The Best Defense: Ignore the Offense

The fate of the world in 1962 turned on what Robert Kennedy would call the “Trollope ploy.” Having no idea how to deal with a belligerent message from Nikita Khrushchev that arrived at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the White House decided to ignore it. Instead, an earlier, more pacific letter from Khrushchev was answered, and in the end peace prevailed. The ploy’s name came from the knack shown by Anthony Trollope’s willful heroines for turning the flimsiest sign of affection–a squeeze of the hand would do–into a marriage proposal.

Something similar just happened in the Tribune. As you must have noticed, the paper isn’t crazy about the $632 million plan to gut Soldier Field and build an extravagant new football stadium inside the colonnades. Originally opposed to the new stadium as an architectural abomination, the Tribune now also derides the project as a boondoggle that will benefit no one but the Bears.

On Thursday, May 9, the editorial page carried two letters on the subject. The first, written by the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, seconded the Tribune’s financial argument and brandished language such as “sow’s ear” and “grand giveaway.” The second was from Barnaby Dinges, director of communications for the Lakefront Redevelopment Project. We might have expected Dinges to lay into the project’s critics. But all he did was gush over the “sloped promenade” and “breathtaking view of the lakefront” that will delight Chicago once it becomes “the proud new home of one of the world’s best stadiums.” He sounded like a ninny.

But this was Dinges’s first letter, the cheery progress report he’d written May 2 and sent to all the local newspapers. His mood soon changed. On May 5 he read an op-ed essay in the Tribune under the headline “Not too late to stop Soldier Field giveaway.” The author was Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who hinted that the stadium project was un-American. “The miserable financials of the Soldier Field deal tarnish it forever for any believer in limited government and private property,” he declared. In his view, a circuit court judge who’d reluctantly let the project go forward “gutted the constitutional system.”

Dinges had been complaining to me for months that the Tribune was telling only one side of the story. Epstein’s rant was more than he could bear. He immediately wrote his second letter and fired it off to the Tribune. It began: “After questioning the collective judgment of five state and local public bodies, the Governor and the Mayor, the Chicago Tribune is now going after a Cook County Judge….In its unholy zeal to stop the project, the Tribune has commissioned a law professor to argue in the court of public opinion a case that has already lost in the court of law. It is time to give it up. The project is legal, fully approved, and well under way. Sunday’s piece by Professor Richard Epstein is so preposterously false as to call into question the Tribune’s commitment to truth.”

According to Epstein, “the Bears receive virtually all the revenues derived from the operation of the stadium.” Not true, said Dinges. According to Epstein, “the reconfiguration of Soldier Field makes it less suitable for other events.” Not true, said Dinges. According to Epstein, the Bears “contribute no corporate money to the venture.” Not true again. Dinges accused the Tribune of consistently overstating the project’s cost, understating its public benefits, and misleading local taxpayers into thinking they’re footing the bill when the public money actually comes from a tax on hotel guests.

“After more than 45 agenda-driven editorials, columns, guest columns and commentaries,” Dinges concluded, “we have resigned ourselves to the fact that the Tribune won’t cover this issue fairly.”

Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold told me later his problem with Dinges’s second letter was that it “played a little loose with the numbers.” Dinges said the Bears and the NFL together “put up $200 million toward the project, the largest private contribution to a publicly-owned stadium in the country.” But that $200 million includes $70 million being raised from the sale of the Bears’ new “personal seat licenses.” The agreement under which Soldier Field is being rebuilt earmarks all PSL revenues to the Chicago Park District to use any way it pleases; so in Dold’s view, when the district spends those revenues on Soldier Field it’s spending public money, not private.

What’s more, said Dold, his paper has run letters supporting the new stadium–he mentioned a letter from its architect, Dirk Lohan, and another from parks superintendent David Doig. He expects to run more.

But what about the facts that Dinges had right and Epstein wrong–like Epstein being wrong about the Bears not contributing anything to the project and wrong about the Bears receiving all the stadium revenues? The Tribune found another way to handle those. Last Sunday, May 12, it ran a tiny correction in the bottom left corner of page two.

So on May 9 the Tribune didn’t print Dinges’s angry second letter, which would only have fanned the flames. It published the innocuous first one.

Was peace preserved? Dinges now sounds more exhausted than pissed. “If we wanted the public to learn about this project’s benefits in the Tribune,” he muses, “I think we’d need to buy an ad.”

Identity Theft

The Evanston Review looks very strange these days. The bylines have disappeared.

Back in February, Bob Seidenberg, a simple Evanston Review reporter despite the fancy title of city editor, was assigned to interview the scheduled speakers at an upcoming League of Women Voters dinner and write a story about what they were going to say. Seidenberg suspects the assignment was management’s way of not having to buy a ticket to the dinner, but I’d prefer to think his bosses believe covering news a month before it happens is how great papers separate themselves from the pack.

At any rate, the assignment annoyed Seidenberg. He says it came at a “tense time when Evanston was in the middle of its budget cycle,” and to underline his conviction that the Review’s small staff should stick to what’s important, he told his editor to run the story he turned in without a byline.

In olden days a byline was a rare privilege. In these times of personalized news, a story without a byline is as odd and suspicious as a movie directed by Alan Smithee. Editors never like to be asked to take a byline off a story, since implicit in the request is a certain contempt for their news values. But because reporters dote on their bylines it’s a rare request, and most papers grant it. At the Pioneer Press chain, which the Evanston Review is part of, a reporter’s power to take his name off a particular story is written into the labor contract.

The League of Women Voters story ran unbylined on February 21, and Seidenberg thought that was that. But a week later he noticed that his front-page budget story didn’t have his name on it. His name hasn’t appeared in the weekly Review since.

He’s asked his editor, Gary Taylor, and Taylor’s boss, editorial bureau chief Randy Blaser in Glenview, to tell him what’s up. He’s also called in the Chicago Newspaper Guild. On April 16 union officials held a formal grievance meeting with Paul Sassone, who’s executive editor of Pioneer Press, Ted Rilea, who’s chief of labor relations for the Hollinger International papers in the Chicago area, and a Hollinger attorney. You might think adults could settle a spat over a missing byline in a second, but these adults didn’t. The really odd thing–according to Seidenberg and guild leaders–is that management wouldn’t even say why the byline was pulled.

I called Rilea, and he said to talk to Sassone. I called Larry Green, who’s publisher of Pioneer Press, and he said to talk to Sassone. Sassone wouldn’t return my phone calls.

In late April, Seidenberg’s colleagues at the Evanston Review demonstrated their solidarity by telling the editors to remove their bylines too. Now the only bylines over the news stories in the Review are the ones over stories picked up from sister Pioneer Press papers in other suburbs.

Seidenberg misses his byline, and to make it clear to his editors he wants it back, he types it at the top of every story he turns in. But it always vanishes. Legally, Pioneer Press might have the upper hand in this, as it was under no obligation to publish bylines in the first place. But it hasn’t simply discontinued them. It’s decided to call attention to their absence. Where names used to appear at the tops of stories, now the paper says simply “Review Staff Reporter” or “Review City Editor.”

Behavior as silly as this usually turns out to be about something else. The guild contract expires May 31, and the two sides are already negotiating. Maybe at a time of push coming to shove the Pioneer Press management wants to show who’s boss–the way it did a couple of months ago when it overturned years of tradition and shoved political endorsements down the throats of the papers. Maybe. But there are other divided newsrooms where no one would think of scoring a point at the expense of the paper’s dignity.

On May 3 Richard Stillerman, an Evanston attorney, wrote Green a letter about the missing bylines. He deemed them “distasteful, and unbecoming a respectable publication.” The business of running titles without names over the articles was to Stillerman a “further indignity.”

Green wrote back to say he wished he were “free to discuss the matter of bylines” and “correct the misinformation.” Alas, “this situation is now in the hands of labor lawyers.”

Labor lawyers who may well feel the way Seidenberg did when he got that League of Women Voters assignment–they can’t believe they’re expected to waste their time this way.

Both Sides Now

The Tribune’s Richard Ciccone got some mileage out of “Good Jane” and “Bad Jane” 20 years ago, but journalists generally don’t know what to make of paradoxical public figures. In his rise from secretary of state to governor, George Ryan benefited from some of the rankest corruption in Illinois history; he’s also been mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s a personage too complex to be contained in a single attitude, and the papers don’t try.

On April 16 the Tribune editorial page addressed the death penalty. “More than two years ago Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois and handed 14 people a breathtaking challenge: Tell us how to repair a justice system that repeatedly has condemned innocent people to be put to death….On Monday the commission came back with its answer: 85 recommendations outlined in an extraordinarily thoughtful and exhaustively researched report. This is exceptional work. It is worth the wait.”

On April 7 it addressed the licenses-for-bribes scandal. “The 80-page federal indictment Tuesday of Ryan’s own campaign fund, and his former chief of staff, on charges of racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice was stunning in its scope and impact.”

That’s some legacy. It’s been said Ryan’s moratorium is an attempt to curry favor with liberal critics of his regime as secretary of state. It’s been said he declared the moratorium only because he knew he wouldn’t be seeking reelection and therefore had nothing to lose. It’s been said his behavior fits a classic pattern of sin and redemption. And it’s been said by a fair number of people I’ve talked to that if he were running for governor against Jim Ryan and Rod Blagojevich they’d vote for him in a second.

When Jim Ryan ran for reelection as attorney general in 1998, the Tribune offered him a “qualified and reluctant” endorsement. Under the circumstances, that was gushing praise. Three years earlier the Tribune editorial page had put Ryan, the former Du Page County state’s attorney, “at the top of this list” of county officials who’d been determined to execute Rolando Cruz for a murder he didn’t commit. “One thing is clear,” the Tribune declared then: “None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”

This fall, when the Tribune endorses Ryan for governor, it will explain why a man unworthy of any position of public honor or trust is its choice to run the state. Because he’s the Republican, that’s why, though the Tribune will put it much better than that. But what a shame a dull guy like Jim Ryan gets to be the one on whom the Tribune lavishes its gift for gilding the turnip. If George Ryan were running for reelection this year the Tribune would have to endorse him. And when it did, someone would finally have to consider the governor as a whole.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.