Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

One of life’s lower points is the discovery that other people think you’re weird. Not dangerously weird, not even so weird they don’t enjoy your company. But a little quirkier than you want anyone to think you are.

When I spoke by phone the other day with Michael Cooke, editor of the New York Daily News, he sounded uncharacteristically perturbed. A rash of e-mail from his old newspaper, the Sun-Times, was informing him that a woman he’d known for nearly 30 years had identified him in print that morning as a man with a quirk. The woman, Jennifer Hunter, is the wife of the publisher of the Sun-Times, John Cruickshank, with whom Cooke arrived from Vancouver five years ago to run the paper. “I love them both dearly,” said Cooke.

Yet Hunter, an editorial writer and columnist at her husband’s paper who on April 27 was excoriating fashionable women’s shoes, had gone off on the following tangent: “One reason I am convinced that pointy shoes are a male plot to demean women is that a former male editor at the Sun-Times had a fetish for women’s footwear. He thought they were intensely sexy–if infantalizing a woman by making her totter in heels down the hall like a toddler is really sexy–and he kept commissioning stories about them, over the protests of women staff members. When Vicente Fox came to town last year, the main news for this editor was not the Mexican president’s message, but Mrs. Fox’s footwear. We ran an unconscionable number of photos of Mrs. Fox in the paper–from the knee down.”

Hunter wasn’t done. “My former editor,” her column continued, “recently ran a week of shoe stories at his new paper, the New York Daily News, including a shoe horoscope, which he kindly passed along. Here is mine, Capricorn: ‘Normally impervious to fashion slavery, this spring you’re swooning for the latest footwear. [Yeah, right, patent leather Birkenstocks.] For one big office event, you even abandoned sensible shoes for the global gypsy look. [Global gypsy? They’ve got the wrong crystal ball.] And with painful-pointy on the way out, you’re in heaven.’ [That part’s true. How did they know?]”

“The woman’s mad,” said Cooke, when I called. “Let’s take the paragraph that says ‘When Vicente Fox came to town last year.’ Well, for accuracy’s sake, the main news of that visit was President Fox’s message–front page center, dictated by me. The Sun-Times did not run an unconscionable number of photographs of his wife’s shoes. We ran one. She happened to be wearing a pair of remarkable shoes.”

Cooke went on, now referring to Hunter, “I like the woman. She’s actually one of my best friends. So there you go. I think she’s serious about her view of footwear. I can’t imagine that she wants to be mean to me. But jeepers. There’s a multibillion-dollar shoe industry, and it has nothing to do with men. I’ll tell you one thing–here you go!–we did run some shoe stories here [at the Daily News] a couple of weeks ago, and we had a tiny contest to win $2,000 for a shoe-shopping spree at Macy’s. We ran a coupon, and you had to cut it out, put it in an envelope, buy a stamp–and we had 17,000 entries! I assume most of them were women.”

I asked if he intended to call Hunter.

“We’re having a vigorous e-mail correspondence as we speak,” he said. “It’s going very well. It’s ended up with us saying to each other, ‘I love you.'”

Cooke wasn’t as sure as he would have liked that the Sun-Times ran only one photo of President Fox’s wife’s shoes during her trip to Chicago last June. Actually the paper ran two–not to mention the photo of the first lady’s legs and the one of her decolletage. On the shoe front, the picture Cooke recalled was the one captioned “Look at those shoes: Mexico’s glamorous first lady, Marta Sahagun, sports a pair of gold slingbacks Wednesday while dedicating the new Mexican Consulate office.” A few days later the slingbacks reappeared to illustrate a column by Neil Steinberg, who explained, “One foreign-born colleague of mine has the ability to cheerily admit practices in crowded meetings that I would have a hard time admitting to myself in private. Take the shoes worn by Marta Sahagun. . . . Left to my own devices, I don’t think I would have perceived her shoes as the ooh-baby objects of sexual fascination that they apparently are in some quarters. . . . But I have been educated, and now realize readers might appreciate one last glimpse at the lust objects that are Mrs. Fox’s shoes.”

After doing my research I called Cooke again and read him this passage. Is that you? I asked.

“I think it’s very clearly a reference to me,” he conceded.

And weren’t shoe jokes being told at your good-bye party last year?

“There was one joke among a hundred jokes. Oh God,” he said. “I asked my wife, ‘Do I have a foot fetish?’ She said no.”

Hunter was much harder to reach. She never returned my calls, but she briefly replied to my e-mail. “This was a column about women’s shoes,” she asserted. “It was meant to be tongue in cheek and the fact that [it] is being taken seriously by you, a male journalist, confirms my thesis. I have tremendous admiration and respect for my former editor; I think he is a brilliant newspaperman and he’s a great friend.”

I called Cooke back to ask if Hunter’s joshing tone had eluded him too.

“I couldn’t possibly comment on that,” he said. “I don’t want to make things any worse than they are.”

It’s not my usual policy to clarify the behavior of a wife by talking to the husband, but Cruickshank had surely found himself in the middle.

“In my completely unprofessional view,” he told me, “Michael does not have what would be diagnosed as a neurotic fixation.” You can’t go wrong at the Sun-Times these days blaming anything unpleasant on the deposed owners, and Cruickshank seized the opportunity: “It was Barbara [Amiel] Black, Conrad’s wife, who said to Michael, ‘You need to do more on fashion, more on shoes.’ She was the one.”

I suggested that Hunter might want to work on her repertoire of tongue-in-cheek cues.

“She’s just started the column,” Cruickshank reflected.

Things You Can’t Talk About in Bed

If points were awarded for newsroom screwups, last week’s Tribune coverage of the Justice Department hit on the Chicago mob would score with “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune ran a photo of the wrong Frank Calabrese, identifying as an indicted hood a man whose picture had been taken as he was accepting a business award. Instead of a photo of Nicholas D’Andrea, found dead in a car trunk in 1981, it ran a picture of D’Andrea’s late brother, Mario. As a topper, it identified an elderly man named Stanley Swieton, seen in a front-page photo jauntily holding a cigar as he sat on his bicycle, as missing gang boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo. Calabrese filed suit, and Swieton is said to be thinking about filing.

At the Sun-Times, Mark Brown wrote a genial, entertaining column, the kind that doesn’t kick an opponent when he’s down. “We all make mistakes in the newspaper business, but this was a doozy,” he allowed. “It’s unclear what lessons the Tribune might have learned. My request for comment went unfulfilled.”

Brown told me he wanted to get deputy metro editor Peter Kendall to comment. Kendall might seem a curious choice, since Kendall’s boss, metro editor Hanke Gratteau, was far more accessible. But then, Brown’s married to her.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Brown told me. “It is my conflict of interest. And if I didn’t have that conflict, I might have written with as much piss and vinegar as Kass would have if things were turned around.”

For the sake of the marriage, Brown and Gratteau hew to strict rules. Grilling his wife was not in Brown’s plans. He didn’t even tell her what he’d been working on until that night, when the column was done. It would have been a good idea to acknowledge this constraining relationship. He considered it–“The first thing I did was write that paragraph,” he told me–but he had a lot of ground to cover, and he decided it was expendable.

I think this was the wrong decision, but I understand it. People in the business don’t need to be told who his wife is, and other readers might wonder what they were supposed to make of the information. An alternative his desk should have suggested would have been for Brown to write a column on something else. He considered that too. “When I went out to work on it,” he told me, “it wasn’t as totally evident to me what a disaster [for the Tribune] it would turn out to be. And by then, I was the person doing it for us.” His column would be his paper’s only coverage. “So I couldn’t lateral it. I thought, ‘I have to step up and do it.'”

News Bites

As the Chicago Defender celebrates 100 years of publication, it’s younger than it’s been for decades. A lot of the bones still creak–“What took 20 years to create is not going to get fixed in nine months,” says executive editor Roland Martin, dramatically understating the era of decline. The drab inside pages are stuffed with wire copy and canned features, and Mandrake the Magician anchors the comics page. But the stories are no longer riddled with typos, and there’s a spirit of innovation in the air. The full-color front page is consistently arresting. Martin is spinning off two new monthly magazines: the Temple, dedicated to health, and All That, dedicated to urban culture, both of which will circulate as Defender supplements for a few months, then become independent. There’s a partnership with Channel Five that will have the station focusing on Defender stories and the bylines of some WMAQ announcers appearing in the paper. And there’s a Web site. Martin speaks of a “multimedia strategy” after years of no strategy at all.

Martin says the exact anniversary will be noted on May 5, but the “centennial edition” is scheduled for May 27–the first of ten special editions to be scattered through the year. Each will focus on a single topic, such as sports or religion.

A lack of staff writers keeps the Defender from covering much local news, and Martin says distribution remains a “significant problem.” But there’s a bright side. “We were a half million dollars ahead in the first quarter from last year in advertising,” he says. “We’re really pushing it hard. Momentum is clearly on our side.”

As the Tribune defamation trial gets under way before Judge Robert Gordon in Cook County Circuit Court, I want to make clearer than I did last week just what error the newspaper has admitted to. The trial turns on a Tribune article, “Trial & Error–How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win,” which was published on the eve of the 1999 Du Page 7 trial. That was the trial of prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies who’d been indicted for perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice in connection with the prosecution of Rolando Cruz and two other defendants on 1983 murder charges. All seven defendants were eventually acquitted. Tribune reporter Maurice Possley wrote that a shoe-print examiner named John Gorajczyk had concluded a boot print didn’t match boots worn by a Cruz codefendant. Subsequently, “Gorajczyk told the DuPage grand jury that Knight told him to keep his mouth shut about his conclusion and not to tell anyone that there was no written report.” Thomas Knight, the lead prosecutor in the first Cruz trial and now the plaintiff in the defamation suit against the Tribune, maintains the grand jury investigating the Du Page 7 never heard about that from Gorajczyk, who didn’t even testify before it–something the Tribune concedes.

But Knight also insists the grand jury didn’t hear about it from anyone else either. This the Tribune hasn’t conceded. It maintains that what the newspaper mistakenly reported as having been told to the grand jury directly by Gorajczyk was actually told secondhand by an investigator for special prosecutor William Kunkle who’d interviewed Gorajczyk. The Tribune’s position is that “[Knight] told him to keep his mouth shut” is a fair paraphrase of what the investigator told the grand jury he’d heard from Gorajczyk. Knight’s position is that it’s misleading and inflammatory.

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