In These Times Loses a Fortune

Last Saturday the New York Times carried a long profile from New Delhi of “India’s most passionate polemicist,” the novelist Arundhati Roy. The Times told us that Roy has not only condemned the bombing of Afghanistan as terrorism sure to breed more terrorism but labeled Osama bin Laden “America’s family secret”–that is, a monster created by the United States when it covertly supported the mujahideen against the invading Soviets in the 80s. “He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid waste by America’s foreign policy.”

Roy enjoys a “wide readership” in Europe, where important newspapers carry her, the Times reported, but “to date, all major American newspapers and magazines have rejected Ms. Roy’s new essays on the Afghan war.” If you believe an unexamined war is not worth fighting, that’s not a healthy thing. But Roy can be read in this country–if you know where to look. There’s an essay by her in the November 26 issue of In These Times, a left-wing biweekly based in Chicago that flies under the Times’s radar.

A look at the issues of In These Times published since September 11 finds it, unsurprisingly, flirting with the crime of premature anti-jingoism. The powerful argument that America has gotta do what it’s gotta do swept the country after September 11, when Americans took stock and recognized that the day’s massive assault was simply the most extravagant in a series of attacks on American institutions that had been going on for a decade. Naomi Klein, a columnist based in Canada who was recently added to In These Times, allowed in the October 29 issue that she’s “felt little but rage and sorrow since September 11.” But while “terrorists, though they often adopt the pose, are nobody’s saviors, nobody’s freedom fighters,” she warned that “they are, however, experts at manipulating real injustice for their ends.”

In no way blaming the victim, Klein nevertheless came to the awkward subject of “real injustice,” which most of America has decided to leave for another day.

If In These Times hasn’t been denounced and ridiculed in the way that Susan Sontag, for one, has, its obscurity is the biggest reason why. Regrettably, this obscurity, which has shrouded the magazine for all 25 years of its existence, endures. It was supposed to be lifting by now. Fourteen months ago, the threadbare journal on Milwaukee Avenue was taken over by a Silicon Valley megamillionaire with a social conscience who vowed to put In These Times on the map.

This astonishing change of fortune was chronicled last May in the Tribune Magazine by freelance reporter Danielle Svetcov, who wrote with the tone of affectionate amusement appropriate to gallant underdogs. “Enter Bob Burnett, the techno-millionaire, who took over In These Times last September as an ‘opportunity to help rebuild the progressive movement, something I believe to be of vital importance,'” reported Svetcov. “Burnett thinks it’s abysmal that so few Americans have heard of the magazine. He believes something should be done. So he’s whipping up a miracle right now to make things right. As a co-founder of Cisco Systems, the industry leader in computer networking products with $23.8 billion in revenue, Burnett is quite capable of a miracle.”

The pending miracle even had a name–“Secret Plan X,” which is what the staff was calling a strategy to reach “hundreds of thousands” of new leftist readers. So close to his chest did Burnett keep his cards that few of these staffers, “suspicious by their lefty natures, know what he is planning.”

When Burnett, a longtime reader of and occasional contributor to In These Times, became publisher, he introduced himself in its pages as “more a product of the anti-war movement than corporate America,” someone who’d retired at 50 to dedicate himself to social issues and had taken over In These Times because of its “strong tradition of speaking the truth” and examining “what lies in the shadows of American society.”

Burnett, by now 60, continued to live in California. Conference calls kept him in touch. Svetcov wrote, “The staff members make a confession: Bob makes them nervous. He has been their publisher only a short while. They have met him only a few times. True, he has raised their salaries 10 to 15 percent, and he says the magazine may soon go weekly and glossy, and that someday soon they could see their own pundits on the national stage, CNN even. Still, they have doubts.”

Svetcov sensed particular misgivings on the part of James Weinstein, the magazine’s semiretired founder. “One starts to wonder,” she wrote, “if Weinstein derives a measure of satisfaction from the obscurity of his magazine, if he considers it a mark of editorial integrity that he did not sully the solemnity of the content with circulation-building stunts.”

Weinstein naturally denied this. He told Svetcov, “My first reaction to Bob was, ‘Thank God.’ I started this magazine an editor and ended up a beggar.” For 25 years he had scratched about in vain for a business plan that did not involve keeping the magazine afloat with his own money. When Bob Burnett came in, he turned the culture of scarcity upside down.

But though miracles do happen, they are famously short-lived. Within a month after the Tribune piece appeared, Burnett resigned. It might be said that he went back to California except that he had never actually left. “Circumstances in the technology/ business side of my life,” he explained in print, “have necessitated my becoming the president of Xamplify, a software startup here in Berkeley.”

Burnett tells me he had “a very, very substantial investment” in Xamplify and was the friend of its CEO, which is why when the company “really, really needed me,” he stepped in. Meanwhile, the value of the Cisco shares Burnett held in abundance had diminished from about $60 a share when he took over In These Times to about $20 when he resigned. “Obviously that had an impact on me,” Burnett says. “But the real consideration is what I told everybody, that I’m no longer young enough to do two full-time jobs. All these progressive magazines are in a shaky financial situation, and I wish I could have done more to solidify that.”

Burnett gave money in two ways, says Weinstein. What he pledged, he gave–and he has promised to continue supporting the magazine at the same level through 2002. But then there were the times when expenses came along and Burnett simply reached into his pocket. This informal revenue stream vanished when Burnett did.

“When he left,” says Weinstein, who still holds the title of chairman of the board, “he left us stronger in some ways but also weaker in others. He did a lot of stuff that was good as long as he was paying for it. He raised everybody’s pay. We paid writers more. He upgraded our computer system. What he didn’t do was get any new board members in order to get any new donors than himself. We weren’t left with a larger, more active board.”

“Secret Plan X” continues to float around the premises, still a proprietary secret, but its champion is gone. The lack of money is again central to everything, and editor Joel Bleifuss, who’s added the duties of publisher, will soon be launching a three-year capital campaign to raise $600,000, a sum that by his magazine’s lights is “huge.” The good news, he says, is that the circulation of 15,000 has gone up a little since September 11, and he believes the content is why. He compares it to last year’s contrarian coverage of Ralph Nader’s third-party campaign. In These Times took it seriously, examined it critically, and opposed it as–in Bleifuss’s words–“foolish and divisive. Many readers didn’t agree.”

Three or four angry readers wrote in every week to cancel their subscriptions or donations, says Bleifuss. Only a couple have been that offended by the magazine’s objections to bombing Afghanistan.

Sun-Times Goes Down to the Wire

There’s a touch of the Potem-kin village to the Sun-Times’s coverage of the war and terror that dominate the nation’s newspapers. The banner headline’s on page one and the big story’s on page three, a survey of fresh developments that takes readers to Afghanistan and to Washington, and also to Kansas City or Sacramento or Hamburg–wherever it is that anthrax has been found, a high alert ordered, a fresh suspect ID’d. The survey story always carries the byline of a “staff reporter”–someone such as Scott Fornek or Bryan Smith. A tag at the end of the story–“Contributing: Sun-Times wires”–is easy to miss, but the “contributing” is an understatement.

Some other stories in the daily “America Fights Back” package localize the drama and carry clearly warranted staff bylines. Others with datelines such as Washington or Atlanta carry bylines too, and only a careful reader searching at the end of the story will notice the modest “AP” attribution.

“The new editors, I’m told, want few wire stories in prominent positions, but they’re also not spending the money to actually cover the war, so they’re left with wire stories and local bylines,” observed a reader who wrote me to complain. “Isn’t this dishonest? Is it normal journalistic practice?”

It’s packaging–a more extreme example of the self-exaggeration practiced by the Tribune when it lifts a story from another Tribune Company paper and labels it “special to the Tribune.” John Cruickshank, the Sun-Times’s vice president of editorial, offered a ringing defense.

“Nobody’s actually on the airplanes dropping the bombs. Nobody in America is satisfied with the access that any newspaper or television station has,” said Cruickshank. “We’re all suffering, and I don’t think we’re any further away [from ideal coverage] than anybody else.”

He pointed me to that day’s paper, the Friday, November 2, edition. The page-three roundup story, “More special forces ready to fight Taliban,” carried the byline of Bryan Smith, though any original reporting Smith might have done was well concealed. But this edition was unusual in carrying an even bigger story on page one. “Can Osama Build ‘Dirty’ Nuke Bomb?” by Chris Fusco, had obviously required some enterprise.

“The truth is that the fundamental reporting here was based on two sources,” said Cruickshank, “one of them the brilliant New Yorker piece this week by Seymour Hersh and then the New York Times piece of the other morning about the fact that the Pakistani government had detained these three scientists. We put together our piece based on those sources and all the reporting we could do on the dirty bomb issue and the loyalty of the scientists in Pakistan. We don’t have all the resources in the world, but what we’re trying to do is lead by thinking through the most significant issues of the day and doing as much original reporting as we can.”

Fusco’s piece acknowledged neither the New Yorker nor the New York Times piece that had inspired it. But it was a solid story, nicely rounded out with comment from Illinois’ inspection chief for radioactive materials, the publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago, and a local physicist who’d advised the American delegation negotiating the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

“I look at the Tribune today and basically see what was on CNN yesterday at two,” Cruickshank said. “We try to think through what readers need and put good reporters to work threading together a story.”

Was he saying that the Sun-Times synthesizes and the Tribune doesn’t?

“We know the Tribune doesn’t,” Cruickshank said. “They’re providing a tremendous amount of data. We’re trying to provide a tremendous amount of intelligence.”

That said, Cruickshank also defended the Sun-Times by pointing to what generals call the facts on the ground. In the best of times his news staff can’t compete with the Tribune’s in sheer numbers, and at the moment “we’re 22 staffers down.” (That, of course, is the paper’s own doing. It’s a shortage so extreme and, in the view of reporters, so profit driven that it’s become an issue in the current Newspaper Guild negotiations.)

“I pay for the AP,” said Cruickshank. “What we’re trying to do is use it as a bedrock. They’re functioning as a pool reporter and we’re at the end of the pool and we have every right to use their stuff in any way we want to. When Scott comes in in the morning and he spends the whole day working the wires and his sources–and not that many wires, because the Tribune took the Los Angeles Times wire–he’s worked hard and he’s earned his byline.”

As for putting “Associated Press” at the top of stories where readers won’t miss it instead of “AP” at the bottom where they will? Do readers care? “It’s certainly nothing more than a convention,” Cruickshank told me, “and I’m not sure it’s even a convention in tabloids.”

If it isn’t today, it used to be. But the dubious practice Cruickshank can’t quite explain away isn’t a capital crime. The Sun-Times is ingeniously presenting a war it can’t hope to cover. On its own terms, it’s risen to the occasion.

News Bite

The Tribune’s venerable “Inc.” column becomes history this month, probably on November 16. Managing editor James O’Shea wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge Inc.’s death. “It’s a personnel matter,” said O’Shea, faced with two unhappy columnists to reassign. Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski didn’t like gossip, collaborators Ellen Warren and Terry Armour didn’t like each other, and neither one liked the column’s exile in the Metro section. It was time.

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