Sun-Times: Off With Their Heads!

Under cover of war, the Sun-Times editorial page is testing the appetite of its readers for contempt. Contempt is an ancient tool of rhetoric, not as often seen on editorial pages as it used to be, because today’s papers hesitate to alienate the readers they aren’t indulging. American newspapers–with their absentee owners, local monopolies, and vague sense of civic dignity–are notoriously bad at contempt. The British do it better. When the Sun-Times was owned by the Field family, it was casually thought of as the more liberal of Chicago’s two surviving major dailies. When the Hollinger chain, rooted in Britain and Canada, took over in the mid-90s, this legacy prompted it to tack right while pretending not to–in the manner of a conservative Supreme Court paying lip service to liberal precedents. But the godsend of a popular war has freed the paper to openly despise everyone it wants to, and to do so in the mantle of tough-minded patriotism.

When the Sun-Times gleefully endorsed the military tribunals the White House proposed for terrorists, it didn’t just weigh these secret tribunals and reluctantly find them necessary. It ridiculed “civil libertarians” with qualms rooted in the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights protects the press, but the Sun-Times may think it has found more powerful friends than the Constitution.

Another editorial advised that “we in the West” shouldn’t squander “too much mental energy trying to persuade people who cannot be persuaded” who the enemy is. Who are these unpersuadeables? The Sun-Times snickered in disgust at “those who hate America, whether in Bahrain or Berkeley,” and ridiculed the unquenchable “demand for proof” of Osama bin Laden’s culpability, whether it arose “from the Arab world, from NPR liberals in America or from cafe communists in Europe.”

To spur the sort of civic debate it believes appropriate to a time of crisis, the Sun-Times editorial page introduced the occasional feature “Oh Shut Up.” This recently was succeeded by “What the ‘experts’ said,” which the Sun-Times explained would be “spotlighting what the self-appointed experts had to say about the war on terrorism to show how wrong they turned out to be.” Self-appointed experts are those notorious folk who don’t wait to be asked before saying things the rest of us disagree with.

Its aggressive campaign against war skeptics puts the Sun-Times in fast company. Its new friends include the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, whose founding chairman is Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, and whose “Defending Civilization” report can be found on-line at List making thrives in times of war, and the list offered here consists of 115 “expressions of pervasive moral relativism” uttered on campuses after September 11–expressions such as “Hate breeds hate,” which was a sign spotted at the University of Maryland. “Defending Civilization” regretted that American universities responded to September 11 by “rushing to add courses on Islamic and Asian cultures” rather than American. Cheney herself was quoted: “To say that it is more important now [to study Islam] implies that the events of Sept. 11 were our fault.”

The company the Sun-Times is keeping also includes the audience at a graduation ceremony at California State University in Sacramento a few days before Christmas. The speaker, who happened to be the president of the local newspaper, was booed during her speech on civil liberties and heckled offstage at the point when she had the effrontery to assert, “The Constitution makes it our right to challenge government policies.”

A couple of days before Christmas the Sun-Times editorial page weighed in on the Marilyn Lemak trial. Lemak was found guilty, which the Sun-Times considered the proper verdict. Its point in writing was to bash anyone who disagreed. The “line of thinking” that Lemak must have been crazy to kill her three children is, the editorial page explained, not merely wrong but dangerous–“it feeds into the unspoken liberal belief that nobody is responsible for anything they do.” Unspoken beliefs don’t get by the Sun-Times when they’re liberal.

My own view is that the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals on the question of individual responsibility concerns which individuals. For example, when tens of thousands of workers lose their jobs, liberals are likely to point fingers at the bosses who fire them. I could find no Sun-Times editorial holding Enron CEO Kenneth Lay responsible for the collapse of his company and the ruination of the thousands of employees whose retirement plans consisted of Enron stock.

The Sun-Times promptly made clear its contempt for Marilyn Lemak: “Before we gratefully forget about Lemak–and the mind is eager to push her away, particularly at this time of year–there is an important lesson in her case that should be understood and remembered, because it will come up time and time again.”

Here was the lesson: “Those who would try to make Lemak’s crime more benign by draping it in psychiatry are deceiving themselves by going down the easy path,” the Sun-Times lectured. “Rather than experiencing the chill of staring directly at evil and calling it by its true name, they break out the violins of sympathy.”

The paper continued, “Of course Lemak was under strain, but she was also under her own control. To admit that is to admit the hard fact that there are terrible people in the world. They do horrible things, commit awful crimes that they alone are responsible for, and for which they must be punished. To wring your hands and second guess the jury, to say, ‘Oh, she’s crazy, she had to be,’ is a step toward denying society its vital role of fighting evil by punishing its perpetrators.”

This editorial, which didn’t mention the war, would be unthinkable without it. September 11 made it fashionable to call evil “by its true name.” This editorialist might be exaggerating the quantity of courage and perspicacity it takes to know evil when you see it. Actually, to distinguish good from evil is child’s play. The tricky part, the serious test of our morality, our maturity, and, yes, even our sanity, is to distinguish evil from evil. That’s the lesser evil from the greater–the evil of war, to name an immediate example, from the evil of September 11. An editorial page that makes no distinction between the evil of an Osama bin Laden–which must be confronted promptly and fully whether we understand it or not–and the evil of a shackled Marilyn Lemak is a page using its editorial voice as a weapon in ideological combat.

Unsure and Uninsured

Beth Lisberg is a Chicago-based freelance technical writer who’s never been active in the National Writers Union but asked one thing in return for her $240 annual dues: access to affordable health insurance. The NWU’s 7,000 self-employed, largely middle-aged journalists scattered across the country aren’t any insurer’s idea of a lucrative business opportunity, and over the years the NWU has bounced from one group plan to another, cobbling together different plans for different states. The 450 members of the Chicago local were given a choice: they could stay with Aetna, whose single-person rate, Lisberg tells me, was being jacked from $275 a month to $408. Or they could switch to Nevada-based Employers Mutual and pay $326.

For Lisberg it was an easy choice, and she was happy with it until she tried to fill a prescription in October and Walgreens wouldn’t accept her $20 co-pay. Curious, she went on-line, and discovered that Employers Mutual wasn’t licensed in Illinois, and in Texas had been ordered by the state insurance commissioner to stop selling policies or collecting premiums because it wasn’t paying claims.

In fact, Employers Mutual had collapsed. On December 13 a federal judge in Reno fired the company’s management and appointed a receiver, who will now see what can be done about settling claims against Employers Mutual by the 29,000 people–a few hundred of them NWU members in Illinois and some other states–who thought they were insured by it.

Lisberg sent a steaming letter to NWU president Jonathan Tasini in New York. She raised what she called the “serious implications” of Employers Mutual’s collapse, these being “negligence” by the NWU for not checking out Employers Mutual closely enough before endorsing its policy and “fraud” for offering nonexistent benefits. She wondered why NWU members couldn’t receive coverage from the United Auto Workers–which the NWU joined as UAW Local 1981 a few years ago to bring more muscle to the bargaining table. “If we are a union, and the UAW is a union, and we are affiliated with the UAW, then we should have the same rights and benefits,” Lisberg reasoned. “Else we are not truly a union.”

Tasini’s assistant, Chris Zic, E-mailed Lisberg that by some familiar yardsticks the NWU isn’t exactly a union. “The NWU’s membership is rather different from the traditional labor union mode, certainly from the general constituency of the UAW,” he wrote. “As our members engage in all sorts of different professional practices under the rubric of ‘writing’ and moreover are dispersed throughout the country and are not contained in a given factory or workplace, the kinds of health insurance that the UAW provides for its members does not apply to us.”

Lisberg wasn’t the only angry and worried NWU member Tasini heard from. On December 18 he E-mailed a dire “update” to Employers Mutual policy holders: “All efforts with state insurance regulators to obtain reinsurance, and get Employers Mutual licensed and, above all else, to get all claims paid, have failed.” He reported that the insurance broker that brought Employers Mutual to the NWU was looking for new coverage. But, he said, “In spite of these efforts it is uncertain when new health insurance coverage will be available. It may never become available. We therefore recommend that you seek other health insurance coverage.”

Fortunately, Lisberg and other NWU members in her shoes were given the option of switching to the more expensive Aetna plan. That’s what Lisberg did. On December 21, Mark Uehling, a science and medicine reporter who sits on the steering committee of the Chicago NWU, E-mailed the 100-some NWU members who’d been enrolled in the Employers Mutual plan. There was pretty good news: the court-appointed receiver in Nevada was “squeaky-clean,” and according to Tasini, some Employers Mutual claims were being paid. There was troubling news: lawyers were vetting all of Tasini’s statements, “making them less intelligible than they might be if he had written them himself,” and the receiver was settling claims from Employers Mutual’s frozen assets and how long they’d last was a mystery.

And there was simply gloomy news: “We are waiting for clarification. We will also continue to collect your reports, which are highly distressing. (One Chicago member has $26,000 in medical bills dating to July of this year.) In attempting to sort out this crisis, the Chicago local is frustratingly helpless: we did not offer the insurance and have had no contact with the UAW attorneys who are drafting the union’s strategy.”

This week Uehling called it a “terrible situation,” yet he sounded marginally more hopeful. “I think people are starting to sort things out,” he told me. “They’re starting to feel they really do have insurance.” How much and for how long he couldn’t say. “Some money is flowing. We don’t know what sort of money is flowing.”

Legal action?

“Some of the people are whispering this,” Uehling allowed. “It breaks my heart to hear it, but you have to understand that people take a union’s promise to provide insurance very seriously.”

News Bites

8 Special edition…Promoting the last installment of Chris Fusco’s exceptional series on a friend’s liver transplant, the Saturday, December 29, Sun-Times carried a picture of the Sunday, December 30, front page.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.