Something’s Cooking at In These Times

As a journal of the Left, In These Times has never placed vegetarianism high among the virtues. James Weinstein, the founder-publisher-editor, could think of one vegetarian on the staff; he could also think of one Republican. When Weinstein called last week to say that Paul Obis, founder of Vegetarian Times, had agreed to succeed him as publisher, he made it clear that Obis’s diet had no bearing on the decision.

Not even a negative bearing? I asked. You didn’t wonder if he might be a little too squirrelly to take over? “He’s a guy who has enough know-how to take a newsletter and turn it into a 300,000-circulation magazine,” Weinstein replied. “Squirrels don’t do that.”

He went on, “We didn’t care about him being a vegetarian. But basically we didn’t care about his politics, as long as we were comfortable that he was comfortable with what we’re putting out. And he’s very comfortable with that.”

Yet I worry. The agenda of In These Times runs in favor of bridled capitalism, an empowered labor force, a nonexploitative foreign policy, and amity among the races. It’s not a place where anyone thinks for a second that the situation in Burma or Burundi is no more troubling than the one on Old McDonald’s farm. But some readers have their own ideas. “Bigotry on the basis of species is no more justifiable than bigotry on the basis of race, sex, religion or sexual preference,” a Virginia reader recently insisted in the letters pages of In These Times. “We on the left need to root out our own species’ biases and embrace animal liberation with the same vigor with which we embrace human struggles for justice.”

“There are nuts all over,” says Weinstein. “We get letters about saving trees–they say we shouldn’t print on paper.” But the circulation of In These Times isn’t so large that it can easily afford to offend its nuts. And the appointment of Obis is placing the above reader at risk. First he’ll know a moment of giddy excitement when he learns that his magazine has just invited tofu’s pioneer chronicler to take the reins. But then he’ll learn more. . .

In the early 70s, when even yogurt was obscure and Texturized Vegetable Protein only a gleam in the eye of Archer Daniels Midland, Obis started Vegetarian Times to fan the flames among the scattered faithful. The tribe increased, the magazine got hot, and in 1991 Obis sold it to Cowles Enthusiast Media for a few million dollars. Obis went on publishing Vegetarian Times until Cowles fired him–when something’s not yours anymore, he says now, leave it–and then he became a magazine consultant. “It’s a terrible business,” he says. “You don’t have the authority to make the changes you think are necessary, and if people don’t follow your advice [and things go wrong] they think you gave them bad advice.”

A year and a half ago, Obis says, he was swindled out of $625,000 by a commodities trader he considered a friend. The FBI is investigating. Depressed, Obis told himself he had to get out of his house in Oak Park and do something. But he didn’t need a job so badly that he required a bigger salary than In These Times could afford to pay him. What exactly it would pay him–and for that matter, how it would pay him–remained up in the air even after Obis agreed to take over. “They realized they needed to find a publisher, and originally they were going to find out how to pay that person, and that person was going to start around Labor Day,” Obis says. “But I said, ‘Well why don’t you make it the new person’s problem to figure out how to pay for the position? And since that person’s me, that’ll be my problem.'”

Obis started on Monday, with the not unconnected goals of raising the money to pay himself and making In These Times a “more important voice” than it has been on the Left. “Obviously the universe of potential readers is going to be small,” he says. “I don’t think this particular group of people amounts to more than 1 or 2 percent of the population. But we’re talking about the same people who listen to NPR, Pacifica Radio, are members of WBEZ. The magazine is underpromoted. It hasn’t really hit the radar screen. If you look at other publications like the Nation, which has a circulation of 100,000, the Progressive, I think it’s around 50,000, Mother Jones, around 150,000–there’s definitely a bigger market than is currently being recognized.”

And In These Times? “It’s somewhere around 20,000,” Obis says. It used to be a little higher than that, but the publishing search has been going on for quite some time, and it’s been a diversion.

“It’s probably unlikely that this magazine will ever break even. But that’s not unusual–the Nation doesn’t break even. It’s the kind of publication that will probably require subsidies forever. But there’s a lot of room to improve the business operation of the magazine and make sure that people are more aware of it. That should make people feel better about contributing.”

Weinstein launched In These Times 21 years ago, and he’s personally underwritten it ever since. But he’s 70 now, and he wants to cut back and write a book. He liked what he saw in Obis–“He’s not better than I hoped for, but he’s better than I expected to find”–and invited him to lunch.

Obis ordered a hamburger.

A hamburger?

“You better ask him what happened–if he wants to tell you,” Weinstein said ominously.

“My wife broke her leg about three years ago,” Obis began. “The parents of my children’s classmates organized a dinner brigade. The first night they brought over Swedish meatballs. I thought, ‘I can’t eat this stuff!’ My kids thought it was great– they’d had enough tofu in their lives. The second night they brought over roast beef, and I thought, gee, maybe I should say something. The third night they brought over something else, and it dawned on me, the food they’re bringing over is spiritual food–and it would be so rude of me to say anything other than thank you and eat what I was given.

“Thomas Moore said sometimes your own self-righteousness can get in the way of spiritual progress. I decided it was time to change. Twenty-two years of tofu is a lot of time. Just being a regular guy had become more important to me than being Paul the Vegetarian. I wanted to go to Wrigley Field and eat a hot dog, and I wanted to accept this food being given to our family and be grateful for it.”

Do you like meat? I asked.

“Yeah. I’ll tell you, I thought all the meat replacements tasted exactly like meat, because I hadn’t tasted meat in 20 years. But after I had my first roast-beef sandwich from Johnnie’s I thought, ‘This doesn’t taste anything like TVP.” My wife and I many years ago were the vegetarian entrants in the Royko Ribfest, and we fought to have gluten ribs at the Ribfest. We thought those things were just great, but Royko said they tasted like pencil erasers. And being vegetarians for so long we thought, they taste like ribs to us. But in recent years, when we have Charlie Robinson ribs–I’ll tell you, they taste a lot different from what we were making.”

Trib Women Scorned

Question: When an interviewer tells the tale of an author with a dubious thesis, should she sprinkle her copy lightly with skepticism or dump it on like ketchup?

Answer: It depends on the office zeitgeist. If the next morning your editor is pummeled as he steps off the elevator, you screwed up.

Last month Tribune feature writer Connie Lauerman chatted with Iris Krasnow, a former PR go-getter in Chicago and trend-beat reporter in Washington who gave it up, so she says, to go home, raise her kids, and write a book called Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul.

Lauerman’s take on Krasnow might be construed by a disinterested male as somewhat playful and unimpressed. Lauerman noted her subject’s battle with “existential angst,” her explorations of “Buddhism, est, meditation, macrobiotics and born-again Christianity” before she plunged back into the Judaism she’d started out with. Then she married an architect, had kids, had an “epiphany,” and reached “a spiritual place that I’d been desperately seeking to reach my whole life.”

Krasnow told Lauerman, “Nothing felt so powerful or spiritually right than running an enterprise of children in the moment.” An essay for the Washington Post on the “power and liberation” of “being home with our children” led to her book on the subject. Lauerman faithfully repeated Krasnow’s assertions, but quietly observed on her own authority, “It cannot be said that Krasnow has abandoned the workplace entirely; after all, a writer on a book tour is not exactly the image of a full-time, obscure hausfrau.”

Krasnow shrugged off the contradictions. “Surrendering is a process,” she told Lauerman.

Of course it’s one thing to make fun of Krasnow and another to make fun of her thesis, which is that working women should think long and hard about going home to their children. The Tribune is full of working women, and many felt dissed. One of them, Womanews columnist Barbara Brotman, being in a position to, wrote a rebuttal. Brotman toted up the incoming–the piece by Lauerman, a piece in U.S. News & World Report titled “The Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Why They Work,” a piece in Newsweek titled “The Myth of Quality Time,” and a piece in Fortune titled “Is Your Family Wrecking Your Career (And Vice Versa)”–christened the barrage “Bash Working Mom Week,” and mourned, “I don’t have any answers. All I have is a shapeless, helpless frustration, a pile of clippings and a raw wound with a fresh dusting of salt.”

Other Tribune women without forums grumbled, and a few nabbed Tempo editor Timothy McNulty at the elevator. “They read me the riot act,” a male colleague recalls McNulty saying later. “There was some spirited opinion,” McNulty told me.

The women, who hold senior positions at the Tribune, wouldn’t speak to me on the record. (Neither would Lauerman.) But what they told McNulty was that Lauerman’s story simply wouldn’t do. It was one-sided and superficial; it ignored not only Krasnow’s husband but the idea that fathers have a role to play in balancing work and home; it allowed a woman who simply moved her writing career into her home to prattle on about “surrender.”

At the end of a difficult day McNulty, a former Washington reporter new to editing, turned to the paper’s senior working mother, managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski.

“He came to ask me what I thought,” Lipinski told me. “He said, ‘Do you want to yell at me too?'”

She didn’t. “We talked about the journalism,” McNulty said, and no “PC instructions” were given. But Lipinski suggested, and McNulty agreed, that interviewers should challenge authors’ assumptions. He told me, “It is not like we are just a tabula rasa, where any author says what she wants to say and we do not ask questions. Asking questions is not that harmful.”

But it would be harmful for reporters with agendas to hammer authors for the book they didn’t write while denying them space to explain the book they did. Some Tribune women apparently think Lauerman skirted every danger. “I had as many people defending the article as criticizing it, and just as vehemently, actually,” McNulty said. All were women. The paper’s men had other things on their minds.

Do you think Krasnow sounded silly? I asked Lipinski.

“As characterized in our story?” she asked. “What was her response to Connie’s question–‘I’m a work in progress’?” (I assume Lipinski was thinking of the response, “No, I haven’t surrendered. I’m surrendering….Surrendering is a process.”)

Lipinski went on, “I thought it was a lame response. I don’t know how you can expect to write on that subject, or any subject, and be living in apparent contradiction, and not have it come up on the book tour. I’d have at least expected a better-scripted answer.”

Krasnow had none. The answer was a revelation, yet Lauerman was blamed for not asking the right question.

Meanwhile, at That Other Paper…

The Sun-Times graciously saluted the Tribune the other day for completing a century and a half of publication. Imagine, 150 years old and still learning manners.

The Sun-Times has nothing to celebrate at the moment but its product, in particular the exemplary investigative journalism that’s hung Alderman Edward Burke out to dry. But perhaps you’ve read about Burke’s troubles in the Tribune. Just last week the Tribune called on Burke to step down as Finance Committee chairman. “Burke has forfeited his right to council leadership by a series of actions,” said the editorial. An earlier editorial said Burke “has been squirming under an allegation that he placed a former alderman who worked in Burke’s law firm on the Finance Committee as a ghost payroller” and noted that he’s also “been asked to justify how he could file lawsuits on behalf of clients who claim they’re due property-tax refunds because parts of the city budget are technically illegal.”

One Tribune news story referred to “conflict-of-interest allegations” and to the “latest revelation about Burke.” Another spoke of “alleged conflicts of interest” and of “disclosures.” A third had the mayor attacking Burke “in the wake of published reports.”

But the Tribune has rarely bothered to say where these revelations, allegations, disclosures, and published reports have been coming from. The one time reporter Gary Washburn did mention the Sun-Times by name he could hardly avoid it: he was quoting Burke criticizing the paper. And last Friday op-ed columnist Bruce Dold simply did the right thing: he observed that it was the Sun-Times that found out Burke had been changing the City Council record of votes he cast that affected his law clients.

Observing its anniversary, the Tribune has honorably confronted its past, acknowledging, for example, the “crotchets and eccentricities . . . and often reactionary politics” of Colonel McCormick. Candor’s always attractive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Obis, James Weinstein photo by Paul Merideth.