Local Paper Does Good

Phil Kadner holds down what he calls “one of the greatest jobs in the world.” He writes a general newspaper column in Chicago. He writes it six days a week, which is unheard of in American journalism–doing so many for the simple reason that he wants to. His newspaper, the Southtown Economist, comes out only six days a week. So Kadner is always in the paper.

“They give me total freedom,” he says. This means he gets to root out scoops, wage one-man crusades, and make fun of people. He’s like Royko. The big difference is that Royko is a Chicago institution; while Kadner, who’s 36 and has been at the Economist about ten years . . . Well, you’ve never heard of him, have you?

We asked Kadner if he wishes he worked downtown. “Certainly in the past, the resources of those papers and the influence of those papers seemed really attractive,” he considered. “But I hear from time to time the trials and tribulations of the downtown reporters. And I look at what they’ve been doing and I look at what I’ve been doing . . .”

Actually, what they’ve been doing downtown is scrambling to compete better with aggressively managed local papers like the Southtown Economist. TV is the mass medium now, and balkanization has hit the newspaper industry. Just last week, the Tribune, which already was zoning its news, sports, and business sections for Du Page County (where it’s in hot competition for readers with Paddock Publications’ Herald), subdivided once again into Chicagoland North and South.

Some journalists are anguished to see a metropolitan paper breaking the area into parts. But the Tribune is responding to the advantages that localism gives a sharp reporter like Phil Kadner. “I like to think I give the people on the south and southwest sides a voice they don’t have downtown,” Kadner says. There is no way a downtown columnist, even Royko, could be that voice. Not when he’s paid to delight everyone from Joliet to Waukegan.

Kadner’s readership is massive enough. The Economist and its sister paper, the Daily Calumet, which also carries Kadner’s column, cover the bottom of Chicago and southern Cook County from Indiana to Will County. Daily combined circulation of the two papers–both owned now by Saint Louis’s Pulitzer chain–is 60,000 and growing rapidly.

Last month Daily Calumet reporter Lisa Newman broke the story of LeRoy Martin’s daughter’s traffic ticket. Two South Chicago Police District patrolmen who’d ticketed the police superintendent’s daughter for making an illegal U-turn were mysteriously shifted to other districts. The ticket was mysteriously dismissed. The Tribune and Sun-Times barely acknowledged the episode. Newman and Phil Kadner rode it for days. Kadner, having a wonderful time, wrote five columns in one week.

Last January, Kadner was dumbfounded when Michael Corbitt, the former police chief of south suburban Willow Springs, was sentenced to a trifling four years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy, racketeering, and extortion. Corbin could have been sent up for 60. But U.S. District, Judge Prentice Marshall explained that he’d been swayed by the many letters that had poured in from the police chief’s friends: “Not just ordinary folk, but elected public officials. Appointed public officials.”

The Economist blasted Marshall for leniency, and Kadner brooded. Who the hell were these public officials who went to bat for Corbitt, and how come “they felt compelled to defend a corrupt chief of police”?

But the letters, like the presentencing report filed by the U.S. probation office, were court secrets. The judge could see them, the prosecution could see them, and so could the defense. Not the public.

“I wrote a number of columns on it, trying to get the public officials who had written the letters to come forward,” Kadner says. With the exception of the Willow Springs village clerk, no one did. After all, Corbitt was headed for complete disgrace (he has since been charged with conspiracy to commit murder). It was time for his pals to lay low. A gauge of the public mood was the resolution immediately passed by the Willow Springs trustees denouncing the letters and disassociating the village from them.

So Kadner told publisher Mike Kelley that the Economist should go get the letters from Prentice Marshall. And the judge, despite the ripping the Economist had given him in print, was sympathetic. At his suggestion, the Economist’s attorney, Richard Orlikoff, began preparing a formal motion requesting them.

Orlikoff went to work researching the law. He discovered that the New York Times and Washington Post had both tried to get their hands on presentencing materials. They had both failed.

“I called a couple of college professors and they said no, you can’t do it. There’s no precedent,” Kadner says. “I was just amazed! I couldn’t believe this thing was part of a court hearing, an integral part, and the public was just cut out of it.”

The Economist decided to shoot the moon. The letters would make headlines, but Orlikoff asked for all of the presentencing documents: the probation office report, the probation officer’s recommendation, the government’s “victim impact statement,” and Corbitt’s own brief. “Pulitzer’s request”–Marshall would eventually write–“is both novel and complex, pitting the public’s right to know about the criminal justice system against the traditional confidentiality of presentence investigation materials.”

It became pretty clear that Marshall had in mind a landmark ruling coming down on the side of disclosure. The fuller the discussion the better; and the judge suggested to Orlikoff that the Economist round up allies. So Orlikoff approached attorneys for the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Paddock Publications: “The issue raised is an important one, obviously,” he wrote them, “and Pulitzer welcomes the participation of each of the publishers you represent.”

Only the Tribune even responded. They said no thanks.

So the Economist went it alone. Fortunately, its bid for the letters met little resistance. The U.S. attorney’s office didn’t object. The one lawyer who did claimed to represent the Willow Springs village clerk and various clients he could not name. This got him nowhere. Don’t be ridiculous, Orlikoff responded, this isn’t a class action suit.

The other presentencing documents are a different matter. The U.S. attorney’s office argued for confidentiality. But a precedent finally turned up that cut the Economist’s way: in California, a felon free on probation after pleading guilty to a firearms charge had then killed the prosecutor who’d nailed him for arson three decades earlier. Why was this guy loose? Both the prosecutor’s estate and a newspaper wanted to see the presentencing reports. An appellate court ruled that tradition be damned, the paper had a right to the information.

And so, on September 9, Judge Marshall gave the Economist a nearly total victory. He turned over 41 of the 42 letters that had persuaded him to give Michael Corbin a cushy sentence. (He held back, pending appeal, the one from the village clerk, who’d hired the lawyer.) Corbitt’s pals turned out to include the mayor, police chief, and village attorney of Willow Springs. The letters were plastered all over the Economist. Said Genevieve Ferrell, a village trustee, “The people have been exposed for what they are.”

And Marshall said the Economist could come into his chambers and take notes from the presentencing reports. A newspaper, he concluded, is entitled to such material unless a judge can be shown that it will be used for malicious ends. But here the U.S. attorney’s office disagreed, and it appealed–thus putting the reports back under seal. That was OK. The Economist’s desire for this material was always primarily a matter of principle, and Orlikoff expects to argue the principle all the way to the Supreme Court.

“The theoretical aspect of it was pretty bothersome to us,” Kadner says. “And again, that’s where I’m really happy for Pulitzer. They’ve made a decision to stick with it, even though it’s going to cost us a lot of money.”

“That’s an ordinary expenditure,” publisher Kelley told us. “Our view is that we will pursue this kind of thing. It was in our territory, and it was a story we had pursued closely.”

And that’s what one paper you probably don’t read has been up to lately.

Quayle Watching

“But darn it,” said the vice president “He is like Jack Kennedy.”

“Jack Kennedy was a war hero,” his wife reminded him. “He was also smart.”

“I don’t mean those ways,” the vice president said impatiently. “I mean in the way Ronald Reagon is like FDR. And to tell the truth, the way I’m sort of like Harry Truman.”

“You mean, in a vague TV sort of way?” said his wife.

“I mean that I’m sort of feisty when I get my dander up,” said the vice president. “And Dan Quayle is a young, nice-looking guy.”

“Close enough,” his wife acknowledged.

“What’s so great about us, though,” the vice president mused, “is we’re all regular guys. Ronnie and me and Dan. Actually,” he went on, “Dan’s a lot like Ronald Reagan. I sure hope voters catch on to that. It really tickles me how those reporter types keep asking how I could possibly have nominated a fellow who tells whoppers about his past and stayed home during a war and never gets his facts straight and generally doesn’t know beans about anything that’s going on. Now who am I to say that a fellow like that couldn’t make just a crackerjack president?”

“And he’s as big a toady as you are,” said his wife.

“If I didn’t think he could fill some pretty darn big shoes I never would have nominated him,” explained the vice president.

They watched the debate until it was over.

“Well, how do you think he came across?” the vice president asked his wife.

“A frightened twit,” she assessed.

“Golly, that’s interesting,” said the vice president. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see which way it cuts.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.