Reporters’ Creed: Keep It to Yourself

Judy Peres’s beat is medicine, but her preoccupation is the Middle East. Before coming to the Tribune in 1980 she worked 12 years for the Jerusalem Post, and she describes herself as a “lifelong Zionist.”

Last month she violated a canon of American journalism. She did something categorically wrong–meaning wrong because it’s wrong, not because it led to quantifiable harm. She lent her name to a cause.

On March 15 a full-page ad headlined “Courage to Refuse” appeared in the Reader. It announced: “On January 25, 2002, 53 reserve combat soldiers and officers in the Israel Defense Forces published a statement in Ha’aretz announcing that they will not ‘fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.’ In the following weeks, over 322 soldiers and officers have put their name to this statement, generating widespread debate within Israel and revitalizing the Israeli peace movement.”

At the bottom of the ad was a list of 62 names of “Chicagoland Jews” who “support the courageous Israeli reservists…and join with them in their call to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a crucial step to peace.” Other Jews were urged to speak out.

One of the names was Peres’s.

“Courage to Refuse” was sponsored by the local chapter of Not in My Name. Peres had E-mailed NIMN to say she supported the ad and sent in $50 to help pay for it, and without thinking twice, NIMN added her name to its list of signers. “It was an oversight on our part,” says Steven Feuerstein, founder of NIMN, “not to follow up by saying, ‘You’re a journalist. Do you want your name published?'”

“I support Not in My Name,” Peres says, “but because I work for the Tribune you really can’t be doing it publicly. They’ve apologized profusely and taken my name out of their database.”

On March 22 a similar full-page ad ran in the New York Times. It urged, “Support the Israeli Army Reservists who say ‘No’ to the Occupation,” and it announced the formation of a Tikkun Community–“a new national organization of liberal and progressive Jews (and our non-Jewish allies) committed to a New Planetary Consciousness.” The cochairs were Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, and Cornel West, the black academic who recently left Harvard for Princeton in a celebrated huff.

Peres had sent them a check too. And though today she’s not certain whether she’d told Not in My Name she didn’t want her name on its ad, she has no doubt about Tikkun. “I made it 100 times clear my name was not supposed to be on there.” Nevertheless there it was, one in a sea of names in print almost too small to read. She was furious.

Peres says the Tribune didn’t punish her for these ads, but her editors certainly regretted them. A reader might wonder what the problem was. Surely reporters are entitled to their convictions. But the most useful service a journalist can perform for a cause is to explain it. In the eyes of other journalists, when the cause is notorious and divisive, the journalist who pledges some sort of allegiance to it puts it ahead of her profession. She lends it her name at the price of no longer being trustworthy on the subject.

As Peres well knows, the Tribune has been assailed for months by local Jewish groups convinced its coverage of the Middle East suffers from a pro-Palestinian bias. Such a critic would regard the Peres ads as proof of the bias. It was an official of a local Jewish organization who alerted me to Peres’s name in the “Courage to Refuse” ad and cited the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility…”

He’d seen Peres last December on Chicago Tonight discussing Yasir Arafat, so he believed he already knew how she thought. (“She was firmly on the side of the Palestinians,” he E-mailed me. “I think if you see a tape of it you will be taken aback by her stridentness.”) But the ad took her advocacy above and beyond. A news talk show is an acceptable forum for the kind of public opining that journalists allow themselves. “Signing an ad,” in the judgment of Don Wycliff, the Tribune’s public editor, “is a political action, a declaration that the signer is a participant in the fray. It’s nailing your 95 theses to the cathedral door.”

“I think it is important for you to be aware of Ms. Peres’ endorsement of what is considered a fringe group in Israel,” the official who told me about Peres went on. “I do not know whether the Tribune has any rules limiting political activity of its staff. If they do, Ms. Peres may be in violation of these rules. If such rules don’t exist, why not?”

Wycliff told me what the rules are. “There is no provision of the Tribune ethics code that directly addresses contributions of the sort involved here,” he E-mailed me. “The closest approximation is a section that reads: ‘Fundraising for any organization or cause, no matter how worthy, has the potential to create a conflict of interest or the appearance of one. The rule of thumb is that no staff members should engage in or lend their names to fundraising efforts, even if their Tribune connection is not explicitly mentioned.'”

Wycliff went on, “Another potentially pertinent clause reads: ‘In all cases, it is wise to avoid any investment or relationship you would not like to read about on Page One of a newspaper, your own or someone else’s.'”

This admonition is easy enough to apply. Peres’s big mistake was not in failing to keep her name out of the ads. It was in giving money to help pay for them.

“Strikes me that she might have been naive,” Wycliff wrote, “but not intentionally subversive of the newspaper’s credibility.”

Peres agrees. Wycliff wasn’t as hard on her as she is on herself.

She’s had an important career at the Tribune. She spent most of the 80s as an editor on the foreign desk. As national editor for five years in the 90s, she coordinated her paper’s coverage of the 1992 presidential campaigns. In 1996 she was awarded a yearlong fellowship to Yale to study law. Talking to me today, she’s full of regrets and questions.

“I guess at the time I was thinking, ‘I’m not covering the Middle East, so there’s no conflict of interest.’ What I wasn’t taking into consideration was that people think of me as someone who knows about the Middle East and has covered it for the paper. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have done anything. I probably shouldn’t have written the check.

“This came at a time when my paper was being accused of being anti-Israel. Now, I don’t think for a second I’m anti-Israel, but I think there are people in the Jewish community who might feel that any expression of support for any part of the cause somehow hurts Israel. I disagree, but I don’t need to put my paper in an awkward position.”

She goes on, “Now, you can carry it to an extreme. If I shouldn’t have given money to Not in My Name does that mean I should never give money to the Jewish United Fund? And the answer probably is I shouldn’t give money to the Jewish United Fund either. I think I’ll have to be very careful who I give money to. That’s probably why the Tribune encourages its employees to donate to the United Way, some sort of very broad-based charity. Certainly in the past I’ve donated to a lot of other Jewish groups and other groups, and maybe it would never have made a difference–except that right now this is a really sensitive issue.

“Maybe I’m trying to square the circle here. Look, why am I not supposed to have my name in the paper? The bottom line is I probably didn’t do anything wrong, but it could have led to the appearance of impropriety, the appearance of a conflict of interest–and the bottom line is that could embarrass the paper. I didn’t make that donation as a Tribune reporter. I made it as a private citizen. But somebody out there might think a reporter’s never a private citizen.”

The “Courage to Refuse” ad was written as a summons. “It is time for American Jews to also find the courage to speak out,” it declared. “We must act to break the cycle of violence that threatens so many lives. Please add your conviction, voice, and action to ours.” There’s no doubt or pain in a bugle sounding the charge, which is why the ad didn’t begin to suggest Peres’s cast of mind these days.

“I don’t criticize Israel lightly,” she says. “But I think there has to be peace, and it’s a question of how many people will have to die before it gets here. I still think there has to be a two-state solution along the lines of Oslo. You can’t make terrorism disappear, but you can minimize it.”

Or perhaps you can’t. Like Jews who defend Ariel Sharon’s assault on the West Bank as horrendous but inevitable, Peres bleakly hopes against hope. “If you’ve got a huge majority, or any majority, of the Palestinian people that no longer is thinking there can be a two-state solution with Israel but that they really have to liberate all of Palestine from the Jews, if that’s the case, there can’t be–or not without a lot more bloodshed–there isn’t going to be a two-state solution. I don’t think that’s true right now, but it’s where things are heading. We know public opinion polls show the majority of the Palestinian population supports suicide bombings. If that’s the case, and if they really believe that the Palestinian state has to include Israel, then I’m wrong, then the left wing is wrong, and we should have listened to Meir Kahane 25 years ago. I don’t believe that. But that certainly looks like the way it’s going…

“I think when they really got close to a peace settlement it scared the stuffing out of a lot of people, and when Arafat in his great wisdom let loose the intifada he just proved to the Jews who were scared of a settlement that they were right to be scared….It isn’t at all clear who might replace Arafat. More likely, after Arafat there’s going to be chaos–individual factions fighting each other, and Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah trying to see how powerful they can become. We know they want the Jewish state gone. But I really believed they were a minority and could be controlled, and if they were part of a moderate government they’d have a stake in controlling their own extremists. Now the extremists have nothing to lose. A lot of Palestinians feel they have nothing to lose.

“My heart says that ultimately the Israelis and Palestinians all want the same thing. They want to get on with their lives. They want to raise their children. They want a better house, a bigger car, and they want to go to Europe on vacations. I think most people don’t want to die for their homeland.”

But that’s her heart talking. She knows how wise hearts are.

Throw the Paper and Run

Michelle Taufmann tried repeatedly to subscribe to the Tribune–and discovered she couldn’t. As she said the other day in her exasperated E-mail to a Tribune official: “Your contractors accost me regularly at the Dominick’s store and at various outdoor festivals around town and encourage me to get a great deal on a Tribune subscription and every now and then I sign up only to get no result.”

When Taufmann moved to her current apartment two years ago she took out a subscription. The paper never came. Eventually she called customer service. “They looked into it,” she says, “and said, ‘We don’t deliver to your address.'”

A self-employed market researcher, Taufmann works out of her home in a six-flat at the corner of Bosworth and Jonquil Terrace, in the northeastern tip of the city. By reputation, it’s a rough area and has been for years. So the Tribune was redlining her–her word–making her suffer for choosing it.

But Taufmann kept trying. The next time she ordered the Tribune she explained that there might be a security problem but the paper could simply be tossed over an iron gate onto the gangway on the east side of the six-flat. The salesperson made a note of that, but the paper never came and neither did an explanation. Another time she told the Tribune reps she saw at the Dominick’s that ordering the paper was probably a waste of time. “They were very assertive and said try again. So I did.” It didn’t come that time either, and again no one at the paper called to tell her why.

But she thought she knew. To her astonishment, in mid-April she saw the Tribune being delivered to a home on the other side of Bosworth. That’s when she went on-line, spotted the E-mail address of a Tribune exec with a fancy title, and let him have it. “To top it off, the redlining seems rather willy-nilly,” she wrote. “So why, tell me, can my neighbors 20 feet from me get a paper delivered and I can’t?”

As it happens, Digby Solomon, general manager of on-line operations at the Tribune, has nothing to do with circulation. But he passed along her complaint to consumer marketing, and it reached Carmen Pedroza. Based in the Freedom Center printing plant on Chicago Avenue, Pedroza is the Tribune’s division manager for distribution on the north side of Chicago, and she’s one of those people you run into from time to time who believe that when they’re presented with a problem they should solve it. Pedroza drove up to Jonquil and Bosworth to see what was going on.

“There are neighborhoods, for example on the south side, that may be drug infested or gang infested,” and the Tribune won’t send its trucks in, Pedroza says. Many an individual building is also off-limits, either because the courier can’t get inside it to leave the paper where it won’t be stolen or because the building’s so wide open to everyone it’s terrifying.

Apparently the Tribune “locked down” Taufmann’s building years ago for reasons lost to memory, and that was that.

Pedroza met the local Tribune delivery man at Taufmann’s building, and they checked it out. They noted that the daily paper could be slipped through the mail slot, and the fat Sunday edition could be tossed over the iron gate. So the building wasn’t really a problem. For that matter, the neighborhood wasn’t so bad either. “It looks like it’s coming around,” Pedroza says. “I’ve always heard stories about Rogers Park, but it’s improving. We’re in the process of looking at the whole area. Areas that may not be open we’re going to open up.”

“She was very nice and very helpful,” says Taufmann, who got her first Tribune last Sunday. I asked Pedroza how much of Chicago the Tribune refuses to deliver to, but she said she didn’t know.

News Bites

My friend Ron Dorfman has provided me with what’s going to be the last word here on the raging debate about screens and lights at Wrigley Field. In 1988, when the lights–source of last week’s debate between Roger Ebert and Eric Zorn on integrity, lockstep corporatism, and the legacy of Mike Royko–were installed, Dorfman was writing a syndicated media column. A piece he did back then observed that while the Cubs, the Wrigley neighborhood, City Hall, and the legislature were all wrangling over those lights, the Tribune editorial page kept an awkward silence: “The apparent conflict of interest was too glaring.”

When the page finally spoke out it wasn’t to get behind the lights. The Tribune let Chicago know that despite what the “lightweights,” “boneheads,” and “political bums” might assume about the newspaper’s deferential place in the Tribune Company, its independence wasn’t on the table. There’d be no deal made to give in on the lights in return for an easy ride in the Tribune.

“The Tribune is quite right to get its back up when it feels its integrity impugned,” Dorfman wrote then. “But the public and the politicians can hardly be blamed for failing to accept at face value protestations of independence by employees of a multibillion-dollar corporate octopus. The Tribune would not accept such assurances from a nominee for government office.”

The Tribune’s editor back then was James Squires. Dorfman demonstrated that Squires “certainly understands the point” by quoting him: “If corporate managers understood what makes a newspaper successful with readers, they wouldn’t buy baseball teams or anything else in the same city as the newspaper,” Squires had said. “But people who make these decisions are not editors. If we’re going to act like conglomerates, we’re going to be perceived as conglomerates and treated by courts and legislatures as conglomerates indistinguishable from others.”

John Conroy just had a good week. Since 1990 he’s been grinding out stories about torture in the Chicago Police Department. He missed out on all the prizes given for devotion to duty over a 12-year period because there aren’t any. But this past Friday he won a Lisagor from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for last October’s “A Hell of a Deal.”

In that installment, Conroy explained that a special prosecutor was needed to investigate police torture because State’s Attorney Richard Devine was too compromised to lead the charge and wasn’t about to anyway. With a clear eye for the absurd, Conroy examined Devine’s various rationales for not knowing and not wanting to find out.

The Lisagor was just a bonus. Two days earlier chief criminal-court judge Paul Biebel Jr. had done what was no sure thing–he’d appointed a special prosecutor. The statute of limitations has long since run out on the alleged torture itself (though alleged victims of it still sit on death row), so it will be up to Edward Egan, the former prosecutor and judge Biebel appointed, to see if there’s been an ongoing conspiracy to cover up such crimes.

Mayor Daley was state’s attorney back when the worst of the torture allegedly took place. If Egan gets to the bottom of the horror stories Conroy’s been writing about–well, it could be an interesting bottom.

George Will, in the Sun-Times, April 25: “Suddenly, conservatives remembered. They remembered what Bush never forgets: that the country is tied, politically. That in 2000 half the country favored Gore. That three consecutive elections have produced merely plurality presidents.”

Or not even that.