It was the summer of ’77. Tom Dolan, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times called me and asked whether Chicago magazine would be interested in a story involving international-business consultant Thomas H. Miner, the First National Bank of Chicago, and the Central Intelligence Agency. He had spent several months on the story, he said, and the Sun-Times had killed it without explanation. Of course I wanted to see the story, and told Dolan to bring it over. I knew Dolan was a good reporter, the author of numerous important exposes; I had recommended him a few years before, for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, which he won.
“You know I’m back covering criminal courts,” he said. The criminal courts beat was Dolan’s personal purgatory. He had covered it, with considerable distinction, during Edward V. Hanrahan’s regime as Cook County state’s attorney. In January 1971, his repeated request for a transfer to another assignment had been granted, but because Hanrahan had attacked him publicly—a story reported in the Tribune but not in the Sun-Times—Dolan felt he had to remain at criminal courts for another four or five months, so as not to give the impression that the paper had capitulated to Hanrahan’s bullying. Now, six years later, with the Nieman under his belt, as well as a distinguished string of investigations—ranging from fraudulent sales of substandard real estate in the suburbs to Illinois Bell’s covering up of evidence of illegal wiretaps on its lines—Dolan had been reassigned to the dismal old fortress at 26th and California. Apparently, his bosses were very unhappy with him. Perhaps it was because he was chairman of the grievance committee of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, the editorial workers’ union; perhaps it had something to do with the fact that A. Robert Abboud, chairman of the First National Bank, was a director of Field Enterprises, and Marshall Field was a director of the First National Bank.
“How tough is Nordstrand?” Dolan asked, referring to Ray Nordstrand, publisher of Chicago magazine, a 165,000 circulation monthly, and general manager of WFMT, the city’s major classical music station. “Will he stand up to pressure?”
“That’s my problem, not yours,” I said.
At Chicago magazine, all but the most innocuous stories were routinely sent to our lawyers. Every article was read at least once by each of at least six editors, including a copy editor and a fact checker, and many were ready by the publisher as well. One can never be too careful, and every journalist’s hope is to be perfectly accurate. But the concern for accuracy sometimes assumed strange dimensions at Chicago.
A story on the abortive takeover attempt of Marshall Field & Company (no longer any relation to the publishing company) by another department store chain mentioned, in discussing Field’s modernization efforts, that Angelo Arena, the new president of Field’s, was the first non-WASP to hold the position. Nordstrand argued that the point was not relevant, that even if it were we didn’t know for a fact that all the previous presidents of Field’s were WASPs, and that WASP is an ethnic slur that should not appear in Chicago magazine. The relevance was obvious to me. I would have settled for British-American.” And I got a list of all of Field’s previous presidents—whose names all seemed to indicate English or Scottish ancestry. But that wasn’t good enough (Some of them might have changed their names, or been Negroes, or converted to Judaism) and the sentence was deleted. Also deleted as a reference to “errors” by Field’s management. It was a matter of judgment, after all, and one shouldn’t judge one’s major advertiser.
A comparison-shopping piece on hi-fi stores enraged Nordsrand. Musicraft, one of WFMT’s largest advertisers, came out poorly in comparison to other stores, and Nordstrand said the writer was not an expert on hi-fi. We pointed out that there were experts on hi-fi writing in the same issue, and that the point of this particular piece was to familiarize nonexperts with what to expect when they went shopping for equipment. It was a classic Chicago consumer-service piece. Nordstrand wouldn’t buy that; he insisted that it was wrong to compare Musicraft’s Oak Street store, “a warehouse outlet,” with a place like Audio consultants, where a customer could get knowledgeable, personal service and could test equipment in adequate facilities. A really smart shopper, Nordstrand said, would shop Audio Consultants to decide what equipment he or she wanted, then buy the stuff at Musicraft, where the prices were often lower. Great idea, we said, let’s print that. No dice. The solution was to send the writer to an additional Musicraft outlet, which turned out to be not quite so horrible and thus raised the general evaluation of the firm. This isn’t necessarily what one could call good journalism, but one could say that the accuracy of the piece was improved.
And then there was the great Water Tower Place flap … . But no, it’s too awful to go into.
But all these stories were published. So were others that were less than flattering to large advertisers or prominent people, though publication of some of these stories was delayed for anywhere from a month to a year because corporate relationships were involved. A story on Chicago’s “first families,” for instance, was delayed because the members of the women’s board of the Orchestral Association would have been in the office working on the WFMT/Chicago symphony Marathon during the month in which the story had originally been schedule for publication, and the story might have embarrassed Mrs. Gotrocks.
It was sometimes an infuriating system in which to work, but I kept hoping that someday it would get better. Someday, I kept thinking, Nordstrand would figure out that he was the head of a powerful media conglomerate totally different from the tiny, perennially impoverished radio station he had started out with 25 years ago. True, he was technically an employee of the Chicago Education Television Association, the eleemosynary board that runs the city’s public television station, WTTW. C.E.T.A. owns WFMT, Inc. (though it paid for its property entirely out of the earnings of the property, due to a history too complicated to go into here) and “oversees” its management through a subcommittee of the C.E.T.A. board. But it is inconceivable that either the staff or the WFMT listeners, who are also the bulk of Chicago magazine subscribers, would tolerate any attempt by WTTW to actively interfere with the management of WFMT. There would simply be a replay of the event by which WFMT had wrested from the corporate clutches of the Tribune Company a decade ago.
So Nordstrand was as much an independent agent as he would be if he owned the company himself. But, he seemed to live in perpetual fear of his board and of the large advertisers of whom the station and the magazine had become increasingly dependent. And he never let any aspect of the radio or magazine operation escape his watchful eye.
On many occasions I tried to tell Nordstrand that it would be better for him of he could honestly tell advertisers that he had no control over the editorial content of the magazine. His problem, I said, was that he wore too many hats. He would acknowledge the problem but would argue that he was able to don and doff his hats at will. In the Musicraft incident, he said, his objections were purely editorial; he had put out of his mind the size of Musicraft’s advertising budget, the longevity of its patronage, and his personal relationships with its officials.
A person can legitimately and competently be both editor and publisher of a newspaper or magazine, but only if he or she is first and foremost a journalist. Otherwise, the functions must be separated. Nordstrand, who was trained as an economist and grew up in classical-music radio sales and programming, had no experience in journalism and didn’t particularly like it or its practitioners.
Fear is a useful emotion. For all higher animals, it is necessary for survival. For journalists, who are the highest of animals, fear takes a specialized form: the fear of being wrong. If you’re wrong, you can be ruined—professionally and financially. But like all emotions, fear must be tempered lest it become pathological and lead to immobility. One must be able to choose between fight and flight. What follows is a story about those emotions and instincts, about the journalist’s craft, and about power in Chicago.
In January of 1977, Tom Dolan found in his mailbox at the Sun-Times a hand-scrawled note from managing editor Stuart Loory. The note named no names, but said that a local consulting firm was involved with the CIA and had had some hand in Henry Kissinger’s last visit to Chicago. Loory had received the tip from an acquaintance during an airplane trip; when Loory expressed interest, the source had clammed up, so Dolan had very little to go on.
Checking the clips on Kissinger, Dolan discovered that the visit had been cosponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Mid-America Committee for International Business and Government Cooperation, an association of midwest-based multinationals. He then checked the clips on the principals of both organizations, and came up with a 1975 “Out Front” column item by Art Petacque and Hugh Hough concerning Thomas H. Miner, president of the Mid-America Committee. Miner had been named in Philip Agee’s book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, as having provided cover for a CIA agent in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Sun-Times item said the cover arrangement had been a one-shot deal and noted that Miner had lost track of the spy when he was dropped from the spy’s Christmas card list. But the Penguin paperback edition of Agee’s book carried an emendation concerning Miner: it said Miner’s firm had “provided cover for CIA officers in other countries.”
Dolan was off and running. Hard information was scarce at first, but Dolan is nothing if not persistent. After three months or so, the story of Thomas H. Miner had emerged pretty clearly and Dolan was looking into what appeared to be a larger network of relationships between the CIA and American businesses abroad. But Loory insisted that he start writing the Miner story. “He said I could go back to the other stuff afterward,” Dolan recalled.
“We spent several weeks working on several drafts,” Dolan said. “Finally, Loory gave the story to Hoge [James F. Hoge, editor in chief of the Sun-Times]. Two weeks later, Joe Reilly, the metropolitan editor, told me I was being assigned to criminal courts. The Sun-Times hadn’t had anyone assigned to criminal courts since Bernie Carey was elected state’s attorney in 1972. I protested to Loory, but apparently there was nothing he could do. I asked him what had happened to the Miner story, and he said, ‘I don’t know what happened to that story, but I think I can guess.'”
By July, when Dolan had heard nothing else about the story, he called me and asked if I wanted it. When I said that I did, he told Loory he was going to sell the story to Chicago magazine. Loory told Dolan to hold off for a while.
“A week later,” Dolan said, “Loory told me, ‘Jim [Hoge] thinks we can do that story.’ He gave me back all the copies and laid down a long list of conditions. We had to do some more reporting on the Agency for International Development angle—he said we should get the questions together and send them on to the Washington bureau. I protested; it was my story, and if it needed more work in Washington I wanted to do it myself. I was told I would be reassigned immediately.
“The next morning, Reilly told me I had to do an assessment of Carey’s tenure as prosecutor, so I couldn’t go back to work on the Miner story. That took a month. Then I got assigned to the Jane Byrne taxicab story. Several times I said to Loory that we had to get back on the Miner story and he put me off. But he never said anything to indicate that we couldn’t do it.
“Then I got fired.”
Along with several other officers and major activists in the Newspaper Guild, Dolan was fired when the Daily News folded and the remaining staffs were consolidated. His files were moved into a corner of my office at Chicago and we set about turning his newspaper story into a magazine piece.
Allen Kelson, the editor in chief, and John Fink, the editor of Chicago, approved a fee of $2,000 for the piece, and agreed that until the manuscript was completed the exact nature of the story should not be widely known in the office. It was scheduled to run in the June issue and named “International Business” for purposes of production planning.
Dolan did a quick first draft from an outline we had prepared together. I went over it line by line, suggesting revisions, asking about sources, and noting holes that needed to be plugged up. One of these holes was the absence of a response from First National chairman Abboud concerning the bank’s role in the Mid-America International Development Association, Inc. (MIDA). Miner, as MIDA’s representative in Africa, had placed at least one CIA agent on a development project sponsored by the State Department. Dolan then made the first of what would be many calls to the bank over the next six weeks or so, vainly seeking an interview with Abboud or even a simple statement issued through the bank’s public relations department denying any knowledge of the spy.
By the beginning of April, we were getting close to the point where the article would have to start moving through the magazine’s production cycle. Bill Baldwin, a former Sun-Times reporter, who is now on the bank’s PR staff, called on April 3 and said Abboud had acted puzzled when told what the story concerned, but had refused to be interviewed. Baldwin suggested that Dolan talk instead with James Y. Robertson, a vice-president in the international department. Dolan did so, but Robertson knew very little about MIDA’s origins or its operations in the years under discussion.
Two days later, Balwin told Dolan that Abboud was “leaning” toward seeing him, but that Abboud had asked Baldwin to call Tom Miner first to see what he had to say. Dolan felt he was within a couple of days of an interview with Abboud. But two weeks later, there had been no further word from the bank. Because it was time to have the piece lawyered, and Dolan was out of town, I called Baldwin, who said that he and his boss, Nick Poulos, had been in to see Abboud and had told him that “the best way to answer is directly.”
“He said, ‘I don’t know anything about it,'” Baldwin told me, “and we said, ‘Tell Dolan that.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it.’ We’re still trying to convince him, but I’m not sure we can.”
That day, I sent the manuscript to the magazine’s libel lawyer, Dan Feldman.Because Feldman is also the Sun-Times‘s libel lawyer, I attached a note mentioning that a previous version of the story had been killed by the Sun-Times, so that if he felt any conflict of interests he could excuse himself, and we could get another lawyer.
As I said earlier, Chicago magazine sent more articles to be lawyered than any publication I have ever worked with. The idea was—I don’t recall who stated it—not only that we were not to libel anyone, but also that we were not to get into situations where we could be sued. I used to deal with a libel lawyer who never asked more than two questions about a story: (1) Have you done everything you can to check that these statements are correct? (2) Does the subject of the story have any files you might want to look at? If the answer to both questions was yes, the lawyer would say “Well, let him sue if he wants to.” I was never sued.
That was in the good old days, under the doctrine of New York Times v. Sullivan an other cases that said, in essence, that a reporter’s good faith effort to find and tell the truth excused any inaccuracies that might nevertheless creep into a story as long as the aggrieved party was a public official or a public figure—a category that was judged to include almost anyone a reporter might think of writing about.
The law is a lot more complicated now, and libel lawyers get in a lot more courtroom time than they used to. The new complications revolve principally around the question of who is and who is not a public figure. Elmer Gertz, who has been a prominent attorney in Chicago for at least 40 years and who has been involved in many celebrated cases and public controversies, was judged not to be a public figure. On the other hand, an obscure professor working on a government-funded research project was judged to be a public figure because he had accepted public funds.
The muddled state of the law encourages people to test it. After all, if Mary Firestone of the tire and rubber family can collect damages simply because Time magazine made an honest and virtually unavoidable mistake in reporting her divorce decree, then why not you and I? (This “private figure” had held press conferences in connection with the divorce proceedings.)
At any rate, hardly a month went by that I did not send Feldman one or more articles to be examined for potential libel problems. The extravagance of this is flabbergasting. Lawyers of Feldman’s stature routinely charge about $150 an hour for their services. And writers wonder why they are underpaid.
Feldman responded to my note by saying that he had no contact with the Sun-Times on their decision not to run Dolan’s story, although he knew from another source that an article on Miner was in the works there. Miner, Feldman said, had told a mutual acquaintance that the story would put him out of business. “I don’t know whether that means he would sue,” Feldman said, but it would be best to be extra careful. He said he would send me a list of questions about their piece so we could discuss them one by one. When the list arrived, I went over it with Dolan and then met with Feldman. We changed a few words but left the story essentially intact. Feldman suggested that we get some further detail on one of Miner’s business transactions, and we called it a wrap.
As I was leaving his office, Feldman said that if we thought it useful, he could probably arrange another interview with Miner through their mutual acquaintance. I reminded him that Miner’s comments and denials were already in the story, and that Miner’s attorney, Donald Baker, had broken off a previous interview when Dolan and Stu Loory began asking about Baker’s firm’s relationship with the CIA. It was now the end of April, with production deadlines looming, but I said I would talk to Dolan about it.
It was also tie to pitch the story to Ray Nordstrand, for it would ultimately be his decision to go or not go with it. I was the articles editor. Mike Greenberg was the managing editor. John Fink was the editor. Allen Kelson was the editor in chief. We had editors on top of editors, but Nordstrand always reserved final judgment for himself.
We spent about two hours in his office. He asked a lot of tough questions, but Dolan knew his stuff and had answers to all of them. He discussed his sources, and what reliance he had placed on each of them, and why. He talked about what he had not put into the article because of insufficient evidence. He talked about why he though the piece was significant enough to be published now even though much of it concerned events of a decade and more ago And Nordstrand seemed satisfied. Afterward, Kelson and Fink, in separate conversations, told me they thought the meeting had been very successful and had resolved whatever doubts Nordstrand might have had about the story. We were ready to publish.
On May 3, Feldman called and said something like, “You’re not gonna believe this, but … ” Larry Gunnels, a partner of attorney Don Reuben, had called to tell Feldman that he and Reuben were representing Tom Miner; he asked Feldman to contact the magazine so that Miner could have an opportunity to be interviewed again before the story ran.
“OK,” I said, “but it’ll have to be done quickly.”
“I’ll tell him that,” Feldman said. “I assume you want no lawyers involved?”
No lawyers,” I said.
This was intriguing. Don Reuben, a libel lawyer and general counsel of the Tribune Company, had just been forced out of the giant Kirkland & Ellis law firm for his alleged role in the taxicab scandal, as recounted by Jane Byrne, and for other transgressions against gray flannel decorum. But he had taken a large number of lawyers—and the Tribune Company—with him. Reuben was indeed a very good libel lawyer, but he was a defense lawyer, not a plaintiff’s lawyer. He would be cutting his own throat if he ever sued a publication for libel. Clearly, Miner had hired him not with the intention of suing anyone but for the same reason everyone else who is not a journalist hires Reuben: to strike fear and terror in the hearts of adversaries. Miner might as well have hired a voodoo priest.
The following Friday morning, May 5, Miner and two associates in his firm arrived at my office. Dolan and I had prepared a series of questions designed to get Miner’s version of specific points in the article and also to elicit whatever additional information we could without letting him know how much or how little we knew about individual points. We felt certain that Miner was there only to find out for the bank exactly how much we knew (Abboud, remember, had instructed his PR people to ask Miner what he knew about the story), and we thought it best not to be too direct.
Miner started out saying that he had signed a pledge of secrecy with the CIA and was going to honor it, so he couldn’t talk about any specifics.
“Well then, what are we doing here?” I asked.
Dolan and I fell naturally into a good/guy bad guy routine, and so did Miner’s two associates. The interview lasted about two hours, during which Miner confirmed, perhaps unknowingly, many of the facts in the article. Apparently under the impression that the only spy we knew about was the one mentioned by Agee, he said that his relationship with the CIA had lasted only for a year or two in Montevideo. When it became clear later on that we knew he provided cover as well for a spy named Donald Musch, six or seven years later, he talked about that—untroubled by the fact that we caught him in a lie. (Miner has recently told Channel 5 that he covered a spy in Vietnam.) He denied that his success in getting government contracts was a quid pro quo for his work for the CIA, but ultimately refused to show us the records he said would prove that he was getting government contracts before he agreed to provide cover for the CIA. (Government records suggest he did not.)
When the interview was over, Miner was livid. “You haven’t told me anything,” he fumed. “Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve got the best lawyer in the midwest and if there’s anything in that story that’s not the truth, I’ll sue. I stopped this story once [presumably referring to the Sun-Times] and I’ll stop it again.
After Miner left, I called Baldwin at First National. “Thanks for sending Miner over,” I said, “but we still need to talk to Abboud.”
“Well, we didn’t send him over,” Baldwin laughed, “but we did talk to him.
“”I’ll tell you,” Baldwin continued, “I’ve been looking over our files on MIDA and I don’t see anything that indicates a connection with the CIA. Miner was dismissed early in the game, I gather. There’s a letter in the file indicating why they decided to dispense with Miner’s services. What I’d like is for you guys to go over our files and then tell us what, if anything, you still need to know.”
At lunch, Dolan and I decided to accept the offer and try once more to see Abboud. I called Baldwin, he checked with Poulos, and we arranged to meet at 4:30 that afternoon.
Poulos and Baldwin still wanted to know exactly what we knew; only then, they said, could they try again to get Abboud to see us. We went around in circles on this point for half an hour or so and finally I aid:
“Look, this is getting ridiculous. If Abboud won’t talk to us, find. We’ve told you over and over again that we know MIDA had spies over in Africa, and what we want to know now is, what did Abboud know and when did he know it? We’ve been screwing around with this for nearly two months. I’ve got a magazine to put out. The story has been lawyered, it’s in type and ready to go, and we’ll just say ‘Abboud refused to comment.'” (We used the plural “spies” to avoid focusing on Musch at that point.)
Poulos agreed to try Abboud again, and found him hosting a reception for 25-year employees at of the bank. He telephoned down to Baldwin’s office that Abboud would see us right away in the board room.
Dolan and I caucused for about a minute to discuss strategy—we hadn’t expected to see Abboud immediately, and had come unprepared for an interview, without even a notebook, much less a tape recorder. We borrowed notebooks from Baldwin and went up to the 57th floor.
Seated around the $40,000 board room table were Abboud and three other bank officials. A. Robert Abboud is maybe five-foot-three, 140 pounds, and a holy terror.
Abboud said he had been out of the country for most of the period under discussion and he didn’t know anything about spies: “The idea that MIDA was affiliated in any way with the CIA is an absolute lie,” he shouted. “The idea that there were discussions about the CIA [within the MIDA board] is an absolute lie. I f you print anything about that, we would have to recall our people all over the world … . We would have to bring the maximum lawsuit against you and against Chicago magazine.”
He screamed and yelled some more and within about 15 minutes the interview was over. I felt exhausted. As we were leaving the room, Dolan asked whether we could set he MIDA files now. Abboud wagged a finger in Dolan’s face and said angrily, “You’ve got no right to see the records of this corporation.”
I said we weren’t claiming any rights, that we had been invited to look at the bank’s files.
“Oh no you weren’t,” Poulos lied. He knew who buttered his bread.
I was shaking as we left the bank building. We went into the nearest bar, a dreary place, and had one drink. I was now calm, but very angry.
I went back to my office and wrote Abboud a letter:
I would have written to thank you for taking the time to see me and Mr. Dolan today, but your abusiveness and threats were insulting; inasmuch as we have been trying to see you for nearly two months, it seems to me you should have recognized our good faith in seeking to have your comments on the matters we discussed. Surely you understand that, confronted with the information—correct or incorrect—that we had, and with your repeated refusals to be interviewed, we would have been justified in going to press with the simple statement that ‘Abboud refused to discuss the matter.'”
I wrote the letter because I thought it wise to have a record of the encounter with Abboud. Somehow I sensed that things were going to start getting interesting. As it would happen, although Abboud was a peripheral figure in the story of Tom Miner, he became a central figure in my life.
The following Monday, May 8, Nordstrand received a telephone call from Robert Foote of Sidley & Austin, the general counsel and corporate secretary of WFMT, Inc. Foote reported that he had had a call from Don Yellin, general counsel of the First National Bank, in which Yellin offered “to respond to any charges and demonstrate conclusively that they [the bank] had know knowledge” of any CIA activity. They offered again to show us the files. When Nordstrand told me about this, I said, “Fine, I’ll go over there right now.” Nordstrand said he wanted to talk about it with Foote some more. Which meant tomorrow.
Nice ploy, I thought. Yellin had known where to strike. Calling Foote was “legitimate,” in the sense that it was one general counsel to another, but the bank knew perfectly well that our lawyer on this project was Dan Feldman. Now they had involved the corporate hierarchy of Chicago magazine, and that could only mean trouble.
Tuesday morning, Tom Miner called me. He wanted to tell me that he had a long talk with Bob Abboud, who was also “trying to get hold of Don Reuben and Larry Gunnels, but unfortunately they’re both out of town.” Miner himself, he said, would be represented by both Reuben and Donald Baker. The conversation then took an interesting turn:
Miner: “I would be willing, subject to counsel saying OK, to take a lie detector test, answering, say, four or five agreed-upon questions so you can tell whether I’m right or he [Dolan] is right.”
Dorfman: “I don’t believe in lie detectors, and I don’t know what it would prove, anyway. But I’ll discuss it with Dolan.”
Miner: “The CIA never had a single thing to do with any government contract I’ve ever had, and nobody from the CIA has ever been placed on any government contract I’ve had.”
Dorfman: “We called your office yesterday for the data you said you could supply, and haven’t got a callback.”
Miner: “Gunnels doesn’t think we should quote unquote be cooperative. He thinks we had our interview—we were mainly giving and got nothing back. I don’t know what you know about this guy [Dolan], but I was told the reason the story didn’t run in the Sun-Times was that they checked it out independently and they found enough facts that were not so that they decided not to run the article. I was told this through their legal counsel.”
Dan Feldman’s response was that the Sun-Times has many lawyers. I suspect that Miner talked to none of them.
I wrote Miner a letter formally rejecting the lie-box test, staying that we were looking for facts, not opinions or assertions.
Also on Tuesday morning, Nordstrand and Kelson met with Foote and talked over the situation. Then Nordstrand and Kelson went to lunch, at the Taberna, and talked over the situation. At about 3 PM, they called the office and asked John Fink to join them. Fink did, and the three of them talked over the situation.
About an hour later, Nordstrand called me and said, “OK, you can call the bank.”
(“What the hell was that all about?” I asked Kelson when I saw him later. “We had to hold Ray’s hand,” Kelson said. “He’s worried that the First National will cancel their ads, and that they’ll take Commonwealth Edison with them and then there’ll be a domino effect and we won’t have any advertisers left.” Nordstrand’s worries were not exactly paranoid; this is, after all, the toddlin’ town. Just a few months before, Carson Pirie Scott & Company had canceled all of its advertising in the magazine—several pages month, billed at about $50,000 a year—because Keslon had panned the company’s Seven Continents restaurant at O’Hare. With a profit margin of only $500,000 or so, WFMT Inc. could afford only so many such cancellations.)
I called the bank and told Don Yellin that Dolan and I would be happy to accept his offer to inspect their records.
“Fine,” he said. “When would you like to come over?”
“Right now,” I said. Dolan and I had passed the time waiting for Nordstrand’s call by making a list of the five files we wanted to look at.
OK,” Yellin said. “But I’d like you to talk with Dick Thomas first.” Thomas is president of the bank.
Dolan and I arrived at Yellin’s office only to find that there was a problem. It seems that—according to Yellin—Dick Thomas’s limousine telephone is on a party line, and the other party was using the line and Yellin couldn’t get through.
When it became clear that, once more, we were not going to see any files, Dolan got a bit testy, and Yellin in turn became testy. Again playing the good guy, I explained to Yellin that we had been told the files were already gathered and we had a list of the documents we wanted to look at. he said he would set up the appointment with Thomas first thing in the morning, and would go over the list to determine which files he would let us see. He promised to call me by 10:30 AM.
At 10:15 AM on Wednesday, May 10, Chicago magazine’s phones went dead.
A little paranoid myself by this time. I went downstairs to the cigar store and called Yellin from a pay phone.
“I’m not quite ready to talk to you yet,” he said. “I’ll get back to you by 2 PM.”
Well, all right,” I said, “but tomorrow is our deadline.”
Is this a deadline you’re giving us,” he asked, “or a printing deadline?”
“A printing deadline,” I said. The article was schedule to go to final type on the 11th, to pasteup on the 12th, to film on the 15th, and to print on the 17th.
By 2 PM our phones were working again. Yellin called with this message:
“We [the First National Bank] have engaged Don Reuben to represent us. He believes that since this project was begun at the Sun-Times, the Sun-Times retains literary property rights int he article, and that Chicago magazine has no right to print it without permission from the Sun-Times.”
It was incredible. Don Reuben was making a flimsy argument like that? And Don Yellin was going along with it?
“Does that mean that you’re not going to talk to us until we have permission from the Sun-Times to run the story?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he said.
When I hung up the phone, I was elated. If they’re reduced to that kind of argument, I told myself, they must really have something to hide. Even if the Sun-Times did have “property rights” in the article (I learned later that the bank had asked Hoge to make that claim and Hoge had refused), the bank was hardly in a position to be asserting the Sun-Times‘s rights. I thought of calling Clayton Kirkpatrick, editor of the Tribune, to tell him that his lawyer, Reuben, was making arguments on behalf of the Sun-Times against another publication without even being asked, but then thought better of it. What Reuben really seemed to be aiming at, it occurred to me, was to drive a wedge between us and our lawyer, Dan Feldman, who, if it came to a conflict between Chicago and the Sun-Times, would be obliged to abandon us in favor of his principal client.
I called Feldman and told him what Yellin had told me, suggesting that he needn’t make any response immediately. He merely chuckled.
I then circulated a memo to Kelson, Fink, and Nordstrand. Kelson came into my office, made me repeat the conversation, and then called Nordstrand: “It’s time to shit or get off the pot,” Kelson told him. Nordstrand said he’d have a decision shortly,and we opened the bar.
Three hours later, Nordstrand got off the pot.
Kelson and Fink came into my office and handed Dolan and me copies of a memo from Nordstrand “explaining” why Chicago could not publish the story.
They said Nordstrand had authorized an additional payment of $500 to Dolan because of his extraordinary diligence and integrity. I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. I spun in my chair, nearly blind with rage and Scotch, typed out my resignation, and headed for Nordstrand’s office.
Nordstrand’s memo mentioned “missing links” in the story. This referred to the facts that while he had knowledgeable allegations of certain facts, which we believed to be true, documentary confirmation of these facts could be found only in the files that Miner and the bank had refused to show us. Without the files, we had the allegations and the denials, and we had reason to believe the allegations and disbelieve the denials.
As it turned out, the evidence wasn’t really what was on Nordstrand’s mind, at least not that day.
When I entered his office, he was seated on his couch. His eyes were read and puffy. I handed him my resignation and he said, “I thought you’d probably do this.” He told me how much he respected me. I told him he wa a terrific guy too. “There aren’t too many bosses you can go and holler at all the time,” I said. By this time, I was practically in tears too. Nordstrand explained that he just couldn’t take the risk of a lawsuit, that the company couldn’t afford it. I replied, as I had many times before when the subject had come up in other contexts, that you couldn’t pretend to be publishing a big league magazine if you couldn’t risk being sued. Dolan came in about then and observed that it would not take long for the word to get out that if you wanted to stop a story in Chicago magazine, all you had to do was hire Don Reuben to jump up and down and wave his arms and rattle maracas.
“I know,” Nordstrand said morosely. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. I wish I were a millionaire publisher and could take the risk. But we just can’t afford it.”
He said that if there were an ongoing scandal, something that was injuring the public right now, he would publish and be damned, but that Dolan’s story was basically a piece of history.
John Fink came in. He asked if there were any way I could reconsider my decision to resign. I said that if the magazine published the story I would no longer have a problem.
Fink suggested that he be given some time to reedit the story so as to make it acceptable to both of us. Nordstrand and I both expressed skepticism; the story had already been edited very carefully. but I agreed to wait and see what Fink would come up with.
Within a few days, Fink showed me a draft edit that clearly indicated what he thought was bothering Nordstrand. He had excised all references to the First National Bank and A. Robert Abboud except those absolutely necessary to make sense of the story, and he had punched up Abboud’s denial that he knew anything at all about any CIA activity in connection with MIDA. I suggested a few minor changes and told Fink that if he could get it past Nordstrand it would be all right with me.
The whole question would have been resolved one way or the other fairly quickly, except that Nordstrand got a call from First National president Dick Thomas (apparently the other party had finally got off the line), who invited Nordstrand and Fink to come in for a chat. But Thomas was going to be out of town for a while, and Fink was leaving for a week’s vacation, so the chat was put off until May 25. I sent Nordstrand a note saying that “if there is any sight I would less like to see than masses of starving children or the outbreak of nuclear war, it would be the sight of a publisher and a banker sitting down together to discuss the intricacies of a piece of investigative reporting.” I urged him not to see Thomas, and said that if, nevertheless, he felt he had to, he was honor bound not to discuss sources or otherwise compromise the magazine, the story, or its author. He replied that he would keep those strictures in mind.
On Wednesday the 17th, a bank official was drinking in Riccardo’s and told friends that word had reached the bank that I had resigned. On Friday the 19th, the magazine’s secretary handed me a message saying that Irv Kupcinet had called while I was on the phone with someone else. I had planned to leave that afternoon for a weekend in the country, so I speeded up my departure. But Kup apparently found his confirmation elsewhere, and on Sunday he reported that I would resign if the magazine did not print a story about “one of our town’s leading banks” and the CIA. That wasn’t exactly what the story was about, but I nearly gagged when I caught up with Friday’s Wall Street Journal on Monday; it carried a long profile of Abboud, with a subhead on the jump that referred to a “Clash With Magazine.” Turned out it was not the clash I was familiar with.
“Stories abound of Mr. Abboud’s epic blowups,” the Journal said. “angered by an unflattering personal profile in Business Week in 1976, he yanked First Chicago’s $300,000-a-year advertising program from the publication. He has yet to reinstate the program.
“Lewis H. Young, editor in chief of Business Week, says First Chicago also ‘shut us off editorially’ because of the profile, and at a time when the Chicago bank was ‘setting the prime rate in this country.’ In February 1977, Mr. Young made a fence-mending visit to Mr. Abboud. ‘We got into a shouting match,’ Mr. Young says. He maintains that only editorial matters, not advertising matters, were discussed.”
Meanwhile, the clash with Chicago was beginning to make the rounds. Two friends called to tell me of conversations with bank officials in which it was being said that “it’s potentially worse for the bank than Lance”—Abboud had recently been in the news as a result of his $3.4 million loan to Bert Lance—because the story would eventually be published somewhere and so would the story of how Reuben and Abboud had tried to kill it. One source reported to me that Dick Thomas was going to try to convince Nordstrand and Fink that “any story like this would lead to terrorist attacks on bank offices around the world.”
That is precisely what Thomas and Nick Poulas told Nordstrand and Fink on the 25th. Nordstrand replied that it would be better for the bank if a “responsible” publication like Chicago published the story rather than some “irresponsible” publication. Thomas and Poulos apologized for Abboud’s behavior and said they would talk it over and see what if any information concerning MIDA they would provide to the magazine. (They provided none.)
On May 31, Dan Feldman called me. Nordstrand had asked him for a detailed analysis of possible legal problems with the article. In effect, Feldman said, what he was going to do was to construct a “plaintiff’s case” and question us as if he were representing Miner and the bank at a trial. “Usually, you’d do this after you were sued, not before,” he said, “but since you’ve got two very strong threats of lawsuits, we may as well do it now.” He said he thought we should delete some of the anecdotal material—as a matter of courtroom tactics, rather than for any strictly legal or journalistic reason—and that on three points we should make more explicit and detailed statements of what happened, to minimize the possibility that someone might make incorrect inferences from the text. Beyond that, he said, he had “lots of nitpicking questions,” but those were the major points.
I had no problem with any of that and called Nordstrand, who said he would set up the meeting as quickly as possible.
But there was to be no meeting.
After many delays, on June 16 Feldman sent Nordstrand a seven-page letter outlining his “plaintiff’s case,” his defense, and his estimation of likely outcomes.
The letter arrived about noon, but Nordstrand said hew as busy just then. He said he’d be available between three and four o’clock. At four, I was called to his office. Kelson and Fink were already there.
“You understand,” he said, “that any outside discussion of this letter will make it more difficult to publish the story.” I assumed, stupidly, that he was talking about publishing the story in Chicago.
“Of course,” I said. “but I have to see it, don’t I?”
He handed copies to the three of us. As we read, Nordstrand talked about how much thought he had given this whole matter. But he kept getting interrupted by phone calls. The mayor’s office had asked WFMT to broadcast the July 3 Chicago Symphony/Grant Park Symphony joint concert, and he was trying to line up Standard Oil, commonwealth Edison, and the First National Bank as sponsors.
Finally, he got to the point. “We’ve agreed,” he said, indicating Kelson and Fink, “that the legal problems are just too great and that we will not publish the story on advice of counsel.”
As far as I could tell, Kelson and Fink were, like me, just now seeing Feldman’s letter for the first time. But they nodded agreement.
“Advice of counsel?” I asked in astonishment. I was looking at the letter, which said nothing at all about whether Chicago should or should not publish the story; that this is not a decision for a lawyer to make, nor one that any good lawyer would undertake to make.
I started to argue specific points that Feldman had raised—the same ones we had discussed in our telephone conversation two weeks earlier—and then suddenly realized I had been sandbagged. Nordstrand had made his decision six weeks before, and now he had a piece of paper marked “Privileged and Confidential” that he could claim gave him no other choice.
Nordstrand’s memo to the staff, issued that afternoon, said that “in view of [our attorney’s] opinion, it is still the judgment of Al Kelson, John Fink, and me that the article should not be published.” (Emphasis supplied. Kelson and Fink, of course, had not previously had the opinion that the story should not be published.)
I sold the couch and bar with which I had furnished my office, packed up my pictures and posters, cleaned out my desk, and was gone by the end of the month.
On the cover of the August issue of Chicago there was a staged photo, in the style of Matthew Brady’s pictures of Civil War soldiers, depicting representative types involved in the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Down in front is a reporter, notebook and pen in hand, whose head is bandaged and bleeding.
That’s me, folks.