Playing Softball

The day the war began the Wall Street Journal ran a story full of the history George Santayana warned about: the kind we either remember or repeat. I had a fantasy. Ted Koppel and George W. Bush sit side by side before a crackling fire. Koppel holds the front page of the Journal up so we at home can see how the story begins. We read the elaborate headline:

Desert Quicksand

Mideast Invasions

Hold Many Pitfalls,

History Teaches


Napoleon in Egypt and British in Iraq Found Grand Plans Faced Unexpected Hurdles


Lawrence of Arabia’s Counsel

Koppel reads bits and pieces of the article aloud–strictly for our benefit, of course. President Bush has been meditating for months on earlier great-power invasions of Iraq. He has this history down cold.

“Again and again, Westerners have moved into the Mideast with confidence that they can impose freedom and modernity through military force,” Koppel intones. “Along the way they have miscalculated support for their invasions, both internationally and in the lands they occupy….They have been mired in occupations that last long after local support has vanished. They have met with bloody uprisings and put them down with brute force.”

Skipping down the page, Koppel continues, “Mr. Bush says this invasion will be different. He has broadened his war aims in recent weeks from removing Mr. Hussein and any weapons of mass destruction to transforming Iraq into a beacon of freedom in the Middle East.” But the Journal was reminded of what Napoleon had to say when he marched into Cairo in 1798: “Peoples of Egypt, you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion. Do not believe it! Reply that I have come to restore your rights.” Within months a resistance had organized, and three years later the French were gone.

Seizing Baghdad in World War I, British general F.S. Maude proclaimed, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Maude was soon dead of cholera, and by 1920 maintaining Britain’s hold on power required the slaughter of as many as 10,000 rebellious Iraqis.

Koppel puts down the Journal. “Not a lot of encouragement in this,” he says.

Bush nods. “The past is very humbling,” he says. “That’s why our goals are so modest and an international coalition so important. Even the best of intentions could easily turn imperialistic if our friends weren’t around to remind us that Iraq belongs to the Iraqis.”

As they chat, Bush’s knowledge of the Middle East astonishes us, though it’s long been a point of honor among American presidents to steep themselves in the history of every region to which they think of sending U.S. troops. Koppel is holding up the media’s end, which is to probe for any point of weakness in the president’s position (much as Congress does). No president will ever get everyone to agree with him that a given war is necessary, but if war begins, the public will at least have a clear idea why he thinks it necessary to fight and the confidence that he’s done more than simply blow on his dice and toss them.

That was my fantasy about Bush. It roughly describes the prelude to war in Great Britain. What happened here is that whenever a good argument for attacking Saddam Hussein surfaced in the press it became part of the process of a nation talking itself into war. These arguments didn’t begin with Bush, who has never been asked to think aloud in public–they were projected onto him.

Tony Blair can stand in the House of Commons for ten hours defending war in Iraq, to the great relief of Americans who want to believe the war’s right in principle but don’t trust anyone in Washington to tell them why. But on this side of the Atlantic aphorisms have carried the day. Naysayers who complain President Bush never made his case miss the point. He didn’t have to. War is never something the U.S. simply chooses to make; it’s always the duty we have to fulfill, the burden we must strap to our backs.

A biting New York Press column by Matt Taibbi circulated among war resisters a few days before the war began. Taibbi’s subject was Bush’s half-hour March 6 news conference, the closest he got to Blair’s grilling in parliament. Taibbi wrote that it was “like a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function. Particularly revolting was the spectacle of the cream of the national press corps submitting politely to the indignity of obviously pre-approved questions.”

Question from April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks: “How is your faith guiding you?”

Response: “I pray for peace, April, I pray for peace.”

As reported in the Boston Globe: “As Bush stood calmly at the Presidential lectern, tears welled in his eyes when he was asked how his faith was guiding him.”

In an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich said Ryan’s question reminded him of the moment in Chicago when sob sister Mary Sunshine asks Roxie Hart: “Do you have any advice for young girls seeking to avoid a life of jazz and drink?” That’s the scene where lawyer Billy Flynn is playing the reporters like marionettes: they’re buying a story because it’s such a good one, and the next edition’s headlines shriek Roxie’s big lie, “We both reached for the gun.”

I know Chicago’s supposed to be cynical and satirical, but I lapped it up as a celebration of our city. Rich said it’s a big hit because it caught a wave. He might have a point; it might be celebrating a lot more than just Chicago.

“Reporters argue that they have no choice,” wrote Taibbi in the Press. “They’ll say they can’t protest or boycott the staged format, because they risk being stripped of their seat in the press pool. For the same reason, they say they can’t write anything too negative.”

This is an old problem. Newspapers have had it forever with police reporters. Cops are their pals, their cousins, and their brothers, which makes them good for some stories and useless for others. So when a daily looks into police corruption, the cop house reporter is often left out of the loop. Maybe it’s time for Washington bureau chiefs to take their stalwarts aside, assure them, “Nobody thinks you don’t have any balls,” and explain that when the president descends from Olympus to announce why America needs to go to war the seats should be filled with reporters willing to try to make him prove it.

The front-page headline in Monday’s RedEye shouted “Setback in Iraq.” The Red Streak cover screamed “Ambush.” By any traditional measure of combat it had been an excellent weekend, and the American and British armies were rolling north to Baghdad. But the Reds got it right. Their nose for news-in-a-nutshell accurately told them that the big story wasn’t most things going right but some things going wrong. Meanwhile, sidebars in the mainstream dailies were saying that people in other Islamic states had begun to go crazy with anger. Billy Flynn had left the building.

Developments on the Western Front

You may not be sure where Naperville is. Drive west on the Eisenhower and then I-88 about 30 miles to the southwestern corner of Du Page County. There it sits, a sprawling community nourished by a high-tech corridor, and it’s quietly mushroomed to a population of 135,000, making Naperville the fourth largest city in Illinois and the biggest without a daily newspaper.

That’s about to change. On March 30, Hollinger International launches the daily Naperville Sun. Heretofore the Sun has published three days a week, anchoring the chain of 13 suburban Suns (12 are weeklies) Hollinger bought from Copley along with four dailies in 2000. Hollinger is a stingy operation–the last couple of times I looked at its Copley acquisitions it was to observe how their tradition of distinguished photojournalism was being cheaped out. But Hollinger’s also daring. A glance at the map shows its dailies in Gary, Joliet, Naperville, Aurora (now the state’s third largest city), Elgin, and Waukegan now girdling metropolitan Chicago.

Meanwhile the Tribune Company has retreated. For four years the Tribune covered western Du Page County and large swaths of Kane and Kendall counties with a zoned edition. Unlike other suburban editions, TribWest wasn’t called Metro this or that. It carried full-color art; it was subzoned. Three days a week the Tribune produced a TribWest strictly for Naperville, Lisle, and eastern Aurora. Its news hole was usually bigger than the one in the same day’s TribWest intended for other suburbs, and its circulation surpassed 25,000, higher than the Naperville Sun’s.

But TribWest disappeared March 5, in a metro-wide consolidation of Tribune zoned editions. “Beginning today, your TribWest section has a new name,” Naperville readers were told. “Like the Tribune’s other local news sections, it will be called Metro. Readers in Naperville now are getting the same edition that other residents of the western suburbs receive.” These other residents live as far away as the western edge of Kane County.

The change has meant a Metro section full of articles on distant suburbs that nobody who doesn’t live in them has any interest in. A Naperville reader E-mailed me, “We once again are stuck with stories about minor zoning battles and cop stuff from places like Roselle and Bloomingdale.”

The Tribune also had good news for its readers in eastern Du Page County. “Beginning this week,” it announced in early March, “we’ve made some improvements to your Metro section. The new Near West edition will focus on communities in western Cook and eastern DuPage counties.” It went on, putting the best possible face on things, “As always, look to Metro to find not only the most important news developments from your community and those nearby, but also to be the only newspaper source for the coverage and context you need to understand the news of the region.”

The Tribune was pretending that the Du Page-Cook county line is of little consequence to anyone who lives near it. All that line separates is the Cook County Democratic machine from the Du Page County Republican machine, Richard M. Daley from Pate Philip.

The Tribune’s primary competition in eastern Du Page County has been the Sun-Times. In the western county, in the absence of a local daily paper, it’s been the Daily Herald, which has never caught on in Du Page County the way it did in northwestern Cook County. “The Tribune seems to be pulling out of Naperville at a fairly inopportune time,” says Jim Davis, the Herald’s Du Page bureau chief. “We’re planning to do exactly the opposite of that, make the paper even better.”

There’s no consensus among journalists about the right way for big urban dailies to handle the exurbs. “Within the paper, there’s still a debate over the level of local news the Tribune should be delivering,” says Terry Brown, the paper’s Du Page bureau chief. “We realized we’d never be able to compete with the Daily Herald in terms of neighborhood news and prep sports. [Retrenchment] is a combination of the economy and those people on the side of the debate who said, ‘Readers of the Tribune want sophisticated stories that reach across the region, they don’t care about really local stories.'”

Brown isn’t so sure. “I’m old-fashioned enough to think that a good newspaper should be like a good supermarket. People expect quality in all the departments.” But that might be too much to ask of a paper so vast. “So we’ve gone to a strategy of trying to focus more on stories that we call ‘all ways’ stories that go across zones. Stories with content that would be of interest to readers in multiple geographies.”

The Daily Herald can pay closer attention to Naperville than the Tribune, but like the Tribune it’s from somewhere else and entered booming Du Page County because it saw opportunity there. “The Sun is claiming to reinvent the definition of local news,” says Davis. “I’m not sure I understand what they can do that hasn’t already been done. We have 13 years’ experience on them as a full-service newspaper with an emphasis on local news. It’s like they’re taking a page out of our book.”

“We focus on Naperville,” replies Gina Channell-Allen, executive editor of the Sun papers. “We are Naperville’s paper. We’re not an afterthought.” The problem with going daily is that she’s now asking readers who buy only one newspaper to buy hers. “We will complete our unparalleled presentation of the day’s news by tapping into the resources of our company’s numerous foreign and domestic news bureaus and wire services,” a Sun news release vows. “Unparalleled presentation” is the kind of pixie dust Hollinger sometimes spreads around in lieu of reporters.

News Bites

I visited LexisNexis Tuesday and searched for the phrase “fog of war.” Often attributed to Clausewitz, apparently wrongly, it’s probably the most popular expression dusted off in wartime by journalists who want to demonstrate they know war for what it is. My guess was that “fog of war” got a good workout after the fragging, friendly-fire casualties, pitched battles, and captured GIs of the war’s first weekend.

It turned out “fog of war” had been used 68 times just in stories datelined Monday or Tuesday. Going back a full week, there were 297 citations. It appeared under gloomy headlines such as “How did it happen? ask fliers stunned by friendly fire deaths” and “Stretched lines bode ill for siege.”

George Will asked a popular question in his March 16 column: “With India already the most populous democracy and soon to be the most populous nation, with its population growing more in a week than the entire European Union’s grows in a year, why exactly is France (population 60 million) a permanent member of the Security Council?”

And why is Britain? it might be asked for the same reason, though Will didn’t. Anyway, the trouble with proposing that the UN blackball obstructionist France is that almost the entire world admired the obstruction. The short answer to Will’s question would be that France is permanently on the Security Council because at the moment that’s where the rest of the world wants it.

Last week I made a mistake. Writing about Red Streak, I called its editor, Deborah Douglas, a Newspaper Guild member. She was a Sun-Times deputy feature editor before Red Streak, and I assumed her guild membership explained why she kept her job when the Sun-Times was bowing to the guild by sending nonguild Red Streak staffers back to their home papers.

In fact, Douglas tells me, she’s never been in the guild. Management considered deputy feature editor, like Red Streak editor, an exempt position.