Sun-Times Picks a Critic

The Sun-Times introduced a new TV critic this week after an interminable search. The old critic, Dan Ruth, had let ambition get the better of him. Last fall, he and Marilynn Preston (a former Tribune TV critic) announced that they were going to launch a show that critiqued television the same way Ebert and Siskel critique the movies.

The show was Stay Tuned, and WMAQ TV gave it a six-week run in November and December. Stay Tuned could be seen Sunday nights at 11:30 or in the afternoon, usually opposite the Bears. But the size of the audience wasn’t the point. As Ruth told us at the time, the six shows gave the two of them tape to send out to syndicators in hopes that one of them would proclaim Stay Tuned a “viable programming concept.”

Ruth didn’t quit the Sun-Times; he didn’t even resign his post. But the conflict inherent in a newspaper’s TV critic hosting a show on a local station was too much for editor Dennis Britton. He gave Ruth a new job as a feature writer.

As soon as Ruth’s beat opened up ten staffers asked about it, and eight of them went on to fight for the position. The Sun-Times set up a competition in which writing played a smaller part than you might think. Features editor Steve Duke asked everyone to review the 200th Cheers show and a new sitcom, The Fanelli Boys, and to write a memo telling how the job should be done. Then Duke interviewed the candidates for an hour each and came up with three finalists: reporter Neil Steinberg, entertainment editor Lon Grahnke, and Ginny Holbert, a feature writer for the Sunday At Home section.

After Steinberg, Grahnke, and Holbert were summoned before Britton and his new executive editor, Mark Nadler, Steinberg was eliminated. Now there were two.

And now it was 1991, and the bake-off–as the contest came to be known inside the paper–was more than two months old. So much time had gone by that Ruth–having tested the waters of syndication and found them ice cold–had sent Duke a memo observing that since he wasn’t about to become a major TV personality anytime soon, could he please have his job as critic back?

“There was a deafening silence,” says Ruth. He had asked the impossible. Duke told us “The search was not only under way but virtually complete.” He could reappoint Ruth only at the price of wasting weeks of everyone’s time.

Grahnke or Holbert? Sentiment within the paper favored picking someone, no matter who, and filling the damn job. As someone would observe when the bake-off finally ended: “When this thing started John Major was an unknown person. When it was over he was prime minister of Britain. They could pick a prime minister faster than we picked a TV critic.”

But Grahnke was understood to have the inside track. A tireless worker, whose job it was as entertainment editor to see that TV continued to be reviewed in Ruth’s absence, Grahnke had parceled out assignments among staff writers and saved many for himself. Last Friday’s paper, for example, carried four reviews written by Grahnke.

Other candidates also volunteered to write reviews in order to show what they could do. But Holbert didn’t. “I just didn’t think it was necessary,” she told us.

It was noised around the Sun-Times that Grahnke was Britton’s choice although Nadler preferred Holbert. Two weeks ago, even before the fateful memo was posted, Grahnke was receiving congratulations.

And, of course, Holbert got the job. Britton issued a statement hailing her “lively, breezy writing style.” Duke told us she has “a really breezy, accessible writing style.” Says Holbert: “I think I’m considered a fresh voice.”

We’ve never read At Home closely enough to issue an opinion. But Ruth is enthusiastic. “She has a lot of fun with the language, she has a terrific sense of humor,” he told us. “Don’t forget, anybody can be a television critic. Everybody’s already a critic of it. She brings a different perspective than I have. She’s a married woman with children. I’m a single divorced male. She’ll probably have a much greater sensitivity to children’s programming than I had.”

Holbert is 32 years old and her children are 7 and 5. “What is TV?” we asked her. She groaned. “I’ve been through this process already in my job interviews. What is TV? TV is a medium, which means there’s good TV and there’s bad TV. There are questions about whether it’s a neutral medium or not. Whether TV is innately good or bad, I don’t know. It’s a very important expression of our culture.”

We told Holbert a story. About 20 years ago, when Jim Hoge was running the Sun-Times, he was looking for a new TV critic and a reporter named Ron Powers asked for the job. “What is TV?” Hoge asked Powers. Powers struggled for profundity and Hoge answered for him. “TV is an advertising medium,” he said. Thus informed, Powers took the post and a couple years later won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Actually, I haven’t heard that name,” Holbert said. “I guess I know as far back as Gary Deeb”–who was TV critic when she joined the Sun-Times in ’83. Holbert’s new position comes trailing some serious heritage. Powers, and his predecessor, Paul Malloy, and successor, Bill Granger, all made names for themselves as authors. They’ve written several books apiece. Back in the early 70s, when Sun-Times writers were a lot chestier than they are now, Powers’s column was one of several reasons everyone at the Sun-Times believed their newspaper stood head and shoulders above the Tribune and most other papers anywhere.

Lightning should strike twice. These are hard enough times for healthy newspapers, and the Sun-Times isn’t healthy. While we had Steve Duke on the phone, we asked him when we’d see a replacement for rock critic Don McLeese, who moved to Texas late last year. Actually, it’s not just McLeese’s shoes that need filling. Nightlife reporter Dave Hoekstra has shifted to sports, and entertainment reporter Pat Smith is now at the Boston Globe. Jae-Ha Kim is a yeoman but she can’t do three jobs at once.

The Sun-Times intends to limp along as is, Duke said; “We have a hiring freeze on right now.” Things could get worse before they’re better; management and the Chicago Newspaper Guild began talking last week about deep spending cuts to avoid layoffs.

The TV critic is one of the few writers on a newspaper that some people might actually buy the paper to read. We hope Holbert brings more than a “breezy style” to her new assignment, and we wish her well.

Skip in Time

In the epic that is Chicago’s newspaper history, Sidetracks is but a footnote–within which Halsted Street: Torment & Drama From the Hog Butcher is at best a parenthetical citation.

Yet Halsted Street, a comic strip we had forgotten about utterly and completely, has wandered back into town. And what a strange souvenir it is of its time: when mainstreamers desperate to save a newspaper clung for dear life to subversive wit!

In 1977, the bosses of the failing Daily News created Sidetracks to appropriate a new generation of readers. Cartoonist Skip Williamson remembers the occasion; he writes:

“In March I got a call from Andrew Epstein, a friend who had just taken a job at the Chicago Daily News. He was hired to Art Direct a weekly supplement that would lure the Baby Boomers with its percipient hipness, while enriching the corporate pot with increased ad revenues provided by the disposable income endemic to white youth. . . . The editors at the Daily News had the adroit notion to use the Underground Press as model for Sidetracks. Of course they would have to soften the anarchist rancor, side-step the radical politics, disallow dope advocacy and eliminate the sex-mongering. Sidetracks would be a more sanitized Bolshevik.”

Williamson’s assignment was to draw a strip that would appeal “to the more genteel, cash-fluid North Shore types.” He came up with Bosco and Sheila Spoonbread, two deluded lakefronters who “find it nigh impossible to escape the raw nerve of distilled Chicago essence epitomized by Halsted Street.”

We are quoting from Williamson’s introduction to Halsted Street, which is the strips he drew for Sidetracks (and a few more) collected in book form and published the other day by Kitchen Sink Press of Princeton, Wisconsin. The value of this slender volume, now in selected bookstores and specialty shops, is not just historical; Halsted Street is still cruel and very funny. Williamson’s lampooning of Michael and Heather Bilandic feels ancient and dusted off; the Bilandics, after all, no longer traipse past the public eye. But when he digs into Jim Thompson it hits you just how long the big guy stayed governor.

Williamson’s theory is that the Daily News tried to imitate the underground press when said press was already history. “Sidetracks definitely was folly,” he told us the other day. “It was a bad idea, based on a form that didn’t exist. People had already moved to a different place and they just weren’t interested. And they had to sanitize it so much it wasn’t even that.”

At any rate, Halsted Street did not save Sidetracks, which did not save the Daily News. Williamson’s editors soon turned cold. “The flinty atmosphere became especially noticeable when I would satirize the institutions and trappings of the liberal media. Then the air crackled with hostility, the mood was rank, and the editorial demeanor was sour and meanspirited. . . . ‘Could we wind up this storyline?’ whined the editorship as they reduced the size and page position of the comic strip. And there was some fear expressed that Bosco and Sheila might be an interracial couple.”

Williamson was sent packing. The Daily News survived Halsted Street by less than three months.

Williamson told us he contributes to a comics magazine called Blab! that’s published every six months or so and he makes a living in commercial art. But since Halsted Street vanished, we haven’t seen his stuff on any sort of regular basis, and we wondered why he isn’t out there becoming famous like the next generation, like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry.

“I have been investigating alternative syndication,” he said. “I am putting together a list. But you know, it’s a lot of work. It’s a slow climb from point A to point B–point B being various alternative papers.

“I suspect that sooner or later I’ll be doing this, hopefully sooner.”

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