The Man Who Thought Too Much

The Chicago Sun-Times is looking for a new sports columnist and we know someone who’s available. Over the years he’s been named the state’s best various times by AP, UPI, and the Illinois Press Association, and America’s best in 1984 when he won a National Headliners Award. Through 1986 he’d been represented in the annual anthology Best Sports Stories six years running. He’s a regular on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and Chicago’s The Sportswriters radio show.

Unfortunately, these credentials belong to Ron Rapoport, the very writer the Sun-Times just shoved aside. Rapoport’s last column appeared November 6, and that afternoon executive editor Ken Towers reduced him to sports feature writer. Don’t look for his byline again any time soon–if ever. Rapoport took a month off, during which time he’s been talking to papers still interested in quality. There are some.

His demotion wasn’t a bolt from the blue. “I had some inklings,” he said. Another sportswriter told us, “Maybe for a month there’s been a general unhappiness with him–an unwritten, unsaid thing. He was a superstar a few months ago.”

Indeed he was. He even figured in a Sun-Times TV ad campaign–the series that showed various of the paper’s experts whispering arcana in readers’ ears.

We asked Towers about the odd decision to take Rapoport’s column away.

“This is a move we’ve been talking about for several months,” Towers said. “I think Ron is a fine writer. We just thought the time had come to make a change. We wanted one of our two columnists [Ray Sons is the other] to be somebody who’d look at things in a different way, and express an opinion that maybe wouldn’t be the type of opinion people would agree with. We want somebody who’s opinionated, very opinionated, somebody who has an opinion and can express it well.

“–and responsibly,” Towers went on, in what sounded like an afterthought.

The other sportswriter said, “They wish he’d hit a little harder a little faster.” A thoughtful man, Rapoport did not always come to his point in 25 words or less, and his points were not equivalent to cream pies in the kisser. He was not the man the Sun-Times apparently wants: someone you love to hate.

But even the biggest guns sometimes have to be rolled over the side to keep a sinking ship afloat. Sun-Times management deserves to have its point of view considered. Dominating their landscape is not the trifling figure of a sports columnist but the newspaper’s dwindling circulation. Sun-Times circulation trails the Tribune’s by a large and growing margin: recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation place the Tribune’s daily circulation at 765,371 and growing, the Sun-Times’s at 604,862 and dwindling. If the ABC report next spring doesn’t find the Sun-Times below 600,000 circulation for the first time since it took over the Daily News’s readers in 1978, it will be because the paper took some dramatic and perhaps desperate measures.

One measure has been the ingenious wraparound Monday sports section, which Ken Towers called “a huge success” and which we’ve heard has increased Monday circulation by as much as 50,000. Another measure–intended to reassure advertisers–has been to meet numbers with numbers: against the depressing ABC figures the Sun-Times boasts the latest Simmons readership survey (in which people in a given metropolitan area are called at random and asked what paper they’d read the day before).

According to this research, done by a New York firm, the Sun-Times actually leads the Tribune in total adult readers–1,855,800 to 1,650,600–in total adult male readers, and in adults 18 to 34 years of age. Taken together, the ABC and Simmons figures describe the Tribune as a paper that comes to the home and stays there, and the Sun-Times as a paper that is bought on the way to work and gets passed along.

We discussed the numbers with Joe Ruben, the Sun-Times’s director of market information. In antiquity, he told us, people would spend two or three hours a day reading their daily paper. Today a paper gets 20 minutes. Many readers cling to the vestigial illusion, he said, that when they put down a newspaper they haven’t finished they’ll get back to it. But they won’t.

These realities bear on the editorial product. The Sun-Times needs to be a paper that can be read quickly, so that when a reader’s 20 minutes are up, he’ll feel he’s done the paper justice and pass it along. A sports columnist about whom one reader can say to the next, “Take a look at what that sunuvabitch wrote today!” clearly suits the paper’s strategic interests.

Many of Ron Rapoport’s colleagues at the Sun-Times believe there is a more straightforward explanation for his demotion. Rapoport had not been an ideal company man of late: in particular, he did not echo the editorial page’s total lack of sympathy for the striking NFL players. He was asked to rewrite the lead of one column; another column didn’t run at all.

Pursuing this angle, we called up Foster W. Muzzle. Muzzle, you may recall, is the new man over there in charge of ragging liberals, busting unions, and generally keeping everyone on edge.

Are you the one who screwed Ron Rapoport? we asked him.

“I wish I could say that,” Muzzle told us.

Everyone’s talking about the Rapoport column that got spiked because it ripped your editorial page, we said.

“Well, I may have had a hand in that,” Muzzle said modestly. “Everyone here was expected to go all out for the Bear scabs. What the hell else was there to put in the wraparound? But as far as bouncing Ron goes, believe me, I completely agree with it, but it wasn’t my call.”

Doesn’t do you any harm, though, we observed.

“Hell no!” said Muzzle. “If it can happen to Ron Rapoport, then nobody around here’s safe. You know, lately everything at this place has been breaking my way. I guess when you’re hot you’re hot.”

The Nick of Time Book Review

“There were times in the writing of Paco’s Story,” Larry Heinemann told us, “when I felt I was talking to myself.”

That is a common enough sensation among the writers of novels. Publication is the moment when the world’s indifference may or may not be broken; and despite the many friendly reviews that welcomed Paco’s Story last December, Heinemann was aware of a continuing silence.

“A review in the New York Times is like intelligent people examining your work. It is part of being a serious writer in this country,” he said. “And when I didn’t get a review I felt extremely disappointed.”

Wondering why, Heinemann asked his editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The New York Times never says, she told him. “I asked around as discreetly as I could. What I got back was that the review was so poorly written it didn’t run,” Heinemann told us. He had trouble believing this.

There was no review. The book came in, and someone at the New York Times Book Review looked it over and said not to bother. “We read it and concluded we didn’t have the space to review it,” Mitchel Levitas, editor of the Book Review, explained to us. In other words, Paco’s Story didn’t rate the space they had. “It was not important enough to review,” said Levitas.

We asked a lame question Levitas knew was coming. He pounced on it. “I don’t consider it an example of New York parochialism,” he responded in a steely voice. Our even raising that possibility struck him as “an example of Chicago parochialism.”

He noted, “Nelson Algren didn’t have too much trouble [getting attention paid him in New York]. Neither did Sandburg.” We cannot explain why he failed to add, “And Saul Bellow, too.”

But although Paco’s Story was ignored, reviews of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Philip Roth’s The Counterlife appeared on page one of the New York Times Book Review. Appropriately so, for these were major novels by famous writers and one or the other was expected to win the 1987 National Book Award for fiction. But Paco’s Story also happened to get nominated, and Levitas reconsidered. He shipped Paco’s Story out to critic Christopher Benfey. “It was time to let someone else take a look at it,” Levitas told us.

Benfey’s respectful review appeared on page 19 of the New York Times Book Review of November 8. Though that was 11 months after Paco’s Story had been published, it was one day before it won the National Book Award.

“They saved considerable face, I must say,” said Larry Heinemann.

CrossCurrents Still Afloat

A couple of weeks ago we reported that CrossCurrents would go dark unless owner Rick Darby could scrounge up a short-term insurance policy at a rate the tenants could afford to pay. That’s happened. ImprovOlympic moved its shows anyway to the Ivanhoe, but two other shows–Splatter Theater and The Mercy Ripper–will continue doing weekend performances at CrossCurrents at least through November. The bar stays closed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.