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The Man Who Replaced Siskel and Ebert

Since 1986–and this might astonish Sisbert fans around the country–Dave Kehr’s been the principal film critic of the Chicago Tribune. We have bad news; he’s leaving for New York. His reasons are personal, but it isn’t fame that beckons. Fame–or shall we say stature?–he already enjoys. He’s chaired the National Society of Film Critics and sat on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival and the jury at Sundance. Once he and the Reader were young together, and for 12 years his criticism here was the cornerstone of this paper’s growing reputation.

Even in the hothouse of essayists who contemplate film for upscale urban weeklies, Kehr was uncommon. As a critic at a daily, he’s regarded by his first Tribune editor as “unique.”

What do you mean? we asked Richard Christiansen.

“There are a lot of fine reviewers in the newspapers, but I don’t think any of them, to the best of my knowledge, has the kind of blend of scholarship and critical intelligence that Dave has,” Christiansen replied. “As you know, he’s an adherent of the auteur theory, and he’s one of the best writers in that vein. I don’t know any other newspaper critic who brings quite that spin, that slant to his perception of the movies. He also has an amazing grasp of the technical aspects of the movies.”

Kehr had been looking for work in New York for about a year. He asked the Tribune for permission to write from Manhattan, where he could see the same movies that come to Chicago, only sooner, but the paper said no. “It was the feeling of the senior editors here to have the Tribune’s only full-time movie critic be in Chicago,” associate managing editor Gary Dretzka told us, “for the sake of everything from answering the phone in the building to having some roots here. Not that anybody answers the phone here, but that our readers know this person is living in Chicago is kind of comforting to people.”

And so Kehr starts in mid-June at the New York Daily News, that once-mighty blue-collar tabloid nobody has quite managed to destroy. Why Dave Kehr? we asked Elizabeth Pochoda, the new deputy managing editor for features. Like a lot of the editors brought in by the new owner, Mort Zuckerman, Pochoda spent time at another basket case, the New York Post. But vastly more significant are her 13 years at the Nation magazine.

“I think he’s incredibly cool, that’s why I hired him,” said Pochoda. “I asked my movie reviewer at the Nation, Stuart Klawans, what he thought. He said, ‘He’s the guy.’ So I knew I was on the right track. It seemed to me he wasn’t part of the critics’ mafia. When he needed to go his own way, he went his own way. And he seemed to know about some things besides movies. I liked that about him.”

We reached Kehr this week in Cannes and told him the Daily News didn’t sound like his sort of a paper. “I think when they bring over the arts editor of the Nation, it sounds more and more like my sort of a paper,” he said. “They clearly have a new mandate, and it’ll be fun to be part of that. Everyone I’ve spoken to said Zuckerman’s a very serious guy committed to making the paper work and he has the resources to do it. He’s already done it at U.S. News & World Report and the Atlantic. His track record is pretty impressive.”

Kehr is entering a peculiar situation. He’s one of two new film critics at the Daily News–the other is Jamie Bernard, from the Post–who are supposed to somehow divvy up the beat. “I think it’ll be fine,” Kehr said. “Certainly our styles are different enough. She’s more of a populist kind of critic.”

What does that mean? we asked him.

“I think she’s someone more interested in telling readers what the best buy for their money is on Saturday night and doing that very reliably. Maybe I’m pretentious enough to try something else. As you know, I’ve worked with a situation where there were six other film critics.”

Four of them teenagers, we said.

“Five of them,” said Kehr.

There’s a perception, we told him, that aside from Christiansen the Tribune didn’t appreciate you as much as it might have.

“Well,” he said, “how much does one ever feel appreciated by a newspaper? I’ve never worked for a paper, including the Chicago Reader, that showered you in praise. It’s just not part of the business. I was very comfortable at the Tribune. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

We asked Pochoda if Kehr would now be her house highbrow? “I don’t believe in different brows–high, low, middle,” she snapped back. “I don’t believe in that shit. I believe if you write about things with the proper excitement they’re accessible to everybody. I think that’s just a way of dividing people off from each other.”

Meanwhile, the Tribune has launched the usual nationwide search for a successor. “A lot of critics around the country heard about it before we did probably,” Dretzka told us, “so some people have been calling us. And we’ve been looking at various possibilities in house, out of house, anybody. One thing we’re able to do this year that we weren’t able to do when Siskel left is do searches in a computer. We have access to clips all over the country.”

Not that Siskel actually left. But when he and Roger Ebert signed a whopping TV contract with Disney, editor Jim Squires decided the cart was now hauling the horse, and Siskel became a contract free-lancer. Now Kehr gets to replace Ebert too. The Daily News has been covering the movies by running Ebert’s syndicated reviews. Kehr told us that’s about to end.

What About Bob?

If you’ve been following the tragedy of three-year-old Joseph Wallace, you’ve almost certainly read the columns of Bob Greene. Wallace died at home last month, allegedly hanged by his mother, and Greene has excoriated the juvenile judge, Walter Williams, who returned the boy to his biological mother in 1990. Greene wrote in one column, “Judge Williams is every bit as responsible for the death of Joseph Wallace as is the woman who actually killed the child.”

On May 10 the Cook County Bar Association came to Williams’s defense. A statement by the CCBA read by its president, Kevin Lee, asserted that a “personal vendetta of a particular reporter” caused Williams’s role in Joseph Wallace’s case to be misrepresented. In fact, said Lee, Williams lost contact with Joseph in 1991. Joseph and his brother Joshua returned to foster care in 1991 and again in ’92; each time it was a different judge who restored the boys to their biological mother.

The CCBA statement did not mention Greene by name. But Eugene Pincham did. The former appellate judge read from the Greene column quoted above and then said, “Nobody should allow this kind of erroneous reporting to go unchallenged.”

The Tribune’s subsequent coverage was interesting for what it did not say. Buried inside the next morning’s paper was a brief article about Joseph’s caseworker going on leave. The tag end of this story mentioned the CCBA’s press conference and observed that Public Guardian Patrick Murphy had been attacked. True enough, but not as harshly as Bob Greene, whom the Tribune did not mention.

Two days later legal-affairs writer William Grady wrote a long, sympathetic profile of Judge Williams. It noted that “Williams has been criticized by . . . Murphy and others as being too focused on reuniting troubled families whenever possible.” Others? We called Grady and asked about this void of candor. Grady checked his file and said the story he’d turned in contained the line, “Williams has been strongly criticized by Tribune columnist Bob Greene.” The sentence vanished in the editing.

“It was a self-referential quote,” assistant metro editor Kerry Luft told us. “We generally don’t write about ourselves like that. We don’t write about Jeff MacNelly when we write about the Bosnian-Serbian situation.”

What does MacNelly have to do with Bosnia? we asked.

“The cartoons!” Luft said. “We don’t do this. We don’t put self-referential notes in stories. The story wasn’t about Bob Greene’s story. It was about Walter Williams.”

By not acknowledging what everyone knows its columnist has been up to, the Tribune looked worse than silly. It looked embarrassed. Better to tell the whole story, and let Greene defend himself if he can. Last Sunday Greene took out after Judge Williams yet again. He can.

Silent Reporting

Last week Sun-Times editorial columnist Steve Neal wrote a very nice column about his friend Howard Bedno, a founder of Cobra Records 37 years ago and a godfather of Chicago’s blues. Bedno and Eli Toscano started Cobra in the back of a TV repair shop on West Roosevelt Road, Neal wrote.

He went on: “‘The neighborhood itself was home to the blues,’ Bedno recalls. “After Eli and I became friends, we would frequently go out and catch the blues in different clubs. We would travel up and down West Madison, which was one of the big nightclub areas.”‘

Neal’s column is full of Bedno’s memories. But as it happens the source of Bedno’s words, every single time Neal quotes them, is not a conversation between the two of them. It’s Bedno’s reminiscenses as taken down in shorthand by a producer on the west coast and published in the booklet to a recent two-CD set, Capricorn Records Presents the Cobra Records Story.

The producer, Diana Reid Haig, doesn’t care. “Whatever helps Mr. Bedno,” she told us. Her one regret–and we had to point this out to her–is that if Neal had been forthcoming his readers would now know about her CDs.

Bedno has no beef. He made it clear he’d talked to Neal before the column came out. “As a matter of fact I had lunch with him.” And Neal’s boss, Mark Hornung, editor of the Sun-Times’s editorial pages, said there was nothing Bedno talked about in the column that Bedno and Neal hadn’t discussed “on numerous occasions.”

But if only for the sake of form, we wondered, why didn’t Neal quote from his own conversations instead of from Diana Haig’s?

“Steve doesn’t need to be lectured on how and where to take notes from me,” Hornung responded. “I don’t have any problems with this one.”

The only party we didn’t hear from was Neal himself. Hornung called back on his behalf. “Steve generally doesn’t talk,” Hornung told us.