The New Machine

Some years it doesn’t feel like Christmas. This year it doesn’t feel like an election. The real contest, the one consuming local journalists’ resources of analysis and invective, has been Ryan and Warner versus Fitzgerald and Kass.

There’s been a lot of potential drama in Stroger versus Claypool and in Christine Cegelis and her people in the northwest suburbs versus Tammy Duckworth and Rahm Emanuel and his people in Washington, but no one’s cranked it up. And the Republican race for governor never reached takeoff speed, despite the cast of antic characters. Sometimes the media can breathe life into an election. This year they seemed to suck it out.

The Sun-Times doesn’t normally aspire to stateliness, but that describes its March 13 spread devoted to the governor’s race–the page to the left presenting Judy Baar Topinka, to the right Ron Gidwitz. Trying hard to be bright, the Sun-Times labeled design elements “Style,” “Funds,” and “Baggage” and confronted each candidate with the existential Leno versus Letterman choice. But the writing was as painfully balanced as the layout. It wasn’t rowdy. It wasn’t fun. This was political coverage chasing an award for typographic design.

Remember the old-fashioned horse-race journalism that ignores platforms, trivializes issues, and marginalizes talented but underfunded underdogs while slavering over billionaire nincompoops? Terrible, but it was as much fun to read as the sports section. The other day some guy from the local ward office called asking for permission to plant a Claypool sign in my front yard. I wondered: Daley endorses Stroger, but how hard is anyone in the city working for him? An old-time political writer like the late Steve Neal could spin five columns out of an idle thought like that. Is Neal’s kind of punditing a lost art?

Edwin Eisendrath declared against Governor Blagojevich and immediately disappeared. If he’d hoped absence would lend him some kind of mystique he hoped wrong–the press promptly forgot about him. Where was the sly column whispering the unattributable speculation of unnameable sources (in other words, reporting one step removed from making it up) that Eisendrath merely wanted to position himself as the alternative in case Blagojevich got indicted before November? But give Eisendrath credit: he roared back to life in the campaign’s closing weeks with TV ads about juggling chain saws. That race will probably end up a chain-saw massacre, but at least Eisendrath understood that we want our elections to be more like our carnivals.

According to the Tribune archives, John Kass’s March 2 column was his first mention of Forrest Claypool in ten months. “In every election, a politician jumps on a white horse to smite the forces of evil,” Kass wrote sarcastically. “This year the white knight is . . . Claypool.” Kass didn’t think so, and if the race for County Board president didn’t pit good versus evil it didn’t interest him. (Still, the column had a terrific head: “‘Reformer’ tag a real feat of Claypool.”) Consumed by the Ryan trial, Kass tried harder to work up an interest in the governor’s race, but on March 5 he produced this: “I propose to build a laboratory in a mountain cave, with bats and secret passages and cool stuff, and fill it with now-unemployed South Korean human cloners who promise me they’ll get it right this time before bragging to the news media. Their assignment? Build me a candidate, an uber-Republican, one with a spine that says ‘low taxes and small government’ and means it, although I haven’t yet figured how to make a spine say these words, since spines don’t have lips. Which is different from our problem in Illinois. Our politicians’ lips don’t have spines. Does that sound right, or vaguely obscene? Oh, forget it. Let’s get on with the cloning.”

That isn’t writing. It’s talking in your sleep.

This year’s biggest underreported election story probably isn’t anyone on the ballot but the ballot itself. “I don’t think most reporters have even a clue of what goes on behind the scenes getting all this stuff ready,” says county clerk David Orr, who’s responsible for the suburban elections. “We have one of the longest and most complicated ballots in the country.”

And that’s in an average year. This election brings, according to Orr, “the most extraordinary change in Illinois history.” The old, discredited punch cards are gone, replaced in the city and county after years of research and haggling by a combination of optically scanned paper and touch-screen computers. “I don’t have any doubt that voters will like them,” says Orr. “The big challenge has been getting them ready behind the scenes and getting the judges ready.” He wishes he’d been able to try out the new equipment on some quiet little local election, but it didn’t arrive in time.

So it’ll be rolled out untested next Tuesday in a Y2K of an election. Election planners, who’ve been working seven-day weeks, will hold their breath until the day’s over and it’s clear a debacle was avoided. If a debacle isn’t, the papers will go to town. But beforehand, the technical stuff has been too wonkish to belabor.

Rough-and-tumble political writing is what we’ve all been missing. I got my fix by heading over to Prop Thtr to see Neil Giuntoli in Hizzoner. There were no boring elections on Richard J. Daley’s watch.

Speaking Truth to Power Hitters

The burly frame of sports columnist Sludge loomed over the desk of Biff McGuire. McGuire, sports editor of the Daily Reflux, was skimming Sludge’s latest effort. Like every other sports columnist in America, Sludge had chosen to speak out on Barry Bonds.

Every word and phrase was exactly where McGuire expected to find it. “Tarnished.” “Betrayal.” “Pathetic impostor.” “Whether he admits it or not.” And Sludge’s specialty: “While other men his age fall in the hard sands of Iraq.” When Lindsey Jacobellis tumbled off her snowboard Sludge had pointed out that she was hotdogging “while other American women her age fall in the hard sands of Iraq.” He believed this observation added a dimension to his Olympics coverage no other columnist could match.

Though God knows they all tried.

“It’s a carefully calibrated response, but I don’t mince words,” Sludge told McGuire. “He can just forget about my Hall of Fame vote the first year he’s eligible. The second year too. Maybe not the third–but only if he says he’s sorry.”

“Amazing,” muttered McGuire. “Truly astonishing.”

Sludge beamed.

But McGuire was wondering if there was a computer program known only to sports columnists. A program that lets you type in the name of the latest athletic god who’s squandered his gifts and then takes it from there. “I had thought you might temporarily be tapped out of moral indignation,” he said.

“I should hope not,” Sludge replied, back stiffening.

“You recently lavished so much moral indignation on Bode Miller and Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick I thought the tank might be running a little low.”

“Moral indignation is what I do and am. It’s the life I chose,” Sludge said grandly. “Ever since I took an ethics course my sophomore year and got a B-minus that should have been a B, I’ve known that I was born to be a sports columnist.”

“Wry, sardonic, but ultimately forgiving of the peccadilloes born of human frailty is an alternative favored by some A-minus ethicists.”

Sludge snickered. “Some days there’s only one column for a man to write,” he said, hoping that sounded like Hemingway.

“The ‘Shame on you’ column,” said McGuire.

“Call it what you wish,” said Sludge. “I prefer to think of it as speaking truth to power hitters.”

“That’s a good line,” said McGuire. “I doubt if it’s yours.”

“It might be,” said Sludge. Actually he’d gotten it from his wife that morning when she said, “Oh God, you’re not going to dish up more of the same old crap, are you?” and told him to make his own coffee.

News Bites

The Tribune’s doing bell-curve journalism. Anything exceptionally good at the far end of the curve seems to be balanced by something exceptionally inane at the near–a symmetry that avoids the dreaded top-heavy-with-quality look.

Last Sunday’s paper led with a terrific report by John Crewdson on how the Internet is blowing the cover of CIA agents. Page two of the Perspective section introduced the “Headline Poetry Slam Contest.” The idea is to select words from page-one headlines and arrange them “into something funny, pointed, even profound.” The way kiddies do with refrigerator magnets.

“Bonus points if you can do it in haiku.”

The New York Times published an expansive obituary on Gordon Parks that told us something the wire-written Chicago obits didn’t: Parks used to live here (though Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington mentioned this in his tribute). As a young photographer, said the Times, Parks moved to Chicago, where he “continued to produce society portraits and fashion images, but he also turned to documenting the slums of the South Side. His efforts gained him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.”

The Times frequently does a better job with Chicago angles and Chicago stories than our own papers. Not always. The astonishing size of the pro-immigrant rally at Federal Plaza on March 10 made the event a national story. Caught napping, the Times didn’t report it at all.

Was it a record? The Sun-Times landed four puns on its March 14 front page: “County Kicking Ash,” “Dame Straight,” “Author on Wright track,” and “Here’s Your Bracket, Buster.” Snappy headlines like those must send sales from newspaper boxes through the roof.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Associated Press.