The Kiss and the Cover-up
Don’t tell when you can show. It’s a basic principle of effective writing, and we can see the Tribune’s David Mendell putting it to use at the end of his January 25 profile of Senate candidate Barack Obama:
“There’s no doubt Obama can draw attention. Shortly after signing autographs at the recent forum, Obama grabbed the hand of a supporter of one of his opponents and then kissed her cheek, prompting her to flush and smile broadly.
“‘He has a smooth personality, sometimes a little too smooth,’ said his campaign manager, Jim Cauley. ‘He’s still young, and we have a ways to go, but he has the potential to be something very special in this business.'”
A cute observation by Mendell, who was just a few feet from that little smooch. Big deal, you might be thinking. But what if instead of “a supporter of one of his opponents” Mendell had written Christina Hynes, wife of opponent Dan Hynes?
That is what Mendell originally wrote–in the version of his story that lasted one edition.
The Hynes camp saw that edition and was furious.
“It talked about how women were wowed by him,” says Chris Mather, Hynes’s communications director, “and I think it was inappropriate to bring Dan’s wife into the story by saying that–by implying that she was reacting for the same reason the other women were reacting.”
Mather called Mendell and gave him what for.
“Mr. Hynes thought it was a very cheap shot,” says Mendell. “It was a cheap shot to bring another candidate’s wife into the mix. No, I didn’t think it was a cheap shot. It happened. I was standing right there. I said to Senator Obama, ‘Do you really think it’s wise to kiss the other candidates’ wives?’ He said, ‘We’ve known each other a long time. It’s been a long trail.’ OK.”
Whatever Mendell thought, the Obama-Hynes kiss clearly mattered a lot more to the Hynes camp than to the paper. Hynes was running for the Senate; all Mendell and the Tribune had at stake was a colorful moment to end an article with. Mendell told his editor, Bob Sector, that Hynes’s people had issues and Sector got out his red pencil.
“It seemed gratuitous, and it didn’t seem to be necessary,” Sector tells me. “I think they thought it made an unnecessarily demeaning impression about Hynes’s relationship with his wife. We’re dealing with a difficult dimension here–a guy’s personal relationship with his wife. And I don’t know anything about their relationship, and it wasn’t our place to try to. If they inferred something out of it that we didn’t originally see, I didn’t think it was worth the hurt feelings to Hynes, since it was really a total side issue to the main point we were writing about.”
Even though the point Mendell happened to be making just then was that Obama might be a little too smooth for his own good.
The paragraph couldn’t simply be cut, because then the last paragraph wouldn’t make sense. But it could be tweaked. And it was–tweaked to hide what made the moment so telling in the first place.
“It sounds like hypersensitivity on all sides,” says Tribune public editor Don Wycliff, “theirs and ours.”
Everybody’s Doing It
Scenes from a campaign: On December 7 the Tribune carried a story by David Mendell introducing the Democratic Senate candidates. He wrote, “The leading candidates: Gery Chico, a former Chicago school board president and former aide to Mayor Richard Daley whose venerable law firm imploded this year; Dan Hynes, the state comptroller who has never held a legislative seat but has a politically powerful father; Blair Hull, a political neophyte who parlayed blackjack winnings into a personal fortune; Barack Obama, a University of Chicago constitutional law professor and state senator who failed in a bid for Congress in 2000; and Maria Pappas, the Cook County treasurer known for such public eccentricities as twirling a baton and carrying a poodle in her purse.”
Later in the article, Mendell reported that Pappas “is perhaps most widely known for her quirkiness.”
On March 4 those leading candidates debated on Channel 11. Overall Phil Ponce did a terrific job running the debate. He stuck to the issues, moved the candidates along, yet gave their egos room to breathe. But his performance wasn’t quite marvelous enough to make his self-regarding op-ed piece in the March 9 Tribune a good idea. “Fairness dictates tough questions for all,” he confided to any apprentices who might be reading. “And a moderator has to be prepared for surprises.”
Here’s a surprise that didn’t make his essay:
Ponce: (to Pappas) “You have no experience as a legislator. Would that delay your ability to be effective [in the Senate]?”
Earlier in the debate Pappas had boasted that she’d been the original sponsor of the Cook County human-rights ordinance. Looking puzzled, she told Ponce, “I think you may be mistaken in your facts.”
Ponce: “Am I? If so, please correct me.”
Pappas: “I sat on the Cook County Board as a legislator for eight years prior to becoming [county] treasurer.”
Ponce: “Thank you for setting the record straight. I appreciate that.”
In its exhausted final days the Senate race came down to who smoked what when. The League of Women Voters held a forum for the five principal Democratic candidates on March 10, and afterward reporters grilled them. Hull admitted to past consumption of marijuana and cocaine and to seeking treatment for alcoholism. Hynes and Chico said they’d smoked pot in college. Obama had already admitted in a 1996 book that he’d tried marijuana and cocaine as a teenager.
These revelations were duly reported in the Tribune and Sun-Times. Pappas also participated in the forum and also was asked about the drugs she’d taken, but neither paper’s coverage mentioned her.
On Friday, March 12, Channel Five’s Dick Kay interviewed all seven Democratic candidates as he taped his Sunday morning City Desk show. He began by asking them what they thought about the fact that, given the furor over divorce files and illicit drugs, “you can’t get your issues out.”
Nancy Skinner, who hadn’t even been invited to the League of Women Voters debate, replied, “At this point I wish I had a messier divorce or had been in drug rehab or a DUI. Because I’d get some coverage that way.”
Pappas predicted that 2004 “will go down in history as the Senate race slash drugs and sex….If we call a press conference on any major issue–on any major issue, education, whatever–it’s not as likely to get covered.”
After a break Kay came back to pharmaceuticals. He said, this is a serious matter–former lawbreakers asking to be elected lawmakers. Obama replied that he was certainly not the same person he’d been at 16, and, with all due respect to Kay, City Desk was half over and he was still talking about drugs.
Pappas raised her voice above the others. “I don’t know what happened here with everyone and their drugs,” she said.”But I personally haven’t done any drugs, and when we say that, it gets blanked in the newspapers. They only list the people who use drugs. It’s amazing to me that the papers don’t print who doesn’t do drugs.”
Everyone started talking at once.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” Pappas bulled on. “Can the people who don’t use drugs get equal time? Thank you.”
In the final days of the campaign Pappas released a TV ad in which she twirled a baton.
On March 3 the United Press Syndicate feature wire distributed the March 15 “Dear Abby” to the hundreds of newspapers that carry the column. The next day the syndicate used the same feature wire to alert those clients that the March 15 strip was bogus: the first letter of the column, signed “Stuck in a Love Triangle” and purportedly from a housewife whose husband gave her a bowling ball for her birthday but who then met the man of her dreams at the lanes, was based on an old Simpsons show. UPS offered a substitute column.
On March 8 the Associated Press wire carried a story describing the prank that UPS had nipped in the bud (an east-coast editor spotted the hoax). The AP story ran in papers all over the country. The Sun-Times published it, and it appeared on the Web site of the Tribune.
Nonetheless, this past Monday the Tribune carried the bowling-ball column. Thanks to the Tribune we got to find out what Abby had to say about Stuck’s–and before her, Marge Simpson’s–predicament. “Tell your husband why you strayed,” she advised. Then apologize to “Franco” for not telling him you were married. “After that, que sera sera.”
At least three other newspapers–including the Tribune Company’s Orlando Sentinel–ran the wrong column too.
How could this blunder have occurred?
Associate managing editor Geoff Brown called and explained how it happened at the Tribune. First of all, he said, a big batch of material flows into the Tribune every day on the UPS feature wire–too much for anyone to look at. But everything’s slugged. Tribune staffers responsible for “Dear Abby” search for the “Abby” slug and copy those files into their own computers.
But the weekly batch of “Dear Abby” columns arrives every Wednesday night and is retrieved Thursday morning; Thursday afternoon, when the UPS alert, also slugged “Abby,” showed up, the “Dear Abby” staffers had no reason to look for it. “There’s a three-day purge on these things,” says Brown, “so by the time they come back [to the UPS feature wire] it’s not even there.”
Understandable and forgivable. (Brown’s told the syndicate that next time this happens they should e-mail.) But why didn’t that AP story a couple of days later set off an alarm? Brown wondered that too. On Monday, he says, “I started calling around to find out what happened, the sequence of events. I really was just curious how we didn’t know and these other publications did.”
The trail led Brown to himself. “You’ll love this,” he says. “The day that AP report came out, someone here sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Did you see this?'” That someone was entertainment editor Scott Powers. Brown had forgotten the e-mail until he came across it Monday while trying to reconstruct the sequence of events. “The reason I knew that I could not deny even to myself that I had seen it was that it had a green background. And as soon as I saw this green background, everything came flooding back.”
What Brown should have done, and until last Monday would have sworn he does automatically, was forward the note to Tempo editor Tim Bannon and copy-desk chief Chris Rauser. Brown searched his out-box. He hadn’t. He has no idea why not. “Nobody was more shocked and appalled than Geoff,” says Brown.
Of course 100 other Tribune staffers probably saw that AP story in the Sun-Times or on the Tribune’s Web site and could have said something.
“It was in RedEye too,” says Brown.
OK, 103 other Tribune staffers probably saw that AP story.
“I’m taking the blame for all of them,” says Brown. “But let the record show, I told on myself.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Chalkley.