By Michael Miner

Kickball, Anyone?

The feuding between the Sun-Times and Tribune is over. After a nasty stretch where neither would print the other’s name, they’re friendlier than ever.

Let me give you an idea. About a month ago the Sun-Times developed a juicy story about a piece of vacant city-owned land along the Chicago River in Bridgeport that had been sold for a song to a politically connected developer, who intends to build a subdivision of single-family homes. Thomas Snitzer picked up the 6.6-acre parcel for a trifling $87,000 an acre. Alongside this parcel is a comparable piece of land that Snitzer bought from a railroad last October for $420,000 an acre.

The Sun-Times was ready to report that Snitzer was represented by John George, a former law partner of Mayor Daley and present partner of the mayor’s brother Michael, and by Dennis Aukstik, who’s related by marriage to the Daley family; and that the city’s side of the table was headed by asset-management boss Cosmo Briatta, who’s related by marriage to John Daley, who’s a brother of the mayor, a Cook County commissioner, and the Democratic committeeman of the 11th Ward, where the property’s located. The Sun-Times calculated that Snitzer’s good deal cost the city treasury–aka the taxpayers–about $2 million.

But with this fine tale of clout and favoritism in hand, the Sun-Times decided to do the Tribune an extraordinary favor. It sat on the story for two weeks, giving the Tribune plenty of time to break it first.

Sure enough, on September 26 the Tribune ran a story in its business section announcing Snitzer’s $30 million Bridgeport Village. The paper called it “one of the largest single-family projects to be announced since Chicago’s housing market began surging seven years ago.”

But now the Tribune did the Sun-Times an equally extraordinary favor. It buried–four paragaphs from the end of an article that was hard to find in the first place–the fact that Snitzer had paid far less for the city’s land than he had for the land next door. The Tribune even made the city’s price seem reasonable by noting that the parcel lacked street access and required “extensive site preparation.” And there was no mention of a Daley connection, which meant that the Sun-Times still had its expose.

But then the Sun-Times did the Tribune yet another astonishing favor. The expose the Sun-Times was sitting on, by investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus, was ordered rewritten. And the revised article, which ran on October 10, buried the Daley connection. The Sun-Times now considered it more important to note that neither soil contamination nor lack of street access had ever been an issue than to report that the deal had been brokered on both sides by Daley cronies and in-laws. The two-page-wide headline, “Controversy over Bridgeport land deal,” made no mention of the First Family, and the Daley name was kept out of the story until its 13th paragraph.

Thanks to that reticence, the Tribune was still in a position to claim the scandal for its own. All it had to do was publish the Sun-Times’s facts and put the good stuff in the lead. It was a temptation gallantly resisted. The Tribune settled for a modestly placed follow-up in which the mayor–who knew of course what the Sun-Times story was really about–asserted, “This is straight up and up. There is nothing wrong with it.” The Tribune even gave the Sun-Times credit by name for having broken the story Daley was reacting to.

Then John Kass compared the Snitzer deal to the kind of official corruption that in China gets people executed. He commended Nicodemus and the Sun-Times by name for their “public service,” and in a handful of angry paragraphs finally demonstrated what a good story the Sun-Times had had in the first place.

The rewrite of Nicodemus’s original story had been ordered by vice president of editorial John Cruickshank, whose reasons, as he explained them to me, seem both righteous and naive. “The rewriting wasn’t altogether successful,” he said, “but we made it clear what the issue was for the everyday citizen–which was that $2 million was missing….The principle was that we had to know whose hands actually touched this thing.”

Needless to say, the Daley hands left no fingerprints. And that must be why Cruickshank ordered a story that focused instead on the visible reasons for Snitzer’s good fortune, on the irregular appraisal and bidding process that made it possible for him to buy the land for a song. To Cruickshank, who’s new to town, what mattered was telling the public what they’d been snookered out of and the nuts and bolts of how they’d been snookered. You can defend this slant as putting the horse before the cart, but it’s not how journalism has ever been written in Chicago.

It All Adds Up

“Fuzzy math” actually means something specific. It’s a pejorative term applied a few years ago to a user-friendly method for teaching mathematics then becoming fashionable in some of the nation’s schools–a method denounced for offering children painless exposure to “mathematical concepts” rather than drumming sums and times tables into their heads. George W. Bush would know the term well. After his administration transferred authority over the public school curriculum from the Texas board of education to local school districts in 1995, there was a hue and cry as “fuzzy math” began entering some of the state’s classrooms.

“Fuzzy math,” said Bush repeatedly, as Al Gore hammered away at his tax-cut plan during their first debate. Bush was using jargon he’d heard before to defend himself against math he didn’t like.

Commenting on that debate, the Tribune editorial page took Gore to task for his hyperbolic tale of Kailey Ellis, the Florida girl who had to stand in science class for one day. Gore “has some explaining to do,” said the Tribune, which added that the “one deeply troubling element of this debate…was the sheer arrogance of Gore.” Apparently Gore’s math didn’t trouble the Tribune, nor did Bush’s use of “fuzzy math” to dismiss it.

But when the University of Chicago’s James Heckman won the Nobel Prize for economics last week, a Tribune editorial praising his intellectual rigor appeared under the headline “A Nobel antidote to fuzzy math.” The editorial itself repeated the phrase. It made no attempt to link Heckman’s work to the curriculum debate or to the economic policies of the presidential candidates. Nevertheless, it gratuitously ratified Bush’s language, and by implication, lined Heckman up with Bush against Gore.

Who will the Tribune endorse for president? Perhaps by weighing the carefully considered editorials it has already written, it will manage to make up its mind.

Bad for Good

Suppose a special interest offers a newspaper $100,000 to spread its message all over the state. The newspaper takes the money in exchange for a pullout section and a guarantee of saturation coverage, strokes the special interest by promising a column a week for a month advancing its message, and then throws in three double-truck (that’s two facing pages) feature stories–stories far longer than anything the newspaper normally runs.

Put that way, the deal sounds horrible. And some Sun-Times reporters are uneasy because they can cast the productive relationship between their newspaper and the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance in those terms. The IFSA paid the Sun-Times about 17 cents a copy to create the eight-page special section that ran inside the paper on Tuesday, October 10, and ship 150,000 extra copies of that paper to schools across Illinois, so that every fourth-grader in the state would have his or her own copy the next morning. The Sun-Times also agreed to ship its next three Monday newspapers, containing follow-up materials, to the same students. At 17 cents a paper, the alliance ran up a bill of about $100,000.

Money well spent, says Mike Figolah, president of the IFSA. He was delighted by the insert, which was created by Sandy Mather, the Sun-Times’s educational services manager. There were full-color pages Figolah didn’t expect and lots of bright, useful writing, and when late in the production process the IFSA saw the dummy and disapproved of a couple of Mather’s articles, it got to substitute its own. Figolah also admired the Sun-Times’s yeoman work in setting up a distribution system.

Billing itself as a “special fire prevention section of Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance,” the attractive pullout landed squarely in the booming gray area of daily journalism known as “advertorial.” This gray area is a sizable patch, and Mather’s used to working it. Her job is to promote the use of the Sun-Times as an educational aid, and to this end she writes a weekly Monday feature called “For the classroom.” It usually runs side by side with Jeff Zaslow’s column in the features section, and though her space is kept typographically distinct from Zaslow’s and the rest of the paper, readers can’t be expected to deduce from design cues what’s pure journalism and what isn’t.

Mather told the IFSA that during October–national fire-prevention month–she would dedicate “For the classroom” to that theme. “I absolutely did offer that as part of the deal,” she tells me. “Why would they need the [following Mondays’] papers unless there was something in them to continue the focus?” Since in the eyes of the Sun-Times Mather isn’t an editorial employee, she could make such an offer without breaching the wall between church and state.

During their discussions, the IFSA told Mather about a terrific feature-story possibility. The brothers Caper and Joel Brown of Galesburg, Illinois, were willing to be interviewed and photographed for a story about the lives they’d led since both were burned ten years ago in a junkyard fire, Caper so badly that his hands and feet had to be amputated. Mather passed along the story idea to the newsroom.

Circulation chief Mark Hornung adds, “We went to Michael and John [Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank, the paper’s two top editors] and said, ‘Here it is. Any help you can give us, we’d love. You make the call.'”

It was an easy call. “We said, ‘If we’re going to get into every school, we want to show off what editorial can do,'” says Cruickshank. Certainly the IFSA didn’t object. “They were very happy to let us go ahead and do it,” he continues. “And this was one of those cases where we do want to speak to schoolkids. We do have an editorial interest in fire safety. And we didn’t feel it was editorially contentious. There was no contact, so far as I know, between the sponsors and Brenda.”

The Sun-Times city desk assigned Brenda Warner Rotzoll to write not only the feature on the Brown brothers that ran in the issue with the pullout but equally long features for the subsequent Monday papers that would blanket the state. This week she again got to fill two full pages–of a newspaper with a small news hole–with stories on small children and fire.

Mike Figolah says he understood Rotzoll to be Mather’s “assistant.”

From the IFSA’s point of view, its collaboration with the Sun-Times has been a huge success. “We’ve had requests for this [the special section] from all over the country,” says Figolah. “We’re considering doing it again.”

The Sun-Times also has reason to be pleased. Hornung allows that it made only a small profit from the project, but its name traveled all over the state linked to an impeccable cause. What’s more, those 150,000 extra copies can be reported as paid circulation. The one stipulation is that the number of papers delivered to schools must be broken out of the raw totals and identified as such to advertisers.

The IFSA’s educational campaign is beyond criticism, and if you saw the pictures of Caper Brown you’re thinking, “God bless the Sun-Times for helping spread the word.” The right to do well by doing good is inalienable, and there’s nothing to say about the Sun-Times’s exercise of it other than that the paper possibly did the good it did well by in a not-so-good way. I won’t nag. But I wish I could report with conviction that the Sun-Times made an extraordinary exception to hard-and-fast rules it swears by, and only because its conscience demanded it.

News Bites

A few weeks ago Tom McNamee resigned as editor of Hollinger International’s North Shore magazine to return to the Sun-Times and become Sunday editor. His replacement has been chosen–the overqualified Jennifer Hunter, whose most recent billets in a long career were as western Canada bureau chief for Maclean’s magazine and as a professor of journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto. She applied for her new job because, as John Cruickshank’s wife, she’s now stuck in Chicago and needs something to do.

McNamee reported to Larry Green, who runs Hollinger’s Pioneer Press chain of community papers. Formally, Hunter will report to Green too, but it’s likely to be a different sort of relationship.

The front page of the Sun-Times has often looked pretty silly since Cooke and Cruickshank took over. But study the front page–make that the first 13 pages–of the October 13 issue, the day after the USS Cole was bombed. As a sustained exercise in organization and display, it was pretty dazzling. Cooke says design chief Jennifer George handled the layout.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.