Strained Dyas at the Sun-Times

How did this turn into that? How did a paltry incident like a reporter with two kids to watch turning down an assignment trigger a showdown between the Newspaper Guild and the Sun-Times?

It’s not as though the Sun-Times missed the story because first Andrew Herrmann and then Zay Smith said thanks but no thanks at 6:30 AM and went back to sleep. Lee Bey, the next reporter rung up by chief photographer John Cary on December 2, hopped out of bed and covered the saga of the Greenpeace spidermen. “As I recall, he said, ‘Can you make an assignment at the Sears Tower?'” Bey tells us. “I said sure, and that was it.”

Cary, who comes to work at six, was calling at the behest of metro editor Steve Huntley. And whatever the words Cary may have used, apparently in Huntley’s view the reporters had no choice. When Herrmann and Smith got to work later in the morning, Huntley bawled them out. And before the day was up Smith had been issued a “final warning”–one step shy of getting fired.

On the face of it, this measure was a ludicrous overreaction. Smith had explained to Huntley that his wife, vacationing Sun-Times reporter Susan Schultz, was obliged to teach a course that morning at Columbia College, making Smith responsible for child care until a baby-sitter arrived at 10:30. The Sun-Times refuses to discuss personnel matters and Smith begged off, so we can’t say if management already had some reason to be unhappy with him. We will say that for 14 years he’s been one of the deftest, wittiest writers on the paper.

So the guild stepped in. A couple of meetings settled nothing, and then unit chairman David Robinson took the unusual step of posting a long memo on the guild bulletin board. It was headed “Another Morale Booster From Our Friends in Management” and tinged with the sort of in-your-face boilerplate that normally graces the bulletin board during contract negotiations.

Robinson wrote: “Smith recollects that Cary said, ‘Steve Huntley wants to know if you can cover’ the incident at Sears Tower. Smith replied that he couldn’t. Cary maintains that ‘Absolutely not. No way’ is the way Smith put it; Smith remembers being adamant but denies being that forceful.

“Also, the company thinks it significant that Smith did not volunteer at this point why he couldn’t take the story, but pooh-poohs the fact that Cary apparently did not deem it important enough to ask. Interesting rationale.

“At any rate, Cary ended the conversation–which lasted about 30 seconds–by saying, ‘OK, thanks. Goodby’ and hanging up. No questions, no warning of discipline to come, no cajoling. Just ‘OK, thanks.’ Smith particularly remembers the gratuitous ‘thanks.'”

Robinson drew a distinction between Herrmann’s scolding and the “draconian” measure taken against Smith, and continued: “The Guild believes that the company’s action not only is imprudent but indefensible. Both reporters were within their rights to decline the request/demand to come in early: They were not yet on duty; what was going on at the Sears Tower clearly was not an emergency.”

Later Robinson drew a moral: “We are learning that staffers apparently can never assume that conversations with certain managers are innocuous or, even when it’s clear they aren’t, that staffers can handle these things themselves. Usually, you can’t. Remember: If you think a supervisor has it in for you, you aren’t necessarily being paranoid.”

Robinson’s memo pushed the facts a little further than they’d go on their own. The Sears ascension may not have been an “emergency”–we’re told management hasn’t argued that it was–but it was certainly an important breaking story whose complexion could change at any second. As we see it, Cary had no time or obligation to cajole or threaten or ask for explanations; he had to work the phones as fast as he could until he found someone willing to get out of bed.

But our problems with Robinson’s memo are nothing compared to editor Dennis Britton’s. He answered two days later with his own broadside. Britton called Robinson’s statement a “misleading–and potentially harmful–message about how this newsroom ought to operate. . . . News can happen at any time. Our job is to cover it . . . even when that involves some personal inconvenience.” Therefore, “no matter how politely it might be phrased, a call from a supervisor asking you to handle an assignment in your off hours is, in fact, an assignment. It is not within your discretion to simply turn it down; such a refusal constitutes insubordination.” Britton said he regretted “continued attempts, such as the latest posting, to perpetuate an adversarial situation that is both unnecessary and harmful.”

Britton got his answer last Monday. The idea that guild members seek to “perpetuate an adversarial situation,” said a letter from the Chicago guild’s executive director, Gerald Minkkinen, is “patently outrageous.” Minkkinen declared, “So that you have no misunderstanding, you do NOT own the time of our members day and night, as you suggest. You do NOT, under the Guild contract, have the right to require overtime whenever you wish, even though the Sun-Times has attempted, in previous negotiations, to negotiate such rights into the contract.”

Shaping up at this point was a bracing debate over rights and responsibilities, with management claiming its authority to send out troops at its pleasure resided in the penubra of the contract and in newspaper tradition, the guild arguing that powers the paper had tried and failed to acquire explicitly by negotiation were powers it did not possess, and Smith stuck in the middle.

But on Monday afternoon the confrontation took a jolting turn. When a guild delegation led by Minkkinen sat down with a management delegation led by labor-relations chief Ted Rilea, Rilea announced that Smith’s final warning for refusing an assignment had been withdrawn. But he was now on final warning for walking out of a December 7 meeting with Rilea and Huntley.

It’s what Smith had done, all right. Robinson says the meeting began as a “fact-finding” session called by Rilea but at Robinson’s request became a guild grievance hearing. “Therefore it ceased being his meeting and became our meeting,” Robinson explains. And when he decided it was turning hostile, he led Smith out.

So suddenly the contract was a dead issue. The guild retreated to pore through labor case law. “It’s a very different question now,” Minkkinen told us. “I don’t want to hip shoot. I want us to know exactly how much ground we’re on before we respond.”

He marveled, “This thing has grown like Topsy from what seemed a minor incident to a confrontation of relatively nuclear proportions.”

Reconsidering Rostenkowski

Whatever the Sun-Times now reveals about Dan Rostenkowski, surely the newspaper doesn’t want to drive the congressman from office. Just last March the editorial page had this to say when it endorsed him in the Democratic primary: “Rostenkowski’s opponent is former 44th Ward Ald. Dick Simpson, who has self-righteously (and often inaccurately) hammered at Rostenkowski’s long tenure and fund-raising practices, portraying him as arrogant and a captive of special interests. Ironically, it is precisely Rostenkowski’s long service in the House (one-third of a century), and the power he has exercised on behalf of his back-home constituents as he moved up in House leadership ranks, that wins our endorsement.”

Back then Simpson was accusing Rostenkowski of accepting more than $2 million from political action committees in return for favors. Simpson’s campaign relied heavily on research by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which reported that in 1986 Rostenkowski, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, played a key role in writing a new tax code that was “the largest tax giveaway in the 75-year history of the federal income tax.” Said the Inquirer, “Thousands of wealthy individuals and hundreds of businesses were absolved from paying billions upon billions of dollars in federal income taxes.”

Now the Sun-Times is ragging Rosty over $73,000 in campaign funds paid to rent a vacant office from his own family and $55,000 in postage stamps. “The lease arrangement,” the same editorial page now thunders, “is just one of Rostenkowski’s unusual financial practices that throw doubt on the congressman’s ethics and good judgment.” It’s been a case of good reporting over chump change.

Dead and Buried

The suburbanization of the Tribune is weirdly reflected in the paper’s death denial. In the Tribune’s view, death belongs on the obit page, where it will trouble no one who doesn’t want to be troubled. And so it was that the death of Chicago’s special-events director, Kathy Osterman, who few people had known was even ill, was noted only on page 15 of section two. The Sun-Times properly covered the death on page three.

By burying the story the Tribune insulted Osterman and every reader affected by her unexpected death. A day later the Tribune did better. A profile by John Kass that began “The grief was general all over City Hall on Wednesday as the politicians mourned Kathy Osterman, a boisterous and blunt lady who charmed almost everyone she met” ran on the Chicagoland section’s first page.

But a day later Osterman’s death could be reported as news and not as death, a distinction comprehensible only to the paper that sees a need to make it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.