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On Second Thought . . .

A Chicago attorney named Robert Hochman accomplished what a Tribune editorial writer didn’t–he put the idea in my head that the judicial opinion that briefly postponed the California recall election was probably a bad thing.

Last week I went on in Hot Type about the Tribune that was published the morning after three Ninth Circuit judges blocked that election. The judges–all appointed by Democratic presidents–had invoked Bush v. Gore, the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, as the basis for their opinion, and the Tribune felt they’d indulged themselves in petulant score settling, not responsible jurisprudence. Maybe so. But the appellate judges had written an argument. The Tribune news coverage didn’t explain the argument and the editorial didn’t argue against it. The Tribune merely pronounced its disdain.

But the next day Hochman came along with an op-ed essay that bothered to do some heavy lifting. He looked a little more closely at the Bush v. Gore citations and told us why he considered them spurious. It was enough to make me think twice. Though the California recall has had those of us who don’t live in that state shaking our heads in bewildered amusement, California was about to choose a governor in accordance with its constitution, and a federal court had stepped in and called the election off. Imagine what we’d have said here in Illinois last November, when our state government was about to change hands from the Republicans to the Democrats, if three judges appointed by Republican presidents had canceled the vote and imposed the status quo. The judges could have found a pretext. Illinois has chads too.

The same morning that the Tribune brought us Hochman, September 18, the Sun-Times carried an editorial that went the Tribune’s one worse. The Sun-Times’s subject was Kathy Boudin, a former Weather Underground member who’d just been released on parole after serving 22 years in prison for her role in a 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery in which two policeman and a security guard were shot to death. Those officers “were not released Wednesday,” the Sun-Times reminded us. “They remain where they have been for the last 22 years, in the grave.” Boudin’s parole was “undeserved. Perhaps even harmful.” The Sun-Times asserted that “Boudin returns a hero to those who romanticize the 1960s” and declared that the paper’s role was to speak for the dead and their families and to “not buy the load of revisionist hooey that Boudin and her supporters are peddling.”

Like the Tribune, the Sun-Times was telling without showing. The paper’s brief news item on Boudin’s release made no mention of a hero’s welcome or of a revised version of history, hooey or otherwise, that anyone was peddling. On August 22, when Boudin’s parole was announced, Neil Steinberg had written a column predicting that “Boudin’s aging radical friends will no doubt be dancing around the maypole in Hyde Park when she comes prancing out of prison in October. They’ll be hugging and laughing and telling themselves how right they were, after all. How they beat the man and lived to tell about it.” A photo of the celebration at this maypole would have been worth a thousand words. But the Sun-Times didn’t think to send a photographer, and neither did anyone else.

The Brink’s robbery took place in 1981, long after the 60s had come and gone and many radicals had moved on. Boudin’s crime seemed bizarrely anachronistic at the time, and the passage of 22 years has only made it more pathetic. Hero? Never was and never will be.

Steinberg is free to see things differently. But the only published support I could find for the swaggering return claimed by the editorial, which he wrote, was his column four weeks earlier predicting a swaggering return. At least the Ninth Circuit opinion that the Tribune denounced without describing existed; so far as I can tell, the Sun-Times let itself be outraged by a figment of its imagination.

Anyway, Steinberg and I engaged in a lively exchange of e-mail that will remain largely private but has led me to concede a couple of points. It’s wrong to judge editorial writers by the failures of their papers’ news coverage. Bruce Dold, who runs the Tribune’s editorial page, isn’t responsible for a news desk that shrank from a legal opinion as if it were the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, too incomprehensible to get started on. And if what I do is sniff out editorials I disagree with and look for reasons to denounce them as intellectually dishonest, I’m being intellectually dishonest myself.

I should remember that op-ed writers like Robert Hochman have to clear a higher bar than editorial boards do. No one woke up the morning of September 18 wondering what Hochman thought about the California recall. To get into print he had to produce something useful–a coherent argument buttressed by examples. Editorials, by contrast, declare a paper’s sympathies. They’re rooted in the diatribes of old-time publishers who ran papers to advance their interests and denounce their enemies.

If I’m tempted to judge an editorial by the attempt it makes to be persuasive, I need to keep in mind that persuasion might be beside the point. Steinberg wrote me that readers’ minds aren’t open to it. “The best you can do,” he said for the record, “is comfort those who agree, and irk those who don’t.”

I’ll keep asking for more from our local editorial writers. But Steinberg’s probably right.

Bush Gets a Pass

A few weeks ago I predicted that this September 11 would find American newspapers grappling with the urgent question “Two years later, are we safer?” There was a lot to evaluate–the new Department of Homeland Security, the aftereffects of two wars, billions of dollars in government spending, new security laws in tension with the Constitution, our cultural bias for convenience over safety. But I was wrong. Maybe somewhere a paper published a terrific report, but the question struck few editors as worth a serious answer.

On September 17 President Bush renounced one of the major premises of his last war, a premise assumed to be true by well over half the population. He said there was “no evidence” tying Saddam Hussein to September 11. Surely his admission was a story that would lead every paper in the land.

Again I was wrong. The lead headline in the September 18 Tribune announced, “Bush: No Iraqi link to Sept. 11,” but the Tribune was out of step too. Sun-Times editors preferred to top their paper with the headline “Mayor Says High School Is Too Boring” and run the no-Iraqi-link story on page 30. OK, you say, that’s the Sun-Times–but the New York Times ran the story on page 18 of the national edition, and it wasn’t even the primary story on that page.

Papers across America blew off Bush’s admission. Editor & Publisher posted a story on its Web site marveling at this dumbfounding indifference. “For months leading up this year’s war on Iraq, the Bush administration implied that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” reported E&P. “So when President George Bush admitted…that there was ‘no evidence that Hussein was involved with the September 11th attacks,’ one would assume that would be big news and an opportunity for the press to make up for past failings.”

But no. “Of America’s 12 highest-circulation daily papers, only the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News ran anything about it on the front page.” It was on page 18 of the Washington Post, on page 41 of Newsday (lest we suppose Tribune Company papers across the board got it right). The Wall Street Journal didn’t mention it at all.

(Editor Greg Mitchell tells me that E&P promptly got “at least six letters from major papers just below the top 12 who were proud to point out they put the story on their front page.”)

On September 15, Editor & Publisher posted online an excerpt from a new book, Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History, by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson. The excerpt consisted of the views of the New York Times’s John Burns, and what he said has been passionately praised and denounced by other journalists. He said Iraq “was in a category by itself” as a totalitarian state, and this “essential truth” went unreported “by the vast majority of correspondents” there. Why? “They judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play [in Iraq] was to pretend that it was okay.”

But in fact, said Burns, “this place was a lot more terrible than even people like me had thought. There is such a thing as absolute evil. I think people just simply didn’t recognize it. They rationalized it away.”

He commented, “For some reason or another, Mr. Bush chose to make his principal case on weapons of mass destruction, which is still an open case. This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone.”

But justified to whom? Not to the American public. Burns gets us to the cognitive dissonance that might be keeping some editors from knowing how to play a presidential skinback. I think they’re reluctant to milk duplicity for all it’s worth because they have a good idea of what “some reason or another” was. A human rights justification for a war on the scale of Iraq is never justification enough. Even if the tyrant is absolute evil, so what? War is absolute evil too. Unless the tyrant threatens you or yours, it’s immoral to attack him. Editors think about all this and discover it’s hard to hound someone over a lie you have some sympathy for.

The New York Times downplayed the “no evidence” story, but it did follow up a day later with an editorial, “The Terrorism Link That Wasn’t.” The editorial succeeded best at conveying confusion. “Plenty of evidence has emerged that Mr. Hussein was a bloody despot who deserved to be ousted for the sake of his beleaguered people,” said the Times. “But recent polls suggest that the American public is not as enthusiastic about making sacrifices to help the Iraqis as about making sacrifices to protect the United States against terrorism. The temptation to hint at a connection with Sept. 11 that did not exist must have been tremendous.”

And so? But the editorial didn’t know what to say next. With an admonition that “stark honesty is the best weapon,” it promptly ended. The journalists of America need to go on a retreat somewhere and clear their heads about our war on terror.

Too Correct

On September 7 the Tribune carried a long letter from Bill Beckman, executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee, repudiating Paul Hill, who’d been executed in Florida a few days earlier for the murder of a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola abortion clinic in 1994.

Unlike the Sun-Times, which also carried Beckman’s letter, the Tribune didn’t edit it for length. But also unlike the Sun-Times, the Tribune edited it dramatically for style. Wherever the word “Pro-Life” appeared, it was changed to “anti-abortion.”

Beckman protested to the Tribune. “We have never called ourselves the ‘anti-abortion’ movement!” he wrote. “And we never will–because it would be an inaccurate name.” He asked, “Why would ‘anti-abortion’ citizens ‘demand legal protection for all human life from conception to natural death’? Why–because we are Pro-Life which is much more than ‘anti-abortion’!”

The change was made by “Voice of the People” editor Dodie Hofstetter. “It’s very simple,” she says. “We have a stylebook. As an editor I have to follow the stylebook, and the stylebook is put together by people trying to be as fair as possible. There’s no hidden agenda.”

She read from the stylebook: “Except in direct quotations or proper names, do not refer to people or groups as ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-abortion.’ Be as specific as possible about where those referred to stand on the issue of abortion: ‘People who oppose the use of Medicaid funds for abortions demonstrated outside the Statehouse.’ If a shorthand description is needed, use ‘abortion opponents, anti-abortion; abortion-rights proponents, pro-abortion rights.'”

Isn’t a letter a kind of quotation? “We’ve never treated it as such,” Hofstetter tells me.

It’s time they do. A message is inseparable from the language it’s expressed in. Hofstetter protests that the Illinois Family Institute, which has had a lot to say about Beckman’s letter on its own Web site, accused the Tribune of “censorship.” She says, “I don’t understand how it could be censorship when out of the 2,000 letters a week we get we can publish maybe 70 and [Beckman’s] was run almost intact.” But when partisan language is neutered it is censored. “Pro-life” is a fighting word; when the fight’s taken out of a public statement, it’s nonsense to say it hasn’t lost anything that matters.