Shut Out, but Not Up

Imagine Commodore Perry writing a history of the War of 1812 in which he’s too modest to mention himself. Roger Ebert came home from the Toronto film festival this month and allowed that there’d been a bit of turmoil but not that he’d been at the center of it. His Sun-Times postmortem on the festival’s difficulties reported that “journalists missed key movies because the houses were filled when they arrived.” Pass holders who’d lined up as much as 90 minutes before the movies began had claimed the seats.

Were any of these journalists ones we know? “Harlan Jacobson of USA Today and Todd McCarthy of Variety were both barred from two movies on the same day, and were not happy campers,” said Ebert in his September 16 piece in the Sun-Times. “Critics from the New York Times and Toronto papers were among those refused admission.” He reported, in words fraught with understatement, “Sometimes tempers were elevated.”

Whenever the United States is throwing its weight around in the world the temptation abroad to paint Americans as overbearing can be irresistible. On September 9 the trouble broke into print as the lead item in an unsigned gossip column, “On the Scene,” in the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper based in Toronto. “Think hissy fits and inflated egos are reserved for movie stars?” asked the column. “Not so. Roger Ebert, TV personality and film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, proved he could huff, puff and whine with the best Hollywood prima donnas after he was denied access to a press screening of Far From Heaven….When about 50 journalists who were lined up outside were told they would not get in, Ebert shocked the crowd by shouting about the importance of his paper and the terrible treatment he was receiving.

“When a few more journalists were let in, Ebert yelled again to the front: ‘Who are those people? Why are they getting in?’

“‘Because they are next in line,’ was the calm response.

“Eventually, Ebert and his five-person entourage wandered off for some broiled chicken he said he heard was nearby.”

Canada is a place where a recent significant national issue was the failure of President Bush to invite the prime minister to the ranch. Canada’s preoccupation with all things American is a cornerstone of its self-identity. In this obsessive spirit, the Toronto Star took up the Ebert saga on September 10. Ebert, McCarthy, “and one or two other American critics in town” were “hopping mad,” said the Star’s Martin Knelman. “Their response: Blame Canada.

“Yesterday, while U.S. president George W. Bush was making warlike sounds, McCarthy, the chief film critic of Variety, fired a shot of his own across the border.”

It wasn’t much of a shot, based on the evidence in Knelman’s own story. Without a hint of belligerence, McCarthy simply observed that Toronto had been a “can’t-miss stop” for American critics, but many were thinking twice because “they have been finding it difficult to do their jobs.”

Knelman’s primary concern was Ebert, a name known far and wide in Canada. He recapitulated the Ebert affair: “In the lobby of the Varsity on Saturday, Ebert lost his temper and yelled at festival staff about the importance of his paper, the Chicago Sun-Times.” Seeing a handful of other people allowed into the theater to fill some empty seats, Ebert became even more “infuriated” and demanded to know who the people were.

“At which point,” wrote Knelman, “one of the people ahead of him in line yelled back: ‘Why don’t you go back to America and start your own film festival?'”

More than halfway through his article, Knelman got around to some serious reporting. It wasn’t helpful to the picture he’d been painting of petulant Yankees. It seemed that several other critics had also been kept out of the screening, that the festival office had agreed with the protesting critics that there was a problem, and that the festival was already taking steps to fix it.

Among the joys of Toronto is that there’s no end of newspapers. On September 11 Ebert responded in yet another of them, the National Post. The Post, founded by Conrad Black, owner of the Sun-Times, is the archrival of the Globe and Mail. It carries Ebert’s reviews.

“I’ve been amused that writers for two Toronto papers were shocked! shocked! that a journalist would be aggressive in pursuit of a story,” Ebert began. “Because I complained about not being admitted to a screening of Far From Heaven, I read about my ‘shocking outburst’ and my ‘hissy fit.’

“I did not shout, and I have never in my life hissed. I spoke audibly and firmly, as is my practice. I was unhappy because I arrived at the screening 20 minutes before showtime, to learn that both theatres had been prematurely filled to capacity 10 minutes earlier, with hundreds left milling outside. Among my fellow millers were the critics of Variety, The New York Times, USA Today and New York magazine, plus [Canadian director] Norman Jewison (one paper called this my ‘five-person entourage,’ which will come as news to all of them).”

Ebert explained that it’s the job of critics to see movies in advance, and that if they can’t show up at a screening at the last minute and get in they’ll see far fewer of them each day. Which, from the distributors’ point of view, defeats the purpose of having the screenings. “One of my Toronto tsk-tskers,” Ebert went on, “was himself shut out of [Far From Heaven], which is why he was able to witness the scene. Instead of sharing my unhappiness or reporting on the problem with the screenings, he chose to target me. He lacks the instincts of a working newspaperman, who is trained to go after the story and get it.”

Elaborating, Ebert said he found out about a late-night screening of Far From Heaven, attended it, stayed up past midnight, and wrote 1,200 words on the movie. “I got my story. He didn’t. Apparently he thinks the proper behavior in such a situation is to smile meekly, slink away, and bash a Yank.”

The next day the Globe and Mail had more to say about Ebert’s “pout-a-thon,” identifying the “Why don’t you go back to America” man as Matthew Hays of the Montreal Mirror. “I’m telling you it was a hissy fit, and I have witnesses,” Hays told the Globe. But avid readers turned to the Star, which carried Hays’s own bylined account.

“His embarrassing arrogance got the best of me,” Hays admitted. “I cringed at his star fit.” He said Ebert’s “disdain for the fest and the locals becomes clear in his response, in which he suggests we simple-minded Canuck journalists ‘miss the point.’…According to him, Roger ‘Scoop’ Ebert used his wicked investigative journalistic skills to see the movie and land some sort of ‘exclusive.’ Another way of looking at it is that hardworking staff at this highly efficient event lined up another screening”–which, Hays announced, he as well as Ebert attended.

In Hays’s view, instead of praising the festival staff, “Ebert languishes in a self-aggrandizing story about his uber-scribe status. (Gosh, he’s Clark Kent and Superman!)”

Then an American journalist stepped up to defend his countryman. Todd Anthony of south Florida’s Sun-Sentinel submitted a letter to the Star, which didn’t publish it, and to the Post, which did. “This thing has been blown so far out of proportion,” commented Anthony, “that when I read Prime Minister Chretien’s controversial remark that, ‘You cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation of others,’ I assumed he was addressing Ebert.” The actual subject was American foreign policy.

According to Anthony, Ebert didn’t shout. He didn’t need to. As soon as he spoke up, the theater lobby fell silent. “I was reminded of those old E.F. Hutton commercials, the ones where everybody stops what they’re doing to eavesdrop.” Nor did Ebert throw his weight around. He simply complained, said Anthony, on behalf of himself and the other critics he recognized, working writers with deadlines to meet and interviews to do with actors in the movie they were unable to see.

“Had Ebert recognized Matthew Hays waiting on line, he might well have added The Toronto Star to the list of publications whose writers were being spurned,” Anthony continued. “But he didn’t, so Hays yelled, ‘Go back to America!’ U.S. arrogance or Canadian inferiority complex?”

As usual, the Canadians involved in this troubling chapter in the two nations’ long relationship made much more of it than the Americans did. Ebert did write something for the Sun-Times, but it was a piece that focused on the festival’s seating problems and mentioned the name-calling only in passing. And by the time he was done, the festival had announced such aggressive steps to correct the problem that he decided his article had lost its reason for being. So he spiked it.

Aside from Hays’s outburst, Ebert told me, “I didn’t sense any anti-Americanism in Toronto….Torontonians are friendly and welcoming, and some of my best friends, as they say, live there.”

As for the matter at hand, “It is safe to say I have come out of all of this on top.”

Doomed to Repeat?

In April 1995 I thought I had some famous newspaper columnists dead to rights. Without knowing the facts about the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, they’d leaped in anyway. “I find it impossible to believe that free-lancers are solely responsible for the bombings of airliners, military barracks, and, now, civilian-filled buildings in the United States,” Mike Royko wrote. “So I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields” and anything else of value.

“It has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,” wrote syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer. A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times allowed that he couldn’t be certain who blew up the building, but “the fact remains that whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working.” Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News quoted an FBI source who said, “This thing has Middle East written all over it.”

What worried Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post in the wake of the bombing was that “while the public has been obsessed by each small detail of a sensational double-murder case in Los Angeles [O.J. Simpson], relatively little attention has been devoted by the public–or the media–to the World Trade Center bombing trial now going on in New York, in which a clear and present campaign of terror against America as a nation is being sketched.”

And on it went. At the time I thought it was telling and embarrassing that these writers’ minds all turned at once to the same exotic enemy. These columns tell me something else today: it was no secret in 1995 what kind of world we were already living in.

Fifteen months later disaster hit this country twice, again turning journalists into Cassandras. William Neikirk of the Tribune wrote: “Coming hard on the heels of a deadly truck-bomb attack against American troops in Saudi Arabia, the Olympic bombing and the TWA crash have reinforced the fears of Americans that terrorism has arrived on U.S. shores in full force and ushered in a sobering era of vulnerability.”

The phrase the “new normal” was coined to describe America after September 11, 2001. More than five years earlier, the headline to Neikirk’s piece had said, “The new reality.” He told us, “The rise of domestic terrorism poses questions that once seemed far away, forcing fundamental choices about how much freedom the nation is prepared to relinquish in exchange for greater security.”

If that choice was forced, then what the nation chose to relinquish was not much. It was as British journalist Alasdair Palmer predicted. “Now there is hardly any security measure, however strict, that will not be welcomed,” said his essay in the Sun-Times just after the bombing in Atlanta. “But the American public’s tolerance of intrusive security won’t last.”

That Atlanta bombing, the press promptly recalled, had been the first act of terrorism at an Olympics since 14 Israeli athletes were murdered in Munich in 1972. Because simple pipe bombs were used, “experts” doubted that what the Sun-Times called an “international terrorist group” was behind this assault, which took two lives. But the explosion was bad enough. “It was pretty traumatic,” a spokesman for the band playing in Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb went off said in the Sun-Times. “It was almost like we were at Ground Zero, if I can say that.”

The existence of international terrorist groups was by then common knowledge. Just a month before the TWA Flight 800 disaster, 19 American airmen had died when their apartment complex in Saudi Arabia was blown up. The same front page of the New York Times that announced the Flight 800 disaster reported the defense secretary’s announcement of “drastic changes” to protect American troops in Saudi Arabia. “We have to be prepared for a chemical-weapon attack, a biological-weapon attack, bombs even larger than 3,000 pounds, bombs in the 10,000 to 20,000-pound category, mortar attacks.”

The stories of ’95 and ’96 read like a dry run for the stories of 2001. Here’s Bob Greene after Atlanta: “It is a chilling way for a nation, a world, to live–knowing that all the fine intentions of all the good people cannot defeat the intentions of the few who want only to hurt. And we circle around again to the question we keep asking ourselves: Whom are we at war with? What should we do with our anger and our sorrow? Bomb back–at whom? Destroy the enemy–what enemy? This is a different kind of conflict than we have known before. Our enemy has no face, no flag.”

A faceless enemy is hard to focus on. But the Oklahoma City terrorists turned out to have a face, and it was American. In 1996 federal officials were slow to speculate on what happened to Flight 800 because, as the New York Times put it, “early speculation by the authorities that Arab terrorists had been responsible [in Oklahoma City] was quickly proved wrong.” Their caution turned out to be a good thing–the explosion that tore the 747 apart was eventually attributed to a design flaw. And when an American suspect–Richard Jewell–emerged in Atlanta, the authorities and the press pounced on the innocent man with an ardor that in retrospect looks a lot like relief. The lessons of Saudi Arabia and the 1993 World Trade Center attack and various other attacks on American lives and symbols wouldn’t have to be absorbed just yet.

On September 11, the nation knew at once who was responsible. The tropes were already in place. The enemy with no face or flag had struck America, this time for real.

For the last couple of weeks the terrorism story has proceeded along twin tracks. There’s been the congressional investigation into September 11 that’s asked, “What could we have known and when could we have known it?” The answers have been appalling. And there’s been the announcement of the president’s new “hit ’em first” national security policy, with Iraq being measured for the opening blow. Say what you will about Iraq, it’s an enemy with a face and a flag, the best kind. Congress is stirring new anxieties about our power of denial, and the Iraq crusade isn’t exactly dispelling them.

News Bites

The Sun-Times and Israel’s Weizmann Institute have a relationship that goes back to 1947, the year of Irv Kupcinet’s first visit there. Kup’s been chairman of the institute’s Chicago committee for the past 40 years, and in 1993 publisher Sam McKeel was guest of honor at the region’s annual dinner. So it’s neither precedent setting nor particularly surprising that this year’s dinner is celebrating David Radler, who followed McKeel as publisher when Hollinger bought the Sun-Times in 1994.

Even so, the full-page ad in the September 6 Sun-Times announcing the dinner was remarkable. It was dominated by a photo of Radler, described by the headline alongside as “The Man Who Tells It Like It Is.” The ad announced: “F. David Radler is the publisher of The Chicago Sun-Times and Chairman of the Board of The Jerusalem Post, two papers that print the truth about the Middle East and cut through the halftruths, distortions and lies that give aid and comfort to the enemies of Israel.”

The copy was written by the Chicago Committee, but Radler approved it. Many another publisher in his shoes would have replied, “That’s really nice, but…” and toned down the language to protect some token semblance of evenhandedness. Radler’s an old-fashioned publisher who grinds his axes where everyone can see them. The ad identified William M. Daley as the chairman and toastmaster of the tribute to Radler, so the Middle East isn’t the only subject about which Radler is willing to let it be declared that the Sun-Times is no place to look for nonpartisan reporting.

Comparing one era’s press to another’s on September 13, I noted that the old Chicago Herald-American had carried a picture page of “Pearl Harbor babies” on December 7, 1942. I was certain that “no Chicago paper was likely to celebrate infants simply for being born last September 11.”

Actually, I was certain no paper anywhere in the country would publish anything so weird. I was wrong. On September 11, 2002, the St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a two-page photo feature asking readers to “Meet 11 babies who share an unforgettable birth date.” A mother offered, “In my mind, I feel there has to be a reason why God gave me one of his angels on such a tragic day.”

And last week I related someone’s anecdote that began, “When I was 19, I met Bob Greene at the K&B bookstore across from Trib Tower. He was there re-arranging copies of one of his books to get better shelf placement (no kidding!).” I now have it on good authority that there’s no author alive with a new book out who doesn’t do the same thing.

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