Praised With Faint Damnation

Both of Chicago’s dailies attacked Governor Ryan for commuting the sentences of everyone on death row in Illinois, their editorial logic adding to the evidence that Ryan had done the right thing. The Sun-Times editorial was simply stupid. Before getting to the commuted sentences, it derided Ryan for pardoning the four men on death row he was certain had been tortured into bogus confessions. “These cases cry out for justice, they cry out for reform,” the governor said. To which the Sun-Times said, “We all want justice. But Ryan breezed by the fact that the system had not yet given up on these four men. Last year a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the allegations against [Jon] Burge [the police commander kicked off the force ten years ago for torturing suspects], so justice was coming even without Ryan’s pardons.”

Apparently the Sun-Times believes that a special prosecutor is an ironclad guarantee that justice is on the way. It also believes this justice is something so precious and marvelous that a governor certain of the innocence of four men who collectively have spent nearly 60 years on death row should leave them behind bars another year or two waiting for it.

Unlike the Sun-Times, the Tribune has thought long and hard about the death penalty, and its 1999 series on capital crime and punishment in Illinois played a central role in persuading the governor to impose his moratorium. But the paper shrank from the meaning of its own conclusions. Last Friday it published an editorial urging Ryan not to “overstep” by granting a blanket clemency, warning that if he did he would “vastly undermine his own reform efforts.” A public backlash would be one reason; another would be that he would “render moot the moratorium he declared, his most significant accomplishment in office. Any pressure the legislature might feel to fundamentally change the justice system will disappear. There will be no moratorium, there will be no urgency to push reform.”

Pressure? Urgency? A few sentences later the same editorial admitted that a do-nothing legislature had responded to neither: it had “cynically ignored the imperative of capital punishment reform.” In a Sunday editorial, after the governor had commuted 167 death sentences, the Tribune noticed that the moratorium wasn’t moot after all. Death row “will fill up again soon enough,” it predicted, mentioning that incoming governor Blagojevich “has promised to retain the moratorium.”

Nonetheless, the Tribune wished that Ryan had shown restraint and commuted some death sentences but not others. “And so,” it said, “the governor has spared a number of prisoners for whom such mercy is justified. But…he has also spared Illinois’ most vicious murderers.”

So he has. The kind of “carefully calibrated” selectivity the Tribune favored seems possible only if you don’t think about it very hard. The Tribune wanted Ryan to play God, to examine all 167 cases and sort them into two unassailable piles: the condemned who deserved to live–either because the evidence wasn’t very strong, or the defense wasn’t very good, or the prosecution wasn’t very fair, or the same sentence wouldn’t have been imposed for the same crime in the next county–and the condemned who deserved to die. Ryan didn’t play God, and the Tribune faulted him for it–though it must be said the paper’s heart didn’t seem to be in its own editorials.

Editorial pages like to frame even the knottiest issues in terms of the right and wrong things to do: there’s always a right choice, and newspapers always know what it is. Ryan’s blanket commutation was the least wrong of the alternatives before him, and the Tribune editorial page gave us no reason to think that it wasn’t.

Rattling Windows at WTTW

Last week things got crazy at Window to the World Communications Inc. On Monday management laid off 16 employees and shut down CityTalk, the biweekly journal that carried WTTW and WFMT listings and cultural news. Seven other employees took early retirement. This was the third round of layoffs in a year, as the number of employees dropped from 287 to 235, and it shattered the staff’s equanimity.

On Tuesday furious employees met with management and demanded answers. “The meeting was very uncomfortable and painful,” says Joanie Bayhack, vice president for corporate communications. “My stomach was making very odd noises.”

President Dan Schmidt tells me that thanks to an endowment that has lost 30 percent of its value in the past two years, underwriters (United Airlines, Arthur Andersen, Chicago Community Trust) that have disappeared, and foundations with less money to give, a budget of $51 million in fiscal 2001 has been whittled to about $46 million for fiscal 2003. His employees know times are tough, but they’ve stopped suffering in silence. At the staff meeting they peppered him with questions. Here are two: Is management disappearing at the same rate as the rank and file? If austerity’s the watchword, why are you driving around Chicago in a company-owned Lexus?

I think so, Schmidt replied to the management-reductions question. Afterward he did some research. “The answer is we’ve reduced it more,” he tells me, and begins naming vice presidents who aren’t around any longer. “There’s been more than a 30 percent reduction in the last two years.”

As for the Lexus, Bayhack says the president of WTTW Communications has been provided with a car since long before Schmidt got there. Three other execs also drive company cars. “We try to maintain a competitive salary structure,” says Schmidt, defending the perk. And Lexus or no Lexus, “I’ll trade Joe Ahern’s salary for mine any day.” (Ahern runs Channel Two.)

“People were bitter and angry and vocal and verbal,” says Bayhack. “It was difficult and painful, and the people were going through this grieving process–that was obvious. And then they get angry and send the media all this information, and the media love it, because it’s us against them.”

Wednesday brought unexpected good news. Schmidt found out that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was awarding WTTW Communications a special grant of $500,000. (He’s using some of the money to rehire WTTW producer Dan Andries and bring back WFMT announcer Jan Weller as a freelancer.) But staffers had found management salaries on-line and that night they posted them on a bulletin board in the tape room. In fiscal 2001 (the most recent year for which figures were available) Schmidt had received a 20 percent pay raise, to $296,000.

“My salary was not that high,” says Schmidt. “It included the withdrawal of retirement funds that were taxable to pay for my kids’ college tuition.”

On Thursday someone inside the building told me Schmidt was hiding in his office, refusing to face the music about his spendthrift ways. If so, he escaped in time to attend that evening’s cocktail party at the Chicago Historical Society. This was a big, happy, even briefly disarming event, a celebration of the new three-part PBS series Chicago: City of the Century, which WTTW aired earlier this week.

But if the week had been a series of emotional lows and highs, the party was cause for wry regret. What an evening it would have been if WTTW had actually created the program everyone was celebrating. It hadn’t. City of the Century was produced by WGBH in Boston, and though WTTW’s press booklet calls the show “a co-production of WGBH Boston and WTTW11 in association with the Chicago Historical Society,” the roles of WGBH and CHS were critical, while Channel 11 barely had an oar in.

Eleven years ago Tribune reporter William Mullen introduced two of his friends to each other at Riccardo’s: WTTW producer Len Aronson met author and historian Donald Miller. Four years away from publishing City of the Century, the history of our city in the 19th century that would become the basis of the PBS series, Miller was in town to do research. Aronson, who’s a friend of mine, got excited about Miller’s project and immediately began thinking of it in terms of a TV documentary he would produce. He scribbled some language on a piece of paper to the effect that WTTW was hereby buying rights to the unwritten book and handed Miller a check for $100.

For the next four years Miller sent Aronson drafts of the book as he wrote them. “When he came to Chicago I did things with him he might not have done,” Aronson recalls. “I got the Metropolitan Sanitary District to take us out in one of their boats up and down the river. We looked at the city from the same perspective as Jolliet and Marquette. I told Don Miller once, ‘You know, the only difference between a journalist and a historian is that we both get to meet interesting people–but you have to wait until they’re dead.’ Many journalists are dilettantes with short attention spans. I’m very impressed by the level of maturity and commitment historians bring. Though they have to wait until people are dead, they’re constantly after the truth, and they bring a level of scholarship to it that you rarely see in journalists. Rarely do journalists get to deal with the significance of issues the way historians do.”

The historian made much steadier progress than the journalist. As Miller wrote his book, a task requiring no one’s efforts but his own, Aronson tried to get his documentary off the ground. When he heard that the head of the station, William McCarter (Schmidt’s predecessor), might be interested in some sort of history project, Aronson went straight to him about the Miller book–and wound up in big trouble with his immediate boss, who felt Aronson had gone over his head. For months Aronson heard nothing about his idea, and eventually he assumed it was dead. Then he discovered he’d simply been frozen out. Somebody else at the station had been put on the idea and was holding meetings with the Chicago Historical Society.

The participation of CHS was crucial to any video history of Chicago, because that’s where all the visual archives were, but president Doug Greenberg had his own ideas about how to proceed. “We had a meeting at the historical society with a group of senior scholars who were experts on Chicago history,” recalls Greenberg, today president of the Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles. “The original idea was that WTTW and the historical society would collaborate to produce a TV series on the history of Chicago in which many historians would participate. That was a project I cared about.”

That wasn’t a project WTTW cared about. “Very few TV stations want to get involved with a committee production,” says Aronson. Greenberg didn’t simply dislike the idea of basing a series on a single author and book; when he finally read City of the Century he disliked it. He reviewed it for the Tribune, slamming it for turning the saga of Chicago’s creation into “a romantic adventure.” He complained that “Miller unrelentingly and uncritically describes Chicago’s ‘progress,’ ‘growth’ and ‘development.’ Only rarely does he pause to suggest that a price had to be paid for Chicago’s astounding ascendance or to indicate something about the lives of those who paid that price.”

So WTTW and CHS were at logger-heads. Yet even within its own walls, WTTW wasn’t clear about what it wanted to do. Miller was ending his book with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the station’s brass favored a story that would take Chicago up to the present day. Besides, a PBS series on Chicago wasn’t really McCarter’s kind of project to begin with. Channel 11’s focus while he ran it was local programming like Chicago Tonight and Image Union.

In August 1996, with City of the Century hot off the press to generally glowing reviews, Aronson wrote a memo to the station’s new head of production dusting off his original proposal. The steps WTTW had taken without him had come to nothing, but he still believed. “We think we can get the money to make this happen,” Aronson wrote, meaning himself and Miller, then reported that the two of them had “conducted an ongoing dialogue with, and received enthusiastic support from, the staff at the National Endowment for the Humanities.” A program officer there had “repeatedly encouraged us to follow through and submit a formal application for planning and production funding.”

But this memo turned out to be Aronson’s swan song as an advocate for a WTTW production. “In 1992 we started diddling around with this thing,” Miller recalls. “It just didn’t happen.” Miller took his new book to Peter McGhee at WGBH. McGhee, vice president of national production, developed Frontline, Nova, and American Experience for WGBH. He read Miller’s book in two nights and told Miller he wanted to work on it.

Miller had collaborated with WGBH before, and he felt his book would be in good hands there. “We’re a major producer,” says McGhee, now retired. “We’re a different kind of animal than WTTW, which is a strong local station but not a major national producer. No shame to them that they’re not.”

Aronson’s next memo to a superior about the City of the Century project was written in January 1997 and reflected the changed landscape: “WTTW will be producing this series in collaboration with WGBH-TV, the public television station in Boston which produces The American Experience–the premier vehicle for historical programming on public television.” WGBH had invited WTTW to participate, and Miller had told Aronson he wanted him involved. At this point Aronson still believed that WTTW’s role, and therefore his own, could be substantial. But WGBH had its own ideas and its own people. “They hoped we could help raise money,” Aronson recalls.

As it turned out, the money raised in Illinois, including $700,000 from the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, was raised by WGBH. So what did WTTW contribute? “Our primary contribution was originating the project so many years ago with Len Aronson,” says Bayhack. “And then we started the entree to the Chicago Historical Society.” Aside from that, all she can think to mention are local promotions–the “City of the Century Minute” on Channel 11, the “City of the Century passport” to local museums–and a plan to send DVDs of the show to libraries around the state.

Even WGBH needed six years to get Chicago: City of the Century on the air. “It was by no means a slam dunk,” says McGhee. “It took us a long time to raise the money.” And there was Greenberg to contend with. “If WGBH wanted to do a TV project on Chicago I couldn’t stop them, but it was nothing I wanted us to collaborate on,” Greenberg tells me. But in April 2000 he resigned, and his successor, Lonnie Bunch, cooperated enthusiastically.

Greenberg says he continued having conversations with McCarter about doing some kind of locally produced Chicago history up until McCarter retired in 1998, and even that retirement didn’t kill the idea. “When I left, the Chicago project was moribund,” Greenberg tells me. “Not dead, but moribund. I’d had some desultory conversations with Dan Schmidt about reviving it.” There’s no limit to how long a plane can sit on the runway when it’s out of fuel.

Schmidt says Channel 11 is changing. His own relationship with CHS is much stronger than McCarter’s was–Chicago Stories is evidence of that–and a new ex-ecutive vice president for television, Randy King, has “some exciting [national] projects in the pipeline.” These in-clude a revived Soundstage, Comedy Tonight (an improv-rooted show touted as “American Idol meets Survivor meets Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), and a children’s series of partly animated, partly improvised stories spun from Dr. Seuss books. “But rightly or wrongly,” Schmidt goes on, “before our time the station de-cided to focus more of our resources on local programming, and our 13 Emmies this year are an indicator of that.”

Aronson took early retirement last summer but still does projects for Channel 11 as an independent producer. When Miller’s turn came to speak at the cocktail party, he acknowledged Aronson as the person who’d had the vision to see that his book could be turned into television. The two of them hadn’t talked for a long time, and when they met again the other day, Miller mentioned that he’d just come across something–the uncashed check for $100. Aronson had forgotten about it. “I haven’t been able to balance my checkbook since.”

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