By Michael Miner

When the people you’re writing about don’t understand what you’re saying, the fault isn’t theirs. Last week my subject was a long-lasting Sun-Times investigation that ended in frustration when the Tribune broke the story first. I said that suspicion at the Sun-Times fell on Mike Cordts, the editor who’d been overseeing its investigation until just before Christmas, when he resigned to join the Tribune. I did not mean to imply that this suspicion was justified. Having talked to Cordts and others, I believed that Cordts had acted correctly, keeping his silence and protecting his former paper’s secrets. Obviously this belief was not expressed emphatically enough. It didn’t register at all at the Tribune, where reporters read the column and were furious.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Ward

A discussion of someone’s conduct and principles is the worst possible occasion for ambiguity. I regret mine.

A veteran of Chicago’s political wars called to say he’d seen something a little different this year: campaign materials quoting newspaper writers singing the candidates’ praises.

Such as?

Well, he said, there was Judge Thomas Fitzgerald, whose literature boasted that the Tribune’s Bruce Dold had written: “If Supreme Court selections were based on talent and honor and legal skills, the stellar Fitzgerald would be a hands-down winner. He is a great judge, and the people who work for him consider it to be an honor. He would be a great Supreme Court Justice.”

And in the 47th Ward–where my caller and I both live–75-year-old committeeman Ed Kelly was seeing to it that voters knew the Tribune’s John Kass and the Sun-Times’s Steve Neal had pictured him as a political giant. A Kelly mailing a few days before last week’s primary reprinted the headline from a Neal column: “Father figure to a generation / Former Park District Supt. Ed Kelly has been coaching–and giving lessons in life–for almost 50 years.”

And a four-page pseudonewspaper–the Fighting 47th Ward–which was stuffed in mailboxes the weekend before the vote, carried Kass’s entire March 15 column. Here’s a slice of that:

“What’s happening to Ed Kelly is a political knifing. The blade is in the back where he can’t reach it, placed there by a formerly loyal protege who decided it was time to kneel to a new master….Kelly’s once-loyal protege, Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th), has decided to kiss Mayor Richard Daley’s hand and betray Kelly, who made Schulter almost 30 years ago….Daley wants to finish Kelly, and he knows Schulter is weak enough to be easily controlled. This way, Daley can quietly overwhelm the politics of the 47th Ward.”

Kass went on to say that he had one question for Schulter, and since the alderman had ducked him in City Hall and now his office was demanding questions in writing, he’d submit the question here and now. “Ald. Schulter,” he wrote, “when you licked Daley’s hand like a faithful puppy, did you get your ears scratched?”

Pause for a moment to savor Kass’s derision. Now consider the troubling theory of German physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg. You might be familiar with his famous uncertainty principle, which warns against putting too much trust in observation, since anything that’s observed is inevitably altered in the process. Heisenberg’s focus was on subatomic physics but journalists should also heed his message, for they believe themselves devoted to the ideal of neutral witness.

Fortunately, the news game has located a loophole in Heisenberg’s principle–an exception I’ll dub the pundit paradox. The math that explains this is way over my head, but to oversimplify, it works like this: A reporter who alters reality by observing it cannot simultaneously observe himself observing the reality being altered. Therefore he has no evidence of his presence at the scene of his meddling and automatically denies it.

There’s no better example of the pundit paradox in action than the 47th Ward committeeman’s race. It was a battle royal that went down to the wire. There were 9,547 votes cast, and Kelly wound up with 135 more of them than Schulter did. The columnists stepped forward to explain Kelly’s narrow victory. Steve Neal spotlighted Kelly loyalists old and new who came through for him. Retired prizefighter Johnny Lira, gay and lesbian activists Rick Garcia and Ellen Meyer, former National Organization for Women leader Lorna Brett–all were friends who rolled up their sleeves. Even Muhammad Ali volunteered to help out.

John Kass wrote about Lira showing up at a precinct on election day where the other side was using some muscle, and making the trouble disappear. “I’m out here for Mr. Kelly, like a lot of the guys,” said Lira. “We played sports under him. We owe him.”

Kass’s column continued: “And so an army developed, of ex-cops and firefighters and tough guys and non-tough guys who had been taught to play ball or hit a heavy bag by Kelly years ago in Wells [sic] Park. The neighborhood realized that Schulter was disloyal. Stabbing your boss in the back might be acceptable in corporate life, but in Chicago’s neighborhoods, loyalty is still important.”

I called Ed Kelly and asked him what I thought was a really tough question: Who did more to get you reelected, Johnny Lira or John Kass?

“I think John Kass did, of course.” He laughed. “I didn’t have the money or manpower [Schulter] had. They were 12 deep in the precincts. I think the press did help me tremendously.”

Yet none of the veteran political observers plumbing the depths of the thrilling Kelly victory picked up any hint that the big reason he won was themselves. The pundit paradox is that powerful!

News Bites

A friend who’s lived in the 47th Ward for years and is a serious mover and shaker read John Kass’s column and changed his vote from Schulter to Kelly. He wasn’t the only one. When the race turned into a squeaker Tuesday night and it looked like Kelly might win on the strength of my friend’s change of heart, he got pretty excited. The next day he hopped out of bed and headed for the Tribune’s vaunted Election 2000 Web site to see how the race had come out. He wasn’t alone. I got to work that morning and immediately did the same thing. Likewise a Reader colleague who lives in the ward. We were dying to know who’d pulled out the victory.

What we all found out from Election 2000 was absolutely nothing. Enter a candidate’s name on our “virtual ballot,” the Tribune promised, and we’ll tell you how he did. I typed “Schulter” and then “Kelly.” But the Schulter-Kelly donnybrook wasn’t on the radar. “Sorry,” replied the Tribune each time, “no candidate with this name was found. Please check for spelling errors and make sure that this politician is running for office in Illinois in 2000.”

It was a race voters woke up still wondering about, and the Tribune didn’t even put it on-line. Good thing the Sun-Times did.

Consider the gulf between the artist and the journeyman. Last Tuesday Sneed and Inc. each reported on the same sticky situation–well, I think they did. Inc. simply troweled on details, while Sneed invited us to read with mounting astonishment.

“We hear quite an interesting disturbance broke out at a Skokie eatery over the weekend,” the prosaic Inc. account began. Lots of dreary specifics followed.

“Agent Steve Zucker and his wife happened upon Ch. 2’s Tim Weigel, once a Zucker client, his wife and their friends. Weigel and Zucker exchanged harsh words. Weigel’s pal, Vienna Sausage’s Jim Bodman, intervened and shoving ensued.” Etc, etc, for two more tedious paragraphs.

In art less is more, ergo nothing must be everything. In that sense, Sneed was sublime. “Sneed hears rumbles a well-known Chicago sports agent, who recently had heart bypass surgery, was the recipient of a barrage of insults by a top Chicago sportscaster, who is a former client, and his wife at E.J.’s restaurant in Skokie Friday…and was then reportedly pushed by a corporate honcho–who accompanied the sportscaster to the eatery.”

By eliminating every name we would promptly forget, Sneed cut straight to her drama’s essence. Now she’s only one short step from perfection. Next time she can eliminate the entire item.

Oscar night’s many hallowed rituals include TV critics’ morning-after lambasting of the telecast for being way too long and bloated. As the New York Times’s Caryn James put it this year, “So why did the four-hour show turn into a zombie, as if some pod creature had sucked the life out of it?” Billy Crystal started doing jokes about the length of the show almost as soon as it began.

Aside from the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards telecast is the most watched regularly scheduled program of the year. This year some 79 million Americans tuned in for it, according to Nielsen Media Research; the average audience at any time was 46.3 million people, and more than 39 million people were still watching when it was past midnight on the east coast.

In whose best interests would it be to send those multitudes to bed early? The academy’s? The network’s? The advertisers’? Even the critics would suffer from having to find something else to complain about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brian Jackson–Chicago Sun-Times/courtesy of the Chicago Tribune/copyright the Chicago Sun-Times.