Lost in the Chaos

As narrative, the Tribune’s account on Tuesday of early Monday’s E2 disaster had the Sun-Times’s beat. Whether its reporting was actually better had to await further developments and revelations.

“Security guards blocked the exit of a South Side nightclub early Monday in a failed attempt to control a crowd panicked by pepper spray, witnesses said, creating a crushing, smothering pile-up near the door that killed 21 people,” the Tribune’s main story began.

“The burning [pepper spray] mist prompted a stampede toward the club’s steep and narrow staircase, and witnesses said other security guards then blocked the door to the street.”

A survivor said, “They blocked the door for three or four minutes. We tried to turn around, but we couldn’t. We couldn’t move at all.” Another survivor, one of the first ones out, said when she got to the street she “turned around and saw a security guard block and apparently bolt the door.” This survivor claimed she heard “the victims pounding on the door to get out.” The Tribune’s diagrammed sequence of events, based on eyewitness accounts, said, “Trying to control the crowd, security guards bolt the door at the bottom of the staircase.”

But on Tuesday, fire commissioner James Joyce was denying that firemen found any locked door at all. And police spokesman Pat Camden told me that in the rush to escape down the narrow front stairway, people were “jammed in wall-to-wall on top of other people” before they even got to the front door (which opened out, as it should have).

So what happened? Did security guards at the door–in an incredible misjudgment–seal the exit in an attempt to halt the stampede, then realize their mistake and unlock the door?

By Tuesday evening the Tribune had a story posted on-line that was still sketchy but made a little more sense. Apparently there were two waves. The people who fled the pepper spray immediately got out, and when they tried to get back in to find friends, the security guards at the front door locked it to stop them. Then they told the second wave to turn around and go back upstairs–an impossible order to follow. With a clot of bodies building before their eyes in the stairwell, they eventually reopened the front door.

Tuesday’s Sun-Times narrative was a lot more uncertain and confusing–not often a virtue, but arguably one here. “The club was so jammed, you could forget about dancing,” it began. “Even holding a drink without getting jostled was a trick.” If you carefully read this story, sucked in by its you-were-there lead, chances are at the end your head was spinning from everything you still didn’t know about just how things went down–but you knew you didn’t know it.

Perhaps the papers would have been less dependent on the confusing testimony of hysterical survivors if their reporters had been quicker to get to the scene. But 2 AM on a holiday weekend is the worst possible time for a morning paper to cover a big story. The first Sun-Times staffer, a photographer, to show up at the South Michigan Avenue club got there around 5:45 AM. The Tribune did better. E. Jason Wambsgans, a photographer on a two-year contract, heard about the disaster on his police scanner and took off on his own; a reporter got there at 4:45. City News Service, now wholly owned by the Tribune, had a reporter working police headquarters overnight and responded promptly.

The Sun-Times slapped together an “extra”–an eight-page wrap–by 1 PM Monday, and had two of its columnists, Mark Brown and Mary Mitchell, weighing in on Tuesday. Brown’s was a strangely equivocal piece on Jesse Jackson’s behavior in the aftermath. “For all the times that Jackson has shown up for something where you might have believed he didn’t have a legitimate role,” Brown wrote, “this wasn’t one of them.” But Brown also noted that Jackson was a friend of one of the club’s owners and had apparently used his influence to help keep the place open.

Red Brigade

A flattened Kamel Red box arrived in the mail, along with a RedEye front page. “What do you suppose this is?” asked the reader who’d sent these things along. “A low-profile, high-street-cred cross-marketing campaign between Kamel Red (R.J. Reynolds) and RedEye (Tribune Co.)? What are the chances the two companies would purely by happenstance come up with identical logos and nearly identical names for products targeted at the same 18-34 crowd?”

The Tribune in bed with a tobacco company? Well, we’re all adults here. “Identical” is an overstatement, but the two logos are similar–bold white Rs in red boxes with an E under one leg of the R and a D under the other. Kamel Red is an upscale cigarette launched in 1913, shelved in 1936, and resurrected 60 years later because in modern times consumers will spend a lot of money to be able to feel they’re in on some joke.

A Canadian Web site, www.smoke-free.ca, comments: “In 1996 [the brand] resurfaced not in corner stores or smoke-shops, but in the urban-chic watering holes of sophisticated cities….Red Kamel’s advertisers chose images well-suited to their target market of young urban sophisticates. The Red Kamel theme is neither completely retro, nor completely futuristic, but in the no-man’s land of Generation X.”

The box says, “Back After 80 Years for No Good Reason Except They Taste Good.” Which, my anonymous reader observes, is the same kind of “smart-ass, self-referential” promo as RedEye’s “Compelling in an It-Burns-It-Burns-But-I-Can’t-Look-Away sort of way.”

The brand images of these two products are so similar they might be hard in love. Collusion? Both companies say no. R.J. Reynolds got there first with its big white R in a red box, and corporate spokesperson Ellen Matthews told me Reynolds’s trademark division was “very interested” in the RedEye trademark and intended to take it up with the Tribune Company. But a newspaper isn’t a competing cigarette, and she didn’t pretend Reynolds was in much of a funk. When I tried to find out later what the two companies said to each other, Matthews didn’t return my calls.

As for the Tribune, I wound up speaking with communications manager Patty Wetli. “Offhand,” she said, “I’d say there was no influence or relationship between the two” logos.

Would you look into it? I asked.

“I’d say that would be our comment,” she replied.

OK, then. And off the subject, is it just me or is Kangaroo Jack the kissing cousin of the late Joe Camel?

Tape Ducked

Last week’s Osama bin Laden tape surfaced at an awkward time for the Sun-Times. Three days before reporting it, the paper had declared in an editorial, “We believe the earthly remains of bin Laden are a heap of carbonized bone in a collapsed cave somewhere.”

Well, maybe not. The tape was something of a media litmus test. Bin Laden’s cheerleading for Iraq–which Colin Powell naturally emphasized on February 11 when he disclosed the tape to the Senate Budget Committee–was followed by bin Laden’s denunciation of what he called the “socialist” Iraqi government.

“It does not hurt that in the current circumstances, the interests of Muslims coincide with the interests of the socialists in the war against crusaders,” said bin Laden (the translation is from Reuters), “taking into account our belief and declaration of the apostasy of the socialists….The socialists and these rulers have lost their credibility of their rule a long time ago and the socialists are infidels wherever they are–whether in Baghdad or Aden.”

We can make of this what we will. Either Saddam and bin Laden are thick as thieves, or the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend has made them allies even though ideologically they’re poles apart, or any sort of partnership is a figment of George Bush’s imagination.

Covering Powell’s testimony on the front page of the February 12 Tribune, reporter Bob Kemper wrote in his third paragraph that “Bush administration officials quickly asserted that the tape supported a major argument in favor of a military strike” against Saddam. “But”–and this was Kemper’s very next paragraph–“the speaker on the tape roundly criticizes the secular, avowed socialist leaders of Iraq as ‘infidels.’ He mentions no relationship with Hussein’s regime, saying only that ‘it does not harm’ if Muslims and socialists join forces in this instance to fight ‘the crusaders.'”

Good for Kemper and the Tribune. In the days ahead, opponents of a war against Iraq would get more mileage out of bin Laden’s tape than the American government. Citing it in the Tribune on February 14, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer argued that the “fundamentalist and radical” bin Laden has “always hated” Saddam’s regime, though he’s now calling on al Qaeda and Iraqis to join forces against America. And she wondered, “Can one seriously doubt that this administration has served to bring the two together?”

One way of handling the insults bin Laden paid Saddam was to ignore them. That’s what the Sun-Times did. At the end of its original story on the tape, which came from Bloomberg News and the AP, there was this: “[The voice on the tape] said Muslims shouldn’t be troubled by the socialist origins of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party because they have a common enemy in the United States. Bin Laden has previously criticized Saddam, who runs a secular state.”

Whatever else there was to say about the ironies and ambiguities of that tape, in the days to come it wouldn’t be said in the Sun-Times.

Why We Fight

“We are a nation forged in the crucible of war,” said the president. “And the French aren’t. They want to sit out Iraq the same way they sat out Vietnam.”

“It seems like the Vietnam war was in the papers just about every day when we were young,” the vice president recalled. “That kind of experience is life changing.”

“It was really on television a lot,” the president remembered. “Too much, I thought. But then war is hell.”

“Vietnam really marked us as a people,” said the vice president.

“Boy, we lost our innocence big time,” said the president.

“Meanwhile, what were the French doing?” said the vice president.

“What were the French doing?” the president wondered.

“They were probably doing the cancan,” sneered the vice president.

“Doing the cancan!” the president sputtered. “While our generation was being forged in the crucible of war. You and I learned hard lessons back then that you’re not going to learn in a dance hall or pastry shop.”

“That if you don’t fight for what you believe in…”

“…someone else will,” said the president.

“Someone who might be evil,” said the vice president.

“An evildoer!” exclaimed the president, who’d thought for a second the vice president was going to say “poor.” “I don’t think those atheist pansies in the Old Europe believe in evil, if you’ll pardon my French.”

“Don’t know that I will,” said the vice president, chuckling.

The president liked the picture Rummy had drawn of a wussy, foppish Old Europe. It made him feel better about never being good at languages. Every time the TV showed another 100,000 Old Europeans gathered in the main plaza of some capital city chanting for peace, he reminded himself, “They don’t get baseball either.”

“There is one thing,” the vice president was saying.

“Which is?”

“Your economic program. Tax cuts and deficits as far as the eye can see. On top of an unbudgeted war that threatens to send the economy into total free fall.”

“That’s fuzzy math, Dick.”

“I know, Mr. President. But even some of our friends in Congress and the media are beginning to use words like ‘moronic.'”

“What are you saying I should do?” the president asked.

“As you lead the nation bravely into war, I think it would allay your skeptics if you demonstrate that you’ve thought more than five seconds about how you’re going to pay for it.”

“I don’t intend to,” said the president firmly. “God knows, our generation has suffered enough, Dick. Our children haven’t suffered at all. Their children don’t know what suffering is. The burden of war must be borne equably.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you be proud to be able to say, ‘I was too young to fight Hitler, but I bankrolled the boys who did’?”

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