Radler Steals the Show

My youngest daughter voted for the first time in her life this week. She knew nothing about a lot of the little races, so I tore out the list of Tribune endorsements and left it next to her breakfast. There was another list in the Sun-Times, but it couldn’t be taken seriously.

We can thank the paper’s publisher for that. David Radler must have some idea of the utilitarian value of an editorial page’s good reputation. Last month he received the American Jewish Committee’s Civic and Business Leadership Award at a dinner in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and one of the big reasons for this honor was his newspaper’s unswerving support for Israel during the current intifada. In October he’ll be hailed at the Hilton for the same reasons by the Chicago Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science.

A serious editorial page can actually matter. Yet this month Radler ran roughshod over his paper’s editorial board, making the Sun-Times’s political endorsements contemptible. And not only the Sun-Times’s.

Here in Chicago, the really weird endorsement was the one for Ted Lechowicz. Rod Blagojevich and Lisa Madigan might not have been anybody’s preference for governor and attorney general–and by anybody I mean anybody on the Sun-Times editorial board besides Radler–but at least the two of them had merits to argue. But Lechowicz? He’s the Cook County Board seat holder and former legislator often flogged by Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, who mocks as Lechowicz’s biggest accomplishment his working the system to wind up with one fat pension from the state and another from the county. “Lechowicz’s other main claim to fame on the County Board is that he is the king of the death resolutions,” Brown wrote last November. “Hours of County Board time have been devoted to Lechowicz eulogies.”

Opposing Lechowicz for reelection was Forrest Claypool, a former general superintendent of the Chicago Park District who cleaned house there and was hailed by the Sun-Times for doing so. The editorial board took none of the county board races lightly: first it sent the candidates a questionnaire that was a model of specificity; then it began drafting an editorial backing reformers, Claypool prominent among them. Claypool was so sure the Sun-Times was about to endorse him that he’d started running off palm cards that said so; the Lechowicz endorsement on March 10 was literally “stop the presses” news. Desperate for virtues to hail, the Sun-Times applauded “Lechowicz’s earlier push for single-member districts” and noted that he “favors exploring raising more money through corporate sponsorships and advertising.”

What made the Sun-Times forsake Claypool to embrace this dauntless explorer? The mayor’s brother John chairs the county board’s finance committee, and a trusty hack is nice to have around. So the mayor wanted him. And when Radler decided that, the editorial board be damned, he’d endorse whichever candidates he pleased, those candidates coincided uncannily well with the ones Richard M. Daley favored.

The mayor’s not much for independent thinkers. Claypool’s one example of the type. Another is state representative Susan Garrett of Lake Forest. She ran for the Democratic nomination in the new 29th Senate District against Chris Cohen, a Glencoe attorney who used to be a Chicago alderman. The Pioneer Press chain of suburban weeklies–ultimately controlled by Radler–has traditionally approached these local races as a solemn duty, calling in the candidates to face a panel of editors. This year a committee of editors grilled Garrett and Cohen and much preferred Garrett. An editorial endorsing her was written, but it never ran.

“He is endorsed,” the Pioneer Press papers in the 29th District said of Cohen last Thursday through gritted teeth. “Cohen, a self-described ‘bulldog ombudsman,’ will work hard on issues crucial to residents.” The balance of the Cohen endorsement extolled Garrett. It called her “a rare voice of independence in the House,” observed that her independence “won her reelection” in a heavily Republican house district, and explained that her “frustration at seeing House passed bills die in the Republican-controlled Senate committees without even debate on the floor” prompted her to run for the senate.

What happened? Pioneer Press, like the Sun-Times, is owned by Hollinger International, whose president is Radler. Larry Green, publisher of Pioneer Press, told his editors at the last minute that their papers’ endorsements would have to duplicate the big daily’s. The Sun-Times, which hadn’t interviewed the candidates, endorsed Cohen. It’s commonly believed at Pioneer Press that Green–who didn’t return my calls–acted on orders from Radler. And Garrett wasn’t the only suburban candidate to lose a Pioneer Press endorsement this way. “The thing that drives us crazy up here is the fact we interviewed everybody,” says an editor who asked to be nameless. “We took time to educate ourselves. Why bother? Why put the politicians through the wringer like that and make them think we’re independent and going to have our own choice when it’s blatantly not true?” Those politicians will know better next time.

Why Radler–who didn’t return my calls either–would be willing to trash his papers this way is a mystery. But there are theories. The most notorious circulated privately for a few days before the Web-based newsletter “Capitol Fax” made it public on Monday. “Best rumor of the entire campaign to date: the Sun-Times editorial board voted unanimously to endorse Paul Vallas, but backed Blagojevich after the publisher intervened. That part is true. The rumor is that Alderman Dick Mell, Blago’s father-in-law, pressured Donald Trump to push the paper into backing the kid. Trump wants to buy the Sun-Times building and turn it into a luxury condo high-rise, but he will need the city Zoning Committee’s approval and Mell sits on that committee.”

“Capitol Fax” editor Rich Miller tells me he promptly got “a couple of phone calls from hyperventilating TV types” telling him he screwed up. So on Tuesday he added a postscript: “And whatever you may think of why the Sun-Times endorsed Blago (and it bears repeating that I was just passing along a widespread rumor yesterday, not claiming it was true–and I screwed up and said Dick Mell chaired the Zoning Committee when he doesn’t), their reasoning, that he has the best shot of winning in the fall, was probably right on the money.”

It probably was. The zoning-variance theory is neat, but it’s convoluted–and it doesn’t explain Lechowicz, let alone Susan Garrett. I stopped believing it when a lot of people at the paper–including editor in chief Michael Cooke–told me it was silly. But it’s pretty clear that Radler likes to take his paper where the power is. “He’s always been concerned that editorial boards are a little namby-pamby and are not pragmatic enough about who’s winning and who’s not winning, who’s got a chance and who doesn’t,” says a colleague.

The biggest power around is Mayor Daley. I was told by somebody not likely to be wrong that Radler and the mayor had lunch together a couple of weeks ago, that Daley broke out a list of candidates he was “interested in,” and that Radler pocketed the list. Cooke says he doesn’t think Radler’s had a conversation with the mayor in the last month. I wouldn’t bank on Cooke’s being on the money with that one, but even if he is, Radler’s comfort level with the Daleys is undisputed.

That dinner in October where Radler will be honored by the Weizmann Institute? Donald Trump is the main speaker, and Bill Daley is the chairman. Radler must be proud.

Falling on His Pen

Before he began peeling the onion, T.J. Brown’s letter to his boss last Thursday was merely a heartfelt protest of a dubious decision not to let him cover the big game. “Enclosed are 18 stories on Highland Park basketball that I wrote over the course of the season,” he told Paul Sassone, executive editor of Pioneer Press. “I have covered 14 Highland Park games in person and several more by phone. In short, I am the face of the Pioneer Press sports desk in the eyes of many Highland Park fans.”

Yet when Highland Park High qualified for last week’s Illinois AA boys’ basketball quarterfinals in Peoria, Pioneer Press decided that one reporter was enough to send to Friday’s showdown against New Trier. The reporter who’d covered the New Trier team got the assignment. “By not sending me to Peoria,” Brown warned Sassone, “you are sending a message to Highland Park readers: You mean nothing to us, at least next to your neighbors to the south in the New Trier district. I imagine that Dennis Mahoney will do the best job he can covering Highland Park, but he won’t have the context or the background of the Giants’ season.”

Brown had a point. Highland Park had never gone downstate before, and the town was giddy; the Pioneer Press ad department sold local merchants three extra pages of ads. But despite the excitement, Sassone wouldn’t assign the reporter that readers of Pioneer’s Highland Park News identified with their team. “All an extra reporter would have cost was mileage,” Brown reasoned. “The reporter covering the losing team would drive back home after Friday’s 1:45 game and would not need a hotel room or more than one meal.”

But a basketball game wasn’t the only thing on Brown’s mind. As a group, Pioneer Press reporters aren’t happy campers, not by a long shot. Brown, 26 and single, had decided to become a martyr to the cause.

“In one week, this paper has jerked me around like a piece of meat,” said the letter to Sassone. “Monday, my whole world was turned upside down when this paper decided I could split my time covering news and sports. This has put undue strain on the whole sports staff while Lake Forest coverage will probably not be the same as I figure out what is the most effective way to split my time between covering games and village board meetings.”

What Brown was getting at was staff attrition. The previous Friday, March 8, Pioneer Press had fired three reporters and a sportswriter for economic reasons. Which is why, says Brown, he was told to double up. Lynne Stiefel, a staff writer for Pioneer’s Glenview Announcements and chair of the Chicago Newspaper Guild’s Pioneer Press unit, tells me that with those layoffs, the number of guild employees at Pioneer has dropped from 120 at the beginning of 1997 to 92–of whom 41 are reporters. Since the Pioneer chain claims to cover 69 suburbs, that’s .59 staff reporters per suburb–guaranteeing coverage more like a thong than a blanket.

“Maybe Hollinger could save money by having Steve Tucker and Jeannie Chung of the Sun-Times or Darren Day of the News Sun [a Hollinger daily in Waukegan] write copy for us,” Brown rambled on to Sassone. “Don’t we have the Sun-Times make endorsements for us now?”

It wasn’t enough for Brown to score points off Peoria, off attrition, and off lost autonomy. He got personal. Sassone writes a column for the Pioneer Press papers, and Brown decided to tell his boss what he thought of it.

“I have met you exactly once in my two years and three months of employment here. My impressions of you as a writer are particularly low, as your columns say nothing, mean nothing, and show no evidence that you invested more than 10 minutes in them.” Brown also called Sassone to account for a couple of recent staff memos: one was “poorly written,” another “out of line.”

Brown wasn’t through. “If your job description is to ruin the product, destroy the morale of everyone in editorial and give the Daily Herald reason to expand into the North Shore, you can consider yourself a very successful man.”

Brown sent copies of the letter to Larry Green, who is Sassone’s boss, to various other editors, to Stiefel, and to me.

You’re asking to be canned? I guessed.

“More or less,” said Brown.

Sassone was out of the office until Tuesday. That morning it was not Sassone but an editor two levels down who asked Brown for a word. Brown E-mailed me, “At about 10:45 I was fired.”

News Bite

8 Edge City, created by Chicago’s Patty and Terry LaBan and running in the Sun-Times, has launched a two-week Passover story line. According to King Features Syndicate, which dropped me a note, this theme breaks new ground for a nationally syndicated daily comic strip.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.