Sun-Times Won’t Judge Rosty

The one-two punch of a crusading newspaper is its first page and editorials. But what these twin fists of steel treasure most is their mutual independence–a division of labor that nobody pounded by either page, let alone by both together, is likely to take very seriously.

The most celebrated example of a genuine partition is the one at the Wall Street Journal. Reporters there are famed for finding the maggots under the granite slabs of capitalism; the editorial page mourns Calvin Coolidge. At other papers you rarely see such basic disconnectedness.

But consider the editorial the Sun-Times carried when Dan Rostenkowski was indicted. Its tone was melancholy, and that’s fine. But to our astonishment it was also agnostic.

“We feel sadness over the prospect that a 42-year career of public service could end that way,” the Sun-Times commented. “We don’t judge the merits of the charges, and we acknowledge Rostenkowski’s gusty [sic] vow to fight it out. But after two years of rumors, the reality is here that a Chicago institution faces a shameful end. These are not happy times.”

We don’t judge the merits of the charges! For 18 months the front pages of the Sun-Times were doing nothing but. Just three days earlier the Sunday paper carried a copyrighted article by investigative reporters Chuck Neubauer and Mark Brown and Washington correspondent Michael Briggs that boasted of their paper’s inquisitional prowess.

“Rostenkowski’s misuse of his expense allowance to obtain automobiles for himself was first disclosed by a Sun-Times investigation in January, 1993,” said “The Case Against Rosty.” This article didn’t even speak of “alleged” misuse. Rostenkowski’s guilt was taken for granted.

At another point in the same piece Neubauer, Brown, and Briggs wrote: “The ghost-payrolling allegations that would be contained in an indictment mirror a Sun-Times report last December that Rostenkowski’s payroll was filled with employees who did no work, tenants of his family-owned buildings, and double-dipping city workers.”

Yet the paper’s head disassociated itself from what the body had been up to. We called Mark Hornung, who runs the editorial page and wrote the editorial, and asked why the paper didn’t carry something less disingenuous.

Hornung agreed the inconsistency could be unfathomable to the reading laity, but he reminded us of what his job is. “The editorial board at the end of the day, although it has considerable latitude in considering issues and weighing them, must come to conclusions that the editor and publisher are comfortable with.”

He went on, “Obviously, on a personal level I take tremendous pride in what Chuck and Mark have done. To their credit, they don’t lobby me, because they understand there is a separation. What they did stood on its own, and what the editorial board did stood on its own. There is always an impulse to give reporters of the Sun-Times who do commendable work praise and credit on the editorial page. That, however, is not the first mission of the editorial page.”

We asked Neubauer about this. “They do their editorials, and we do our stories,” he said. “We got to do our stories. It’s fine with me.”

Writing individually as columnists, members of the board such as Raymond Coffey and Dennis Byrne have derided either Rostenkowski’s lilliputian accusers or his bootlicking defenders. It’s clear that passions within the board over Rostenkowski are not only powerful, they’re dissonant. It’s just collectively that the board had nothing to say.

“The editorials, while executed by individual members of the editorial board, reflect the direction and the values of the editor and the publisher,” Hornung said. “We’re all adults. We understand that. And part of my job is orchestrating all of that.”

But editor Dennis Britton told us that both “The Case Against Rosty” and Hornung’s editorial were written too categorically. “What was intended to be said was that we were not judging the [legal] guilt or innocence of Rostenkowski,” Britton said. “I don’t want us to be in a position of judging someone’s guilt or innocence. Are we comfortable with what we have uncovered? Absolutely. Totally positive. Have we been vindicated at least by a grand jury? Yeah. It’s up to a jury to decide whether he’s guilty or innocent. If that doesn’t come across [in an editorial], it’s just a lack of attention.”

Try to follow this: They’re saying a 17-count criminal indictment vindicates them, but they aren’t saying Rostenkowski did anything criminal. Don’t expect Rostenkowski to appreciate such delicacy.

At this stage there’s no editorial on earth Rostenkowski is likely to take seriously. But given a choice between irrelevant sympathies, he probably prefers the Tribune’s. The Tribune’s comment on the indictment vigorously massaged the innocent-until-proven-guilty theme and hinted he’ll be their pick in November against the nominee from “a lackluster Republican field.”

The Tribune spoke of other indicted congressmen returned to office and drew the odd conclusion that what their good fortune reflects is “a fundamental sense of fairness, something that doesn’t come through on foaming-at-the-mouth radio talk shows or on what passes for political discourse on television, but remains imbedded in the souls of most Americans.”

Despite the ivory tower remove of the Sun-Times editorial page from its front page, the Sun-Times did not go so far as to endorse Rostenkowski in last March’s primary. The Tribune did, fating it to last week’s verbal contortions when the indictment finally arrived.

Conflict of Interest

On May 5 the Sun-Times carried one paragraph in Metro Briefings on the resignation of the managing partner of the Chicago office of Winston & Strawn.

That’s the last we’ve heard from the Sun-Times on the subject. The same day a far longer story on Gary Fairchild ran at the top of the Tribune’s Chicagoland section, and since then other venues have joined in.

Here’s what a Wall Street Journal article had to say:

That Fairchild was accused by his law firm of padding his expense accounts by about half a million dollars and funneling work to the law firm of Chapman & Cutler, where his wife Maureen was a partner;

That Chapman & Cutler informed Winston & Strawn that Mrs. Fairchild had overcharged her husband’s firm by about $275,000;

That some sources say Maureen Fairchild “was fingered by her own firm” for complaining that top partner James Spiotto had charged clients for 6,022 hours of work in 1993–or 16 and a half hours of work every single day of the year.

We’ve spotted two Wall Street Journal articles on this gamey affair, a couple in Crain’s Chicago Business, and an especially spicy account in the New York Times. But the Sun-Times had just that one paragraph.

And here’s the problem with that: James Thompson, chairman of Winston & Strawn, sits on the Sun-Times Company board. Even if the story hadn’t been delicious, it should have been covered for the sake of appearances.

Metro editor Steve Huntley says he didn’t know until last Monday that Thompson was still on the board. “There’s no legal beat,” he told us. “It’s a matter of where we apply our resources.”

Britton made no excuses. “We blew it and booted it.”

Make Love, Not War

President Clinton is now receiving the most difficult, most condescending kind of advice: tell the truth.

Last Sunday William Pfaff made the familiar argument that Clinton’s foreign policy is a fiasco because the president’s intentions, to the extent he has any, keep colliding with the limits of what the public is willing to put up with.

“I have a modest proposal,” wrote Pfaff in a column carried locally by the Tribune. “Why doesn’t Clinton tell the truth about all this? Why doesn’t he tell the Europeans that the United States today is in a necessary, or at least inevitable, period of preoccupation with internal problems? It has a big crisis in race relations and is deeply divided on important moral and so-called cultural issues.

“It still has no unity of outlook on international policy. It lost that in Vietnam.”

In the New York Times the same day Frank Rich offered advice that was even more pointed. He said Clinton is choking on his past as a draft dodger: “He is addled by any issue that involves even the rumor of war.”

But Rich, who belongs to Clinton’s generation, observed that the president typifies it. “That college-educated, war-shirking class of the Vietnam era is the one running the United States today.”

And so, Rich concluded, “To find his voice, he needs to free himself from the past that is choking it. Were he to articulate honestly where he’s been, then maybe he could figure out where he is going. The antiwar generation that shares his dirty little secret might even follow him into battle.”

We agree with Rich about the “dirty little secret,” with the cavil that “little” and “secret” obviously aren’t the right words, and “dirty” might not be either. That war-shirking class wasn’t wrong about everything. This week’s ceremonies reminded us how easy it is to be turned against war by war. But so long as only those who’ve known it have any standing to address the subject, war will perpetuate itself no matter how angry or mournful it leaves its survivors.

This was the paradox Clinton’s class cut through in the 60s with its frantic draft dodging. Today the president’s a pathetic saber rattler. His critics say he didn’t earn the right to lead. Rich’s point is that perhaps he did.

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