A good boss at a bad time for the Sun-Times, John Cruickshank restored a lot of the dignity that had been tossed aside by Conrad Black and David Radler. Circulation fraud was owned up to; the editorial page stopped carrying water for the paper’s business interests.

But there’s more work to do. Cruickshank’s gone back to Canada to become publisher of CBC News, and the Sun-Times still has a reputation to overcome for pinhead journalism.

Which on October 5 wasn’t just an expression. The pin was the lapel flag that politicians across the land have sported since 9/11 to assert that no matter how venally they act no one can doubt their patriotism. The headline–dominating the Sun-Times front page, naturally–said: “Why I Don’t Wear the Flag.”

A TV interviewer in Iowa had noticed Barack Obama wasn’t wearing a flag pin and asked him about it. He wore one for a while, Obama responded, but decided that it had become “a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security.”

An unfortunate legacy of the Cruickshank era is that this sort of story became the Sun-Times’s idea of page-one news. Yet Jennifer Hunter, who’s married to Cruickshank and has been following Obama around for months, never wrote anything about the naked lapel herself. Either she didn’t notice it or judged it too insignificant to report on.

Worse than the front page was the editorial page. Earlier this year the Sun-Times announced it was rebranding itself as progressive. But no seriously progressive newspaper (or seriously conservative newspaper for that matter) would have done what the Sun-Times did–take Obama to task for disavowing phony patriotism.

“Wearing a flag doesn’t have to be phony. Just ask any Iraq war veteran,” said the Sun-Times inanely. Then hysteria gushed.

“Obama’s latest spouting off makes us question his judgment. . . . His polarizing comments make him sound like a hardened leftist. . . . In one unscripted moment, he undermines his whole campaign. . . . His campaign can suffer no more gaffes.”

It’s a terrible thing to say about the new voice of Chicago progressivism, but in its mindless disapproval this editorial surpassed the Republican reaction to the intriguing news that Larry Craig had decided not to resign his Senate seat after all.

The New York Times asked Republican senators what they thought. John Ensign of Nevada: “The type of behavior we are talking about here is not exactly something that I think a senator should be engaged in.” Saxby Chambliss of Georgia: “I can’t think of anything good about it.” Jim DeMint of South Carolina: “You don’t want to know what I really feel.”

Whatever Craig’s sexual needs, he was arrested for nudges and gestures in a men’s room that only an initiate or a cop would notice. His “disorderly conduct” plea would never have stood up in court, which Craig understandably chose to avoid. A party genuinely committed to personal privacy and reasonable laws reasonably enforced would stand behind Craig 100 percent.

But this isn’t about defending the party’s conservative principles; it’s about defending the brand. The Republicans have branded themselves the party of men’s men and the party of scriptural authority. To them, Craig’s an embarrassment.

We don’t expect a political party to act on its principles. That’s what newspapers are for.

Off-Label but Legal

Two weeks ago in this space I ripped sportswriters who ripped the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel for injecting himself with human growth hormone when he was a broken-down minor league ballplayer hoping to salvage his career. HGH is banned by the big leagues now, but it wasn’t in 2004, and Ankiel at the time was trying to recover faster from an elbow injury, not turn himself into Superman.

I thought the Ankiel story brought out the lazy moralism that blights the press box. Drugs have turned sports reporters into scolds who see the world in black and white and lecture athletes like the nagging yentas in celebrity rags who tell wayward B-listers to straighten up and fly right.

I soon heard from one of the writers I’d mentioned by name, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. I’m sorry I can’t quote liberally from Passan’s e-mail to me, my editor, and my publisher, but it was for our eyes only. Suffice it to say Passan expressed himself with the pungency appropriate to an alpha journalist defending his turf. And on one important point, he was right.

Not wholly right. But righter than I’d been.

Passan had written two columns about Ankiel. In the first he made a goofy comparison of Ankiel with Barry Bonds, both “seeking glory through needles.” In the second he made what struck me as a fussy, inaccurate legal case against Ankiel.

“I have no doubt Ankiel’s health improved because of human growth hormone,” Passan wrote. “Whether that makes it right is an area that remains gray. But the FDA doesn’t allow it.”

I believed Passan had made a fundamental mistake. “Passan didn’t care if HGH helped Ankiel,” I wrote. “He took it for a reason ‘not deemed legal by the FDA,’ so he deserved to be hammered. But Passan got it wrong. FDA doesn’t stand for Federal Deeming Authority. The FDA doesn’t deem drugs legal or illegal. It approves them for specific uses or it doesn’t, but once a drug is on the market doctors are free to prescribe it for other ailments. That’s called an ‘off-label’ use. Ankiel put HGH to an off-label use, and off-label uses are neither illegal nor uncommon. Aspirin was prescribed by doctors to prevent heart attacks for years before the FDA eventually approved it for that purpose. Ankiel didn’t break the law.”

In his e-mail, Passan told me I didn’t understand the law. In fact, he said, off-label prescriptions of HGH are illegal. He linked me to a 2005 article from sciencedaily.com that begins, “Because of 1988 and 1990 amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, off-label distribution or provision of human growth hormone to treat aging or age-associated illnesses is illegal in the United States.” The article called these amendments “a largely unknown and unenforced law that thousands of entrepreneurs and physicians are breaking.”

I hadn’t known that. I went looking for the law, and found it in Title 21 of the U.S. Code:

“Whoever knowingly distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute, human growth hormone for any use in humans other than the treatment of a disease or other recognized medical condition, where such use has been authorized by the Secretary of Health and Human Services . . . and pursuant to the order of a physician, is guilty of an offense punishable by not more than 5 years in prison.”

Why was this law written? I kept looking. Here’s a “statutory overview” from 1998 posted by the U.S. Department of Justice on its Web site: “In recognition of the fact that illegal drug trafficking in anabolic steroids and human growth hormone was becoming larger in scope and presenting an ever-increasing health risk to young athletes, Congress addressed the issue with two amendments. . . . The purpose of both of these amendments was to criminalize steroid and human growth hormone trafficking.”

The Justice Department overview explained that the “mens rea requirement”–that is, the guilty intent necessary to make an act a felony–“is ‘knowing distribution’ or ‘knowing possession with intent to distribute.'”

To judge from everything I’ve now read, this overview actually understates the problem Congress was trying to deal with. When HGH was synthesized in the 1980s and could be manufactured in large quantities, quacks began touting it as a miracle drug that would make the old young. Here’s an excerpt from a 2004 article by Thomas Perls in the Journal of Gerontology:

“Federal law states that distributing or administering human growth hormone for anti-aging or age-related problems is illegal. Nonetheless, anti-aging clinics thrive, administering human growth hormone to thousands of gullible and oftentimes vulnerable patients. Anti-aging quackery has become a multimillion dollar industry exacting great monetary, health, and social costs.”

Having taken Passan’s point, let me make one of my own. The thread that runs through all of this is distribution. Ankiel didn’t distribute HGH, or possess it with “intent to distribute.” He wasn’t a trafficker. He bought HGH to use it. What I wrote two weeks ago seems true to me today: Ankiel didn’t break the law.

And he wasn’t a gullible old duffer who bought HGH because he longed to feel young again. He was young, and he was lame, and he wanted to get back to the major leagues. He knew of anecdotal evidence that HGH might help him heal.

Passan takes this evidence seriously. In a June 2006 column, “Sorting out the hGH issue,” he asked, “What if hGH does help athletes recover from injuries at a more rapid pace? Teams employ athletic trainers and doctors to bring back players as quickly as possible, and if research proved hGH safe and effective, there would seem a compelling case for using it regularly in rehabilitation instead of vilifying it.”

It’s a spot-on observation. If the research ever does prove this, then the secretary of HHS will authorize HGH for that purpose (unless politics intervenes, the way it has with medicinal marijuana), and the sketchy argument that the law doesn’t permit it will completely evaporate. Rick Ankiel’s only crime might turn out to be premature anti-throwing-in-the-towel-ism.

For more, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Ben Claussen III.