Sound Bit

The worst kind of Faustian bargain is the one you don’t know you’re making. The other day Warren Friedman was given what every serious person covets: the opportunity to be paid attention to, in this case by a national audience.

The price he paid? Friedman was trivialized. He was identified on an NBC news report not as the executive director of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, but as a generic “Chicago community activist.” And in a landmark exercise in distillation, NBC gave him four solid seconds of airtime to say what he thinks. Friedman told us the interview had lasted about half an hour, so let’s conservatively say 20 minutes. A whopping 0.003 of it made the cut.

Friedman had expected the nuances of the discussion to disappear. But he didn’t expect the worst thing NBC did, which was misrepresent his position. Did the network’s two-minute report on Chicago’s new community-policing program allow Friedman to offer what he’s qualified to offer–a thoughtful assessment of the pros and cons? Of course not. Did it even assign him the role of booster? No, Mayor Daley and some cops held up that end. To his astonishment, Friedman was cast as the local naysayer.

“I don’t think there’s overwhelming evidence that community policing works,” said Friedman in his four seconds.

“I said what I said. There it is on tape,” Friedman conceded. But what he meant to say–and did say into a void–is that there’s no evidence community policing will work without community participation and no evidence it will work across an entire city. A program structured like Chicago’s and on the scale of Chicago’s has never been tried before.

“There was a long campaign by a coalition of community organizations called the Community Policing Task Force that put this on the city’s agenda in the first place,” Friedman told us. “A small number of community people participated in the training of the police officers for the prototype, and I think that’s fairly unique. And there are civilians on the core strategic-planning committee, a Police Department committee to plan the next five years.”

Friedman’s on the planning committee himself.

“What irks me immensely is that I spent the last 13 years working on this, and I was represented only by my skepticism–which was not the tenor of the interview and pisses me off,” Friedman told us. “To take somebody you’re interviewing because they’re a longtime advocate of the program and an expert and turn that around and make me an attacker of it seems to me a violation of the spirit of hospitality. They were using my time, and they were using my time because of my credentials.”

They got to use his time because the person who asked for it, NBC producer Ted Elbert, is an old friend. “This was not comfortable for me or him,” Friedman said.

Elbert didn’t want to talk about his friend’s four seconds of fame, but out of what struck us as a sense of honor he did. “We did him a disservice,” he said. “In the course of putting a piece together, what happens is you throw something in at the last minute, under time pressure, and later under closer examination you wish you hadn’t.”

Elbert added Friedman to the report as a sound bite that kept getting sliced thinner and thinner. At what point should Elbert have recognized that the decent thing to do was drop his old friend altogether? When the 20 minutes were down to 30 seconds? To 8?

Board Comparison

The Sun-Times just added another woman to its editorial board–former family-issues writer Leslie Baldacci: Chicagoan, mother, rock ‘n’ roll drummer’s wife. Editorial-page editor Mark Hornung had told us he wanted to diversify the board. How diverse is it now? we wondered, and how does it compare to the Tribune’s?

There’s a gender gap between the two boards, but that’s not the biggest difference. Hornung has assembled a nine-person board that’s a third women: Baldacci, Michelle Stevens, and Cindy Richards. Stevens and Vernon Jarrett are black, and ex officio member Dennis Britton, the Sun-Times editor, has Latino roots. No one’s gay, but Hornung’s been trying to recruit someone, and he just introduced a gay columnist, Deb Price.

Ellen Soeteber and Dianne Donovan are the women on the Tribune’s 14-person board. Don Wycliff, who heads the board, and Clarence Page are the two blacks.

What’s remarkable about Soeteber is that at the moment she’s the only one of her board’s 14 members who lives in Chicago. Five live in Evanston and two in Oak Park, and the others are even farther flung. The most remote are former Chicagoan Page in Washington, D.C., and cartoonist Jeff MacNelly in Virginia.

Every single Sun-Times board member lives in the city except Dennis Byrne.

There’s no right or wrong here. But when solons set out to mediate the earth, they care most about the patch they inhabit.

Black Days for the Newspaper Guild

Newspaper Guild members at Pioneer Press have a hunch about why contract talks that began ten months ago went nowhere. As they took place, negotiations were going on in secret between the Sun-Times Company, which owns Pioneer, and Hollinger Inc. of Canada. Conrad Black, who’s taking over as ultimate boss of the Sun-Times properties, believes the only good union’s a broken one; he can now deal with Pioneer’s labor problems as he pleases.

The bargaining sessions were so ineffective the two sides couldn’t even agree on a nondiscrimination clause. The guild wanted to add “sexual orientation” to the list of taboo reasons for disciplining employees. Management kept saying no.

“If we can’t make headway on basic human rights issues, you can imagine where we’re going on economic issues,” said reporter Mike Isaacs, a member of the bargaining team.

Economic issues happen to be of primary concern only to the guild’s editorial unit at Pioneer, which believes its members are wildly underpaid. Isaacs told us experienced Pioneer reporters make a lot less than editorial assistants at the Sun-Times. But the guild is also bargaining for its production unit. These workers make pretty good wages; what they want is security.

“Among the very first public announcements [Hollinger has] made is that they intend to change the press operations at the Sun-Times,” says Jerry Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago guild. “They’re talking about buying new presses and in fact switching to a new press facility. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if they do that there’s a great potential for changing the printing operation as it affects Pioneer Press as well. That we have to talk about openly, and the company has been very loath to do so. We’ve put forth a formal request to bargain over the results of the sale. So far there’s been no response.”

The guild’s representing about 225 members up at Pioneer. In May contract talks open for about 265 editorial workers at the Sun-Times, where the guild’s already trying to make further inroads by organizing the ad department. It’s going “slowly, slowly,” Minkkinen told us this week. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” Management, he said, has been extremely circumspect in its opposition, but that’s come only after the National Labor Relations Board complained that it was harassing organizers.

Normally managements don’t deign to talk publicly about labor relations, but we were able to speak with Elliot Azoff, a Cleveland attorney who’s been representing the company against guild negotiators at both the Sun-Times and Pioneer. Azoff didn’t agree that management has been uncommonly unbudgeable. “I think we went awfully far,” he said. “And whatever his reasons, Jerry has turned most stubborn.”

What about the sexual-orientation clause? we asked.

“I negotiate contracts all over the country,” he said. “I don’t have a single one that has that in. Normally we don’t put a clause like that in where it’s not a matter of law. It creates hassles where no hassles exist.”

(But if it were law, the guild responds, we wouldn’t need it in the contract.)

Azoff said he didn’t think the pending sale of the company had any bearing on contract talks, and he has no reason to believe Hollinger will now want to bring in a new negotiating team. If we hear differently, he asked us to let him know.

Return of the Silent Majority

The Tribune published a wonderfully silly picture caption after the votes were counted last week. Beneath a color photo in the center of page one the Tribune said this: “Rep. Dan Rostenkowski waves to supporters Wednesday, the morning after he won renomination to a 19th term.”

There wasn’t a supporter in sight. But such is ritual’s grip on the press that both dailies stationed photographers outside the congressman’s front door Wednesday morning to snap the all-important vindicated-war-horse-greets-the-new-day portrait. They waited for hours.

Finally Rostenkowski got out of bed and lumbered out to see what they wanted. Click. Click. How about a wave? one said as Rosty was going back inside. Thus arrived the moment when, if all you know is what you read in the papers, he was acknowledging the multitudes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.