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“This lawsuit is frivolous and absolutely without merit,” pronounced the Sun-Times last week. Frivolous? Ray Hanania has accused the paper where he used to work of defaming his character. Hanania’s like everyone else; he takes his good name seriously.
“Maybe I made a mistake because I chose between my heart and my job,” Hanania brooded the other day, his emotions in their usual place on his sleeve, his language extravagant. “I want my job back. But the longer they go on hurting me, the greater the damage to my integrity.”
He went on, “I think the Sun-Times is wrong. I think they’re wrong in a national way. I think they’ve sent a message that it’s so much easier to dump a reporter than to stand up for what’s right to a politician. This is an embarrassment for a paper that claims to be an ethical pillar and is trying to shake off the legacy of Rupert Murdoch. They made a public proclamation by dumping me. They were saying there was something wrong with me.”
On November 1 Hanania was called in by Dennis Britton, editor of the Sun-Times, and Steve Huntley, the metro editor. They questioned his relationship with city treasurer Miriam Santos, a relationship once torrid and even now disconcertingly chummy. Hanania was a political reporter, assigned to the county beat; Santos was in pitched battle against Mayor Daley over control of city pension funds.
Daley’s operatives did not like Santos. They did not like Hanania for liking Santos or for contributing–they suspected–to her adroit manipulation of public sentiment.
Hanania made at least one huge mistake. As soon as he realized this chat with Britton and Huntley was about his job, he should have insisted that a Newspaper Guild official join in. Instead, Hanania played a lone hand, then drove numbly off in his Porsche.
The Sun-Times insists that Hanania voluntarily resigned, leaving nothing more to talk about. Untrue, responds Hanania. “Hanania was effectively given a choice of submitting his resignation or being fired,” avers his lawsuit, which seeks $2 million in punitive damages. “Hanania, under this pressure, was coerced into offering his resignation.”
We talked with Hanania the morning after he parted company with the Sun-Times. He didn’t know what had hit him. “Believe me, [Britton] was very sympathetic,” he told us. “I don’t mean to criticize him or the paper. I don’t like the decision, but I believe they wanted to bend over backwards for me.”
Hanania quickly recovered from this fever of generosity. He contacted the Guild, which filed a grievance and has formally requested his reinstatement. Hanania also went looking for a lawyer. “I had to find an attorney who’s not afraid of the media and who doesn’t care what they write about him, because the Sun-Times can be pretty vindictive.”
Hanania settled on Jerome Torshen, who’d proved his mettle last summer when he filed a libel suit against the Sun-Times on behalf of an assistant basketball coach at Chicago Vocational High School. (The coach, Donnie Kirksey, says prep-sports writer Taylor Bell falsely reported that the NCAA was investigating a possible connection between Kirksey and the University of Michigan.)
“When I called him, he was enthusiastic,” Hanania told us. “He decided after we sat down that my case was just.”
The basis of the suit is a Tribune article on Santos and Hanania that appeared a day after he left the paper. Britton was quoted as saying: “I think it is improper for any journalist to give advice to any political candidate, particularly those that are covered by the journalist.” And also saying, “Our responsibility is to report the news, not participate in the news, and when we cross that line, it puts in jeopardy the integrity of the news reporting.”
These are truisms, but in the context of the Tribune article, truisms pointing straight at Hanania. “The relationship [with Santos] has continued to dog him,” said Britton, according to the Tribune. “This afternoon, Ray came in for a conversation regarding the reports that were swirling around City Hall, and expressed his love for working for the Sun-Times and offered to resign. The resignation was accepted.”
Britton, who may wish he’d said less than he did to the Tribune, wouldn’t say anything to us. We wanted to ask him if a shrewder course might have been to talk Hanania into resigning, refuse to accept the resignation–thus asserting the paper’s disdain for City Hall–and then reassign Hanania to the waterworks or coverage of new video releases. A defamation suit by a prominent former reporter is a headache the Sun-Times doesn’t need.
Forget the video beat, come to think of it. That would have posed an ethical conflict.
For Hanania was just telling us about Hanania Enterprises, the corporation he’d established to handle his sideline business interests. For example, there’s Video Biz Newspaper, a tip sheet he publishes every month and distributes at five video stores, one run by an ex-wife and the other four by a friend.
“I watch practically every video released every month,” Hanania explained. “It’s a 12-page paper. It has ads direct from Hollywood. I never took any local advertising until this month. I didn’t want it to compete with the Sun-Times. Now that the Sun-Times is dumping me, I figure the heck with them. I’ll take whatever advertising I can get.”
Then there’s Hanania’s radio-TV income. He presides on WLS radio every Saturday from 9 PM to midnight and Sunday from 7 AM to noon. He used to show up frequently on Channel 11’s Chicago Week in Review and Channel 5’s City Desk.
“That would always raise my profile a lot,” Hanania told us morosely. “Now all that’s down the tubes.”
A reporting job at the Tribune was never easy to get. But once you made the payroll you expected to stay there. A new class of Tribune reporter, however, enjoys no job security at all. These “editorial residents” sign a contract for a year. They’re told up front that a few of them might be kept on permanently but most of them won’t.
“We have over the last decade basically hired for the Tribune in two ways,” editor Jack Fuller explained. “We hired a couple of youngsters off the internship program every year, and most people we hired came from several newspapers before they got to us.”
When Fuller was given a chance to “rather dramatically” expand his staff last year, he decided to split the difference. “A certain number [of the hires] I wanted to get would be very young. We’d have a look and keep the very best.” Hence, the resident program–for journalists who knew more than college interns but weren’t yet fully seasoned. “It’s too early to say how successful it will be for us and the youngsters who come in on it,” Fuller said. But he’s enthusiastic. “When we bring young kids in here, they refresh us. Also, they learn our ways, our institutions, very deeply. And if they find it comfortable, they become very loyal employees and very adroit employees. Because they know how we operate.”
Between October 1990 and last March the Tribune hired 18 residents–two photographers, an artist, and 15 reporters and editors. Eleven of them were minorities–reflecting what the Tribune sees as one of the program’s clear advantages. “There aren’t that many 40-year-old minorities around,” said managing editor Richard Ciccone. “If you’re going to diversify your staff, you have to be looking at young people. And not all of them are going to work out.”
Last month the 12-month jobs began to expire. Four residents have been rehired–two photographers, a copy editor, and a makeup editor. And four residents were given notice. New contract workers will come in to replace them.
Fuller and Ciccone mount an able defense of the resident program. Actually, they don’t defend it–they extol it. It’s straightforward. It’s flexible. It allows the Tribune to root among the good to find the best. And even the residents let go get to add a year at the Chicago Tribune to their resumes. Who knows? Perhaps with a little more seasoning, some could even come back to stay.
However, some of the paper’s old hands have been less enthusiastic. Whatever a contract might say, a colleague given notice is a colleague given the ax. And the two reporters just handed their walking papers don’t fit Fuller’s profile of youngsters still learning the trade.
Wilson Ring, who’s 34, moved from Vermont to work for the Tribune. He used to string for the Tribune from Honduras, where he was a free-lance reporter for five and a half years. Lisa Newman, a friend of ours, came to the Tribune with a master’s in journalism from Columbia and four and a half years’ experience in Chicago and Mexico with City News, UPI, and the Southtown Economist.
Ring and Newman are leaving on good terms, with the praise of editors ringing in their ears. But they’re leaving.
“I did enter into this in good faith, knowing this was possible,” Ring told us. “And things are tough all over.”
There’s a lesson here in the realities of Chicago journalism. Both Ring and Newman practiced their trade in Latin America, and came to the Tribune bilingual and savvy in the ways of earthquakes and civil wars.
The Tribune stationed Newman in Schaumburg and Ring in Crystal Lake.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.