It’s Not the Sex, It’s the Lying. About Sex.

“As a journalist, I am a fact-finder, a gate-keeper, a story-teller. Most of all, I am a truth-seeker. As a journalist, I am most decidedly not a cynic. Far from it. Instead, I am a romantic, for I believe–viscerally as well as cerebrally–that all I have to do is tell my stories, deliver the facts, and if I do that well and often, then the citizens of a democracy will do the right thing. Teaching, it seems to me, is about the only other institution in our society that shows as much faith in the people.” –Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1996

The Tribune defended last week’s coverage of Jack Ryan in language Paul McMasters would salute. But the coverage reminded me of the fable of the scorpion crossing a swollen river on the back of a frog. When the scorpion stung the frog in midstream the dying amphibian asked in bewilderment, “Why did you do that? Now you’ll die, too.” Said the scorpion, “I know. But it’s my nature.”

The Tribune was true to its nature and to the nature of all serious newspapers: it unsealed court records an ambitious young man had kept sealed for reasons that felt more expedient than noble–though Ryan had insisted he was only trying to protect his son. And though the Tribune didn’t drown for its efforts, it took a lot of heat from its readers and somehow looked less than noble itself. Once Ryan’s alleged sojourns to sex clubs had produced their predictable headlines, the Tribune editorial page issued a curious disclaimer. By prying open Ryan’s divorce file it hadn’t necessarily rescued the truth or exhumed the facts: “These are allegations, and allegations can mount as wildly as attorney’s fees in a divorce proceeding.”

Nevertheless, the public had been served well. As the editorial continued, it rang with McMastersian delight.

“Now voters have the opportunity to decide whether to believe Ryan when he says his ex-wife’s charges are false,” said the Tribune, “and whether such matters should even play a role in their decision on the Senate campaign.” Of course voters had no such opportunity–Ryan quit the race two days later. And surely the Tribune didn’t believe for a second that voters would. But it was a lovely sentiment.

The reason given by the press for Ryan’s fall was that he’d lied to his party and to the public. Sex was merely what he’d lied about. Yet when Mark Brown wrote Monday in the Sun-Times, “Let’s face it, it was always about the sex,” he wasn’t really arguing. Sex is what men lie about.

If today you’re trying to figure out Ryan, think about this–political campaigns have always been understandable as a form of public sex. And moreover consider that more explicit forms of public sex enjoy sturdy cultural roots. In Norse society, newlyweds took to their matrimonial bed in the presence of witnesses. Richard Friedenthal’s biography of Martin Luther tells this tale: “On the evening of 13 June 1525, according to the custom of the day, [Luther] appeared with his bride before a number of his friends as witnesses. The Pomeranian Bugenhagen blessed the couple, who consummated the marriage in front of witnesses, as Jonas reported the next day: ‘Luther has taken Katharina von Bora to wife. I was present yesterday and saw the couple on their marriage bed.'”

So Ryan’s behavior, which of course he denies, has a certain pedigree. It’s something he should have kept in mind, fortifying him to do what everyone now agrees he should have done–come clean about the divorce file and thrown himself upon the wisdom of the public. Instead he decided to try to hide from the public information he didn’t want it to know.

In olden times marriage was as carefully negotiated as a corporate merger is today and as heavily regulated as a TV franchise. Banns were posted to give the public and the religious authorities plenty of time to investigate and weigh in. As divorce, the renunciation of marriage vows, took hold, it was made equally public.

Because marriage continues to be a civil contract as well as a sacrament, divorce records continue under normal circumstances to be available for public consumption. The Tribune’s John Kass was at least willing to consider the possibility that under normal circumstances they shouldn’t be. “You could argue that personal matters should remain personal, and what happens between a man and his wife is private, and that no one should have known what was in the files,” he wrote last Sunday. “I agree with you. The files would have remained private in a private life.”

But, Kass went on, Ryan chose a public life and with his fortune tried to buy one. And Kass imagined “some weasel” getting hold of the file and waiting “for the right moment, for the selection of a federal judge, a federal prosecutor, or some other key vote” to manipulate the “handsome and rich senator” who concealed the worst kind of secret–a secret about sex.

I can imagine those same weasels trying to manipulate editors, columnists, and publishers–not kings but kingmakers–who wouldn’t for a second entertain the idea of publishing their own divorce files. No comparison with Ryan, they would say. Just as it’s the nature of journalists to turn over rocks, it’s our nature to be extraordinarily humble about our own importance, though haughty about our imperviousness to outside influence.

Even so, the press has a sense of when stories are beneath its dignity to pursue. If Ryan had been luckier, his divorce file might have been one. Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw, who knew Ryan socially when he and Jeri Lynn were still a couple and later listened to him lament the miseries of divorce, thinks Ryan might have gotten by if he’d admitted from the beginning that his divorce was messy and painful, that ugly things were said, and that material in the file would shame him. Would the public really want to know more? Would reporters, even? After all, the divorce file hadn’t been sealed until a stalker began harassing Ryan’s ex-wife and she worried that the personal material in it might titillate him. And their son was a “special needs” child who might be more troubled by his parents’ embarrassment than an average child.

But Ryan denied there was anything in the file that would be hard on anyone but his son. “On all counts Jack was dishonest and disingenuous,” says Shaw. “He gambled and lost.” It was a foolish gamble, because the rules of journalism changed when Blair Hull’s divorce file brought him down. If the Democratic front-runner didn’t get a pass, the leading Republican certainly wouldn’t. Shaw’s station joined the Tribune in asking the court to unseal Ryan’s divorce records.

“Ryan file a bombshell,” shouted the Tribune headline when it was opened, speaking of sex, not lies. But the file’s contents couldn’t have come as a total surprise. A few days before the March primary, Rod McCulloch, campaign director for Republican candidate John Borling, had tried to go public with information he’d learned about them. For his troubles, Borling fired him. In Mark Brown’s column in the Sun-Times last Monday, McCulloch said he became a “pariah” in GOP circles, though at a GOP fund-raiser last weekend “I was treated almost as a conquering hero.”

Reporters pestered Ryan with questions but accepted his denials. They weren’t the only ones. McCulloch told Aaron Chambers, a columnist for the Rockford Register Star, that Borling tried to persuade all the other candidates to release the information as a group, but they said no and Borling decided not to proceed by himself. “His wife talked him out of doing it,” McCulloch told Chambers.

So Ryan got through the primary unscathed and won it handily. But McCulloch tells me he’d spread the word not only to the other candidates but to top state and national officials of the Republican Party, including the office of the state party chairman, Judy Baar Topinka. “She had the allegations of a consultant [McCulloch],” McCulloch tells me. “But then she went and asked the front-running candidate, who has three Ivy League degrees and is worth $90 million. And she did what she should have done. She believed her front-runner. I’m told he looked her in the eye and lied.”

Did party leaders go on believing Ryan because the alternative was too loathsome to consider? On June 5 Thomas Roeser wrote a column in the Sun-Times that all but guaranteed that once the records were unsealed Ryan would be history. “The clock is ticking,” Roeser wrote. “It appears that those who said Jack Ryan is too good to be true were right.” When I read that column it seemed to me Roeser had a very good idea of what was about to break over Ryan’s head, and so did the other Republicans he’d talked to. Yet they and journalists alike all waited for a court in California to rule. Then everyone was shocked.

Keeping the Faith

I faithfully scan Voice of the People for the steady trickle of letters from Tribune readers to whom the newspaper is the faith they were brought up in. I think of those readers as the children of Colonel McCormick, and whenever I’m tempted to argue that the Tribune should loosen up and endorse a liberal for something, I remember this dwindling but exacting cohort. It’s their Tribune too.

In fact, I’d guess them to be its most loyal readers. Every paper hears from its own cadre of the faithful, to whom a newspaper is not merely news but doctrine, but the Tribune’s have always seemed to me most ardent and, as times change, most troubled by the changes.

“As an old codger, I am somewhat mortified at the way people dress when attending church,” began a letter last Saturday. Another opened with the classic “Shame on the Chicago Tribune.” When the Tribune carried a May 31 column by Charles Krauthammer questioning the new World War II memorial, he and the paper were promptly dressed down. “What purpose does his criticism serve,” a writer wanted to know, “especially at a time like this?”

In the view of the colonel’s children, criticism seldom serves any useful purpose, and it’s usually “at a time like this.” The death of Ronald Reagan was a conspicuous example of such a time. Readers were astonished and horrified to find their paper carrying some letters from readers who questioned the late president’s virtues. “Very disturbing,” one correspondent declared; “Not appropriate,” said another.

When Tribune litigation forced open Jack Ryan’s divorce last week, the colonel’s children came out in full force. “Why does a newspaper find it necessary to do the political work for the Democratic Party?” asked one of several disapproving letters the Tribune published. “Perverse curiosity,” diagnosed a second. A third: “A poor excuse for journalism.”

One reader made a proposal: “Put the divorces of all the media pundits following this non-story under equal scrutiny and see who among them would squirm back under the rock that they came out from under.” Another offered Ryan an ingenious defense: “The fact that Ryan visited these venues with his wife makes him more honorable than almost any politician, or anyone who has ever visited a strip club.”

These letters appeared on June 23, and alongside them was an editorial salute to the late Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick. One of Chicago’s great journalists, Kirkpatrick may be thought of as the Tribune’s Pope John XXIII. In the early 70s Kirkpatrick declared war on the medievalism that followed McCormick and inflicted objectivity, diversity, and curiosity on the ossified paper. Try to imagine a Tribune denied this rebirth. Its readers would delight in every word it published, and there’d be dozens of them.

News Bites

An interesting London-versus-the-dominions dynamic seems to be at work within Tribune Company. Last April the Tribune won zero Pulitzers, while the Los Angeles Times, which the company purchased in 2000, won five. Media writer Jeremy Mullman of Crain’s Chicago Business wondered in a June 7 article whether recent changes at the “energized” Times might be something the Tribune would emulate.

“No, that’s not something we’re trying to do,” vice president of editorial Gerould Kern told Mullman, who reported, “Mr. Kern says the company already leverages the editorial strength of the Times by running its stories in other company newspapers….The June 2 Tribune, for instance, featured 12 stories produced by other Trib-owned properties, including six from the Times.”

Does the Times return the compliment? Not exactly. A Times spokeswoman said her paper had picked up 14 Tribune stories in the past six weeks, which comes to about one story every three days. Last week the Times carried four stories on Jack Ryan. There was nothing distinguished about its coverage–though the court records and the candidate’s ex-wife were all under its nose. But for better or worse, the Times relied on its own reporters and the Associated Press. What the company calls the “Tribune family wire” wasn’t tapped. Only one of the four stories even mentioned the Tribune, despite its central role in unsealing the court files, and that AP story wasn’t reedited to acknowledge the family connection.

A journalist who knows the Times well tells me the paper’s attitude can be laid to “sheer stubbornness, some courage, and real reluctance to go along with the program.”

Public editor Don Wycliff examined the Tribune’s Ryan coverage last week and gave the Tribune a split grade. Asking the court to open Ryan’s sealed divorce file was the Tribune’s duty, he reasoned, but the paper went hog wild on the contents. In particular, Tuesday’s front-page headline, “Ryan file a bombshell,” didn’t so much announce the news as try to dictate it.

Wycliff could have added this: The Tribune and Sun-Times each photographed Ryan surrounded by journalists at the Thompson Center that Tuesday and put pictures of the mob scene on Wednesday’s front page. Ryan looked appropriately grave in the Sun-Times. The Tribune, surely with a dozen pictures to choose from, picked a shot in which Ryan looked like a grinning lunatic. Make that a grinning, sex-crazed lunatic.

For the past five years the trade magazine Editor & Publisher has been selecting an annual “10 That Do It Right”–papers that in some important way serve as a model for others. This year the Reader made the list.

“For 33 years, the Chicago Reader has made the task of attracting young, active singles look so easy that it’s only now–with the city awash in wanna-be ‘youth’ papers clawing for a piece of the action–that it’s dawning on the mainstream industry just how singular the Reader’s achievement is,” wrote E&P correspondent Mark Fitzgerald. “The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times offer look-alike Red tabloids with a Procrustean journalism that spares no more than 150 words on practically any subject, from Jessica Simpson to Iraq. Among the genuinely alternative local alternatives to the Reader are the Generation X- and Y-skewing New City and UR as well as the spoof news weekly Onion. And soon, entertainment listings magazine Time Out will launch a Chicago edition. What most of those papers have in common is that they’re thin. The Reader is thick.”

But not complacent. Change is coming, as Fitzgerald went on to report. Most of it’s cosmetic, but it isn’t modest.

Chicago’s La Raza also made this year’s E&P “do it right” list. It was praised for “professionalizing the Latino press,” setting an example that helped attract chains like the Tribune Company (Hoy) into Spanish-language publishing. “At a time when many Hispanic papers were still disorganized mom-and-pop operations, La Raza was pioneering audited and efficient free distribution to Hispanic households, aggressively courting big retailers, and insisting other Latino papers do the same.”

A third paper cited by E&P was the LA Times. The magazine described the turnaround that led to this year’s five Pulitzers, and noted that in June the staff was slashed by 62 people in response to Chicago-dictated budget cuts. E&P didn’t go into it, but those cuts did nothing to warm relations between the Times and the Tribune.