Inc on Their Faces

Steve Zucker has an alibi, but it isn’t airtight. He has half a dozen witnesses who’ll testify that on the evening of June 20, when according to the Tribune he was trying to crash Tim Weigel’s memorial service in Evanston, he and his wife Shelly kept a 7 PM reservation at Gene & Georgetti, at 500 N. Franklin. But the Tribune knows that even at rush hour a savvy guy like Zucker can make that drive in less than an hour.

So the Tribune is standing by this June 22 item in “Inc.”:

“What was he thinking? The last person we expected to see Wednesday at Ch. 2 sportscaster Tim Weigel’s tearful, joyful memorial service was his ex-agent, Steve Zucker. Weigel and Zucker had a legendary falling out dating back many years, fueled by dueling lawsuits and a restaurant confrontation just last year. So imagine our stunned disbelief to see Zucker trying to get past three different checkpoints at the church service. Each time, he was politely turned away.”

The item paints Zucker, a high-powered Chicago sports agent, as an ineffectual boor. And Zucker says it’s totally untrue.

Zucker assumed Terry Armour, a sportswriter before he took over “Inc.,” was responsible for the item. He left a message for Armour on the “Inc.” voice mail, but coauthor Ellen Warren called back and took responsibility.

“She said, ‘I have sources that saw you there,'” Zucker tells me.

Sources? Zucker thought “Inc.” had been claiming to have seen him with its own eyes.

“She said, ‘Oh, no–that’s just the way we write. It’s a number of sources.'”

Zucker says Warren advised him to forget about it.

He can’t. “She made me look like a fool. All I want is a retraction, an apology–anything. I’m not looking for money. It’s just eating me up.”

So Zucker called his attorney. Paul Vickrey called Paulette Dodson, assistant general counsel of the Tribune Company, and followed up with a June 29 letter. “What you have heard does not square with verifiable fact,” he told her. “Let me start with dinner at Gene and Georgetti.” He said the Zuckers’ presence there could be confirmed by the restaurant’s owner,

the maitre d’, the waiter, the couple eating with them, and at least four other people in the restaurant. He named them.

Vickrey then told Dodson that before dinner, Zucker had waited in the car while his wife ran into Saks at 5:55 PM and Field’s at 6:30. Vickrey provided Dodson with the names and phone numbers of the saleswomen who waited on Shelly Zucker at each store.

“The upshot is that it was logistically impossible for Steve Zucker to be at a 6:00 p.m. memorial service in Evanston,” Vickrey wrote. “We have been informed that the sole ‘source’ for the article is a Lisa Druss, someone Steve Zucker does not even know. Somebody is going to great lengths to avoid admitting a mistake. Why?”

Dodson wrote back ten days later asking for more information. She wanted a copy of the restaurant bill “as well as any other documentary evidence that you may have to assist us while we look into this matter.”

Vickrey sent her the computerized tab Zucker’s party began running up at 7:03 PM, and four affidavits by other diners attesting to Zucker’s presence at Gene & Georgetti. And he warned her by letter that “my client has been exceedingly patient while the evidence of malice is mounting, and he will no longer beg the Tribune to do the right thing. I need an answer today. In light of the circumstances, we expect a gracious apology as well as mention that (1) Steve and Tim Weigel had exchanged kind words before Tim’s death, and (2) Steve had not attended the service out of deference to Tim’s family precisely because he did not want to invoke even a hint of controversy during the occasion.”

Dodson responded that the Tribune had “double and triple checked our sources,” and on the basis of this review, “we remain confident that our sources provided us with enough basis to publish an item that Steve Zucker did indeed attempt to attend Tim Weigel’s funeral. More than one source has told the Chicago Tribune that Mr. Zucker, along with a female companion, attempted to enter the church at 5:45 p.m. Each of these sources claim to know Mr. Zucker on sight. He is quoted by the sources consistently as saying, ‘I am Steve Zucker. I used to be his lawyer.’ They claim that Mr. Zucker and his companion were told that they could not enter the church and were invited to sign the guest book and hear the service in the basement of the church. They say that at some point he entered the basement, but emerged and departed at approximately 5:55 p.m.”

If that’s when he departed, Dodson noted, it was certainly “feasible” that he reached Gene & Georgetti by seven.

Vickrey protested in a July 16 letter that the Tribune was putting up a “moving target.” Once Zucker proved when and where he ate that night, the Tribune dismissed its importance, while “conveniently overlooking my prior letter about Mr. Zucker and his wife stopping at Saks at 5:55 p.m. and Field’s at 5:30 p.m. [sic], and identifying witnesses relating to such stops.”

On July 18 Vickrey and Dodson exchanged faxes. He told her he’d heard that one of Warren’s original sources had called Warren and recanted. He wondered if someone was trying “to hide the truth.” He told Dodson, “It defies common sense that Steve Zucker would appear at an event at which he was known by 90% of the attendees, and later claim he wasn’t there,” and warned her, “This is Steve’s final request for the Tribune to do the right thing.”

She told him she was writing “to address your theme regarding the Inc.’s column’s use of ‘we.’ It is a device used by columns like ‘Inc.’ to identify the columnist and their sources. Note that other columnists like Liz Smith and Ann Gerber use the term ‘we’ when clearly the column is purported to be written by one individual.”

Then she declared, “The Chicago Tribune stands by its reporting. Further letters from you containing false accusations will not change the fact that (a) we had reliable sources who said (and still say) that they saw Mr. Zucker at Mr. Weigel’s funeral and (b) that it was on that basis that we wrote the item and still do not believe an apology is merited.”

“It’s almost as if they’re taunting us,” says Vickrey.

Though he and Zucker insist that all they originally wanted was an apology, the Tribune immediately circled the legal wagons. The Tribune silenced Warren, it silenced Armour, it told its media spokesman to say nothing other than that the Tribune stands by its story. Dodson did return my call, but she wouldn’t discuss the internal investigation that assured the paper the “Inc.” story was sound.

The paper left a few stones unturned. I talked to the saleswomen at Saks and Field’s who allegedly helped Shelly Zucker that evening. The woman at Saks couldn’t remember whether she came in, but Darlene Domel of Field’s was certain of it: she’d written down Zucker’s name and phone number when Zucker put a pair of pants on hold. Domel even remembered Zucker mentioning that “her husband was downstairs waiting for her,” though she wasn’t sure of the time–possibly as early as five and “probably closer to six” than 6:30. Neither woman had heard from the Tribune.

So who were Warren’s sources? The paper won’t say. And why does it think Zucker would make a 7 PM dinner reservation in Chicago if he expected to be at a memorial service that started at 6 in Evanston and was certain to last at least an hour? Another mystery.

And what about those “checkpoints” that according to “Inc.” kept turning Zucker away? Memorial services don’t normally resemble border crossings between South and North Korea. Marian Erickson, chief officer of Evanston’s First Congregational Church, shed some light on this one. She told me that although the church provided its deacons to act as ushers, “all these girls who worked for Channel Two came and decided they’d seat people on their own.”

Erickson explained that the nave was divided into three sections: the family on one side, the media on the other, and church members in back. In addition, there were seats in the balcony and in a chapel, while other mourners in the church basement’s fellowship hall and in a park across the street listened over a PA system.

Erickson said the Channel Two “girls” stationed themselves at the back of the church and in the center aisle and needed to be reined in. She spotted one of them trying to take charge of who could and couldn’t be admitted to the members’ section and told her, “You don’t deal with that.”

I’m told that two of the Channel Two crowd controllers were Lisa Druss, a producer who handles special projects, and the station’s spokeswoman, Kerri Weitzberg. They’re not talking publicly. But if the Tribune expects them to swear in court that they saw Zucker at the Evanston church, the Tribune might think again.

But this dispute doesn’t belong in court. Marian Erickson estimates that as many as a thousand people came to Weigel’s memorial service. Even if Zucker was there only ten minutes, trying to get into the nave and then making a quick appearance downstairs in the fellowship hall, there should be dozens of “reliable sources” who can testify that they saw him. Study Zucker’s picture, and if you saw him, then write me–in the name of the truth–care of

What Made Bayless Bail?

Every new editor changes the weather in a newsroom, and writers measure the change on a sensitive barometer called respect. Last August Bernie Lincicome resigned from the Tribune after 16 years writing a sports column there because, as he put it then, “I wanted to be respected, and they wanted to be the Tribune.”

This month Lincicome’s running mate Skip Bayless also quit. Explaining himself, Bayless puts more emphasis on the nuts and bolts of the job than Lincicome did, but in the end he’s also saying the Tribune stopped making him feel important.

Bayless joined the Tribune in early 1998, and “the first two years I was here were by far the two most fulfilling, electrifying years of my career.” He says he loved the 12:30 AM deadline. He loved the chance to write as news broke “in the most passionate, crazed sports town in America,” and he willingly wrote more than the four columns a week he’d signed on for. But then managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski changed the rules.

Today Lipinski is the Tribune’s editor. But even as ME, she was taking over the paper. To bring the sports section into visual harmony with the other sections, she decreed that there’d be only one column on page one, and it would run down the far left side of the page and end at the bottom–as Bob Greene’s column does in Tempo and Eric Zorn’s and Mary Schmich’s do in Metro. Bayless would alternate with Lincicome in that space, and any column he wrote on his own time would go somewhere inside. “Out of the box I did a Bears game,” says Bayless, “and I believe the continuation of the game story was page 13. So my column was on page 13. Most of this is about principle, but maybe some ego’s involved. The point is, if you’d told me when you offered the job that sometimes I’d run on page 13–or 17 or 9 or who knows–I can tell you I’d almost certainly not have taken the job. I think it hurts my credibility with the people I cover that my column is shunted to page 17.”

There was more. “My rhythm was about 850 words, which by national sports-column standards is frankly a little short,” says Bayless. The new rules restricted him to one column of one page, and when the redesign of the Tribune this year narrowed that column, his maximum dropped below 800 words–a straitjacket. “In a 700-word hole I rarely used quotes anymore,” he says.

And the deadline changed. He liked to cover a game at night, write a “pardon my language, crap column” for the 10:30 deadline, and then do a fresh one for the 12:30 final. Those papers reached half of the Tribune’s readership, “which was certainly significant enough to justify rewriting the piece.” But to cut costs, the Tribune stopped sending the sports final out to the suburbs, where most of its readers are. After that, he says, his sports boss, John Cherwa, told him not to bother revising. “I’d ask Cherwa, ‘What can I write for 10:30 off a World Series game that starts at 8:15?’ He’d say, ‘Well, maybe you should take a pregame angle.’ Great, and all the people out in reader land will wonder, ‘Why did Bayless take the day off?'”

He sent Lipinski a long note he describes as “very nonconfrontational, almost a plea–what can we do to make this better?” He says Lipinski didn’t answer it. “I’m very compulsive with work and a little psycho,” he says. “I wanted to do more, and she made me do less–and it just started tearing my guts out.”

He reached his “point of no return” this year when he went south to cover spring training. He was in Tucson when Frank Thomas walked out the back door of the White Sox clubhouse and disappeared. “Wednesday is not my day to write, but I was there,” Bayless says. So he called the office. “‘Do you want me to write this? I’m on the scene.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s just too complicated. Take the rest of the day off, and we’ll get Rick to write from Chicago.'” Rick Morrissey was Lincicome’s successor.

Two days later, says Bayless, news broke that Thomas was holding out. Again it wasn’t his turn to write, but again he called the office and said, “I’m all over it.” And again the office told him, “We’d better stick with the format.”

Says Bayless, “And for the second time on Frank Thomas I had to swallow the story and my pride, and it tore me up. I’m sure I took it too seriously, but it tore me up. That’s when I said to John, ‘I can’t take it anymore.'”

“I was in Florida at the time,” says Cherwa. “I think that it’s something we could have handled differently.”

Bayless stuck it out a while longer, but on July 16–with no new job lined up, he says–he wrote a 781-word column that said good-bye. Before leaving, he made an appointment to see Lipinski.

“She said, ‘So, I understand you’re leaving us.’ I said yes. She said why? I said, ‘You got my letter of a year ago?’ She nodded in affirmation and said, ‘Tell me again.’ So I said A, B, C, and D, and she smiled and said, ‘Sections evolve.’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘I respect you, and I love your newspaper. But I wish the section had evolved before I came here, and I wouldn’t have come.’ She said, ‘The pleasure was all mine.’ That was it. By the watches in the newsroom I was in there four minutes and 38 seconds.”

I asked Lipinski to comment. “I don’t discuss Tribune folks’ personnel situations, no matter how inaccurate their public characterizations,” she responded by E-mail.

But she had more to say. “A number of editors here had come to view the sports section as longer on opinion than reporting and wanted to right the balance. We like the way it works in the other news sections, giving both the news and the featured columnist maximum emphasis each day, and not confusing one with the other. So we asked the sports columnists to do what the other columnists do and which, incidently, is underscored in the job title: namely, write a column of type.”

She went on, “The deadlines weren’t changed, only the circulation routes for the sports final. Columnists can always sub out [write a new column] for the final, and on big breaking stories should, though I know of at least one who thought it wasn’t worth it when the size of the audience changed. Others disagree.

“We always encourage breaking coverage of news stories, by both our beat reporters and columnists. I know of only one who declined based on the page placement of the report. Too bad for the readers.”

Bayless responds, “I respect what she wants to do, and in the long run she might be right. It’s just that I came in good faith, and it wasn’t returned. It wasn’t the job I pulled up stakes to come to do. God bless them, but God bless me.”

News Bites

The alliance between Donald Trump and Hollinger International to build high on the site of the Chicago Sun-Times is exciting news, as an understated shaft of architectural elegance is sure to result. The Trump name speaks for itself. And speaking of Hollinger, chairman Conrad Black has been back in the news in his native Canada. When last I looked in, Black was being stymied in his bid to join Britain’s House of Lords. A petulant Canadian prime minister smarting from unfriendly coverage in the Black press had invoked an obscure power he probably doesn’t actually have to keep the queen from naming Black to the peerage. But Black, who lives in London, now believes he’s found a way around: he’s renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Chicago will hold its breath as the Donald and Lord Black plan their common monument.

  • I should be more bothered than I am by the raptor silhouette that floated across the Sun-Times weather page last Wednesday. Advertising revenue’s the lifeblood of journalism, and if papers can rake it in by superimposing ads on the editorial copy–well, that’s a powerful reason to run editorial copy.
  • Fans of Dave Kehr, the Reader’s film critic from 1974 to 1985 and the Tribune’s from then until 1992, will want to read an interview with him conducted for the fine Australian Web site Interviewer Steve Erickson accurately describes Kehr’s present views on film and film criticism as “rather melancholy.” After leaving Chicago, Kehr worked for the New York Daily News for five years, the first six months of them pleasant. He was fired in 1998. The attitude of the Daily News, Kehr tells Erickson, was “undisguised contempt for their readers.”
  • News teaser of the week. WGN TV anchor Robert Jordan last Sunday night: “The Beatles’ George Harrison makes a surprising prediction about his future.”

    Commercial break.

    Jordan: “George Harrison says he expects to die soon.”