Mea Culpa

Last week’s Hot Type story “Maryville’s Mole?” discussed the Sun-Times’s ongoing critical coverage of Maryville Academy and its executive director, the Reverend John Smyth. In one section a leading Smyth critic, Ron Davidson of the University of Illinois at Chicago, described a telephone conversation he’d had in July with Sun-Times investigative reporter Tim Novak about a meeting Novak had just sat in on between a delegation from Maryville and the paper’s editorial board. This passage infuriated Novak, who says it misrepresented his conversation with Davidson and the tone of the meeting. And Novak finds it astonishing that, though I’d called him earlier, I didn’t give him a chance to respond to what Davidson told me. He’s right. It was an inexcusable lapse. For that reason the passage in question was stricken from the column as it appears online.

Outing the Fan

The code of ethics couldn’t be clearer. It begins, “First, do no harm.”

Sorry. My mistake. Different profession. Journalists deal in harm every day, knowing full well that if the truth were never harmful folks wouldn’t be so insistent about keeping a lid on it. When it comes to harm, the rule of thumb journalists operate by, near as I can make out, says, “When in doubt, roll the presses and let the chips fall where they may.”

Editor in chief Michael Cooke has said there were doubts inside the Sun-Times about publishing the name of Steven Bartman. But publish the Sun-Times did, putting the name (and a lot more) on its Web site the day after the game. A lot of people think the Sun-Times should have listened to its conscience. If harm comes to Bartman, his name could live forever not connected to a saloon keeper’s curse but as a symbol of the press’s willingness to screw the little guy.

The conduct of the Sun-Times set off a terrific debate. I tracked a representative thread on a listserv connecting journalism graduates of the University of Missouri, my alma mater. The wrangling began just minutes after the Sun-Times outed Bartman, another sign of the obsolescence of measured reflection. “The standard I like to use is whether or not there would be a strong likelihood of harm coming to someone if we publish his name,” wrote assistant journalism professor Vincent Filak of Ball State University. “Given what I know about Cubs fans…I’d say that there’s a pretty good likelihood of harm coming to this guy.”

Nate Carlisle, a 2001 grad now working for the Tribune of Columbia, Missouri, didn’t buy that. “I thought reporters’ job is to report relevant facts,” he responded. “Just what does the phrase ‘strong likelihood of harm’ mean? That there’s a 50-50 chance of harm? That it’s as good a bet as December snow in Minnesota? For that matter, what kind of harm should we be concerned about? Physical harm? I often have people say they don’t want to talk to me about a certain topic because the resulting attention could be emotionally harmful or could place their employment, business, institution or reputation under scrutiny. Are we supposed to withhold facts because of that? Where are we supposed to draw the line?”

But Rachel Otto, a 2003 graduate, recalled a communications law class where students “learned of the Columbia woman who was attacked one night, only to have her name (and address, I believe) printed in the Tribune the next day, allowing the attacker to find and kill her.” And Patrick Butler, a 1986 graduate in charge of programs at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., wrote that he’d just had a “great, passionate ethics discussion” with a group of Latin American journalists. “They ultimately came down about 3-1 against publishing the name (partly because they know what would happen to the guy if he was a soccer fan who somehow caused the home team to lose in their countries).” A Colombian journalist remembered Andres Escobar, whose blunder allowed the U.S. to upset the Colombian team 2-1 in the 1994 World Cup. When Escobar returned home to Medellin he was promptly gunned down in front of a discotheque.

On Thursday the Tribune–as if to justify its decision the day before to conceal Bartman’s identity–painted a grim picture of his predicament: “Thousands of fans chanted a profane insult….Angry fans pointed at him, shouted curses and hurled cups of beer and bags of peanuts….Many in the stands shouted they wanted Bartman dead, and one later shouted, ‘Lynch him.'”

Even so, Chicago’s no Medellin–hasn’t been since the 20s. The backdrop to Bartman’s sin was a legendary goat and a vast fan base raised on failure, not the casual viciousness of a city ruled by drug lords. Northbrook squad cars cruised past Bartman’s home for two days, but a police sergeant says the crowd that gathered there consisted almost entirely of media. What if Bartman, instead of being seen by millions reaching for a foul ball, had shown up on television as the single–as yet unidentified–witness to a spectacular gangland slaying that numbed the city? Would the Sun-Times have been so quick to identify him?

Doubtful. I think Sun-Times editors decided Bartman’s peril wasn’t quite real, that it was less a crisis than a diversion helping a stricken city pass the wretched hours between the last out of the sixth game and the first pitch of the seventh. The Sun-Times could have been wrong. Papers often are. But as Cooke told Editor & Publisher, “The decision was made and on we go.”

Besides, the cat was already out of the bag. The Wall Street Journal reported that “within minutes of the end of the game, fans had posted Mr. Bartman’s personal information on message boards linked to, the Web site of Major League Baseball.” Major League Baseball kept taking the information down, and fans kept putting it back up. Apparently Bartman was being ratted out by his friends.

I was startled to read John Kass’s account in the Friday Tribune of going over to Bartman in the stands and asking him a few questions before the security guards led him away. Kass described him as “more numb than terrified, though he had plenty to be terrified about.” The Tribune let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers. Properly instructed, Kass could have persuaded Bartman that his life was in danger, led him out of Wrigley Field to a waiting company car, and checked him into a hotel under a phony name. The next day the Tribune, rather than primly withholding Bartman’s name, could have offered an exclusive–the Steve Bartman story. WGN TV’s evening news could have broadcast an exclusive meeting of Bartman, Sam Sianis, Dusty Baker, and Moises Alou, all united in their feisty Cubdom and unanimously predicting victory. Bartman could have watched the seventh game from the Tribune Company box. When one company owns everything, wonderful things become possible.

Seth Mnookin, who covers the media for Newsweek online, filed an account of the Bartman saga (without naming him) that up to a point was wise and true. “It was the Cubs who ruined their season,” he argued. “It was the Cubs who choked in the clutch, the Cubs pitchers who kept tossing meatballs, the Cubs fielders who couldn’t execute on routine grounders, the Cubs batters who couldn’t hit their way back into the game.” So true. No one owes Bartman more than shortstop Alex Gonzalez. His muff of an easy inning-ending double-play grounder would live in infamy if infamy could contain more than one scapegoat at a time.

But Mnookin didn’t stop while he was ahead. “No matter,” he rambled on. “One lifelong Cub fan will be remembered for blowing the Cubs October dreams. There’s precedence. Think back to the 1986 World Series. Anyone will tell you that Bill Buckner let a routine grounder go through his legs, costing the Red Sox the game and the Series. But that’s not what happened. Buckner’s booted grounder tied the game. The Sox had a three games to two lead over the Mets going in to game six. The Sox eventually lost that game in extra innings, and went on to lose game seven.”

Mnookin concluded, “A journalist’s job is to educate and inform the public. Sometimes, however, there’s a compelling reason for leaving some information out.” (He then compared Bartman to the victim of a sex crime.) “The name of the Cubs fan shouldn’t have been printed in a mainstream newspaper. It puts him at risk.”

Like everyone else who tells the Bill Buckner story, Mnookin got it wrong. If Buckner’s booted grounder had tied the game–which is how Mnookin remembered it–then it follows that the Sox would have won the game and series if he hadn’t booted it. In fact, the Mets had tied the game in the tenth inning moments before Buckner muffed the ground ball. Buckner’s error let the winning run score. Having won the sixth game, the Mets went on to beat the Red Sox again in game seven.

To his credit, Mnookin caught his mistake and corrected himself online.

People remember things the way they want to remember them, regardless of the facts. So it will be with Bartman. But somebody needs to be doing the grunt work of at least putting the facts out there. Journalists ask for trouble when they decide to publish some facts and hide others or otherwise manipulate public knowledge. There are occasions when that’s the thing to do, but I don’t fault the Sun-Times for deciding game six wasn’t one of them. Every day the sky falls in on some completely blameless little guy who gets his name in the papers. It’s the nature of news.

News Bites

After the Marlins closed out the Cubs 9-6 in game seven, the Tribune’s cultural critic, Julia Keller, had 20 minutes until deadline to write the page-one story that would begin, “Losing feels like Death Lite. It’s not real death, not actual oblivion followed by the flinging of spadefuls of earth on a coffin lid, but it comes close.”

Keller had given herself that rare assignment, the breaking think piece. “I wanted to get at why we have these intense feelings about sports,” she says. She conducted interviews into the evening, and during the game wondered if she’d be writing out of “exhilaration in victory or despondency in defeat.” She had another lead in mind if the Cubs won, though she can’t remember what it was.

A day later the New York Post prepared two editorials–one that supposed the Yankees would beat Boston in that series’s seventh game, the other that supposed they’d lose–and published the wrong one. Keller had refused to write anything in advance. “That seemed to me to be a little cynical–to have two stories ready to go,” she says. “I wanted this to be an honest reaction to what went on.”

Keller had been in Wrigley Field for game six, marveling at the “stunned silence” and “funereal atmosphere” it ended in. She filed out fearing the worst in game seven. “I did kind of feel the jig was up,” she says.

Certainly, defeat suited her literary purposes. Defeat comes so close to death, she wrote, “that you wonder why Chicago will put itself through the misery. Through the fist-forming, teeth-clenching, gut-rolling, Alfonseca-bashing, headache-making misery of it all.” The question’s better than any answer victory could have provided. As any desolate fan who’d celebrated like crazy after the Atlanta series quickly found out, joy doesn’t stick like defeat. Even a team that goes all the way leads its devoted fans to the hard morning-after truth that as fans they had nothing to do with it.

This past Monday the Sun-Times’s Mark Brown wrote a lovely reminiscence of a JV basketball game where he’d been the goat. In the Tribune the same day Charles Leroux contemplated the guilt of Cubs fans who think their failure to observe some private ritual cost the team a pennant. On a nearby page Lou Carlozo identified himself as a “recovering Cubs fan” and reflected on Cubs fans as members of a vast dysfunctional family.

Defeat is the mother of deep thoughts.

Just for the record: The same night the Cubs played the seventh game of the National League Championship Series before 39,574 paying customers in Wrigley Field, Mexico beat Uruguay 2-0 in an exhibition soccer game in Soldier Field before a crowd of 41,587.

That’s in case you’re wondering why the Tribune Company, which launched Hoy last month, thinks there’s a market in Chicago for a Spanish-language daily paper.

Correction: The soccer game between Uruguay and Mexico in Soldier Field was won by Uruguay.

A memorial service for the late Reader music and movie writer Ted Shen is scheduled for Thursday, October 23, from 6 to 8 PM at Columbia College’s Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan. A second memorial service will be held sometime in November.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-Wide World Photos.