Poor Recall

The Tribune misdirected its energies last Tuesday. The editorial page was Johnny-on-the-spot, ripping the Ninth Circuit appellate judges who’d postponed the recall election in California the day before. Few papers were as quick to weigh in. But reporting is never incorrect at a serious newspaper. The judges offered an intriguing rationale for what they did, and the Tribune news pages barely mentioned it.

“As their 66-page opinion makes clear,” asserted the editorial, “on Monday the appellate judges essentially cast the last votes on the 2000 presidential election in Florida. They didn’t like it.” But the three judges didn’t say that. They piously cited, time and again, the five-to-four U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore that called off the 2000 presidential election and gave the victory to George W. Bush.

The Supreme Court majority had argued that different counties were recounting ballots using different methods and it wasn’t fair. This week the three appellate judges, all appointed by Democrats, embraced the Supreme Court’s wisdom. “This is a classic voting rights equal protection claim,” said their opinion. “As the Supreme Court explained in Bush, ‘the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.’ Further, the ‘idea that one group can be granted greater voting strength than another is hostile to the one man, one vote basis of our representative government.'”

The New York Times published a half page of excerpts from the Ninth Circuit opinion and focused on what the appellate judges had gleaned from Bush v. Gore. The Tribune did not. Its “legal analysis” sidebar by Jan Crawford Greenburg was heavy on what “legal observers” had to say about the opinion and featherlight on the opinion itself. Greenburg’s observers disagreed on whether the Ninth Circuit had produced a “clearly erroneous” interpretation or a “plausible extension” of Bush v. Gore. But readers weren’t going to be allowed to reach opinions of their own. The Tribune offered a few very brief, scattered quotes from the Ninth Circuit opinion, and none showed the judges citing Bush v. Gore.

But though we weren’t shown, we were told. We were told by the editorial page that while the recall election itself might be a “farce,” the laws of the state had been followed and therefore “millions of voters [would] be cheated by a court ruling that vastly changes the calculus of the election.” Cheated of what wasn’t clear, since these millions of voters will be as free to vote against Governor Gray Davis next March as they would have been on October 7.

The problem, as the Ninth Circuit saw it, was the relative unreliability of punch-card ballot machines that 44 percent of California’s registered voters still use, though they’re supposed to be eliminated by next March’s state primary. The case against punch-card machines has been pretty thoroughly documented and quantified, but it served the Tribune’s purposes to pretend that the appellate judges had made it up. “In their wisdom,” the Tribune pronounced, signaling that it would rather belittle the Ninth Circuit than argue with it, “the judges divined that because of ‘technological defects’ with the machines, some 40,000 votes might not be counted…. They have deigned to protect the 44 percent of registered voters whose counties still use punch-card voting by declaring that system outmoded and postponing the election.”

But California declared the system outmoded when it decided to dump it. Here again, the Ninth Circuit opinion justified itself with another of those citations the Tribune ignored. Said Bush v. Gore: “This case has shown that punchcard balloting machines can produce an unfortunate number of ballots which are not punched in a clean, complete way by the voter.”

The Tribune said it doesn’t really care whether or not Davis is recalled, but in its view “a delay would greatly help” him stay in office–or as the Tribune also put it, “enjoy squatter’s rights in the capitol.” A squatter has no legal right to the space he occupies. You might not think Governor Davis becomes illegitimate if October 7 goes by without an election, but the Tribune does.

Shortzenegger’s Tall Tales

“Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quest to become the governor of California,” reported freelancer Karen Brandon in last Monday’s Tribune, “represents a new level of the blurring of celebrity and politics.” And of facts and image too.

We picture the Terminator as a great big guy. “Few stories can match the irresistible charm of Schwarzenegger’s rags-to-riches tale,” wrote Brandon. “A once-gangly teenage son of a police captain (and former Nazi) in a small, poor Austrian village, comes to America knowing little English, with $20 in his gym bag and muscles on top of muscles. Standing 6-feet, 2 inches in height, he finds unqualified success in a then-ridiculed sport and becomes the world’s best-sculpted man, winning Mr. Olympia seven times, relying as much on psychological warfare as his behemoth physique.”

My wife was at a dinner Schwarzenegger attended in Los Angeles earlier this year. How tall did you say he is? I ask.

“About five four or five six,” she says.

They weren’t introduced. So I call someone else who stood and talked with him that night. “I’m five six,” she says. “He is definitely no taller than me. I think he’s about five five.”

Six two is apparently the height Schwarzenegger decreed for himself years ago. The “official” schwarzenegger.com Web site lists him at six two; so do bodybuildinguniverse.com, celebguru.com, allmovieportal.com, and musclememory.com. Brandon dug the height out of one of Schwarzenegger’s books about himself, though she might have had reason to wonder.

My wife says he’s no six two, I tell Brandon after tracking her down in California.

“I have that same feeling,” she says, and explains that years ago she was working for a paper in Kansas City and Schwarzenegger came by. “I remember telling my friends at the time, ‘Gee, he doesn’t look anywhere as tall as he does in the movies.'”

“Don’t quote me on this,” says one of the candidate’s political lieutenants in LA when I call, “but I think he’s six two.”

How about five six?

I’m promptly switched to a press aide.

“I’m taller than five six and he’s taller than I am,” says the aide. “He’s not five six. He’s six feet tall.”

In 1999 Jay Mathews wrote the article “The Shrinking Field” for the Washington Post on the often exaggerated heights claimed by male candidates for political office. “Sociologist Ralph Keyes has shown that men often claim to be taller than they are,” he reported. “That goes double for celebrities. Men’s Health magazine compared claimed heights to actual heights and discovered that Arnold Schwarzenegger was 5-10, not 6-2, that Charles Bronson was 5-7, not 5-11, and Burt Reynolds 5-8, not 5-11.”

Mathews commented, “Such embellishments, to be effective, require not only changes in the numbers, but daily use of special footwear. I see nothing wrong with this.”

Neither do I. Think of the campaign slogan Schwarzenegger could be using: “He’ll give California a lift!”

Six two? I e-mailed Roger Ebert.

“No way,” he wrote back. “I’d guess 5-10 or 5-11.”

Greising Makes His Move

Rarely do we spot a columnist weighing each word to precisely convey in print the mood he’s in at the office. Readers don’t want to know. Writers don’t want to say. But last Sunday David Greising got into some complicated feelings about life at work. It was his last column for the Business section, and he didn’t pretend to be happy about that. He was moving on to a challenging and important new reporting assignment, but he didn’t pretend it was what he most wanted to do at the Tribune.

Managing editor James O’Shea gave Greising a column five years ago when Greising came to the Tribune from Business Week. He was topical, shrewd, and combative, and the Tribune put him on page one of the section, a newspaper’s way of saying, “This is someone we don’t want you to miss.” I assumed Greising’s column was bringing the Business section lots of new readers. Certainly people at the Tribune were proud of it.

But two months ago O’Shea told Greising he’d commissioned a couple of readership surveys that brought startling news: Business-section readers wanted news on the front page, not commentary. They wanted to find out in a glance what was going on, and his column was in their way. Greising’s readers were willing to look for him on page two, so that’s where he was going.

The move diminished him. I wrote at the time, “Page one says to the reader: He’s our best. He’s important. He’s a reason to stop at this section. To the writer it says: You’re good enough to set an agenda and sell the newspaper. All a column on page two says is, if you happen to run across this you might think it’s interesting.”

Greising thought the same thing. He went on vacation, and wrote occasionally for page two when he came back, but he was preoccupied with negotiating his future with O’Shea. If he couldn’t write a column on page one he wanted something commensurate, and his valedictory column announced what he and O’Shea had come up with.

It ran, ironically enough, on page one of Business. The peculiar headline, “Starting today, I accept a new writing challenge,” was followed by a long, baffling preamble about the challenge of “noticing what’s missing.” It was hard to see where Greising was going until he got there.

“Regular readers of this column may have noticed something missing from the Tribune’s Business section lately,” he wrote. “For the last few weeks, the column was moved from the front page and published on Page 2. This will no longer be the case after today. The column won’t run on Page 2. It won’t run on the front page, either. It will not run at all.

“This turn of events started with a decision by my editors. Two months ago, the editors decided to move the column off of the front page. My gut told me, almost immediately, that I didn’t want to write for Page 2. Eight weeks of trying has not changed my mind. What went missing, in my view, was the sense of impact, the notion that the column mattered enough to deserve prominent display….So it seemed time to make a switch.”

Greising wrote that he was “trading in the privilege of writing opinion for the luxury of having time to do a lot more reporting before writing. My stories now will focus on Chicago’s place in the global world of business, politics and society. There couldn’t be a more compelling story for Chicago and its future.”

The next few paragraphs remarked on the undeniable importance of the new beat, and Greising made his mixed feelings clear. “Every generation has its story. Globalization is the story of ours,” he wrote. “And I will be fortunate to bring it to you.”

But, he went on, “the column will be missing from the newspaper, and I’ll miss writing it. Now it’s my challenge to make the work that replaces it matter just as much.”

I told Greising his swan song was an intriguing exercise in “very measured enthusiasm.”

“That would about sum up how I feel about it,” he said. “What I tried to convey was that I would have preferred to keep my column.”

On your own terms?

“Right. And I do feel fortunate that a pretty good alternative has emerged. I wanted people to understand that this was kind of a mixed bag. I worked hard not to connote any sense of bitterness–because I’m not bitter. I’m not thrilled either–and I wanted to connote that too.”

What came across, I said, is that he might be a writer open to a conversation with the editor of another paper.

He had no response.

News Bite

8 Front-page caption in the September 3 Tribune: “Mourners accompany the body of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, slain in Friday’s bombing, at his funeral Tuesday in Najaf, Iraq. STORY, PAGE 21.”

From the story on page 21: “Unable to recover al-Hakim’s body after the blast, the family buried a coffin containing his pen, watch and wedding ring.”