Our Man at the Tribune

Last May, Richard Harwood, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, published a fierce critique of his newspaper’s coverage of a local antiabortion rally. It was a “weekend’s shabby work,” wrote Harwood, an “embarrassing performance,” a trifling “13-inch story and a photograph on Page B3 on the morning of the gathering [estimated by officials at around 200,000 persons], followed on the next day by a 16-inch story and two photographs on the first page of Section C.”

Harwood compared this perfunctory response to the Post’s coverage of a similarly sized prochoice rally a year earlier: “More than 15 columns of space and a few marchers [who worked for the Post] as well. It was treated on the front page as the leading story of the day.”

Why the difference? Harwood asked the Post’s managing editor, who observed that among Post employees, attending the prochoice rally “was an “in’ thing to do,” while these employees “not only are not part of the anti-abortion movement but don’t know anyone who is.” Harwood commented, “Those are not the circles in which we travel or from which we draw intellectual nourishment.

“As one of last weekend’s editors put it: ‘I didn’t even know this was anything important.'”

“This affair,” Harwood concluded, “has left a blot on the paper’s professional reputation . . .”

We have a reason for dwelling on Richard Harwood, whose Sunday column is, according to Nat Hentoff, a fan, “so pungently instructive and entertaining that it’s the first thing I read after scanning the front page.”

The reason is that the Chicago Tribune now has a sort of ombudsman of its own, and Richard Harwood is the model that the Tribune very deliberately decided not to follow. Like Harwood, Doug Kneeland has spent a lifetime in journalism. Like Harwood, he now writes a column and questioning in-house memos. But unlike Harwood, Kneeland does not trouble his employer with the same sort of unsparing scrutiny it dishes out.

“Do me a favor,” said Kneeland. “Don’t invent some role and criticize me for not fulfilling that role. This has not been the Dick Harwood job, where he sort of is separate from everything and sharpshoots. I don’t think I would be as effective if I were doing just that. We’re trying to invent something that’s somewhat different from what others are trying to do . . . something to fit me.”

The Tribune calls Kneeland its “public editor,” in part because of the baggage “ombudsman” carries. “Typically,” editor Jack Fuller explained, “when news organizations have appointed someone they call an ombudsman, they have looked on that person as being in some sense outside of the management of the newspaper. The theory was, I guess, that anyone on the inside is, in some way, incapable of making honest judgments about mistakes and so forth, because they’re implicated. And therefore we have to take someone and separate him or her from the management of the paper . . .

“I think that’s a perfectly plausible model. [But] it strikes me it’s an odd one in a number of ways. In part because you never really can separate anybody, and in part because it’s an admission that I’m not prepared to say is an accurate one that we are incapable in the ordinary course of things of determining when we’re wrong. I also don’t think the best way to deal with difficulties of coverage, of errors, unconscious practices that are wrongheaded, is necessarily to have an outsider kvetching about them–or even a quasi-outsider. They have to be dealt with by us. Therefore, the concept I operate on is to have one of our top editors get the assignment.”

Kneeland was deputy editor of the editorial page before becoming the Tribune’s first public editor in early October. He performs various internal duties: he oversees and has expanded the Tribune’s “corrections and clarifications” on page three; he speaks his mind about the paper’s sins as he perceives them at meetings of top editors; he writes an occasional staff memo called “Public Occurrences”–“a very engaging discussion,” says Fuller, “of big things and little that we do from time to time that are either tasteless or pejorative or in his view not excellent”; he opens his door to the Tribune’s bone-picking minions.

And he tries to see to it that every reader with a grievance will enjoy at least a semblance of the access that a friend of Charles Brumback or John Madigan can take for granted. We talked to one such reader, Marsha Anderson, of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, whose beef was with the Tribune’s willingness to run letter after letter that blamed rock-throwing Palestinians for triggering the October 8 bloodbath on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, even though editors such as Kneeland knew that wasn’t true. (For more on this, see the November 17 Village Voice.)

To Anderson’s surprise, Kneeland set up a meeting with editorial page editor Lois Wille, deputy editor Don Wycliff, and other members of the editorial board. Ultimately, Anderson was not won over–it didn’t help that yet another letter was published after the meeting–but Anderson was at least impressed by the sympathetic hearing she got, and by Kneeland himself.

“It’s Mr. Kneeland’s job to be conciliatory and accommodating and politic, and I think he does his job very well,” Anderson told us. This is praise, if not the highest.

It’s possible that an abrasive sharpshooter like Richard Harwood could perform none of the above duties as effectively as Doug Kneeland does them. But that leaves us with Kneeland’s very public role of occasional columnist, which is where his job definition runs into serious problems.

In his first column, which appeared on October 10, Kneeland announced that “my purpose will not be to defend the Tribune, but to explain it.” But listen to his explanations:

On pressure from above: “Outside directors understand from the start that that role gives them no influence in the news and editorial decisions of the newspaper.”

On political endorsements: “The system–like most other things in this world–is imperfect. Some candidates don’t return their questionnaires or seek an interview. Many do, however, and their answers to the written questions and their performance during the interviews often are the deciding factors . . . ”

On coverage of minorities: “What I’d like you to know is that we spend a lot more time worrying about fairness to all segments of the community than may ever be apparent . . . ”

On unhappy readers: “Truth and wisdom are in the eyes of the beholders. The more beholders, the more different truths and wisdoms they may be seeing. The Tribune, much to our good fortune, has lots of beholders. And though we treasure them all, we can’t always agree with the particular truth and wisdom beheld by each . . . ”

Kneeland’s avuncular discourses wipe away the grime of misunderstanding to reveal a Tribune wiser and kinder than any of us dared dream. This is not explanation in lieu of defense; it’s explanation in lieu of criticism.

“He’s not a newspaper critic,” says Jack Fuller. “Jim Warren writes about us critically when he pleases. That’s fine. That’s Warren’s role. Jim is not one of the editors of this paper. He’s not responsible for the paper as a whole.”

But if Warren is the critic, Kneeland has become the conscience of the Tribune, a title he shrinks from because he rightly considers it “precious” while acknowledging that it’s more or less what he’s supposed to be. And the untroubled demeanor that Kneeland has exhibited in print makes the Tribune look just as self-satisfied as its worst enemies ever said it is.

We asked Kneeland how he’d proceed if he wanted to bring the same sort of case against the Tribune that Richard Harwood last May made so thumpingly and publicly against the Washington Post. Kneeland would do two things, he thinks: he’d raise the subject at the Wednesday meeting of the editors, and he’d write a column.

We were glad to hear he’d do that. The sooner the Tribune’s conscience reveals a capacity for distress, the better. And Kneeland told us he happens to be collecting material on the very subject of abortion coverage, and also material for a column that will examine what he suspects are some persistent biases in the coverage of gun control.

But don’t expect anything like the level of Harwood’s anger. Kneeland’s discussions are likely to be thoughtful and even-handed to a fault. “If you just do the Harwood thing,” Kneeland told us, “you’re building a defensiveness that doesn’t leave you very effective on the inside trying to correct things.”

Journalists don’t usually worry about being effective on the inside. If Kneeland intends to keep up all those inside relationships while writing a column that anyone on the outside takes seriously, he might be trying to pull off the impossible.

Royko at Rest

Mike Royko decided back in the 60s that Bill Ayers was “kind of a jerk.” After “wading through” Ben Joravsky’s recent Reader profile of the former Weatherman, Royko concluded that Ayers is still a jerk. The logic is not all that easy to follow; but apparently Ayers is a jerk today because he’s untrue to the rabble-rousing jerk he used to be. “What struck me most about the story was that there was nothing in there about the Persian Gulf,” Royko wrote this past Tuesday. “Nothing about Ayers revving up his anti-war sentiments. . . . Not one word about our being on the brink of a questionable war from someone who made Vietnam protest the reason for his existence. . . . Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. His kids are too young to go, and he’s too old . . .”

Here is news that Royko’s legman would have told him if his legman had made one of those old-fashioned phone calls to check things out. Joravsky did his interviewing last June and July and Iraq invaded Kuwait in August. But because Joravsky does check his facts, he also had a couple of brief conversations with Ayers in August, and Ayers “went on about how horrible it was to send the troops over and how Bush didn’t seem to have learned anything from Vietnam.” Ayers had even taken part in demonstrations. But Joravsky saw no reason to rewrite his article just to add this perfunctory update.

On the other hand, if it’s absolute consistency Royko insists on, he has Ayers cold. “I don’t know if he’s going to bomb any buildings,” Joravsky told us. “I guess if he’s going to be consistent he should bomb a building so Royko can denounce him as a bomb-throwing radical.”

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