Pionerr Press’s Second Guess

Working largely on her own time, some nights staying at her desk until three o’clock in the morning, Pioneer Press reporter Brenda Fullick last autumn composed a group of articles on a matter she understood intimately. Her subject was incest.

In mid-January Fullick’s articles ran as a package in the Northbrook Star and in Pioneer’s other North Shore papers under the logo “Speak No Evil.” The logo points to a theme that Fullick says largely vanished from her articles in the editing–the theme of society abetting incest by refusing to discuss it. She tells us that the lead of one story had cited the observation (gleaned from a book) that incest is too common to be a true taboo. The taboo is talking about it. But this quotation was edited out.

At one point, Fullick tells us, “I had essentially decided to withdraw my byline from the stories because I thought they had been edited with a machete. I was very unhappy with what they had done with my project. I no longer thought it was as powerful as it had been.”

But Pioneer’s deputy executive editor Alan Henry, and bureau chief Carol Goddard, who oversees 15 Pioneer papers in the northern suburbs, convinced Fullick to change her mind. She remembers them offering various arguments, which ranged from making it possible for her to enter the story in contests to the one that swayed her, informing readers who’d survived incest who she was so they could call.

Whatever Fullick’s editors jettisoned along the way, the copy that survived the journey from Fullick’s keyboard to the papers did Pioneer proud. One story was extraordinary. This story was Fullick’s account of being violated by her father.

She described a dream–a naked girl running “in the dark of night,” trying to hide from someone chasing her in a house with glass walls. “Even though I never felt I had a daddy, I cry out one more time for a daddy to protect me. Daddy! Daddy! I realize one more time that no one will ever be there for me.”

The dream ends, but Fullick’s account went on. “I knew as a child that I would sooner abort than carry my father’s Satan baby, though I didn’t know I was too young to ovulate,” she wrote. “I spent several nights wondering how to force a miscarriage before I began menstruating.

“He always said my mother was frigid. He always said I was sexy. He said it was our special secret. He forced me to say I loved him.”

The abuse, says Fullick, ended when she was 14. She hasn’t seen her father in nine years and isn’t sure what state he lives in now. They do not communicate.

Fullick tells us, “It was one of those things that had to come out. You knew it was in your head and you had to write it. I scoured the suburbs and I couldn’t find anyone who would tell me their story and use their name. And I thought that was wrong, because I felt victims should not be ashamed to say they were victims. Until we admit we’re victims we’re helping other people abuse children. As long as we feed into this whole system of secrecy–as long as people are afraid to talk about it–it makes it that much easier for people to abuse children.”

Her story was unambiguous and horrifying. “It’s really something!” Drew Davis, Pioneer’s vice president for newspapers, told us proudly. “There aren’t too many newspapers that would publish that, I don’t think.”

Maybe there aren’t. Even Pioneer had second thoughts. Last week Brenda Fullick’s package on incest was picked up by Pioneer’s Central Group newspapers in Niles, Skokie, Park Ridge, and Morton Grove. But Fullick’s story describing her father’s abuse of her appeared in none of them.

“We had an internal communications breakdown here,” said Davis, setting out the company’s version of what happened. “We’re getting to the bottom of how that happened, but I think it’s simply because people are people.”

The breakdown evidently involved middle managers making a decision that the top brass didn’t know about. Davis said that Carol Goddard (who wouldn’t talk to us) got nervous. She “expressed a concern to Alan Henry that if the opinion [Fullick’s] piece ran again elsewhere and if there was anything actionable in there, that Pioneer would be doubly liable, or more liable, if subsequent legal action came out of this.”

According to Davis, Henry also heard from other anxious editors. “At this point there was some internal second-guessing by Alan Henry, and instead of charging forward without bringing this to the attention of senior management, he directed that the op-ed piece be replaced by another piece that had been prepared for the original package. With something as sensitive as this, I think it’s a logical and correct human response to think about what we publish in our paper.”

Huh? Isn’t the time to think about what you publish before you publish it in the first place?

Davis said, “We reviewed all of this with excruciating care with three careful editors prior to publication.” The two senior of the three were Henry and Goddard. In other words, their painstaking decision to run was promptly followed by their painstaking decision to spike.

“It was a joint decision,” said Davis. “Alan and Carol decided to pull it pending further review.”

Further review? we asked.

“Further review is further review,” Davis explained. “It’s even ongoing as we speak.”

Did Fullick’s father call? Or a lawyer? Was there any inkling of legal trouble brewing? No, said Davis. Or some disturbing clue that the story wasn’t sound?

“We stand by it, in the words of the editors,” Davis proclaimed. “We stand by it. Proudly so.”

The only thing clear about Pioneer’s peculiar behavior is that Henry (who didn’t return our phone calls) and Goddard are taking the fall for it. Fullick heard a somewhat different story from reporter Kathy Routliffe in the Park Ridge office, and she says Goddard confirmed it: the decision actually made was to run her story without a byline. “I told Carol I didn’t want to run it at all then,” says Fullick. “Without my byline it was just voyeurism and it didn’t make a statement.”

Relations between Pioneer management and the Newspaper Guild have been frayed for years, and this episode hasn’t helped. Routliffe happens to be the guild’s Pioneer unit chair, and she waded in last week, firing off a letter to publisher Richard Gilbert. Routliffe expressed the guild’s “extreme disappointment” with how Pioneer handled Fullick’s “gut-wrenching and powerful personal testimony.” Pulling Fullick’s byline was “illogical and cowardly” and forcing her to withdraw her personal account “guts the entire series.”

“At some point, sir,” Routliffe advised Pioneer’s top man, “we have to be willing to risk ‘libel’ (and how many times has that bogeyman been invoked in the name of timidity?) to print important news.”

The People Make Us Do It

“The people’s right to know is a stern mistress,” the famous editor pronounced, as he flamboyantly impaled a fistful of copy on the silver spike on his desk.

“Yes sir,” murmured the awestruck copy boy.

“Never seen it to fail,” the lad’s idol continued. “Get a first-class story and there’s no place to put it in the paper.”

“No sir,” the copy boy agreed.

“Crying shame,” the editor lamented. “Probing analysis of Bill Clinton’s economic-recovery policy. Hurts like hell not to go with it.”

“Yes sir,” nodded the eager newcomer to big-league journalism.

“Trouble is, we already got a Clinton story,” explained the sage. “Secret tapes of Clinton and alleged paramour. Dumps on Cuomo. Mafia angle. Have to run it whether I want to or not.”

“Yes sir.”

“Might think I’m the boss around here,” the great editor rattled on. “I’ll tell you who I take orders from. The people’s right to know, that’s who. Damn thing’s sacred.”

“Yes sir, it is sir,” the lad agreed.

“Here! Read this and weep!” the editor growled. He reached into his wastebasket and waved a clump of wire copy.

“Behind-the-scenes look at the Noriega trial. Some of the deals America’s cutting to put him away. National scandal. Stuff that could bring down the administration. Belongs on page one.”

“Yes sir, very interesting sir,” said the nervous youth.

The editor flung the paper ball back into the receptacle. “Between the Dahmer trial and the Tyson trial we’ve already got courtroom drama coming out of our ears. Sometimes,” he continued gravely, “I tell myself, to hell with the people’s right to know. But you know what? The day I really believe that, is the day I don’t belong in this business any longer. ‘Cause that’s the day I’ve forgotten who I’m working for.”

“Yes sir,” the boy intoned.

“Kid, I see a glint in your eye. It reminds me of me. Think you’re ready to cover a story for this sheet of ours?”

“Yes sir!” the plucky lad fairly shouted.

“OK. Here’s the slant. Say they wind up in the same cell. Dahmer and Tyson. Not outside the realm. Who do you like? Hit some gay sports bars and probe for react.”

The editor spotted an expression on the kid’s face.

“I understand how you feel,” the lad’s mentor confided. “If it was just up to me, I’d never ask you to do it. But like I said, you don’t work for me.”

“It’s the people . . . ” the copy boy mumbled.

“And they got rights,” the editor decreed.

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