Putting Censorship to Good Use

Fear & Favor in the Newsroom is a nice show. Produced by independents Beth Sanders and Randy Baker of Seattle, it’s an hour long, narrated by Studs Terkel, and it makes the right points about powerful advertisers, old boys’ networks, interlocking directorates, and cozy cliques of civic pooh-bahs. We hear about Bill Kovach, who took on Coca-Cola and the downtown banks and lasted two years as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Sydney Schanberg, whose muckraking metro column disappeared from the New York Times, Jonathan Kwitny, whose muckraking Kwitny Report on PBS won a Polk Award but lost its corporate underwriting; Jon Alpert, who shot tape in Iraq that made the gulf war look less like surgery than butchery and was dropped by NBC president Michael Gartner, who didn’t show the tape.

Then there’s former New York Times reporter Frances Cerra, who was told to stop writing about the Shoreham, Long Island, nuclear power plant, a construction project favored by the editorial page that soon went belly-up, just as she’d warned it would. And a McNeil/Lehrer segment devoted to a proposed radioactive waste dump and the local folk in Needles, California, who marched against it. To give viewers an idea of what worried these folks, the reporter described the dump’s construction and threw in details about dumps that had already leaked. The footage was edited out. The reporter told Fear & Favor, “I came to the realization that the effect of the editing was to make the local residents around Ward Valley look like complete kooks, complete antitechnology nuts. The editing removed any foundation for their suspicions. It removed any context…. The result was to completely reinforce the government, which is endorsing this, and the big companies that are trying to build it.”

You can understand why stations such as Channel 11, WTTW, might not be eager to air a show that tars public television as well as the profit mongers. And you can understand why a preemptive grassroots campaign is aiming to shame public stations into putting the show on their schedules. “The Direct Action Media Network has been sending out copies of the transcripts of the program to independent media in the hopes they will encourage public pressure on local public broadcasters,” Eric Smith reported in the October Chicago Ink. “The fear of censorship of a film on censorship is real.”

Thanks to this campaign, a cassette of Fear & Favor came to my door. But the show won’t arrive at Channel 11 until November 9, when it’s fed to the nation’s PBS stations by satellite.

“We haven’t refused to show it at all,” says Anders Yocom, WTTW’s vice president of broadcasting. “We haven’t seen it yet. I’d rather have a chance to see it first before we agree to show it.”

It’s a reasonable precondition. Yocom doubts that Channel 11 could put Fear & Favor on the air before January, no matter how dazzling it is. And that’s OK with the show’s local champions.

“We hope to see it on Channel 11,” Liane Clorfene-Casten, chairman of Chicago Media Watch told me. “But we are going to have a major conference on the telecommunications bill and the First Amendment, and Chicago Media Watch is hoping to use this wonderful video as a fund-raiser. We can say, ‘This has been banned by WTTW,’ or we can say, ‘You’ve seen this on WTTW.’ If they use it, wonderful. If they don’t, it doesn’t harm me, because I can say this is a banned movie.”

But after listening to her own words, Clorfene-Casten took them back. No, if WTTW used the movie it definitely wouldn’t be so wonderful. She didn’t want to go before the big spenders with a videotape they’d already seen. She found herself in a delicate situation. She intended to write Channel 11 a letter insisting it carry the program, but she realized she’d better be careful just how she couched her insistence. “What we want to do is scoop them,” she told me. “That would be the best possibility, in the best journalistic fashion. Maybe I will say we’re going to use it as a fund-raiser, and maybe we can find some way to cooperate. Be very upbeat.”

This Monday she completed her friendly letter to V.J. McAleer, vice president for program production. “Chicago Media Watch, a grassroots organization of 1,500 media activists concerned about the corporate takeover of the mainstream, urges you to view this video on November 9 and then schedule it for public viewing on Channel 11,” she wrote.

“Actually,” she continued with admirable candor, “we plan to show Fear & Favor in the Newsroom to a select audience as a major fund-raiser just before our December 12 conference on ‘The Telecommunications Act and the First Amendment’…. Because of the importance of its message, Chicago Media Watch urges you to schedule the video–preferably after our fund-raiser.”

Sun-Times’s Kick in the Face

Question: “Isn’t it true that our parent company has vast resources and is successful?”

Answer: “Yes, Hollinger has shrewd management to thank for its overall success. But the Sun-Times is not yet on par with other Hollinger properties in terms of profitability. And we cannot expect our share of Hollinger resources until we are able to contribute our share to Hollinger profits. Because Hollinger is a shrewd newspaper company, it will invest its resources in properties that promise the highest return.”

What we have here is an excerpt from the management memo in which Hollinger justified the wage proposal it had just handed the editorial staff of the Sun-Times. The old contract had expired October 1, and this was the company’s idea of a new one. Lots of managements have offered their workers day-old bread and called it cake, but rarely with Hollinger’s arrogance. Not to mention a chicken-and-egg argument that the Chicago Newspaper Guild might say the paper got exactly backward.

“Hollinger has turned around the Chicago Sun-Times,” said the memo, “taking an ailing property on the brink of extinction and making it a viable, competitive player in the Chicago area….Many of us remember not-so-distant times when even the company’s ability to meet payroll was in doubt.”

Hollinger management explained that the Sun-Times requires new presses, already ordered, “to simply maintain daily publication.” New presses can’t be afforded at “our current level of profitability.” Nor will new investors be attracted to Hollinger. Therefore management proposed certain measures it deemed economically responsible and fair to one and all.

A wage freeze, for all intents and purposes, with raises only for merit. “We have heard from many of you who are frustrated because you do more and better work than some of your colleagues, yet your raises are the same. This plan would help deal with those inequities.”

An open shop. “We have lost a significant number of employees to non-union papers. While we feel that it is important to recognize the rights of those employees who choose to belong to a union, we feel it is equally important to recognize the rights of those who choose not to belong.”

A phase-out of extra night pay. “We do not seek to take income away from anyone who currently relies on it. We wish to put others on notice that, as a morning newspaper, we consider night work part of the routine.”

An end to the pension program, to be superseded by an annual company contribution of 2 percent of base salary to employee 401(k) accounts.

The Newspaper Guild had already agreed to a rotating batch of interns who’d be known as “fellowship employees”–grunt labor hired to fill ranks that are about 30 journalists lighter than they were three years ago. (Hollinger has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through understaffing.) And the guild had made an economic proposal of its own that it considered modest and conciliatory–5 percent raises for each of the next three years.

So when guild negotiators next met with the company team, they asserted betrayal. Reporter Charles Nicodemus, nemesis of Edward Burke and Patrick Huels (who if merit were the sole criterion for salaries could name his price), announced afterward on the guild bulletin board that union negotiators had branded the company offer “cynical, insulting…a kick in the face.” They’d told management that they’d heard one staffer say, “When do we take a strike vote?” and another say, “Tell those [deleted] the 19th century is over.” Not only would the guild not give an inch on night pay and the guild shop, it refused even to discuss them. “Those are very confrontational words,” replied the company.

Meanwhile, the pugnacious Hollinger voice was heard for the first time in Gary, when chairman David Radler met the staff after Hollinger was announced as the winning bidder in an auction for Knight-Ridder’s Post-Tribune. The only other known bid for the paper, which has been slowly losing its battle to Howard Publications’ Times in an intensely competitive Lake County market, had been submitted by the employees themselves.

The new regime “could be a real exciting thing,” said reporter Joe Conn, the guild leader who led the staff’s attempt to buy the Post-Tribune. “It seems as if this group Hollinger is not afraid of a fight.”

But only against the Times, please. “I asked Radler a question after he made his pep talk to the employees–whether there were going to be mass firings and people would be forced to reapply for their jobs. He gave me the wrong answer, which was, ‘That’s stuff we’re going to have to have our lawyers deal with.’ A simple no would have been more to my taste.”

A Series of Errors?

The papers found a line to take with this year’s World Series, and they stuck to it. Bernie Lincicome: “The Series that no one cares about.” Paul Sullivan: “It has been deemed a critical flop, an artistic failure and a ratings disaster.” Jay Mariotti: “The game is dying before our eyes.”

As the only person west of Ohio who watched the series and enjoyed it, who am I to disagree? Plenty was wrong, not just with the series but with the entire playoffs–and major-league baseball deserves a convoy of dump trucks full of blame. But plenty also was right about the playoffs, and for that the sport itself deserves the credit.

If you’ve been to a Bulls game you know in what contempt basketball’s impresarios hold the audience. Like three-year-olds with attention deficit disorder, we fans apparently require constant distraction. A night at the United Center is a series of dog-and-pony shows separated by play. A time-out, the pause that in another era allowed the audience to reflect on the game’s ebb and flow and bask in its tension, is now consumed by a set-shot contest, capering tots, Luvabulls, or other merriment. We’re believed to be much too impatient to deal with even a minute when nothing’s happening.

Watching the baseball playoffs on TV established that my tolerance for nothing happening remains substantial. When the stakes are low–and the whole playoff structure has been designed to guarantee that for most of the first 162 games of the season they’re never high–a baseball game can be stupefying. But when the games finally matter they’re uniquely dramatic. The pauses in a game are so many and so organic that there’s no way to conceal them–in the park or over TV–behind cheesy razzmatazz. To watch a baseball game on TV is to find yourself watching the performers as they watch. There’s the manager–hand on chin, one eye on the lineup card. There’s the slugger–bent forward in the dugout, wondering if the ninth-inning rally will last long enough to bring him up to bat.

They’re palpably thinking, fearing, hoping before our eyes, as athletes do in no other sport.

No team I normally follow made the playoffs, but it was easy to find teams to cheer for. This came as a surprise after last year, when my hometown Cardinals nearly made it to the series and it was hard to care. But this year I’d forgiven baseball just enough to want to root for its soul. Therefore I was for Atlanta to beat Florida, because Atlanta had finished first during the regular season and earned a place in the series, and besides, Florida was a profligate parvenu. I was for Cleveland and Baltimore because they’re honorable old franchises with sensible new ballparks, but for Baltimore over Cleveland because, again, the regular season shouldn’t be treated as a joke. And for Cleveland over Florida, because an arriviste wild-card world champion was a crime against the sport.

That made the seventh game exciting as can be for anyone who believes crime shouldn’t pay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Liane Clorfene-Casten photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.