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Spiegel Slings Mud, Sun-Times Pitches In

It’s come to this: Big business doesn’t just say no to Chicago anymore. It says no and thumbs its nose at City Hall on the way out the door. And the press seconds the insult.

Spiegel pulled the latest vanishing act, deciding to move its distribution center and 2,000 jobs out of Bridgeport and out of Chicago. When Spiegel this month turned down the last of the six sites the city had proposed for a new center–low land along Lake Calumet–the Sun-Times and Tribune each raised the possibility that Spiegel simply covets a labor pool that isn’t unionized and works cheap. The Tribune went on to run a sympathetic editorial predicting that “Chicago and Illinois will find it all but impossible to reverse the loss of their low-skill, union-scale employment base.”

The Sun-Times followed up with a piece by Alf Siewers in which “some experts” were found who think that the loss of Spiegel “illustrated a lack of long-term industrial vision” by the city. We doubt if Siewers had to search long and hard to find his experts–there’s always been a smoke-and-mirrors quality to Mayor Daley’s infatuation with airports and casinos.

But in yet another Sun-Times postscript, a Spiegel vice president was allowed to make the city’s Lake Calumet offer sound like a joke. “If you go out there right now, where the building was to be situated,” general counsel Michael Moran told reporter Mary Ellen Podmolik, “I’d hope you were a very good swimmer because you’d be in 20 to 30 feet of water.”

Podmolik bought it. Her article began, “Thirty feet of water kept Spiegel Inc. from replanting its roots in Chicago.” And the editorial page bought it too. An editorial the next day suggested that Chicago stop worrying so much about “mega-projects” and figure out how to “somehow accommodate the pent-up demand for more space by the industrial firms already located here. Offering them swampland is no way to achieve that goal.”

Swampland? Valerie Jarrett is commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, and the Sun-Times editorial enraged her. Hard as she’d worked to accommodate Spiegel, the paper made it sound as if she’d been trying to fleece it. “It’s a comical image,” she told us. “You imagine we’re out there selling the Brooklyn Bridge in essence. I find that insulting.”

The 151 acres Chicago offered Spiegel belong to the Illinois International Port District. According to the district, 60 of the acres are covered by water, most of it less than 4 feet deep. About 4 acres were dredged for navigation, and there the water approaches 30 feet deep. Jarrett said the city’s team of planners, engineers, environmentalists, and port district officials spent two and a half hours at the site pitching it to Spiegel, with three quarters of an hour devoted to a discussion of landfill. “Half of Chicago is built on landfill,” Jarrett declares. “If there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s landfill.”

Moran was there. “I don’t believe he asked any questions about the fill,” Jarrett says.

Even though Spiegel wants to break ground at a new site on November 30, a date so imminent the company probably knew a year ago it would be leaving Bridgeport, Jarrett says the city wasn’t told of Spiegel’s intentions until early this summer. It was August before Spiegel asked Chicago to nominate sites inside the city. Jarrett produced a list of five, none of which turned out to meet Spiegel’s specifications. But with a clearer idea of what Spiegel wanted, Jarrett came up with Lake Calumet. She says she and her team worked around the clock for a week packaging an offer. “I grilled the engineers. We grilled each other. We played a moot court–‘If you were Spiegel, what sort of questions would you have when you read this proposal?’ When I submitted that proposal I was confident that we had answered all the possible questions Spiegel would have. I’m not going to make these representations without feeling I had the backup necessary to deliver.”

So, was Spiegel just playing the city along? Jarrett thinks so, and she calls the business about 30 feet of water a “red herring.” Edward Noha is also suspicious. The CEO of CNA Insurance, Noha is the new chairman of the mayor’s Economic Development Commission, and he helped pitch Lake Calumet to Spiegel. “We made a presentation that frankly I would have found very, very difficult to refuse if I had been in their shoes and was legitimately seeking another location in Chicago,” he says. “I was shocked at the quote from Mike Moran, because I thought he was a very classy, professional individual. . . . To disparage the quality of that offering, to me, bordered on being irresponsible and certainly was not in keeping with the good-faith effort the city made. It was a cheap shot.”

There was a time when the city’s competence would never have been impugned the way Moran and the Sun-Times impugned it, and if it was the city would have pretended not to hear. These are new times. Jarrett immediately called Ray Coffey, who runs the Sun-Times’s editorial pages, and asked him if he’d gone out and checked the water’s depth at the Spiegel site. Had he? we asked (sure of the answer). “He was very unclear about that,” said Jarrett. “He said the reporters have been covering it. . . . I encouraged him to call the port authority directly. I said, ‘You figure out yourself if this process was doable.'”

Jarrett’s office also called the Tribune’s urban affairs writer, Patrick Reardon, who came over and listened to her side and then wrote a friendly story. And we were called. Jarrett’s aide Greg Longhini suggested our column would benefit from a comparison of the Tribune and Sun-Times coverage of the Spiegel campaign, coverage he promptly faxed us. In turn, we called Mary Ellen Podmolik, who wanted her story to speak for itself but acknowledged, “I just did the interview. I didn’t go down and measure the depth of the water or anything.”

“I think the mayor and his cabinet have a good relationship with the business community,” said Jarrett, when we told her that in our view Chicago’s lost its reputation as a city that can make things happen. “But it’s a large business community. I think what you run the risk of is when there’s a company that doesn’t know anyone in city government–say just 400 employees working at an industrial firm on the west side–and they start to say, ‘Look what happened!’ The city couldn’t help Spiegel. How could they help me? So they don’t call. And I want them to call. I want them to understand we deliver. And that’s why when publicity casting a doubt on that happens, I get angry.

“It sends a bad signal to recruitment in our office. It sends a bad signal to business. I’m more sensitive than I would be in the boom of the 80s, but right now it’s crucial for the private sector to have confidence in government. I’ve worked too hard to have a sloppy editorial in the Sun-Times or a flippant remark by a company jeopardize it.”

We asked Michael Moran if his flippant remark had been fairly reported. He didn’t want to discuss it.

Declaration of War

The press insists the American economy is the number-one issue in the ’92 election; we don’t think so. Recessions come and go, but the national soul is fought over only every century or so. In fact there’s been just one civil war in American history, and before the next begins it ought to be seriously debated.

The Republican position as we understand it from the company George Bush keeps–from Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Pat Robertson, and some of the others–is that cultural war must be formally declared. Twelve years of Republican presidencies did not do God’s work to the extent He’d like it done, so now the God-fearing must make His work their own. Liberals, secular humanists, pornographers, and sodomites have held the nation in bondage way too long.

One view has it that the war already began. The Republican platform declared that the usual culprits (“elements within the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the Democratic Party”) “are waging a guerrilla war against American values.”

“The Bosnia of the cultural war is abortion,” Buchanan explained in a Tribune op-ed piece just last week. “The cultural war is already raging in our public schools. . . . The battle over our schools is part of the war to separate parents from children, one generation from another, and all Americans from their heritage.”

But the United States today is probably more like the United States in 1860. The skies are dark and the hour is nigh. In this spirit, Pat Robertson advised earlier this year, “The strategy against the American radical left should be the same as General Douglas MacArthur employed against the Japanese in the Pacific . . . by-pass their strongholds, then surround them, isolate them, bombard them, then blast the individuals out of their power bunkers with hand-to-hand combat. The battle for Iwo Jima was not pleasant, but our troops won it. The battle to regain the soul of America won’t be pleasant either, but we will win it!”

The Republican Party–George Bush not having told us otherwise–is as much the war party now as it was when Lincoln ran for president. As for the Democrats–well, they haven’t said no to cultural warfare, but it’s obvious their hearts aren’t in it. It may be that liberals, secular humanists, pornographers, and sodomites are counting on a Clinton presidency to give them the elbow room they’ll need to turn America over to Satan.

War is a grave matter. Bill Clinton wriggled out of Vietnam and he wriggled out of a clear position on the Persian Gulf, but this time his feet must be held to the fire. The question should chase him wherever he goes: Do you support a cultural war or don’t you? And if you don’t, who are you trying to protect?

Because media polls don’t measure our envy of the cleansing Serbs and Sendero Luminoso, we can only guess at the level of popular discontent with the current vile peace. The moral equivalent of war is a moral war, and just one party doesn’t shrink from it. The press, which will soon be announcing its endorsements, better keep this in mind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.