By Michael Miner

Medill Goes Headhunting

When little is known, much is supposed. Which is why the future of the Medill School of Journalism is supposed to turn on the perceptions of the trustees of Princeton University.

What’s known is that Henry Bienen, president of Northwestern, spent 28 years on the Princeton faculty, rising to dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs before assuming his present office two years ago. Bienen has said nothing to suggest he intends to finish his career in Evanston; on the contrary, he’s spoken of his midwestern adventure as a sojourn. What’s widely supposed is that when his mentor, Harold Shapiro, retires in four or five years as president of Princeton, Bienen intends to be irresistibly positioned to succeed him.

So Bienen must make his mark on Northwestern. And there are two ways to do so that are certain to impress the trustees who’ll choose Shapiro’s successor. One is to raise the university’s standing academically, from a school on the fringes of America’s first rank to a school firmly nestled within it. The other is to raise millions and more millions of dollars.

What does this have to do with Medill? The journalism school is a crown jewel, one of the nation’s top three. By all accounts, departing dean Michael Janeway will leave it this year in sound shape, which means Bienen doesn’t have to worry about finding someone who can set right what’s wrong. He’ll be free to send a message, and since he hasn’t said what sort of message he wants sent, the Medill faculty is free to conjecture it.

“If you say Northwestern has changed categories–it’s no longer a pretty good midwestern university now, it’s going to operate like a Yale–it affects everything you do,” one Medill professor told me. “Like tenure, hiring, dean searches. That’s one reason I suspect they don’t want a hands-on, close-to-the-students, accessible guy. They want a big national figure and they’re willing to make some sacrifices in terms of what gets done in-house. Terrible? Not necessarily. Those big-shot schools operate like that.”

What this is supposed to mean is that no in-house candidate has a chance of succeeding Janeway, even though I’m told three Medill professors made the list of about 20 names, winnowed from a roster of 100-plus applicants and nominees. The three were professor Abe Peck, chair of the Medill magazine program, director of the National Arts Journalism Program, and a former Chicago newspaper reporter and Rolling Stone contributing editor; associate dean Jack Doppelt, an associate professor who was once an investigative reporter for the Better Government Association; and professor Lee Huebner, former publisher of the International Herald Tribune and a founder of the Ripon Society.

As of last Friday the list was further reduced to about nine candidates, who will now be interviewed by the faculty-dominated search committee that selected them. (I don’t know if any faculty members remain in the running.) In the spring the committee will send two to four names to Bienen.

Though national prestige is supposedly a powerful argument for naming an outsider, another Medill professor wonders if it’s anything of the sort. “It makes sense, except–” this professor ruminated. “The counterargument says that by luring a big name here [Bienen] gets credit, but by discovering a pearl in his own backyard and having him perform really well for the next three or four years he gets extra credit for making an unobvious choice.”

Bienen didn’t wish to be interviewed. Seeking an indication of where his priorities lie, I studied the advertisement for a new dean that Medill placed in various professional magazines. But the language was boilerplate: “The successful candidate will have the vision and energy to lead a top journalism school as well as substantial administrative experience at a university or in industry.”

I asked a member of the search committee what marching orders they’d received from the president. “The entire process has been ours to define,” I was told. “The only stipulation is that President Bienen hopes we find somebody who can raise a lot of funds.”

One measure of a university’s stature is the number of endowed chairs it has. Medill has none–though one apparently is on the way in the integrated marketing communications program (formerly known as advertising). The going rate at Northwestern for an endowed chair is $2 million.

Greed Between the Lines

This week Hot Type sets aside its hammer and tongs to mediate between irascible readers and wayward media.

One recent screed arrived from a Tribune Company stockholder–a backbencher who regards his shares as license to piss on the guardians of his investment. As a class, what such guardians guard most zealously is each other’s backs, he contends, and as evidence he enclosed with his letter a February 23 article by Tribune business writer Casey Bukro. Bukro’s concern was the reaction of Chicago’s business leadership to the resignation of Phillip Rooney as CEO of WMX (the former Waste Management Inc.) at the insistence of billionaire investor George Soros. Rooney’s successor must now see to “healing a company wounded by the loss of its leader,” Bukro had written.

Wounded? Healing? Malarkey, sneered my correspondent. “Mr. Rooney is not exactly JFK, and the drivers could give two fucks about him.”

But Bukro hadn’t written to measure the sentiments of WMX garbage-truck drivers. Instead, he surveyed other CEOs–and tapped an elegiac terror. My correspondent noted the comments of W. James Farrell, president of Illinois Tool Works in Glenview. As quoted by Bukro, Farrell lamented, “It’s upsetting the way this happened, and I fail to see the logic….A lot of people respect Phil. If you look at WMX’s track record in total, it is very enviable.” The trouble with Soros’s investment group, Farrell went on, is that it’s “in there for the short term. They want to get their money and get out. It’s the quick-turn profit mentality that doesn’t care about the business, suppliers or customers. That seems very predatory.”

My correspondent generously offered his own snickering paraphrase–“doesn’t care about the executives.” A businessman himself, he observed that Bukro’s article offered no evidence whatsoever that “the business, suppliers or customers will be damaged in any way by this change.” As for the make-out-like-a-bandit-and-split mentality that troubled Farrell–“Oops, isn’t that what Rooney just did?” According to another recent Tribune article, Rooney, who lasted as CEO only eight months, received a 25 percent raise last year to $1.25 million a year, plus options to buy 350,000 shares of WMX.

Close textual analysis raised this letter above the usual lampoon of our poor suffering plutocrats. My correspondent read Bukro’s article to the last word of not one but two editions. He spotted, at the conclusion of the early version, the sentiments of Andrew McKenna, identified as CEO of Schwarz Paper Company but not as a member of the Tribune Company board. McKenna praised Rooney for his humility: “He referred to himself as a garbage man. He was not sensitive about the nature of his work.”

By the later edition McKenna had disappeared.

“You’ll note the REAL origin of the story…Andrew McKenna, NOT identified as a Tribune director but certainly a key pivot in the old boys club,” said the letter. “This to me is always key in reading Trib tealeaves–when he’s talking on the record I SUSPECT the article originated with a board member calling in.”

Did it? I asked Bukro. Did McKenna call you?

“That whole thing originated with me,” Bukro said. “The Soros group painted Rooney as sort of an unpolished person. One reason to do the story was to see how the Chicago business community regarded him. In fairness, I thought there was room for a story that said something nice about Rooney.”

From WMX Bukro got a list of Rooney’s friends who’d called to commiserate. Of these, Bukro wound up speaking to the friends who returned his call. But beyond their predictable praise of Rooney lay the article’s grim subtext, which Bukro readily acknowledged.

“One of the reasons I think this story is kind of interesting is that you can be head of one of the most powerful companies in the world and be vulnerable to stockholders who are unhappy with the way the stock is performing,” Bukro said. “Without a doubt they’re nervous. If it can happen to Rooney it can happen to them. WMX is a ten-billion-dollar company, and as one executive said, it has an enviable record. And then after having been part of that, to have your head roll is somewhat astonishing to them.”

In short, Bukro understood what he was writing. “I’m trying to get people into these business stories,” Bukro said. Otherwise “they’re dry as hell.”

Another recent story that raised a reader’s suspicions was the lead piece in the Sun-Times on February 21. An odd choice as the day’s most important news, “Internet / hangups” described Ameritech’s struggle to keep up with the demand for phone lines in the western and northern suburbs.

“The problem, the company contends, is that more people are staying on their phone lines for longer periods while surfing the Net.

“But Internet providers place the blame squarely on Ameritech, which has had time to prepare for the explosive growth in Internet usage.

“‘Ameritech’s problems are their own fault,’ said Tom Simonds, president of Chicago-based InterAccess, one of the area’s most popular Internet access providers.”

One Downers Grove commuter read the story on the morning train to the Loop and smelled a rat. (1) The story didn’t document much of a problem–in fact, a village spokesman in Downers Grove told the Sun-Times there hadn’t been a single complaint in “recent weeks.” (2) To the extent there might be a problem, Ameritech was contributing to it by relentlessly peddling its own Internet access service–something the Sun-Times didn’t mention. (3) The article ultimately served Ameritech’s (and the other Baby Bells’) Washington agenda–which is to persuade the FCC to permit a surcharge on local calls to on-line services.

This reader wanted to call the Sun-Times reporter (Jim Kirk) and beef. But he’d left the paper on the train, and when he got to work he couldn’t remember who’d written the article. So he accessed the Sun-Times home page.

“To my shock, there was NO STORY about Ameritech and the Internet,” he exclaimed in an E-mail to me. “I wondered how a blaring headline in the print version didn’t warrant a story in the online version of the paper. My answer was on every page: an advertisement by Ameritech! More blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial? I suspect so.”

“It probably fell through the cracks,” said Fred Lebolt, the Sun-Times’s director of on-line publications. What happened, he explained, is that Kirk’s story came in after the afternoon news conference, which is when on-line decisions are made. A night news editor should have added it to the on-line schedule, but didn’t.

As an Internet-related article it should have gone on-line, Lebolt told me, and as the paper’s top story it definitely belonged there. “Ninety-nine percent of the time there’s that correlation.”

I asked him to comment on the unpleasant conjecture that the story didn’t make the home page because it was mildly unflattering to Ameritech (though not nearly as unflattering as it could have been). Did the Sun-Times trim its sails to please an advertiser?

Absolutely not, Lebolt replied. “They’re also a huge advertiser in the newspaper too.”

News Bites

Mary Mitchell was hard to argue with when she wrote in the Sun-Times that Chicago’s public schools would be doing their students a favor if they pushed them as hard in academics as they’ve pushed them in gym. But does it have to be one or the other? Last month an article on physical fitness appeared in Chicago Educator, the Board of Education’s biweekly newspaper.

“In the past decade, the percentage of high school students who vigorously exercise three times a week has declined from 61 percent to 16 percent, according to the American Heart Association,” Chicago Educator reported. Then it quoted Kate Davey, regional director of the AHA.

“‘I think we are seeing an increase in inactivity because more children are watching television or sitting in front of their home computers,’ Davey said.”

A few days later the school board proposed dropping PE altogether the last two years of high school.

A little more truth in advertising, please. Of the thousands of people who noticed Monday’s Sun-Times banner, “A parking-ticket fix,” how many do you think guessed the subject was reform, not fresh corruption? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Henry Bienen photo.