The Defender Saga: A New Hero Emerges

The four-year competition to buy the Chicago Defender and the rest of Sengstacke Enterprises is down to two finalists: Pluria Marshall Jr., who bid $11 million but doesn’t have the money, and Tom Picou, who bid $10 million he says he has, though he hasn’t produced it.

“Neither one has put a check in my hand,” says James Lowry, the papers’ court-appointed trustee. “One says, ‘I’m trying to get the money,’ and the other says, ‘I have the money.'” So Lowry’s open to a third horse in the field. “If the Reader, a fine paper, wants to buy the Defender we’ll entertain the offer,” he told me last week, raising a subject that was the farthest thing from my mind. “Why don’t you buy it? You could have a south-side paper too.”

When John Sengstacke died in May 1997 at the age of 84, after 57 years running the Defender, he left his 70 percent stake in Sengstacke Enterprises to his grandchildren in trust. Enormous estate taxes had to be paid, and there seemed no alternative to selling the business. But granddaughter Myiti Sengstacke, acting on what she says was a deathbed promise to her grandfather to keep the Defender in the family, managed to throw so much sand in the gears that the Defender and three other Sengstacke papers still haven’t been sold to anybody. At one point Myiti thought she’d found a controlling partner in Don Barden, a Detroit businessman who’d made a fortune in cable television. He would run the lucrative Michigan Chronicle and leave her the money-losing Defender. The weeklies in Memphis and Pittsburgh would be run by Picou and by Myiti’s father Robert, who was being asked to accept a $1 million IOU instead of cash for his 10 percent share of Sengstacke Enterprises. Robert Sengstacke wasn’t interested.

Last May, when Marshall was the only bidder, I wrote that if everything proceeded smoothly he could take over the company during the summer. Marshall, who owns a string of media properties based in Texas and had been interested in the Defender from the get-go, described himself then as “the last person standing.” He might still be Lowry’s preference, but financially he’s now laid out in the back room. “My problem has been the markets have softened up to the point where all my investors are really skittish about doing anything,” says Marshall. “I have not been able to move as expeditiously as I would like.”

So the board’s begun talking to Picou. “We’d love for the family to come up with a buyer,” Lowry told me.

But Tom Picou is family, I said.

“By marriage,” Lowry replied.

Says Picou, “I’m the third guy in a fistfight–the guy who’s on the outside but on the inside, you know? The family considers me family, but I’m not considered family by other people because I’m by marriage. You know Robert’s got as much Picou blood in him as Sengstacke blood. And so does Myiti.”

Picou’s aunt Myrtle married John Sengstacke, and their son Robert is Picou’s cousin. The elder Sengstacke was once Picou’s guardian, and Picou, who’s 58, says he and the slightly younger Robert think of each other as brothers.

Which makes theirs a closer relationship than Robert Sengstacke has enjoyed with his zealous daughter over much of the past four years, when Myiti held her father responsible for the collapse of the Barden deal. The obvious candidate to organize a family bid, Picou stayed on the sidelines in large part because the family wasn’t united and he wasn’t sure it ever would be. “The squabbling didn’t solve much,” he says. “The concentration should have been on securing the company. You can always dicker over control later.”

Who’ll control it if you buy it?

“I’ll control it,” he says. “There’s not going to be any decision about that. Of course there’s a role if Myiti and them want to get into it. Bobby has indicated an interest in it. I’m open to bringing the family into this thing.”

Myiti Sengstacke recently turned 30. By various accounts she’s less headstrong than she used to be, more willing to listen and learn. What she isn’t is worn down. “I’m not really opposed to her running the thing five or six years down the road,” says Picou. “She’s a very intelligent girl, and she certainly has the chutzpah. She stayed with this thing a long time when nobody else in this family did.”

Myiti Sengstacke makes it clear she’s in Picou’s corner. “If you look at the history of this institution,” she says, “everything everyone on the outside has tried to do has fallen through. Some things are just meant to be, and it’s meant that the Sengstacke family keeps Sengstacke Enterprises.”

Picou’s touching all the bases. He’s had talks with Kurt Cherry, a Chicago investment banker who thought at one point last year that he’d be buying Sengstacke Enterprises (Myiti didn’t like him, thought he was arrogant) but whose major investor pulled out, and with David Milliner, who was Cherry’s choice to publish the Defender. And he’s met with his old pal Samuel Logan Jr., the publisher who turned Detroit’s weekly Michigan Chronicle into the com-pany’s cash cow but resigned early last year after being passed over for president of Sengstacke Enterprises. Logan started a competing paper, and Picou, a big admirer, says it’s already turning a profit.

Logan has said he made his own promise to John Sengstacke–to teach Myiti and her three brothers everything he knew about journalism. “He’d like to come back in,” says Picou of Logan, “and he’d like to bring his paper in too, which would give us two properties in Detroit.”

Would they merge?

“It’s under consideration.”

Picou was a teenager when he first went to work for the Defender. He later traveled with the Cubs and White Sox as a baseball writer back when the Defender still had a traveling baseball writer, rose to editor and then to president of Sengstacke Enterprises, and left the company in 1984. “We had problems over management concepts,” he says. “You couldn’t win if John Sengstacke said, ‘I’ve made up my mind.’ He wanted me in Chicago, and I said I couldn’t be in Chicago because of these circumstances. I guess we stopped talking for about five years.”

Picou moved to Florida, where he bought a weekly in Palm Beach and started another in Miami. In 1996 John Sengstacke asked him to come back as a consultant and oversee the Chronicle, Pittsburgh’s Courier, and Memphis’s Tri-State Defender.

Sengstacke Enterprises and the Defender have deteriorated during the four years of wheel spinning. The Defender lost a record $700,000 last year, and lately Lowry has been selling off real estate to cover back payroll taxes. One parcel put up for sale is a vacant lot on South Indiana where the original Defender building used to be; another’s a building at 2412 S. Michigan, immediately south of the present newspaper plant. Robert Sengstacke has made his home and studio at 2412, and his wife Jackie, backed by Myiti Sengstacke, went to court to try to block the sale. She couldn’t.

“We’ve been very sensitive to Bobby and the family, and we never moved until we thought it was essential to do so,” says Lowry. Robert Sengstacke was given 60 days to get out.

The loss of this property complicates the sale of Sengstacke Enterprises inasmuch as there’s now less to buy than Picou and Marshall bid for. “I have to restructure my bid a little bit because of those properties,” says Picou. “They kind of took the wind out of me. But I’ll get it done.” He can see closing the deal for Sengstacke Enterprises “in the next 30 to 45 days.”

Lowry tells me, “We’re willing to make an adjustment in the original offer price.”

Picou says he’d like to hear that for himself.

Proper Display of the Flag

KOMU TV in Columbia, Missouri, is a teaching station affiliated with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. On September 17 news director Stacey Woelfel made an announcement to his news staff. “Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause–no matter how deserving the cause seems to be,” said his E-mail. “This includes the little red, white and blue ribbons that a lot of people are sporting these days. Our job is to deliver the news as free from outside influences as possible.”

In other words, though bias might be unavoidable, the appearance of bias isn’t.

The E-mail made its way to Matt Bartle, a Missouri legislator. He E-mailed Woelfel in protest. “This is not a matter of journalistic even-handedness,” said Bartle. “This is a matter of simple decency and respect for our fellow human beings.”

Having joined the argument by suggesting that evenhandedness couldn’t be reduced to a lapel pin, Bartle dropped the hammer. “I am going to be evaluating far more carefully state funding that goes to the School of Journalism. If this is what you are teaching the next generation of journalists, I question whether the taxpayers of this state will support it.”

Woelfel replied that he had made an ethical decision. “It is a measure of the strength of the ethical position and the person who holds it to see if it can remain intact against prevailing sentiment.”

Bartle responded in a Columbia newspaper. “It is very easy for journalists to shroud themselvs in a nebulous canon of ethics. My sense is, this is censorship of journalists.” Bartle wasn’t the only unhappy legislator Woelfel heard from.

Dean Mills, dean of the journalism school, was asked what he thought. Mills was quoted as saying, “We try very hard to observe the ethical guidelines of the profession,” but not as offering an opinion of how to apply those guidelines here. That decision, said Mills, was Woelfel’s.

The J-school faculty soon weighed in. “We…strongly support the right of faculty editors to make editorial decisions and policies in our newsrooms,” said a one-sentence statement. Professors explained that they were divided over Woelfel’s decision but not over his right to make it.

In a much longer statement issued a couple of days later, the faculty pretty much admitted that as a body it didn’t know what to think. “We are a diverse group of people with the same range of feelings and the same degree of patriotism present in the community and nation,” it said. “Many journalism organizations have taken the course KOMU has taken….Others have openly displayed their colors by displaying the American flag on television screens hour after hour. History fails to help us resolve this dilemma. Some of American journalism’s most revered figures, including Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle, were open advocates of the Allied cause during World

War II. Others of that era merely reported independently on the events of the day.”

Coming to a conclusion that might impolitely be described as punting if the issue were any less difficult, the faculty asserted that “an excellent opportunity for all of us…to debate the fundamental role of journalists when their nation is under attack” was at hand, and they called on Dean Mills to convene a series of public forums.

Finally the university administration itself spoke up. “MU deeply regrets that this policy has caused offense to KOMU viewers and other citizens,” said a statement from chancellor Richard Wallace directed at the governor and the legislature. “This was an action taken in the TV news room to assure editorial independence that did not in any way reflect a policy of the University.”

Woelfel’s decree had been hotly argued on an electronic bulletin board for J-school alumni. One alum commented: “Looks to me like he has decided to leave Stacey Woelfel swinging in the wind.”

I’m another of those alums, and I began laying out this narrative to figure out where I stood on the central question, which has been argued in news shops across the country. There’s a message in those little flags: “I may be a journalist, but I’m an American first.” No doubt the journalist is, but it’s unflattering for a journalist to seem to need to say so. That little flag certainly doesn’t prove that its wearer is getting carried away with nationalist fervor, but the absence of it quietly suggests that the journalist is not. Journalists who think twice about their public role might discover they value this suggestion.

But once all of that had been said about lapel flags in a staff memo, the staff could have been allowed to individually decide. Some staffers might have welcomed an edict shielding them from peer pressure, but there’s often some agony in having principles.

War on Our Doorstep

We’ve just had an old-time newspaper experience up in the 47th Ward. A couple of papers nakedly advancing the political interests of powerful men landed on our doorsteps the very same day. The publishers loathe each other.

“Alderman Schulter Reports” is the calmer of the two: it’s the news of the ward as construed by its alderman, whose name appears in the first sentence of just about every article. We read of his “effort to help senior citizens find affordable housing,” that he’s announcing a “three-part women’s health series designed to empower women and provide resources for better health,” that he’s launched a retail initiative after returning from the International Council of Shopping Centers Convention.

What “The Fighting 47th Ward” has in common with “Alderman Schulter Reports” is that it too was published to put Gene Schulter in a certain light. But in the view of “The Fighting 47th Ward,” Schulter’s a skunk.

The publisher is Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly, who earlier this year survived Schulter’s spirited attempt to unseat him. The big story in the current issue is that that “the alderman”–never named anywhere in the paper–has concocted a Democratic Party of the 47th Ward “to cash in on the good name of the 47th Ward Regular Democratic Organization that Kelly and his supporters have taken more than three decades to build.”

Kelly allowed himself to be interviewed by his own paper on the matter. “The alderman is attempting to confuse the people of the 47th Ward by trying to form an organization with a similar name,” says Kelly. “I helped him get his first job as a janitor. Now he’s trying to divert the funds I am trying to raise so that we can elect Democrats at the local, county, state and national levels. That’s sad!”

Since Schulter recently made a name for himself as a crusader out to get to the bottom of the turmoil at the Sulzer Regional Library, it comes as no surprise to find “The Fighting 47th Ward” offering coverage of Kelly stepping into the fray. Responding to the appeals of “community leaders” who wanted the matter settled, Kelly spoke with library commissioner Mary Dempsey and concludes that she’s “done an outstanding job.”

Elsewhere in “The Fighting 47th Ward” is an open letter by Kelly on the subject of political loyalty, a quality he has failed to detect in the aldermen. “Today’s Chicago alderman are not elected as Democrats or with any other organized political party affiliation. So don’t be fooled by the alderman’s attempt to divert money from the Democratic Party for his own use.”

To nail down his argument, Kelly quotes Shakespeare. “Who steals my purse steals trash;…but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” Kelly wraps up his piece by wondering, “So why is the alderman trying to take away both?”

There are scoffers who wouldn’t dream of calling either of these four-page tabloids journalism. They’d be wrong. The two papers are brim-

ming with a particular kind of information. They hark back to the days when egomaniacs fired up their presses to champion their personal political agendas and wage war on one another. This is the sort of journalism the founding fathers were familiar with when they decided to write the First Amendment.