Nitwits and Nabobs

A few years ago, we ran a contest asking for ideas about what to do with Wrigley Field after the Cubs move out. Now we know. The stadium should be preserved as a shrine to an independent press.

It will be sort of like the Alamo, but its immortals will not be the last inhabitants but a newspaper four miles south that refused to knuckle under. If Jim Squires had only done a deal with Mike Madigan and Eddie Vrdolyak and every other pol in town who figured the Cubs and Tribune were in cahoots, the Cubs could have played night ball at Clark and Addison forever. But like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, Squires reloaded and kept firing.

No sir, some things may get us into a swivet but the Tribune’s recent “bonehead” editorial isn’t one of them. “Bonehead” isn’t our favorite word (“scumsucker” is jauntier) and putting lights in Wrigley Field isn’t a cause we have much sympathy for. But for years the Tribune has been contending that Chicago is managed by nitwits, so why not now? And for years the Tribune has been denouncing City Hall for driving away the very businesses it needs to keep (see last Sunday’s editorial: “City development needs new goals”), so why not the Cubs? If for years the Tribune has wanted to convince the city’s pols that it isn’t the cat’s-paw of the Chicago Cubs or Tribune Company, calling them boneheads and political bums for persisting to think otherwise (knowing the bums and boneheads were sure to stick it to the baseball team) was as good a way as any we can think of.

The bonehead editorial–“Cubs lights, political lightweights”–wasn’t the first time the Tribune filled the air with buckshot over that issue. July 3, 1985: “To handle Mr. Madigan [Speaker of the House] you have to make some kind of deal. Take him some incense, myrrh, maybe some silk from the East and kneel when you go before his throne . . .

“For Mr. Vrdolyak? Forget it. He’s already got all the incense and stuff he needs. And there are so many kneeling that unless you’re the last one to genuflect, you might not get anywhere anyway. And he’s beyond a deal, especially if it hinges on the editorial good will of this newspaper. The Cubs will be playing morning games on a sandlot in Gary first.”

Pretty spunky. We like it. This editorial began with an interesting admission: “If the Chicago Cubs were still owned by the Wrigleys, the Tribune would be screaming to high heaven about the sorry treatment the Cubs ownership is getting from aldermen and legislators on the Wrigley Field lights issue. But we haven’t been for the simple reason that since ‘Cubs ownership’ and ‘Tribune ownership’ eat at the same table, it would be difficult for the public to discern who is screaming. This has the effect of muting the Tribune as a voice on one of the more controversial and talked-about issues in the community . . .”

Thus muted, the Tribune didn’t speak out again so pugnaciously until last week. We called Jim Squires and asked him about the latest broadside.

“That’s kind of the nature of our relationship with the City Council. That’s not out of character for us,” Squires said. “I figured it would make everyone on all sides mad at everyone, particularly me. It would be like turning over the water bucket.

“What we were doing,” he went on, “is exercising our responsibility to speak on an issue in which we’re a little reluctant as an institution. Whatever we say is inevitably perceived as the voice of a corporate monolith–which is a repugnant and infuriating thought.”

Repugnant but unsurprising. There are obvious reasons to regard the Cubs and the Tribune as a couple of mittens on one pair of hands. They are commonly owned, and ownership is generally assumed to be the voice that’s speaking on any editorial page. And historically, the Tribune and its owners were indistinguishable: the interests, not to mention peculiarities, of Colonel McCormick were those of his newspaper.

Today’s Tribune tends to resemble Jim Squires, a feisty guy who gets mad when his paper’s integrity–and thus his own–goes unappreciated. “It’s not a real intellectual hurdle to understand the parent company does not set policy for the conglomerate,” Squires told us. “Subsidiaries are rife with conflicts of interest.”

Tribune bashers who found the bonehead editorial imperious and bizarre, Squires said, “are either stupid or have a special reason for thinking that way, which makes them the intellectual and ethical equals of the extremists in the City Council.”

Absolute Sovereignty

The phone rang. It was Foster W. Muzzle. “Can you believe the reaction!” he rejoiced. “When all we did was transfer a couple of reporters!”

Four separate people told us the Sun-Times just got rid of its features section, we said.

“Things are getting a little hysterical,” Muzzle chuckled. Muzzle, you recall, is the Sun-Times’s man in charge of ragging liberals, busting unions, and generally keeping everyone on edge.

He’s right about the hysteria. “I personally feel I’m living in suburban Berlin in 1938,” one Sun-Times operative told us, which should give you an idea of the mood some people are in.

Here’s all that really happened to the features section. It’s right where it’s always been, bunched around the movie and TV ads. But a couple of pages that weren’t advertiser friendly bit the dust.

They’re the ones on which Steve Huntley and Lori Rotenberk used to write those long general features articles that segued the reader from news to entertainment. But they’ve both been shifted to the city desk. Editor Ken Towers tells us Section Two, which is what they call features at the Sun-Times, now has a “lively start”: last night’s CSO concert, ABT performance, Steppenwolf opening . . .

“We’ll still carry features and use them in the news section of the newspaper,” said Towers. “They won’t be quite as long–they’ll be long enough in terms of what it takes to tell a feature well. We’ll emphasize style and good subjects. A lot of wire stuff was used as filler. That’s what you’re forced to do when you have these pages set aside for soft features. You just run junk, as the Tribune frequently does.”

Personally, we don’t buy the concept of “long enough.” We’ve never seen a story told well in a thousand words that couldn’t have been told not nearly as well in 500.

But if Towers wants a paper that goes Biff! Bang! Pow! his move makes sense. A news-side reporter we met last night has got the Sun-Times zeitgeist figured right.

Writing a feature for Section Two is completely different from writing it for the city desk, we argued.

“Why?” she said.

Because features is a sanctuary. If your story runs up front it can get chewed up and destroyed.

“So?” she said.

So you sweat bullets to make it sing and the next morning you find out the last ten paragraphs were chopped off. Or your story runs one edition then it gets yanked out and spiked.

“Good,” she said. “Survival of the fittest.”

We were chewing our pencil and thinking that over when Muzzle called.

We suddenly understand the new Sun-Times, we exclaimed. It’s Darwinian.

“Hobbesian,” he corrected.

You’ve had quite a month, we said. You canned Lynda Gorov’s column; you fired Sally Saville Hodge, the business editor; you’re slashing features. Plus you’re junking your Sunday “Adviser” section because it didn’t pull enough ads.

“My job is to give people here the willies,” Muzzle said. “And they’ve got them.”

Poison Pen

When Ben Hecht left town, a pal wrote in one of the papers: “Chicago should fly its flags at half-mast.” It’s always been that way in this town’s news biz. A dusty old campaigner takes leave of the wars, and sentimentality rules!


The impish tone. The nod of collegial respect. The good-natured allusion to idiosyncrasy. Some papers sure know how to slap a fellow on the back.

We are carefully rereading the Robert Feder column that appeared under the above headline. Feder broke the bad news that at age 70, John Madigan was cashing it in as media critic of News Radio Ssssseventy-Eight. Nope. Feder held his grief in check, but he did not liken the old redhead to a puff adder or a scorpion.

The headline has nothing to do with the story. We guess a Sun-Times copy editor wanted to tip his own fedora in farewell.

Well, he inspired us. A moment’s silence please, while we read these lines we just scribbled on a napkin.


Bottoms up.

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