Politicians vs. Publisher

One journalist we bet we’d like if he gave us half a chance is Glenn Pfeil, publisher of the News-Sun in Waukegan. Where most publishers these days are under orders to cut the budget, smash the unions, and move the product, Pfeil keeps one eye fixed on his spiritual duties.

We speak of his obligations to the Copley Creed.

The Creed, composed by the late chairman of the board of the newspaper chain for which Pfeil toils, weighs on every decision that Pfeil makes. “The newspaper is a bulwark against regimented thinking,” the Creed declares. “One of its duties is to enhance the integrity of the individual, which is the core of American greatness . . .”

Surely, it is Pfeil’s devotion to the Creed that explains the anguish he exhibited some weeks ago, when two elected public officials importuned the public to think in lockstep. We speak of state representative John Matijevich and Lake County Coroner Barbara Richardson, both of whom took to the airwaves in a bald attempt to manipulate mass opinion.

“According to the Newspaper Guild, management wants to eliminate the jobs of full-time journalists, threatening the quality of news coverage in Lake County. Please join me in an effort to help the newsroom employees by calling the News-Sun today and encouraging the publisher to negotiate fair,” said Richardson, a Republican.

“Join me–call the News-Sun today and encourage the publisher to negotiate fair,” said Matijevich, a Democrat.

Certainly, Glenn Pfeil was offended. In our society it is the function of publishers to print editorials ordering public officials to shape up. It is not the function of public officials to broadcast commercials asking publishers to shape up too.

The Chicago Newspaper Guild paid for these offensive messages. They were broadcast over WKRS, a Waukegan radio station, ten times a week during August, September, and October.

Soon after they began to air, Pfeil ran into Richardson at a public gathering, the topping-off ceremony for a new commercial development.

“I was standing in the refreshment line,” Richardson told us. “He came up to me and wanted to know what right I had making that commercial. He was very loud and very boisterous. People were turning around. He was enraged. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Glenn. This isn’t the time or place.’

“I walked over to a group of people I’d been standing with, and he followed me over there. It looked worse for him than it was for me. We didn’t put on the gloves and go after each other, but there were a lot of people standing around.”

A while later Richardson and Matijevich sat down with Pfeil in a Waukegan restaurant and over coffee tried to calm the waters. From what Richardson and Matijevich told us, we have tried to approximate the actual conversation:

Pfeil: John, at least you’re a Democrat. We expect you to stick up for labor. But Barbara you’re a Republican!

Richardson: All I said was, “Sit down, folks, and talk about this.” I deal daily with your reporters on the beat, and we’ve gotten to be friends. And I felt there’s been an injustice done to them.

Pfeil: Can’t we manage our own paper without politicians sticking their noses in?

Matijevich: There’s such a thing as breaking a union. That’s their concern. They feel you’re out to break the union.

Pfeil: They know better than that.

Matijevich, assistant majority leader in the Illinois house, has represented Waukegan and North Chicago in the General Assembly for 24 years. He’d always been able to count on the News-Sun for an endorsement. But in the wake of the coffee summit, the News-Sun changed its allegiances in the 61st District.

“We have concluded it’s time for a change,” the editorial page announced. The paper’s choice was Waukegan alderman Thomas Clement, the Republican candidate. “While Matijevich has enjoyed long-term popularity, he has become closely aligned with the Chicago Democratic leadership and thus has become part of the problem in Springfield. . . . We therefore take the somewhat unusual position of endorsing a challenger who has basically good ideas and we think a promising future in politics.”

Another editorial urged Lake County to vote yes in a referendum on making the coroner of Lake County an appointed position. “They’re playing the game of politics,” said Richardson, understandably hostile to this idea.

In truth, the News-Sun had long held that the coroner’s office should be removed from the voters’ hands. But close readers of the editorial page must have been startled by its affection for Tom Clement. On at least two occasions the News-Sun had contemptuously dismissed Clement and his aldermanic allies as “alderboys.”

Failing in our first attempts to speak with Pfeil, we settled for managing editor Charles Selle, a member of the paper’s editorial board. “It was time for a change,” said Selle. “It was time for someone to stand up and say no to tax increases.”

But when Clement opposed a utility-tax increase, you called him “alderboy,” we pointed out.

“I think we’re mixing apples and oranges here,” Selle answered. “A tax increase for the city was needed, and I don’t think the editorial board was convinced the temporary surcharge was continuing to be needed.”

Any connection between the endorsements and the commercials? we asked Pfeil when we finally got through to him? “Absolutely not,” he said, stressing his conviction that Matijevich and Richardson were “free to do” what they did. Yet you bawled her out, we said. “I don’t care to discuss it,” said Pfeil. “That’s a matter between Barbara Richardson and myself.” He quickly hung up.

The backdrop to the commercials cut by Matijevich and Richardson is another of the nagging labor disputes that everywhere beset the newspaper industry. The Newspaper Guild’s last contract with the News-Sun expired in March of ’89, and negotiations broke off last April. The central issues are not economic; the Guild is sure the News-Sun seeks the freedom to attack the Guild at its roots by replacing full-time employees with “independent contractors” paid by the story, while limiting the seniority system that governs who’s laid off.

To embarrass the News-Sun management, the Guild has resorted on occasion to the “byline strike”–reporters taking their names off their stories. The endorsement of Tom Clement triggered one. Although Clement appeared before the paper’s editorial board to expound his views, Matijevich was not invited–which Selle defends on the reasonable grounds that the paper certainly knew by now who he was and what he stood for. But the News-Sun’s political reporters seized the opportunity to declare that Matijevich, and other slighted candidates for local office, “weren’t getting a fair shake” (in the words of Guild leader Ralph Zahorik). In protest, they removed their bylines until the election was over.

Charles Selle actually claimed not to know why his reporters were doing that until we told him. “This is news to me that that’s what it was about,” he said.

He insisted the endorsements had nothing to do with the commercials. “To say it’s a vendetta against Joe Matijevich is bullshit.”

Even though Glenn Pfeil was furious? we asked.

“There are a lot of things that make him pretty mad,” said Selle. “A lot of things make me pretty mad. A lot of things make the Guild membership pretty mad.”

That sums up labor relations in Waukegan.

Made for TV

Lake County voters took Barbara Richardson’s side in the referendum by a two-to-one margin, and they reelected John Matijevich with more than 60 percent of the vote. According to the News-Sun’s unbylined account, the victor declared that Clement had campaigned “at the dirtiest level I’ve seen in this area.”

Clement called this accusation “unconscionable,” which didn’t prevent him from approaching Matijevich and shaking his hand.

After weeks of campaigning memorable for its negativism, election night in America rang with sportsmanship. A coworker of ours who heard Lynn Martin concede was astonished to discover she is actually a generous, elegant woman, not a carping shrew.

The meaning of all this gallantry became clearer to us as we read a New York Times account of Senator Bill Bradley’s near defeat in New Jersey. Bradley seemed reflective and composed, while Michael Kaye, his media adviser, was “near tears.” Said Kaye the day after: “I’m not stupid. I’m not going to say the television was on target. No one feels worse about last night than I do, sitting there listening to people talking about these irrelevant ads.”

At this point, we called our old friend Lester “Chip” Scrunch, whose race for Congress in a nearby state ended in crushing defeat. Scrunch told us he sent over a case of scotch along with a note offering to baby-sit, so the winner and his missus could go out and enjoy a movie.

You’re taking it awfully well, we marveled.

“If I thought that the voters of this state had rejected the real ‘Chip’ Scrunch, I’d be devastated,” he told us. “But that clearly didn’t happen, so where’s the pain?”

“Who did they reject?” we asked him.

“They rejected a nattering nincompoop slapped together by some damn-fool media adviser who never could figure out what the focus groups and voter surveys were trying to tell him. But it wasn’t me, and if I regret anything it’s figuring out it wasn’t me a good two weeks before election day and not speaking up when I should’ve.”

Who is the real “Chip” Scrunch? we inquired.

“It’s way too early to say,” Scrunch told us. “I’m going to take some time off and not even think about questions like that for a while. But I guarantee–we’ll have an answer for you by 1992, and you won’t be disappointed.”

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