By Michael Miner
Is Half a Story Worse Than None?
There’s an idea among journalists, especially the ones who do the heavy lifting, that today’s story should stand on the shoulders of yesterday’s. A couple of weeks ago the Sun-Times’s Frank Main wrote a story on police lieutenant Peter Dignan that didn’t do that, and it suffered for the lapse.
Granted, a page-long article written for a daily newspaper can’t hope to recap the 11 years of journalism that preceded it, especially when Main’s premise was that Dignan at long last would have his say. The Reader’s John Conroy has been writing about police commander Jon Burge and Burge’s old Area Two violent-crimes unit since 1990. Dignan served under Burge, and Conroy has probed his behavior at great length, most recently in this issue’s cover story. The Tribune has also taken a close, critical look at the history of convictions that hinged on confessions extracted at Area Two.
Main needed to avoid sounding naive about this background, and I don’t think he succeeded. He wrote, “Dignan said he continues to consider Burge a friend, saying he was subjected to a ‘kangaroo court’ by the Police Board that recommended his dismissal.” Burge was hardly railroaded. A series of lawyers for cop killer Andrew Wilson, who claimed he’d been tortured at Burge’s hands, fought an uphill battle for 11 years until 1993, when the city finally threw Burge off the force. The city has since acknowledged the torture.
Main began his story, “Chicago police Lt. Peter Dignan was decorated for heroism after he rescued two detectives wounded in a shootout with a drug suspect in 1994 and killed the gunman. Yet his career already was tarnished; He was accused a decade earlier of torturing murder suspect Darrell Cannon and another man.” Dignan told him, “It never happened, never happened. I’m sure it didn’t help my career.”
Since Main mentioned Dignan’s heroism only in passing, perhaps there was no reason to consider Conroy’s 1998 analysis of that shoot-out, which revealed that Dignan’s account of his conduct has been contradicted by the officer whose life he supposedly saved. But Main might have pressed Dignan on exactly how he thinks the accusation of torture by Cannon–and others–has hindered his career. Investigators from the Office of Professional Standards have sustained charges of abuse brought against Dignan by Cannon and three other prisoners, and the city settled civil suits brought by three of those prisoners by paying out a total of $120,000. But Dignan wasn’t fired, as Main did point out: a sergeant in ’94, he’s “now a field lieutenant in the Prairie District.”
Last month prosecutors made a deal with Cannon. He dropped his torture claim, and in return his life sentence for murder was reduced to 40 years for armed violence and conspiracy to commit murder; he now faces less than three more years of imprisonment. But the deal ended his hearing before his lawyers could cross-examine Dignan and his former Area Two colleague, John Byrne.
The Tribune immediately denounced the bargain. “Cook County State’s Atty. Dick Devine ran away and hid yet again from the disgraceful police-torture scandal,” said the editorial page, “a scandal that becomes increasingly scandalous with every new such evasion.”
The notion that Devine made the deal to keep the truth buried is one I wish Dignan had been urged to confront. As Conroy observes in this issue of the Reader, “The state doesn’t make deals like that unless it doesn’t trust its witnesses and evidence.” Instead, Dignan was allowed to say simply that he opposed the deal, since he’d hoped to testify against Cannon at the hearing and he believed Cannon should never hit the streets again.
The Tribune once showed much less interest in the Area Two scandal than the Sun-Times did. But the Sun-Times dropped the story, and the Tribune took it up. When the settlement of the Cannon case freed Dignan to talk about it, he contacted the Sun-Times through an intermediary. Presumably he expected a friendlier reception there.
Cannon’s lawyer, Timothy Lohraff of the People’s Law Office, was interviewed by Main. “I said, ‘You can’t look at this in a vaccuum. This isn’t just Darrell Cannon’s case–it’s a slice of a continuum. Part of what we were doing was calling other [Area Two] victims.
“We finally got mainstream journalists like [the Tribune’s] Mills, Possley, and Armstrong to do stuff. Mother Jones did a piece on Darrell’s case. The London Independent did a piece on Darrell. There’s lots of good stuff out there. And he completely bought Dignan’s crap–hook, line, and sinker.”
Actually, Main’s story doesn’t show him buying Dignan’s “crap.” It shows him listening politely to it, with none of the skepticism someone steeped in Area Two history might consider obligatory.
“I decided after looking at the Reader stories and looking at the Tribune and Sun-Times stories that this guy had not been interviewed thoroughly by anyone in the city,” explains Main. “I did go into some detail about the allegations against him, and because of space considerations and because I wanted Cannon’s version and I didn’t have endless inches of copy, I didn’t get into as much fine detail as I could have.”
One nice touch to Main’s story was to illustrate it with a line drawing Cannon once made to convey the brutality he alleged. An unlabeled stick figure meant to be Dignan is described by the legend “Officer with pump shotgun in my mouth.”
“I thought that was rather powerful,” Main says, then adds, “I’m not convinced that there was no torture going on in Area Two, but I wouldn’t make that judgment in print. I don’t see myself as writing advocacy journalism, so I don’t want to weigh in on what happened there.”
Fair enough. But journalism that doesn’t weigh in sometimes doesn’t weigh anything.
Vallas–Quote, Unquote, and Misquote
There are champions of Chicago school reform who’ve never quite trusted Paul Vallas since he took over the public schools in 1995. They doubt his commitment to the structure of local school councils he inherited, and when they read the February 16 Sun-Times some believed he’d finally said what he thought.
Hank De Zutter, a former public school parent, finished an article by Fran Spielman and Rosalind Rossi and promptly wrote the Sun-Times and the Tribune.
“It was heartbreaking to read accounts of Paul Vallas’ latest school pronouncements,” his letter began. “He was reported to have said: ‘This whole concept of having 600 schools do 600 different things–the whole premise of the first school reform movement in ’87–doesn’t work.’ Some of the best improvement has been among schools ‘where we go in and dictate curriculum,’ he said.”
De Zutter went on, “Certainly Vallas is not that young and inexperienced to remember that Chicago schools, when dubbed the worst in the nation, were centralized–over-centralized–not to mention, horribly corrupt and wasteful. Under Richard Daley I, when the curriculum and every decision was dictated from the top, principalships and contracts were politically determined, parents had no power, and schools were worse than ever.
“And parents had no recourse. Until 1968, parents couldn’t even find the phone numbers of their kids’ schools in the phone book. As a parent, I was not allowed to enter the school where my son told me there was broken glass on the floor where he and fellow kindergartners took naps.”
Because the Tribune was the first to get back to De Zutter, that’s where his letter appeared. But it didn’t show up exactly as he’d written it. As published last Thursday, it said Vallas “was reported to have said, ‘This whole concept of having 600 schools doing 600 different things, the whole premise of the first school reform movement in 1987–what we are learning is that the probationary schools, the schools where we intervene and go in and dictate models, are the ones making the most significant gains.'”
De Zutter immediately E-mailed editorial page editor Bruce Dold to point out that, as published, Vallas’s quote didn’t make much sense. “The phrase ‘doesn’t work’ was deleted from the letter as printed in the Tribune. Might this be corrected with another letter, to wit: ‘Dear Editor, Unfortunately, a few crucial words in the first paragraph of my recently published letter…were deleted.'”
Dold replied that the deletion was no accident. Vallas’s quote had been rewritten to square with the way the Tribune had reported it. “This is part of routine fact-checking that we do on letters,” Dold told De Zutter. “I’m not sure where you took the quote from, but I have to assume that Gary Washburn had it correct….If you believe the original quote in Washburn’s story was wrong, let me know.”
De Zutter didn’t know what to believe. So he called me, and I called Vallas.
“I never said it didn’t work,” Vallas told me. “What I said was–they were asking me about–the whole issue was curriculum. I said having 600 schools doing 600 different things is ludicrous. I said basically you need a curriculum framework.”
Vallas said his intent is to “identify 50 public schools that have superior instruction and curriculum models” and recommend those models to failing schools, along with models proposed by the school board. He said he’d tell failing schools, “I’m going to do a short-term note and raise additional money, so if you have to change your curriculum and instruction approach I’ll give you subsidies for the new textbooks and professional development you need.”
As for the model schools, he said, “Any school performing well I’ll completely cut loose. I’ll block grant all their money. They’ll be like charter schools. I’ll give them lump-sum budgeting.”
But what had Vallas said to Spielman and Washburn? Even in our high-tech data-retrieval age, reporting often comes down to someone trying to push a number-two pencil fast enough to keep up with a jabbering newsmaker. Fortunately, both Washburn and Spielman had taped Vallas. And no, he hadn’t said “doesn’t work.”
“It’s convoluted,” Washburn told me, and began reading from his notebook: “This whole concept of having 600 schools doing 600 different things, the whole premise of the first school reform movement in 1987–what we are learning is…'”
Spielman agreed. “It was like a run-on after ‘first school reform movement in 1987.’ I closed the quote and then put in ‘doesn’t work,’ because that’s clearly what he meant.” Somewhere between her keyboard and the Sun-Times presses, the closing quote marks changed position. “I don’t know where the mistake happened,” said Spielman.
She and Washburn agreed that Vallas hadn’t said “doesn’t work.” But they also agreed that he meant “doesn’t work.” Washburn told me, “That’s certainly the implication of what he was saying.” But the “doesn’t work” Vallas left unspoken but strongly implied was limited, in both reporters’ views, to the curriculum, not to school reform from top to bottom.
I went over all this with De Zutter, who said he now felt better about Vallas’s intentions. Nevertheless, he went on, “It seems to many–especially those who like the concept of LSCs–that Vallas and Daley are trying to clear them out of the way. Yet in official utterances made at groundbreakings or celebrations they have positive things to say about LSCs and the balance of power and checks and balances they introduce to the system.
“Because of this lack of clarity, many folks are perhaps overvigilant if not paranoid and suspicious of the central powers and what their real motivation is.”
He’s back to wondering what Vallas really thinks.
Richard Christiansen recently gave notice that early next year he intends to step down as the Tribune’s chief drama critic and Sunday arts columnist and simply write for the paper part-time. It’s been a distinguished career. “Widely considered to be the most powerful critic in the modern period of Chicago theater,” says the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, in which he’s the only midwestern critic listed, “Christiansen has been a consistent supporter of the Chicago style of naturalistic acting since he began covering amateur theatre for the Chicago Daily News in 1963.”
Christiansen moved to the Tribune in 1978, when the Daily News folded. He turns 70 in August. “I think maybe it’s time,” he told me.
One reason for giving his bosses a year’s notice, he said, is to allow them plenty of time to find a successor. The paper’s second-string drama critic is Chris Jones, a freelancer who’s also Variety’s midwest correspondent. “I do think he’s done a remarkable job,” says Jones of Christiansen, “and who would not find that job attractive?”
The Tribune has given up on its commuter-friendly final-markets edition. It dropped the eight-page wrap over the Christmas holidays, brought it back in January at four pages, and then dropped it again–“to see the reaction,” according to Tribune spokesman Jeff Bierig. He told me there wasn’t any, because “the information many sought in that paper they can get on-line now.” Bierig put the final circulation of the edition at about 2,000 copies a day.
The Sun-Times, according to vice president for circulation Mark Hornung, has no intention of following suit. Hornung claimed “thousands of customers” for his paper’s evening edition, and when I asked for something specific replied, “I’ll give you a percentage number. Our percentage sold went up 9 percent the first week without [the Tribune], and we think that’s chump change. With a little better sales effort and merchandising effort we’ll do better than that.”
He added, “I do prefer competition, however. It’s a lot more fun.”