Star System

As critical tools go, none’s clumsier than the star-based rating system, exactly the one newspaper editors find irresistible. In 1986 Jude Wanniski, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and supply-side apostle, launched MediaGuide, thereby advancing journalism’s self-infatuation to a level where it was now giving stars to itself. Two years ago Forbes Inc. took over the operation. The 1994 Forbes MediaGuide 500 has appeared with its annual exercise in tasty nonsense–“the nation’s 500 most influential journalists” ranked and graded.

Ratings range from F for “a byline not to be trusted” (there was one) to **** for “outstanding pacesetters for the entire news media. A byline not to be missed” (not quite as rare). You might want to know what the MediaGuide has to say about our local talent, most of which works for the Tribune.

Terry Atlas, Tribune *: “Diplomatic correspondent. Only occasionally reaching beyond the superficial, Atlas seldom adds to the political debate.”

Stephen Chapman, Tribune * 1/2: “Alternately sensible, pedestrian, soaring, and incomprehensible, Chapman’s column is a hit-or-miss event.”

James P. Gallagher, Tribune *** 1/2: “Moscow bureau chief. . . . His basic news reports illuminate brilliantly and his feature articles enlighten even more so.”

Merrill Goozner, Tribune **: “Chief Asia correspondent. . . . Working hard to produce a populist ring in his reports, Goozner usually succeeds in writing for a general audience.”

Charles Madigan, Tribune *: “Washington. . . . Seldom offers much insight.”

Gary Marx, Tribune **: “Buenos Aires. . . . Provides rich analysis, and enhances his stories by altering his literary style to suit his topics.”

Timothy McNulty, Tribune **: “White House. Although some of his articles on foreign affairs lack depth, McNulty remains a sharp White House watcher.”

David Moberg, In These Times ***: “Senior editor. . . . Sharp and provocative, the talented Moberg is one to turn to in these times of changing economic and labor conditions.”

Ray Moseley, Tribune * 1/2: “Chief European correspondent. . . . Would prove a more effective reporter if he spent less time in the press office and a little bit more on the street.”

Salim Muwakkil, In These Times ** 1/2: “Senior editor. . . . Delivers penetrating and multifaceted accounts of inter- and intra-racial issues from a left perspective.”

William Neikirk, Tribune **: “Senior editor. . . . His articles teem with historical data. Despite his years of experience, however, there’s an unevenness to his work; he often indulges in rhetorical flourishes, disregarding the facts.”

Clarence Page, Tribune *: “A former Pulitzer Prize winner, Page rarely moves beyond the ordinary to add fresh perspective. . . . A generally disappointing year.”

Mike Royko, Tribune ***: “By turning to tough issues, Royko the humorist gives way in 1993 to Royko the social critic. With vigorous logic and prose, his scathing commentary hits the mark almost every time.”

Uli Schmetzer, Tribune * 1/2: “Beijing. . . . Tends to self-destruct through technical errors of style or fact.”

Nathaniel Sheppard Jr., Tribune **: “Central America. . . . As he at times seems to bear ideological baggage from the political battles of the past 15 years, his analysis lacks the freshness of his reporting.”

Jacob Weisberg, New Republic ** 1/2: “Although Weisberg’s conclusions sometimes outrun his evidence, he supplies a steady dose of provocative information.”

Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times *: “Chicago. More interested this year in quotes than truth. . . . Seems content with common wisdom and academic insight.”

Howard Witt, Tribune ** 1/2: “Moscow. . . . From his well-textured accounts of Russian life and politics, you know he spends his days on the street reporting.”

From year to year the 500’s judgments can wander all over the map. Last year the Wall Street Journal’s Bruce Ingersoll was given three and a half stars and described as “a consummate beat reporter. . . the journalist of record on the FDA and USDA.” This year Ingersoll was knocked down to two and a half, and did that well only for his team reporting. “Judged solely on his own byline, Ingersoll probably rates a star and a quarter.”

Isabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage the MediaGuide 500 found wanting.

Salim Muwakkil now writes frequently for the Sun-Times, and David Moberg has long been an occasional contributor to the Reader, while also writing some for the Tribune. We listed Jacob Weisberg because his mom, Lois Weisberg, is Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs.

You may wonder: Who’s responsible for these decrees? An editorial staff of about four people, who do a lot of reading, a lot of Nexis searching, and publish the quarterly Forbes MediaCritic to boot. Their criteria: the size and nature of the reporters’ audiences, standards that somehow favor both the massive Tribune and the tiny In These Times, which the 500’s managing editor, Andrew Gyory, told us is “probably furthest on the left of anything we look at. Whether what they write has impact is debatable, but it offers a point of view you don’t get elsewhere.”

In other words, by “influential” the MediaGuide 500 doesn’t necessarily mean “has influence.” In ’93 the 500 news hounds cited weren’t the nation’s “most influential” but the “most important.” A change was made, the preface to the ’94 edition explains, to allow for “a greater range in quality, as an influential journalist may not deserve to be well regarded.” Neither may an “important” journalist, for that matter.

Don’t look for another 500 next year. There won’t be one. From now on Forbes will publish only the quarterly MediaCritic. Spokesmen explained the 500 was too much work.

No Stars Here

Viola Spolin, who died last week in Los Angeles, was the Lucy of modern Chicago theater. Just about everyone’s her descendant. Janet Coleman’s wonderful book The Compass refers to her as the “High Priestess of Improvisation” and recalls her visit to Chicago in the mid-50s, when she instructed a handful of performers who would become the Compass Players, who would beget Second City, whose success and institutionalization inspired generations of younger actors to form their own ensembles, either in imitation or as more principled alternatives.

Spolin taught her performers workshop games she’d later codify in the actor’s bible Improvisation for the Theater, a book translated into German, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese whose third revised edition Northwestern University Press will publish next year. One of the Compass players was her son, Paul Sills, who remained in Chicago to found Second City. Spolin’s departure after performing her magic here was like a scene from Shane. Spolin told Coleman she remembered Elaine May running toward her at a bus stop calling, “We need you, Viola. Don’t go.”

There were no stars on Spolin’s stage, only the ensemble, exploring their art at a high pitch of mutual awareness and generosity. Her emphasis on the group remains essential to Chicago theater. Actors who seek stardom or have it thrust upon them–actors like May–eventually leave town. But youth is seldom squandered here. Chicago gives young talent what it asks, an equal opportunity to form and grow. In this respect it’s the fairest of cities, which is also Viola Spolin’s legacy.

News Bites

When William Gaddis won a National Book Award last month for his novel A Frolic of His Own, he thanked the jury for “choosing a book which, I am told, is not reader friendly.” The Tribune’s Kenneth Clark noted that Gaddis’s earlier NBA winner, JR, had been deemed “unreadable” by one critic.

Gaddis’s wasn’t the only book easier to honor than pick up. The NBA for nonfiction was given to Sherwin Nuland for How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, about which Stephen Chapman, in one of his most sensible, nay soaring, moments, had this to say: “It immediately went to the top of the list of Books I Am Least Likely Ever to Open. . . . “How We Die,’ in other words, fills a much-needed gap. I anticipate learning more than I ever wanted to know about this subject long before I am ready.”

Jon Margolis’s excellent review of the new book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas offers the conclusion, “But for those of us who were agnostics in 1991, who would neither sport an “I believe Anita Hill’ bumper sticker nor trust Thomas’ intense denials, “Strange Justice’ is convincing.”

Someone here wondered about that. She didn’t remember Margolis being all that neutral three years ago. We dug up the column he wrote then, and he was and he wasn’t. Margolis didn’t attempt to choose between Hill and Thomas, but he drizzled contempt on everyone and everything else, including–and this might be what nagged at our colleague’s memory–liberalism and the notion of a “firestorm’ of feminine protest.”

Margolis wrote, “The firestorm was half a million phone calls. That’s a lot of phone calls. But it means that about one half of 1 percent of the adult women in the country registered their anger.”

As for liberalism, it now held that the “maleness” of the U.S. Senate “prevented them from “getting it.”‘ Margolis went on, “Thus has American liberalism, from whence these sentiments emerge, become reactionary. Once, to be liberal was to believe that there were universal truths open to anyone through reason and education. Now it is to condemn everyone to group loyalty and group myopia.”

Thus did an agnostic who could not dispute the faith condemn the church. A public remains that takes seriously what journalists write and how they write it. These readers may not be awarding stars, but they aren’t forgetting either.