When we talked by phone, Cooke raved about Steinberg’s “New York sensibility” and said his first two columns “give you goose bumps, they’re so good.” Cooke went on, “He’s got the wit and the intelligence and the punch, but he’s also got the scholarship.” Asked what Cooke’s new staff thinks about the new voice, he replied, “At least he’s not being burned in effigy. They seem to like him, which I’m told is quite unusual.”

I asked a Daily News writer too. “The consensus is that while it’s nice to have a liberal voice in the paper, he isn’t breaking anything new,” he replied. “Just riffing and recycling old stories. Some thought his ‘I’m really a New Yorker at heart’ bit from Column One sounded too desperate.” If Steinberg wants to make it as a city columnist “he’ll have to come here.”

Cooke didn’t want to say what kind of a future he and Steinberg are imagining. When I asked Steinberg, he responded with the warmth I’ve come to expect from his column. He e-mailed, “I feel no inclination to share my thoughts or plans with a writer who has spent the past decade crapping on me.” If Keith Kelly of the Post takes Steinberg’s bait and engages him in a public feud he’ll make him a happier man than I was ever able to.

No Right to Remain Silent

Last week a panel of three federal appellate judges handed Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine another stinging defeat. The panel unanimously upheld the decision of a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to hold them in contempt for refusing to honor a grand jury subpoena. If you don’t like to see reporters locked up for protecting sources, that’s bad news. I’ll get to the good news in a moment.

It was columnist Robert Novak, not Miller or Cooper, who identified Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative. Novak’s July 2003 column alluded to “two senior administration officials” as his sources, and because they’d presumably violated federal law to give Novak his scoop, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to find out who they were. Miller and Cooper wound up in Fitzgerald’s net because they’d apparently heard from the same sources.

The unanimous opinion written by appellate judge David Sentelle asserts that neither the First Amendment nor common law spares Miller and Cooper the duty of answering the grand jury’s questions. All three judges agreed that a 1972 Supreme Court case, Branzburg v. Hayes (which also involved reporters subpoenaed by a grand jury), settled the constitutional question. On the question of a privilege rooted in common law, each wrote a separate opinion. Those opinions get us to the good news.

Sentelle’s reading of Branzburg v. Hayes told him that “there is no such common law privilege.” Judge Karen Henderson thought the Branzburg majority had hinted “ambiguously at the existence of some special protection for reporters” in federal courts. What might that special protection protect? Clearly not Miller and Cooper, Henderson reasoned, so she didn’t need to answer the question.

The third appellate judge, David Tatel, thought some sort of reporter’s privilege did exist at the federal level, and he rebuked Fitzgerald for disrespecting it. “The special counsel’s confidence that exposing sources will have no effect on newsgathering is unjustified,” he wrote. “Not only does this contradict the Justice Department’s own guidelines, which expressly recognize that revealing confidential sources can ‘impair the newsgathering function,’ . . . but the available evidence suggests the special counsel is wrong. . . . For all the reasons that lead me to conclude that a privilege exists, reporters and their editors, attorneys, and sources probably believe the same, making it speculative indeed for the special counsel to suppose that dashing that expectation of confidentiality would have no effect on newsgathering.”

So the good news is that only one of the three judges denied reporters any federal common-law privilege whatsoever. Because Tatel believed there was a privilege that had to be overcome, he explained why Fitzgerald had overcome it. He bluntly told Miller and Cooper their case was terrible.

“In concluding that no privilege applies in this case,” he wrote, “I have assigned no importance to the fact that neither Cooper nor Miller, perhaps recognizing the irresponsible (and quite possibly illegal) nature of the leaks at issue, revealed Plame’s employment. . . . Contrary to the reporters’ view, this apparent self-restraint spares Miller and Cooper no obligation to testify.”

The presumed motive of Novak’s sources for outing Plame was to get back at her husband, Joseph Wilson, who’d just written an essay for the New York Times questioning the premises of the war in Iraq. Miller didn’t write about Plame at all; Cooper wrote only to wonder if the administration had “declared war” on Wilson. But “because the communication is unworthy of protection,” said Tatel, “recipients’ reactions are irrelevant.”

Tatel continued, “Indeed, Cooper’s own Time.com article illustrates this point. True, his story revealed a suspicious confluence of leaks, contributing to the outcry that led to this investigation. Yet the article had that effect precisely because the leaked information–Plame’s covert status–lacked significant news value. In essence, seeking protection for sources whose nefariousness he himself exposed, Cooper asks us to protect criminal leaks so that he can write about the crime. The greater public interest lies in preventing the leak to begin with. Had Cooper based his report on leaks about the leaks–say, from a whistle-blower who revealed the plot against Wilson–the situation would be different. Because in that case, the source would not have revealed the name of a covert agent, but instead revealed the fact that others had done so, the balance of news value and harm would shift in favor of protecting the whistle-blower. Yet it appears Cooper relied on the Plame leaks themselves, drawing the inference of sinister motive on his own. Accordingly, his story itself makes the case for punishing the leakers. While requiring Cooper to testify may discourage future leaks, discouraging leaks of this kind is precisely what the public interest requires.”

Reporters, by and large, believe that if they can’t protect leakers who are snakes they won’t be able to protect the ones who are whistle-blowers. The theory of a common-law privilege against grand jury subpoenas still hangs by a thread after Cooper and Miller’s defeat in the appellate court. The next stop’s the Supreme Court, which could cut it.

News Bites

The print version of Time Out Chicago debuts next week (a Web site is already up), and the most intriguing thing about it is the business model. TOC is a slick weekly entertainment and activities guide with a little editorial filler that’s aimed at young singles. It won’t be free. The cover price is $2.50, though it’s pushing a one-year subscription for $19.99. Britain’s Time Out Group publishes guides in London and other cities around the world, and ten years ago entered the U.S. with Time Out New York. Now it’s targeting a Chicago market that’s not accustomed to paying for its journalism, thanks in large part to the Reader. As the publishers of RedEye know only too well, even a quarter is too much money for information the public expects to get for free.

Note to editors: If you ask a question, try to answer it. I spotted a teaser headline on the front page of the Trib’s February 16 Tempo that wondered, “Where have you gone, Robert De Niro?” Because I wonder myself why the actor who made movies like Taxi Driver when he was young now makes movies like Meet the Fockers, I turned to page three.

The author was Kenneth Turan of the Tribune’s step-sib, the Los Angeles Times. It turned out Turan hadn’t asked De Niro. He hadn’t asked anybody close to De Niro. He hadn’t asked anybody. But then De Niro barely figured in the story. Turan had some thoughts on the nature of actors, and De Niro was his opportunity to express them. He’d written a thumbsucker.

There’s a time and a place for thumbsuckers in a daily newspaper. But editors shouldn’t set readers up for disappointment by disguising the exercise as informational. What distant shore did Turan’s meditation eventually drag itself up onto? “The mystery has to be respected as part and parcel of the gift.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark Blade.