By Michael Miner

Nigel Wade 1, Red Menace 0

The communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe toppled like dominoes in 1989, but North Korea still bristles, Castro preens, and here in America trade unionists picnic in public parks. When the Evil Empire was stopped at the Sun-Times, editor Nigel Wade rejoiced.

Last week he wrote the following letter to his staff:

“Dear Colleague, I want to share with you the National Labor Relations Board’s final report on the crushing vote against the Newspaper Guild’s recent attempt to colonize the Sun-Times advertising department. Advertising staff decided by a margin of 2-1 to reject old-style collectivism. The vote was a 118-60 humiliation for the paid guild activists and their dwindling band of followers in the editorial department.

“The guild acknowledged the measure of its defeat by filing none of the usual objections to the count, as is stated in the NLRB report, which I attach.

“In my view, the guild was clearly attempting to fish in troubled waters and our advertising staff just as clearly did not wish to be hooked.

“They saw the guild for what it is, in my opinion, essentially a private business run to benefit the few tired organizers who control it. Advertising staff disliked the guild’s record of trying to sabotage the business of the Sun-Times. They saw that the guild leaders’ only prior interest in their department had been to picket some of their biggest clients. Staff concluded that the guild was primarily intent on taking dues from their salaries.

“The overwhelming vote upheld the midwestern values of freedom, individualism and self-reliance against the collectivist creed treating everyone the same. Advertising staff, by their vote, said they preferred to trust their own merits and Sun-Times management and distrusted the intentions of the guild clique. They saw the true risk of disastrous strike action, and saw through guild assurances to the contrary.

“In rejecting the guild by such a clear margin, I believe advertising staff have said they do not want to import into their department the divisiveness and old resentments that the guild has nursed for years in the editorial section.

“I salute the decision of the advertising staff and believe they have pointed out the future for us all. They prudently saw–in our new printing presses and our redesigned plans, in our working together and not against each other, in our shared belief in the Sun-Times–the prospects of success and rewards for all. They voted for this future–their own future–and shunned the guild’s embrace, which has squeezed the life out of other newspapers in the past.

“I heartily thank the advertising staff for their decision and commend it to you as a guide as you build your own future in a prosperous and united company for what I hope may be many happy years to come.”

The “final report” Wade flaunted was the NLRB’s boilerplate “certification of results of election.” This one-page notice stated: “An election has been conducted under the Board’s Rules and Regulations. The Tally of Ballots shows no collective-bargaining representation has been selected. No timely objections have been filed.” Wade performed the exercise, unusual among winners, of ridiculing the loser for accepting defeat.

Matthew Hale’s Mute Witnesses

The clues were subtle, and the FBI agents missed them. As the two G-men, accompanied by a couple of police officers from Skokie, grilled white supremacist Matthew Hale about Benjamin Smith’s murderous rampage, Kirsten Scharnberg stood behind Hale and scribbled on a notepad. Bonnie Trafelet moved around Hale’s parlor shooting pictures–cameras, badges, and passes dangling from her neck. At one point an FBI agent said sharply to her, “Are you trying to intimidate me?”

“No sir,” Trafelet replied. “I’m just doing my job.”

At another point she stepped into the kitchen and called her office on a cell phone.

After wrapping up their interview with Hale, the lawmen were astonished to discover that Scharnberg and Trafelet were journalists.

“We’re from the Chicago Tribune. Could we please have your names?” Scharnberg asked, stopping the departing visitors outside Hale’s home in East Peoria.

“Oh, we thought you were some of his followers,” said a Skokie cop.

Back at the bureau, the FBI agents reported brazen dupery to sympathetic ears.

“Obviously the agents were in error in not saying, ‘What’s going on?'” says agent Ross Rice, who handles media relations for the FBI in Chicago. “But I also think they were acting on a good-faith basis that these were at least friends of his. And when you read the story, it sounded like he specifically said he wanted reporters from the Tribune there. And that certainly wasn’t the case. The officers and agents were never informed–orally or in writing, by a business card or anything–that they were reporters.”

The Tribune story the next morning–which Scharnberg didn’t write–put it this way: “Hale consented to be questioned, but he insisted that a Tribune reporter and photographer who were already present be allowed to remain.” That’s elegant phrasing–equally true and misleading. Furious, Rice decided an apology was in order and soon was saying his piece to metro editor Hanke Gratteau.

She regretted nothing. “We do not misrepresent ourselves,” says Gratteau. “They failed to ask who we were. If the reporter and photographer were asked who they were, they were duty bound to say so. They made no attempt to hide their activities. They continued to act like a reporter and photographer.”

What’s more, Scharnberg and Trafelet had been there first. They were visiting with Hale in his living room the night of July 8 when loud knocking and shouts of “FBI!” rang from the front porch. Hale got up and answered the door, and led his new callers into the outer parlor.

Scharnberg remembers: “They said, ‘Your friends should probably leave for your privacy. We’re going to question you.’ And he said, ‘No, these are guests in my home, and they do not have to leave.’ And the FBI asserted, ‘Well, for your privacy, Mr. Hale, I’m sure you’ll want them to step out on the porch.’ ‘No, they’re my guests. They will not leave.’

“At that point I walked into the parlor. I was really amazed that I’d get to stay….To tell the truth, my perception of the situation was that they knew we were media but they didn’t know our affiliation. It never occurred to me that with all the media frenzy going on in Peoria and all the news trucks outside this guy’s house–he’d been giving news conferences 18 hours a day–it never occurred to me they didn’t think there was media there.”

And what if it had occurred to her?

“Was I supposed to raise my hand and say, ‘Stop! We must discuss this?’ Scharnberg wonders. Even the Tribune, which takes scruple to unusual lengths, has its limits. Scharnberg’s a young addition to the Tribune from the Baltimore Sun. If she’d disrupted Hale’s interrogation to announce, “Pardon me, but I’m a Tribune reporter and probably don’t belong here, so if you just say the word I’ll make myself scarce,” she’d be on her way back to Baltimore.

There’s a third side to this debate. Matthew Hale, contradicting everyone else, says Scharnberg and Trafelet did identify themselves. He tells me, “As soon as the FBI came in they asked the two young ladies who they were, and they said, ‘We’re from the Tribune.’ I remember it quite well. The FBI said, ‘We’d rather have the interview private,’ and I said, ‘No, I want it open to the public.’

“They said, ‘We don’t want you here.’ And I said, ‘I want my friends here.'”

So the Tribune owes you, I said.

“Yeah, in some ways. I basically just wanted it to be open to the public eye. I have nothing to hide.”

“We don’t owe him anything,” says Gratteau.

News Bites

“Have you ever had a column killed by your editor?” wondered moderator Joel Weisman on last week’s Chicago Week in Review.

Two of his guests, Steve Chapman and Ellen Warren of the Tribune, couldn’t think of any.

“Yeah, I’ve had columns killed,” said Leslie Baldacci, who just quit the Sun-Times to teach school.

Weisman: “Well, since you’re leaving, tell us which ones and who did it.”

Baldacci: “One that was particularly critical of the media during the Clinton-Lewinsky thing. One that was asking for relaxing of marijuana penalties and that was rejected with a note that said, ‘This is a very well articulated argument. I just don’t happen to agree.’ A, you know, a gay-rights kind of thing.”

Weisman: “And was it the editor himself who did that?”

Baldacci: “Yeah. And that’s his right. It’s his paper.”

Conrad Black has suffered a disappointment. To accommodate the queen, who intended to raise him to Lord Black, the chairman of the Hollinger chain, which owns the Sun-Times, recently became a British citizen as well as Canadian. Alas, the Canadian government, which doesn’t owe Black’s newspapers any favors, found a way to kibosh the title. Editor & Publisher reports that Black took his lost barony in stride. He told the Canadian Press News Service, “I mean, that concept slightly assaults my egalitarian tendencies anyway.”

Many a great man prides himself on his egalitarian tendencies, and Black is as noble an egal as you’ll find. He’d have added peerage to his many present distinctions, principally the Order of Canada and Privy Council of Canada. Back in 1995 the Sun-Times published the guest list of a lavish soiree Black threw at the Cultural Center. Just as Margaret Thatcher was hailed as the “Baroness of Kesteven, O.M., P.C.,” so were the host and hostess identified as “the Hon. Conrad M. and Barbara Amiel Black, P.C., O.C.”

Or P-COC for short.

A paperback has been floating around our house, a teen thriller called Final Exam. The cover says, “If you fail…you’ll just die.” There’s a stark drawing of a high school building, one lonely face framed in a classroom window. If you study the illustration carefully you’ll spot the name of the school carved in stone over the front door.

Final Exam was published in 1990 by Scholastic Inc., and in the text the school is nameless. I wrote the author, Auline Bates, asking how the cover happened.

“My editor told me the marketing department had decided books with buildings on the front were selling better,” she responded, “therefore, my new book would have a building on the front. The logical building, of course, was a school.”

The editor asked if she wanted to call it something.

Two of her children had gone to a Colorado alternative school named for the state flower. “Out of gratitude for their school, Olde Columbine, but still wishing to keep a level of anonymity about the location, I just named it Columbine.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.