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By Michael Miner

Playing Favorites

Every four years the Chicago Tribune endorses the Republican candidate for president. It’s a ritual that dates back to the Tribune’s presence at the founding of the Republican Party, and by making the best case for the Republican candidate–a better case than some candidates make for themselves–it arguably performs a public service.

Though the endorsement is inevitable, how it’s constructed isn’t. Will the Tribune candidly weigh merits against demerits, albeit with its own ideological thumb on the scales? Or will it extol everything that’s virtuous about its choice and ignore everything that isn’t? In short, will the editorial be intellectually honest?

This year’s endorsement was preceded by a series of six editorials examining “key issues.” Where the Tribune preferred George W. Bush’s position to Al Gore’s, it said so. Where it did not, it noted their differences. Because judicial philosophy wasn’t among the “key issues”–despite the likelihood that the next president will make two or three Supreme Court appointments–readers were left in suspense on one significant point: the Tribune’s willingness to address Bush’s nonchalant oversight and blithe defense of Texas’s criminal justice system, in particular its reprehensible administration of the death penalty.

Over the past two years the Tribune has identified itself with the cause of criminal justice reform in America. The paper was enormously proud of its two long 1999 series on prosecutorial misconduct nationwide and the death penalty in Illinois. This year an investigative team spent weeks in Texas. What it discovered, to quote from the beginning of the two-part series that ran in June, was this: “Under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has executed dozens of Death Row inmates whose cases were compromised by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys, meager defense efforts during sentencing and dubious psychiatric testimony.”

Would the Tribune recall Texas’s shabby record while endorsing its most prominent apologist? After all, no candidate is perfect. Or would the paper suffer from amnesia?

The endorsement that appeared last Sunday said this: “Most puzzling, Gore has been virtually silent on certain issues where this newspaper disagrees with Bush, issues on which one would expect Bush to be vulnerable. Bush has been far too glib about the terribly flawed death penalty system in Texas, Illinois and other states. Why has Gore not shouted from the rooftops about reform of capital punishment? About gun control? About abortion rights? Because this election has come down to a handful of key states where those issues don’t necessarily play very well for Gore. So Gore has orphaned them. Some ‘fighter.'”

Ingeniously, the Tribune had managed to raise the issue in order to hammer Gore with it. Gore’s feckless silence, especially during the third debate, truly has been infuriating. But only a casuist could contrive to sound more annoyed by the candidate who fails to loudly condemn injustice than by the candidate who administers it.

You might suppose from the endorsement that at some other time and place the Tribune editorial page did take Bush to the woodshed over the death penalty. I went looking for such a spanking, and all that I found were a couple of editorials written just after the Texas series. One said that despite Bush’s reassurances, the Tribune had found “grounds for deep concern.” The states, said the editorial, must provide defendants with better lawyers, ban “dubious evidence,” and “punish misconduct by police and prosecutors.” It concluded, “And yes, Gov. Bush, that includes Texas.” Directed at the presidential candidate it knew it was going to endorse, this might have been the Tribune’s idea of a pistol-whipping.

In the second editorial the Tribune urged Bush to reopen the case of Gary Graham, whose “murder conviction was built upon a string of investigative mistakes, trial errors and legal incompetence that undermines the state’s entire system of capital punishment.” In a preview of this week’s rhetoric, the Tribune then managed to be less upset with Bush than with his critics: “One thing is certain. If Graham is executed Thursday, Bush’s political detractors will be poring over every detail of the case, tracking down old witnesses and any new piece of information that might prove an innocent man was indeed put to death in Texas. Too bad such tenacity had not come earlier.”

Graham was executed on schedule. If only those damned detractors hadn’t sat on their asses until it was too late!

Letter From the Editor

The Tribune’s editorial page editor, R. Bruce Dold, responded to my E-mail making the above argument: “There are two reasons why we didn’t put more emphasis on death penalty reform and prosecutorial misconduct in the endorsement and the issues editorials. There is not much difference between Bush and Gore on these issues. They both support the death penalty. Bush, as we wrote, has been far too glib about a terribly flawed system in Texas. But Gore has passed on every opportunity to make a point on the issue. He hasn’t supported a federal moratorium on the death penalty. When capital punishment reform advocates tried to get language supporting a moratorium included in the Democratic Party platform, they were rebuffed. Gore’s crime initiatives talk a great deal about swift and sure punishment, but virtually ignore problems in the criminal justice system.

“These are primarily state, not federal, issues. We have written about problems in the federal criminal justice system and we have supported a federal moratorium on the death penalty. But our focus has been on Illinois, where the paper has identified the most significant problems and where the editorial page is likely to have the most influence on getting something done.”

Out With the Old

The Sun-Times showed it’s lost touch with its history when Katherine Fanning died two weeks ago. Kay Fanning was one of the more spectacular products of Chicago journalism. The second wife of Sun-Times publisher Marshall Field IV, she divorced him in 1963 (a couple of years before he committed suicide), moved to Alaska, and took a job in the library of the Anchorage Daily News. She soon married the Sun-Times’s executive editor, Larry Fanning, and together they bought the Daily News and turned it into Alaska’s leading paper. She was later editor of the Christian Science Monitor and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And she was the mother of Hollywood producer Ted Field, Marshall Field V’s younger half brother, whose desire to do as he pleased with his share of the family fortune caused the sale of the Sun-Times in 1983 to Rupert Murdoch.

The Sun-Times ran a nice little obit from the AP. A week later it endorsed George Bush for president. Though this wasn’t the first time the Sun-Times has backed a Republican, the Bush endorsement suggests a sea change. Risking redundancy with the Tribune, risking the alienation of longtime readers, the Sun-Times has decided to come clean. It’s no longer the moderately liberal paper the Field family made it. Doctrinaire tories run it now, first among them being the owner, whose highest aspiration is to enter Britain’s House of Lords.

On-Line Inspiration

Last week’s Windy City Times ran a delicious exchange from The West Wing of October 18. President Bartlet was chatting up radio talk-show host “Dr. Jenna Jacobs” at a reception.

Bartlet: Forgive me, Dr. Jacobs. Are you an MD?

Jacobs: A PhD.

Bartlet: A PhD.

Jacobs: Yes, sir.

Bartlet: Psychology?

Jacobs: No, sir.

Bartlet: Theology?

Jacobs: No.

Bartlet: Social work?

Jacobs: I have a PhD in English literature.

Bartlet: I’m asking ’cause on your show people call in for advice and you go by the name Dr. Jacobs on your show, and I didn’t know if maybe your listeners were confused by that and assumed you had advanced training in psychology, theology, or health care.

Jacobs: I don’t believe they are confused, no, sir.

Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Jacobs: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

Jacobs: 18:22.

Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it OK to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-ass Club, in this building, when the president stands, nobody sits.

Veteran media watcher Ron Dorfman brought the passage to my attention, as well as a purported letter that made the E-mail rounds last summer. The West Wing’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, acknowledges that this “letter” inspired his scene:

Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense. Lev. 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Lev. 20:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Dorfman had spotted my story last week about a naive young Daily Northwestern columnist who copied, much too closely for comfort, a familiar piece of collegiate Internet humor and was bounced from the paper because of it. “Cribbing stuff off the Net is not restricted to N.U. students,” Dorfman remarked, observing that Sorkin “tightened, sharpened, and dramatized” what he’d cribbed. The moral: always think “value added” when you pilfer. It makes the difference between lifting and uplifting.

News Bites

If David Jackson’s terrific recent Tribune series on cops and crooks had been set in New York, Martin Scorsese would be inquiring about movie rights. Jackson’s details were many and appalling, but the through line of his complicated narrative was a friendship between Amoco station owner Frank Milito and former police superintendent Matt Rodriguez that continued even after Rodriguez found out Milito was suspected in the unsolved 1987 murder of an Amoco executive whose uncle had once run for mayor of Chicago. The corruption Jackson was suggesting seems so deeply rooted that perhaps nothing can explain it except a feeling among some cops and hoods that no one truly understands either side but the other.

A footnote on the Tribune endorsement. The paper’s Republicanism isn’t expected of the rest of the Tribune Company’s properties. Two of the most important new acquisitions, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun, endorsed Gore, and so did the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Texas’s criminal justice system wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Except the Los Angeles Times’s. The Tribune Company’s biggest new daily, which doesn’t endorse anyone for the presidency, published a furious editorial Tuesday calling “shameful” last week’s ruling by a panel of federal appellate judges in New Orleans that upheld the conviction of Calvin Burdine, who’s on death row in Texas. Three jurors and a court reporter had testified in 1995 that Burdine’s attorney slept off and on during his 1984 murder trial.

“It is impossible to determine–instead, only to speculate–that counsel’s sleeping” hurt Burdine’s case, wrote the appellate judges, language that to the Times was “outrageous.” Pointedly reminding its readers who the governor of Texas is, the Times said that “to let this ruling stand would be an abomination.”

Tribune headline, October 25: “Assisted by robotics, doctors performing surgeries from afar.”

Sun-Times headline, same day: “With a mouse, doctor here operates on testicles in Baltimore.”

At a glance, the Sun-Times headline is the one that told it like it was. So I’m embarrassed to say at least one reader glanced at that headline and wondered what the story was doing on the front page, since it wouldn’t really be news until the same operation was performed on a human.