It’s Not the Story, It’s How You Tell It

The New York Times wasn’t first or even second, but it published the story that mattered. The Tribune had carried a short piece in September, Time Out Chicago last May. But when the same facts about A Taste of Heaven showed up in the Times on November 9 they became a comment on the state of the nation.

Over dinner a couple of months ago a friend of the Times‘s Chicago bureau chief, Jodi Wilgoren, mentioned a cafe-bakery in Andersonville that had a controversial sign on its door telling kids to watch it. Some mothers were offended and were boycotting. Wilgoren saw possibilities.

She and a research assistant called the National Restaurant Association and a woman who runs etiquette workshops for kids. They turned up blogs debating the behavior of modern children. Most of this material never saw print, but enough of it did to give the article a ring of universality. For six weeks Wilgoren worked sporadically on the story, and she says she kept changing her mind about what she had. One day: “This is a wonderful story about how we live in America.” The next: “This is a nothing about one small baker and a couple of people who are upset.”

But she stuck with it, and her first instinct turned out to be right. Her article was the most e-mailed story in the paper the day it ran, and the national media descended on A Taste of Heaven for their own take on what Wilgoren had adroitly branded “another skirmish between the childless and the child-centered.” Tribune columnists John Kass and Eric Zorn wrote columns taking owner Dan McCauley’s side and giving their paper credit it didn’t deserve as the place where the story originated.

Down the street at Women & Children First, briefly mentioned in Wilgoren’s story, the phone began to ring. Channel Two, Channel Five, and Publishers Weekly all got in touch. But no one at the bookstore basked in this sudden attention, which was the result of a huge mistake by the Times. The story said, “Many of the Andersonville mothers who are boycotting Mr. McCauley’s bakery also skip story time at Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore, because of the rules: children can be kicked out for standing, talking or sipping drinks. When a retail clerk at the bookstore asked a woman to stop breast-feeding last spring, ‘the neighborhood set him straight real fast,’ said Mary Ann Smith, the area’s alderwoman.”

The bookstore’s anguished owners protested, calling the article’s errors “egregious” and “extremely damaging” in an e-mail to the Times. For one thing, “Children are never ‘kicked out’ of our Storytime.” It is simply “suggested” that parents or nannies of fussy children “take them away from the Storytime area until the child has calmed down.” For another thing, “We are as pro-breast-feeding as a business can get.” Moreover, there was no man on staff at the time.

Alderman Smith also wrote the paper. “I specifically declined to provide identification of a certain business,” she said. “Your reporter guessed but got it wrong in her story. Furthermore, she attributes her erroneous guess to me! Her attribution is wrong. I demand a correction. Her basic story about the neighborhood is wrong. I demand a correction.” Then Smith twisted the dagger: “This seemingly small controversy is a likely illustration of the bigger problems at the New York Times.”

Actually, says Wilgoren, it illustrates a problem that happens at every newspaper—a communications breakdown. Wilgoren never wrote that the “retail clerk” worked at Women & Children First. She says that an uncertain copy editor in New York inserted “at the bookstore?” as a question to be answered, and another editor assumed the answer was yes and changed the copy without checking with Wilgoren. “That conversation didn’t happen, and it should have,” she says. The article had been edited under deadline pressure on an election night.

That wasn’t the only change. The published article has a subtext that’s hard to miss, especially if you know the neighborhood. For instance, one mother is quoted as telling Wilgoren, “I love people who don’t have children who tell you how to parent.” The copy Wilgoren sent to New York had a line in it that cut to the chase: it said McCauley was childless and had a boyfriend. “That whole thing was taken out,” she says, “and nobody asked me about it. Which I’m pissed off about. It’s certainly a reasonable subject for debate as to whether somebody’s sexuality belongs in the story. I’d have argued it does, because it’s the subject of the story. I talked to him about it, and he was fine about it. It would have been OK to have the editor ask me, but not to take it out without asking me.”

I called McCauley, who told me he might have said he was OK with it, but he didn’t really see what it had to do with the issue. “If you try to appeal to a strictly gay audience you will not succeed in business,” he said. “My clientele is probably 90 percent straight and 10 percent gay. We still have quite a few children who come in here.” He excused himself to answer another call. When he came back he announced, “This woman on the phone now said she’d love to come with her children to the bakery. She said, ‘I don’t care for those parents who don’t seem to want to parent their children.'”

Wilgoren had turned McCauley into a global man of the hour. “There were calls from British Columbia and New Zealand and Australia—many, many from Toronto and Montreal,” he told me. “I’ve gotten over 2,500 phone calls, and I’ll tell you, I don’t know 2,500 people. I think a lot of people are—I don’t want to say fed up, but something has to be done.”

The cheery-looking sign McCauley posted on his front door months ago is still there. It says, “Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when they come to A Taste of Heaven.” The language is a little blunter than it needs to be, and the placement’s so low on the door it’s at the eye level of kids too young to read it. He’s unsparing in his analysis of the problem: “It’s these younger, wealthy moms who don’t think they should be held accountable, especially by someone they consider the help,” he told me. He described them to Wilgoren as “former cheerleaders and beauty queens.” It’s language that doesn’t advance the peace process, which Zorn observed in a second column reappraising the conflict. “The real issue,” he wrote November 15, “seems to be one more of style than substance.”

Kim Cavitt appeared in Wilgoren’s story as a neighborhood mother who “recalled having coffee and a cookie one afternoon with her boisterous 2-year-old when ‘someone came over and said you just need to keep her quiet or you need to leave.'” McCauley read that as Cavitt claiming she’d been kicked out—which he was sure hadn’t happened, his sign being no more than a “very gentle reminder” that no one who worked for him would ever enforce so brutally. Cavitt and McCauley wound up on Fox News together. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t think that happened,'” McCauley told me. “And she was very dogmatic and she said, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ on national TV.” Later that day Cavitt showed up at A Taste of Heaven, which she was otherwise boycotting, to pursue the discussion. “That was very awkward,” said McCauley.

I reached Cavitt at home. It was hard to hear her over the two-year-old screaming in the background, but she set the record straight. “Nobody kicked me out—I just left,” she said. “Why would I lie about something like that? I’ve tried really hard not to say anything personal about him, but I don’t appreciate it when I’m called a beauty queen with a sense of entitlement. That’s so far from me. . . . My child wasn’t running. She wasn’t screaming. She wasn’t doing anything. My child also does not know a stranger. She was talking to the other patrons showing them her cookie.”

The New York Times promptly corrected Wilgoren’s story online and on November 11 published a page-two correction saying the retail clerk didn’t work at the bookstore. For good measure, it also said the story had misstated the Women & Children First policy governing story time. This was OK with Wilgoren, though she didn’t think it was necessary. She told me, “I’m not sure what the exact difference is between asking people to leave and kicking them out.”

Story time is Wednesday at 10 AM, before the doors open to adult customers. “We’re a children’s bookstore,” says co-owner Ann Christophersen. “We want children here.” She and the other owner, Linda Bubon, sent the Times a letter complaining that Wilgoren’s story “trivialized an important issue” and put their store on the wrong side of it. “Mothers of young children don’t need to be told by the media how hostile most of the world is to the work they do. They feel it every day, in the stores and restaurants where they’re not welcomed, in workplaces that penalize them for maternity leaves or wanting to work part-time.”

Bubon told me A Taste of Heaven and her bookstore are worlds apart. “If,” she said, “I was a restaurateur trying to balance the needs of customers who want a quiet, peaceful atmosphere with the needs of customers who want to get out of the house with their children—” She hesitated. “I don’t know how I’d strike that balance.”

McCauley had told me about a phone call from a woman in Alabama. “She said, ‘May I send you a letter? I’ll need your address.’ And she said, ‘Will you put it up in your bakery? I want you to put it in a pretty frame.’ She said, ‘I’m a single mom, and I have four children, and we’re victims of Katrina. And I want you to know that even in this shelter I expect them to behave. Even in this shelter I expect them to use their indoor voices. Even in this shelter I expect more from my children than they expect from theirs.”

Time Out Chicago and the Tribune did a story on a neighborhood squabble. Despite its bungling, the Times uncovered a fault line in American society.

News Bites

• Two and a half years ago Robert Ariail, editorial cartoonist of the State in Columbia, South Carolina, thought he was about to be hired by the Tribune to fill a position vacant since Jeff MacNelly died in 2000. I checked in with Ariail the other day, and as far as he knows he’s still in line for the job. But the line’s not moving, and he’s not holding his breath. “Your guess is as good as mine,” said Ariail, who hasn’t heard from editorial page editor Bruce Dold in a year or so and doesn’t know why.

The unfilled position is a stick in the eye of Ariail’s profession, and last week the Tribune Company came at it with an even sharper stick. A new publisher sent from Chicago fired the Los Angeles Times‘s conservative, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, Michael Ramirez. For balance and greater savings, he also fired a liberal columnist, Robert Scheer.

I first heard about this from my sister in Pasadena, who thought she got her money’s worth from both of them. She said the firings made her understand for the first time that her hometown paper had been bought. The Tribune Company took over the Times in 2000. Surely the last thing its publisher wants is for his world-class paper in his world-class city to be perceived by the public as colonized. The Times can either report to Los Angeles or it can report to Rome.

• Former Tribune reporter and Jerry Springer producer Brenda You died last weekend, apparently by her own hand, in Los Angeles, where until last year she’d been the west-coast bureau chief for Star magazine. She was 38 and leaves a 12-year-old daughter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brice Powell.