Jay Marriotti’s Bonehead Call

The Sun-Times is rolling full steam ahead with its new concept in crusading journalism. In the old days, newspapers merely railed against injustice. But people are bored with injustice. The Sun-Times has become a lot more exciting by railing against itself.

Three weeks ago we spotted M.W. Newman wondering in print if the new Harold Washington Library Center should ever have been built–even though a Sun-Times crusade is what built it. Two weeks ago the Sun-Times carried a sprightly page-one feature headlined “Chicago World Class?” and the editorial page snarled in reaction: “Do we, should we, really care?”

And last week the paper went to war against sports columnist Jay Mariotti.

The Kid from ‘Tude Town hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate that Chicago has an attitude of its own, and deference to authority isn’t central to it. So Mariotti wrote a column ripping Michael Jordan for not going to Washington. “This is about the most disturbing, irresponsible and irrational thing Jordan has ever done in public life,” fumed Mariotti about Jordan’s decision to play golf in North Carolina while the other Bulls schmoozed with the president.

“Sure, he has a busy life,” wrote Mariotti. “But too busy for an hour with the president of the United States? Is such an event now boring and out of vogue for him? . . . If his reason is anything short of a family emergency [which, of course, it wasn’t, as Mariotti was sure it wouldn’t be] . . . Michael Jordan will have hurt himself, his team, his precious corporate image, the NBA and the city of Chicago.”

This sweeping judgment was ridiculous. As Mike Royko pointed out the next day, the sojourns of championship teams to the rose garden are “strictly political hokum arranged by the president’s political propagandists.” The jocks do the president a favor–but apparently Mariotti thinks that’s as it should be. He wrote, “The only other member not to appear was John Paxon, who had a good excuse–he was effectively working for Bush, speaking to kids in a federally sponsored drug program.”

Mariotti caught it from Royko, but Royko’s the competition. More remarkable by far was the message to Mariotti from the Sun-Times.

Jack Higgins drew a four-panel cartoon captioned “Run,” “Jump,” “Slam,” “Kneel?” On the same page, an editorial asserted:

“Until the day comes that the White House is declared a palace and its royal occupants are granted the power to summon their subjects, there is no reason that Michael Jordan or any other free citizen of this free country ought to be chastised for not showing up to be George Bush’s, or anyone else’s, political prop. That issue, we thought, had been pretty clearly settled when the founding fathers gave another George–George III–the gate.”

And if one civics lesson from his new paper was not enough for Mariotti, he could have turned the page and found Vernon Jarrett offering another.

Jarrett wrote an “open letter” to the Bulls:

“I . . . feel obligated to state without reservation that there are people at the Chicago Sun-Times who are revolted by the attack Wednesday on you, Michael Jordan, in this newspaper.

“This is still America. . . . To defame and recommend punishment for an exemplary young man, such as a Michael Jordan, simply because of his personal priorities, represents the most distorted of misshapen logic.”

We called Jarrett. “I got more calls on this–a sporting event!–than I’ve gotten on any other column,” he said with some rue. “All of them positive, thanking me for answering him.” Any from whites? we asked, and Jarrett said the calls ran about half and half. “One person called saying he’d had a lot of disagreements with me on many subjects, but I was dead on target on this.

“Michael Jordan means too much to my people–I mean black young people,” Jarrett explained. “This thing here [by Mariotti] was even going to blame him if the Bulls didn’t win–because he had stirred up dissension!”

Trouble is, Jordan did stir up dissension. Fellow Bull Horace Grant went to the White House and later made it clear how unhappy he was that Jordan hadn’t. “If one guy wants to isolate himself like that, we’re not going to win another championship,” Grant told reporters. “There are other guys who feel the same way, but I’m the only one with the courage to come forward. . . . I’m not going to sit here and let him destroy the team like that.”

“The fact Grant would fall right into line is awful,” Jarrett told us, and wondered rhetorically, “Why are you out there fraternizing with the president who gave you Willie Horton, who vetoed one civil rights bill and is threatening to veto another? If Jordan had the capacity to say no–we need more people who can say no!”

Then we called Mariotti and asked him how he was holding up. “The highlight of my career,” he told us. His own reaction to what Horace Grant had to say was a flush of vindication. “Horace has turned this into an explosive team issue that will follow the Bulls for some time,” he predicted.

He went on, “I guess what bothers me is I wrote my column as a sports issue, a Bulls issue. And now there are various factions–I’m not really talking about Sun-Times people–trying to turn it into a political issue, a race issue. If Royko and Jarrett and so on want to write what they want about this issue, so be it. I’m not uncomfortable at all about people writing anything about me.”

Mariotti said two aspects of the matter should be distinguished. One is Michael Jordan blowing off the president. The other is Jordan blowing off his teammates. “I sort of had fun with the White House, but I was very serious about what this could do to the Bulls.”

Maybe Mariotti’s problem is that no one down in the bushes ever took him aside and showed him how to josh. Here is his idea of “having fun with the White House”: “That Jordan would be the one to disrupt an American tradition boggles the mind. As Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said, ‘It shows disrespect to the president.'”

Later came this deft whimsy: “Bulls management should have forced Michael to show up. Because he didn’t, they should fine him, as should the NBA.”

The nice thing is that Mariotti and Jarrett came to a sort of meeting of the minds in last Sunday’s paper. Both of them dumped on Grant. Jarrett called him a whiner “whose excessive and presumptive criticism of Jordan played right into the hands of those who care less about the personal well being of either Jordan or Grant.” Showing Grant no gratitude for favoring the media with candor, Mariotti noted that Phil Jackson had fined him for his public comments and called the action “a fair punishment.”

At least Mariotti has clarified that attitude of his. Michael Jordan should have been fined for not calling on the president. Horace Grant was properly fined for speaking his mind. If Mariotti doesn’t succeed in Chicago he might look for work on the Rehnquist Supreme Court.

But why are we hectoring Mariotti like this? Evans & Novak write for the Sun-Times. Let them do it.

The Right Stuff

Once a year, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher brings out a “directory of syndicated services,” which is full of glossy ads in which the newspaper syndicates tout their talent.

The ’91 issue appeared awhile back, and we’ve gone through the ads to see what talent’s being offered. It’s how we take the political pulse of an industry that we’re not sure is the last bastion of radicalism that popular wisdom makes it out to be.

We counted 16 syndicated columnists and cartoonists touted as conservative. In most cases, the claim was made explicitly, although with Thomas Sowell (“today’s greatest debunker of left-wing intellectual charlatans”) and cartoonist Jerry Barnett (“parodies liberal positions”) and William Buckley (author of “On the Right”) we had to guess.

Seven columnists and cartoonists were presented as liberals, in the case of Richard Cohen (“unabashed left-of-center commentary”) the point being made that he was not ashamed to be one.

Another columnist, Mona Charen, was advertised as conservative in 1990 and undoubtedly will be in ’92. But this year we read that she “ignites controversy among both conservatives and liberals”–because one day she lit into Patrick Buchanan. “She’s definitely conservative,” says Rick Newcombe, who heads Creators Syndicate, which represents her.

“There’s no question conservatism does sell better than liberalism in middle America,” Newcombe tells us. “I remember the time Bill Buckley was the only conservative columnist.” (That is, he thinks he remembers that time. It’s apocryphal.)

“There are different theories for it,” he continues. “Mona Charen has a theory that in academia so much of the establishment is liberal, if you’re going to be a conservative at the university level you really have to hone your argument.”

If conservatives wish to think it’s their scintillating swordsmanship that puts them out front, that’s their privilege. Our impression is that a lot of editors and publishers aren’t looking for trouble.

Spelling Test

Life as a professional newspaper reader hasn’t made us wealthy or wise, but we’re now sure of one thing: the most commonly misspelled three-letter word in the English language.

Here’s what finally lead us to speak up. We just spotted the word spelled wrong twice in one day. On the wall of our daughters’ school, in a statement posted by a candidate for the local school council. And in a display in the large mammal house of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

So now you’ve all seen it spelled wrong. Next time let’s get it right.