By Michael Miner

Or He Could Give ‘Em a Good Spanking

“I was on the tour,” Bill Gleason remembers. “When they were taking kids around, they’d stop and say, ‘That’s Mount Gleason.'”

Today Gleason writes his sports column for the Daily Southtown and works out of his home. In the 70s he kept the Sun-Times’s most magnificent desk, an Andean heap of papers and paraphernalia that usually defied gravity.

“I did have a few rock slides,” says Gleason. “The thing is, [Jack] Griffin and I sat side by side for 17 years, and he never had anything on his desk. We had Bob Pille with us then, and anything on his desk, he’d square off the edges. He was known as ‘Mother Pille.’ He was a very easygoing guy–except for squaring off his papers.”

One school of thought in journalism holds that a tidy desk means a tidy mind. It’s not much of a school. The prevailing credo was asserted by the famous sign Gleason kept on display at his station: “A neat desk is the sign of a weak mind.” He remembers proudly, “In addition to that mountain on my desk, I persisted until they finally gave me three filing cabinets of my own.”

J. Paul Getty used to insist that he could always find a place for every nickel. By the same token, every single piece of paper in a journalist’s domain has a role to play. The phone number scribbled last year on the soiled napkin from the pizza parlor that delivers–though at the moment you have no idea whose number it is–could blow this town wide open tomorrow.

A pile of effluvia maintained by a reporter at the old Chicago Today became folklore the day a colleague sprayed it with lighter fluid and set it afire. An equally immortal compost heap was kept by the Sun-Times’s Fletcher Wilson in the old State of Illinois Building.

Bernie Judge, who shared the pressroom with Wilson back in 1969, remembers: “He never threw away anything. The pile was higher than he was when he was sitting at his desk. It had to be two or three feet high with the papers and budgets and studies, and these two tomato plants were on top of that. When tomatoes flower they have to pollinate, and obviously there were no bees or wind to blow the pollen around. So he’d shake them to blow the pollen and actually make tomatoes in the pressroom.

“When Ogilvie was governor he came in once, and he was looking at these two little green tomatoes. There was a photographer with him who took a picture as he was looking, and I said, ‘I’ve got a cutline for that. “Governor fondles young tomato.”‘”

A few weeks ago Tribune editor Howard Tyner wrote a memo so shocking that some of his lieutenants, fearing insurrection, withheld it from the troops.

“I feel at times like I’m speaking to the wall,” Tyner began. “Our nice new digs are rapidly heading back down to the point where they look like a landfill. There is junk everywhere. We look like crap for visitors. We look like crap on tv. We pretend that’s the way a newsroom should be. In fact, we look like crap. Nothing more.

“Yet my repeated requests to fix it seem to fall on deaf ears. Nothing happens.

“Mike Martinez’s cubicle is a dump, as are several others in the same vicinity. So are half a dozen cubes in Business, led by Tim Jones’. Gary Marx is right up there, too. Having filled up 40 feet of nearby book space, Gorner and Kotulak soon won’t be able to get into their cubes because of stuff cluttering the floor. Despite numerous comments, people still are putting stuff on the wooden caps between cubes. There are cardboard boxes on floors all over. Staff who sit in the vicinity of the television studio claim they never heard of the coatrooms, so continue to hang their wraps on chairs–something we asked from the beginning not happen.

“Do we really need stacks of yellowed newspapers on desks, on floors and jammed into cabinets? How many books can one human being really claim they need to have within 15 feet of their desk? I could go on and on.

“For starters, on Friday morning around 8 a.m., a cleaning crew will be coming through with instructions from me to throw out (like in a dumpster) all papers, books and other stuff on the floors both in public spaces and individual cubicles.”

Tyner was seen patroling the aisles at 7 AM that fateful Friday, like the squad car that precedes the tow trucks down a residential street scheduled for repaving, but no cleaning crew appeared. The bluff–if it was a bluff–had worked. The newsroom was transformed–though a four-foot inflatable penguin sporting a tie decorated with swimming sperm and a “Vote Republican” Tribune wrapper bag draped across its chest still stood by media writer Tim Jones’s desk. A veteran writer explained, “The penguin survived because Howard comes in late at night and talks to the penguin.”

It’s difficult to think of Tyner really meaning it about too many books, though as an old UPI man, he cut his teeth on the concept that if a story requires research there’s no time to write it. Earlier in the year the American Journalism Review did quote him asserting, “I am not the editor of a newspaper. I am the manager of a content company.” That article revealed the great store the Tribune Company sets by “synergy,” a prime example being the way in which the newsroom–recently remodeled at vast expense–and its occupants double as a studio and reporters for CLTV, the company’s cable-news station. “They said the TV cameras were in the newsroom to get a gritty feel,” a Tribune reporter tells me. “But now it looks like an insurance office–all these mauves and beiges.”

What gives? I asked Tyner by E-mail.

“The morning I wrote that memo,” he E-mailed back, “I walked into the newsroom via a different route than usual to speak with someone on the desk. Along the way I passed a particular desk that I had asked several times to be cleaned up and noticed it remained a ridiculously horrible mess. Then I took a walk around the floor and saw that my several earlier requests to clean other places had been ignored totally. So I wrote the memo. The cleanup crew wasn’t a bluff at all; but the final arrangements never were completed because it became obvious several days before the deadline that my message had been received and actions were being taken.

“Anyone who has worked with me knows I have something of a mess problem of my own. But I manage it. The tidyness pressure in the new newsroom is self-imposed rather than the result of bolts from on high. In most careers you only get to do a project like this once and I take great pride in how it has turned out. I want the place to remain looking half-way decent and not slip back into the Superfund mode we had around here for so long.

“Sure, the television studio is part of it. But that only involves a tiny fraction of the space here. We now have a steady stream of visitors coming through and I’d like to have a professional look all over. Believe me, we’re nowhere near where one of our other papers once was: the policy there was that the top of everyone’s desk had to be clear when the occupant went home at night. And the editor himself would walk around throwing away items that had been left out.”

In a battlefield situation, that editor would have been shot by his own men.

Speaking of Spankings . . .

Nothing better exposes the limitations of daily journalism than a long, complex court case, brimming with public significance, that the papers make a sensible decision to ignore.

A civil trial that began last September in Chicago’s federal courts pitted the country’s 40,000 retail pharmacies against manufacturing giants such as G.D. Searle, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson. The pharmacies alleged that the drug makers had conspired to maintain a two-tiered pricing system that was driving retailers across America out of business.

The Tribune wrote an article for the business section on September 24, as the trial opened. Then there wasn’t another peep until December 1. That’s when federal judge Charles Kocoras threw out the case, providing the media with not only a rare directed verdict but also a singular scapegrace.

He was Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas, an expert witness for the plaintiffs. “Sad to say, Professor Lucas’ testimony did not measure up to his unique qualifications,” Kocoras commented. Or so he was quoted in the Tribune account, which acknowledged being based on a trial transcript, meaning that no Tribune reporter was present when the judge unexpectedly rang down the curtain.

But in the aftermath, the Tribune had plenty to say. Business columnist David Greising ripped the plaintiffs’ star witness as an incompetent opportunist. “For 19 years, economist Robert Lucas has traded on the bright glow of the University of Chicago’s ivory tower….His Nobel Prize pedigree and University of Chicago professorship helped Lucas sell his opinions for as much as $600 an hour.” But once sworn in, he “cut corners like a stock boy on the clock at the local grocery store. He admitted on the witness stand that he worked just 40 hours in forming his basic opinions. [Yet] somehow his work totaled 300 hours, for a $180,000 paycheck. Mark it down as some of the most unproductive labor since Richard J. Daley’s patronage machine hired ward heelers to clean the city’s street signs.”

Then the editorial page weighed in. Hailing Kocoras’s repudiation of the “‘rent-an-expert’ phenomenon,” the Tribune noted that the judge “reserved particular scorn for the ‘expert’ testimony of Nobel laureate Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, whose ‘ignorance of material facts and evidence,’ said Kocoras, ‘was profound.'”

No need to feel sorry for Lucas, who, by Greising’s account, conceded he hadn’t been much of a witness. But if we measure the treatment of Lucas by journalism’s usual standards of fairness, it was woeful. First Kocoras crucified him in the pages of the Tribune, and then Greising crucified him, and then the editorial page crucified him.

Could readers possibly come to their own conclusions about Lucas’s testimony? Had the Tribune ever reported it? No and no. The journalism was all commentary and no coverage.

But how unreasonable was this, actually? (I’m leaving the Sun-Times out of this discussion because it ignored the trial.) You decide. Lucas’s testimony begins on page 5,085 of the trial transcript and ends on page 5,778. That’s 694 pages of testimony, from November 9 to November 12. You try writing the 750-word–or 1,500-word–report that does justice to the antitrust issues at stake, Lucas’s ideas about them, and the cut and thrust of cross-examination.

And once you’ve figured out how to cover Lucas, that leaves the other umpteen thousand pages of trial transcript.

You can see why there wasn’t a peep from the Tribune about the trial until it ended and reporters could flip straight to the last page of the transcript for the bottom line. The fact that the judge had excoriated a big shot was gravy. “It’s highly unusual for a judge to single out a witness,” says Greising, who read the 694 pages of testimony and concluded that Lucas did even worse than Kocoras had said. “I made sure we gave him a fair shake.” Even greater fairness, he reflects, might have meant putting Lucas’s entire testimony up on the Internet.

Lucas, who won his Nobel for a theory of “rational expectations,” could have rationally expected only one accommodation from the Tribune that he didn’t get: someone acknowledging that he signed on to the pharmaceutical case in 1994 and didn’t win his award until late in ’95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cartoon copyright Tribune Media Services. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission..