Knocks on Wood

There’s the right bad news and the wrong bad news, and Yvonne Delk has a firm opinion about which is which. Pick up “20 Years Later . . . A CITY STILL DIVIDED,” the 20th-anniversary issue of the Chicago Reporter, published by the Community Renewal Society, whose executive director is Delk. The right bad news, laid out in the article “Troubled Agency Faces Long, Hot Summer,” is that the budget of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations was cut this year by 22 percent, the chairman works part-time, and the commission is dispirited and ineffective. The wrong bad news–the news that was splashed all over television a couple of weekends ago–is that Chairman Clarence Wood has been accused of sexual harassment.

The right bad news calls into question the CHR’s ability to deal with racial and ethnic tensions. It’s news supported by loads of facts, figures, and on-the-record interviews.

The wrong bad news isn’t supported by enough proof to hang a picture. You can find the wrong bad news in the section of the “Troubled Agency” article subtitled “Sexual Harassment.”

“Wood allegedly hugged and embraced female employees in a way that seemed to make them uncomfortable, according to seven current and former staff members who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.” The Reporter goes on to say that Judith Kohler, who at the time was director of the commission’s women’s council, spotted Wood as he “strutted” around the office in 1991 with his arm around a secretary. “She looked uncomfortable and he looked arrogant,” said Kohler.

That’s what the visible evidence comes down to: certain parties, all but one unnamed, none themselves apparently harassed, saying that Wood “seemed” or “looked” to be harassing others. But that’s for the others to decide, isn’t it? Wood’s defenders say he’s an outgoing, touchy-feely kind of guy who’s being vilified by opponents in a turf battle inside the CHR.

The Reporter talked to the secretary Kohler said Wood had been strutting with, and she claimed not to remember the incident. But then, surely she wants to keep her job. Sexual harassment is hard to prove, hard to disprove, and not even easy to define. It’s also no longer easy to ignore.

“We don’t have anything solid on proving sexual harassment,” editor Laura Washington told us. “If staffers report incidents to us that seem to be highly unusual and they say they feel uncomfortable because of these activities, we feel that’s an important story. He has to be a model.”

The Reporter sent out the usual advance copies of the CHR study. TV ignored everything but the harassment angle and played that to the hilt. The dailies responded much more cautiously. This rumor’s been around for months, wrote the Sun-Times’s Carole Ashkinaze. The trouble is, “There’s no Anita Hill.”

No, but the Reporter came up with the next best thing–Ashkinaze called it a “bombshell.” The Reporter revealed that Chicago’s inspector general, Alexander Vroustouris, has been investigating “alleged improprieties” at the CHR. Vroustouris was tight-lipped, but he told the Reporter: “My office does not cavalierly invest time and money in an investigation.”

An official investigation doesn’t make a rumor true. Vroustouris may not know any more than the Reporter knows, or more than other reporters found out who’d tracked the rumor earlier and not done stories. But his probe transformed the landscape. We asked publisher Roy Larson how the Reporter would have played the sexual-harassment allegations if Vroustouris hadn’t come along to dignify them. “We would have touched on them,” he said.

Larson told us, “We did not set out to do a story on sexual harassment, but as soon as you begin looking into the work of the commission you discover that it’s one of the factors immobilizing the commission. I do regret the rest of the article has not been paid attention to. I think it should be seen as a whole.”

Yvonne Delk is even sorrier. “My heart . . . my passion,” says Delk, who’s known Wood seven years, “is not at the level of sexual-harassment charges. It is at the level of what we are doing about the racism and hate crimes that eat away at us like a plague.”

Once the story was public she prepared a statement. In it she regretted that the CHR’s documented shortcomings had been “overshadowed by the sensationalism of the sexual harassment charge.” She said that “In light of the serious rise in hate crimes, the failure of the public education system, the lack of employment opportunities and the economic deprivation of many Chicago neighborhoods, an accusation against the Human Relations commissioner has small significance.”

In conclusion Delk pointed out that “the viewpoints expressed in the Reporter do not necessarily represent the policy positions of the CRS board of directors or the opinions of the CRS staff.” Larson, Washington, and Delk herself construe this disavowal as affirmation of the Reporter’s editorial independence. So it is. It’s also an expression of distress.

Conscientious Rejector

A very odd political protest is being made by a tiny publisher in North Carolina. March Street Press of Greensboro prints poetry and fiction chapbooks and the semiannual magazine Parting Gifts. But out of anger and shame, March Street Press has decided to shun its own state.

A writer named Philip Orr of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote March Street about submitting a manuscript. The response dumbfounded him. The letter from Robert Bixby, who runs March Street, began:

“Dear Mr. Orr, I can’t consider your chapbook. As a protest against the re-election of Jesse Helms, I am not accepting manuscripts or distributing books or magazines within N.C.”

“Needless to say, I am furious,” declared Orr in a letter to Poets & Writers Magazine laying out the situation. “Writers and artists need no help from their own community in being censored, and it is clearly absurd to think that those who criticize the liberal biases of the National Endowment for the Arts are going to be distraught by further censorship of writers and poets.”

Orr described the literary community of Charlotte as “small and largely provincial. . . . Poetry books are hardly to be found. . . . While I am forced to live here, I would certainly hope that, meager opportunities aside, I should not be punished by the very community that is supposed to support me.”

Poets & Writers gave Bixby space to explain. He said that by reelecting Helms in 1990, “North Carolina sent a message to the world that freedom of artistic expression, racial equality, and tolerance for alternative lifestyles were not values to be upheld. March Street Press pondered the situation, seeking a way to express our dissent. . . . Some might argue that the [new] policy is wrong-headed, ineffective, or even insignificant, but it was a way to give our beliefs a voice.”

He went on, “Our policy is not intended to silence or censor authors. There are plenty of venues for a writer other than our press, even within the North Carolina community.”

Bixby conceded to us that his policy will have little effect on what he publishes because “almost all of my interaction with artists is across state lines.”

He’d said his policy could be called “ineffective.” It is. But put yourself in his shoes. Here he is trying to do literature in a state that humiliates him by returning to office the nemesis of the fine arts. “It’s very difficult for an individual or a small group of people to make an expression of displeasure or dismay,” he explained when we called him. “We’re prevented from doing any of the things that might be done, because they might be illegal or threatening to others. They might go against a moral code. So we have to be kind of creative in finding ways to express–I don’t want to use the word ‘anger’ exactly, but dissent.”

Besides, his state’s writers must shoulder some of the blame for Jesse Helms. “I think the vast majority of poets are into their own heads, as we said in the 60s, in a Zen state disconnected from the larger world of politics around them.”

A lot of people we know with their heads in that larger world were happy to vote against Alan Dixon last March for slights real and imagined. Imagine if Jesse Helms represented Illinois, and every six years the state sent him triumphantly back to Washington! Empty gestures have their place. The perversity of Bixby’s at least expresses how he feels.

Moving On

Not much happened during Mary Dedinsky’s first ten years at the Sun-Times. The last nine saw three ownerships, four publishers, and seven editors. It was an era of feuds, coups, wholesale resignations, overnight transformations of typography and editorial philosophy, and a constant low-level anxiety that anything could happen tomorrow, including the end of the paper.

The through line in this time of turmoil was provided by a cluster of old staffers who soldiered on. Dedinsky was drawn to the top by vacuums above her but also by the paper’s acute need for what she offered: unruffled management, decency, and a sense of the institution. From 1988 until last December she was the paper’s managing editor, for several weeks its acting editor. Last week she left reluctantly to teach at the Medill School of Journalism. Her achievement is easier to understand than point to. It’s a Sun-Times that never lost touch with what it was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.