By Michael Miner

The Truth Hurts

DNA testing is law enforcement’s new two-edged sword. It can arm the state with incontrovertible evidence. Yet who knows how many hundreds or thousands of old convictions it threatens–not merely the ones built on smoke and mirrors but those that witnesses, police, and prosecutors believed were firmly supported by the facts?

The one TV program I’m in the habit of touting is Frontline, and the program you can see next Tuesday on Channel 11 is deeply troubling. “What Jennifer Saw” tells the story of a North Carolina college student who was raped and subsequently identified her assailant from mug shots, in a police lineup, and in court. But she was wrong. An innocent man spent 11 years in prison before DNA comparisons cleared him and revealed the actual rapist.

The program is a case study in suggestibility, in the unreliability of memory, and in the flimsiness of evidence juries find compelling proof of guilt. Asked to choose among six mug shots, Jennifer Thompson picked Ronald Cotton’s face. Cotton was included in the display because he worked in the area, he resembled the police sketch, and he’d once been convicted of attempted rape. “We thought this might be the one,” a policeman assured Thompson.

Police collected pubic hair and vaginal smears from Thompson, an experience she recalls as “very demeaning.” But it was only because a police detective saw to it that this evidence was preserved that Cotton eventually went free. “What Jennifer Saw” makes him an emblem of multitudes. There’s a glimpse of Gary Dotson as an announcer says, “In the past four years, over three dozen convicted rapists have been freed by DNA.” And there’s a glimpse of the Ford Heights Four. “They said they didn’t do it all along,” a TV newsman exclaims. “But it took two new confessions and new DNA evidence to set them free.”

Thompson watched on television as Cotton walked out of prison. “I remember feeling just an overwhelming sense of just guilt–that if indeed we had made a mistake, and I had contributed to taking away 11 years of this man’s life, and if indeed we had been wrong, ah, I, I felt so bad. I fell–I fell apart.”

She accepts what science told her. The trouble is that she continues to relive the rape, and whenever she has these nightmares the face that appears is still Cotton’s.

Tempo: In With the Old

Some ideas light history for centuries on end before they plop, spent, to the turf. Others flame out like 30-cent skyrockets. A little over two years ago Tribune editor Howard Tyner had an idea of what to do with his Tempo section. He broke it apart.

Tyner believed Tempo suffered from an ominous level of aging self-satisfaction. He’d spotted a problem before it became a problem, and he intended to solve it. Whatever the price in momentary instability, his idea was to run off most of its graying writers and rotate in young blood. These transients from other parts of the paper would bleed ink for Tempo for four months and then make way for other volunteers.

Tempo editor Rick Kogan was dubious. “It’s not without some trepidation that I look forward to young, talented people coming into Tempo,” he told me in September 1994. “Whether the most talented writer-reporters in America can immediately start churning out 50-inch feature stories of quality is an experiment that I am interested to see.”

Paul Galloway, one of the seven Tempo writers Tyner rotated out, said, “In my 11 years at Tempo this was the best staff we had, and that’s why it’s so stunning that they wanted to break it up with this kind of massive change, without any warning. But our leaders are brilliant and compassionate people, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

John Blades, who covered books for Tempo and stayed, recalls, “I felt survivor’s guilt because I wasn’t pulled off. What did I do wrong?”

Tyner wasn’t done. In ’95 he replaced Kogan with Rebecca Brown as editor of Tempo and gave the section a specified mission–to cover popular culture. But the formula was always elastic, and over time it came to seem less a constraint than a classical form–such as the Petrarchan sonnet–into which a clever writer could fit just about anything.

Brown, who edited not only Tempo but also Sunday’s Arts & Entertainment, gave up both sections last September. In November Tim Bannon moved up from copy editor into the Sunday job. And this month a search that ranged outside the paper for a crack revitalizer ended when Tyner brought Timothy McNulty from the Washington bureau to run Tempo. Blades believes the pop-culture formula is largely history. “You get someone like McNulty in there whose interests are wide and catholic,” Blades told me, “he’ll stretch it as far as he can–even break it.”

I asked Tyner what instructions he’d given McNulty. He told me they were the same instructions he gave James Warren years ago when Tyner was deputy managing editor for features and Warren took over Tempo. “I want readers to say when they pick up the Tribune in the morning, ‘What in the hell is Tempo going to do today?’ Which is always the way it was with me as the responsible editor when Warren was back there. ‘Make me laugh. Make me cry. Make me angry. Make me do something. But don’t make me sigh and say, oh, and go on to another part of the paper.’

“I want them to stay within the spectrum of entertainment–loosely defined. I think that a broad definition of entertainment gives lots of room to do interesting, provocative things.”

Gerould Kern now has Tyner’s old job overseeing features. He said, “I want everyone to think in terms of culture….And in the course of doing that, to tell good stories.”

Under former administrations Tempo told excellent stories. “I wasn’t around for that,” said Kern. “All I’m saying is it’s not a case where anything goes in the section. It still has a discipline to it–arts, entertainment, the media are still there. But I’d like our reporters to think broadly and interestingly about how to present their ideas.”

McNulty asked me to give his section time to speak for itself. But he suggested I look at last Friday’s paper “as a reflection of what I hope you’ll see more of.” He didn’t elaborate, but it was apparent what front-page Tempo story he had in mind. Not Steve Johnson on TV disaster movies, or Ellen Warren on “Boyfriend In-A-Box,” or even Howard Reich on the proposed Frank Sinatra Chair in Modern American Music at Roosevelt University. The lead article was Ron Grossman’s essay, prompted by Carl Sagan’s last book, on their mutual distress at what Grossman called “America turning away from reason.”

“An electorate lacking the capacity for critical thinking puts the republic doubly at risk in an age when science is closely linked to public policy in everything from environmental issues to national defense”–this may be Sagan’s view, but it’s Grossman’s language. Sagan’s book gave Grossman an opportunity to have his say.

Grossman, by the way, was one of the Tempo writers rotated out in ’94. And the rotation system, by the way, is history. “You have to have a strong, stable cast of writers to rely on,” Kern said. “We’ve been building that the last year.” Ellen Warren and “senior writers” Charles Leroux and Charles Madigan are joining Tempo, and Galloway’s already back. So’s Kogan, now a senior writer himself, who was brought in to help keep the section going after Brown left. They’re all of the vintage Tyner poured down the drain in 1994.

Don’t expect this crowd to dedicate itself to making us laugh and making us cry and making us angry. (For cheap emotion, section one’s unbeatable.) I do expect them to try hard to make us think. That’s why writers of a certain age continue to write.

News Bites

No Tempo writer was more excited about Tim McNulty taking over the section than Anne Keegan, a survivor of the ’94 purge. Keegan was the strongest pure storyteller in Tempo, but no sooner had McNulty arrived than Kern transferred her to WomaNews to be an assistant editor. “I’ve known and liked Anne for 20 years,” McNulty says, “but I wasn’t part of that decision–or that discussion.” Keegan resigned.

“Anne Keegan’s work will be passionately missed by those of us who have a high regard for the well-crafted, well-reported newspaper story,” Kogan told me.

John Blades is also leaving Tempo. “Turmoil didn’t have a lot to do with it,” he told me. “I just turned 60, I’ve been around 28 years, and my tax guy said that unless you love what you’re doing you can do just as well if not better retired.” A published novelist, Blades wants more time to write fiction. And he admits, “I see a lot of people with a lot more energy than I have at this point.”

Alderman Edward Burke is a heavy hitter who’s also adept at schmoozing the media. I wonder if Crain’s Chicago Business and the Sun-Times would have taken him on this week if he hadn’t already been bloodied in a ghost-payroller scandal. Both publications reported that Burke, acting on his own authority as chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, hired the Jenner & Block law firm in 1992 to represent aldermen in a ward-remap case. Since then he’s signed off on some $7.5 million in legal fees. What makes Burke’s position so ethically tacky is that he’s listed as cocounsel to the law firm in a couple of recent multimillion-dollar lawsuits, that last year a couple of Jenner & Block principals ran his wife Anne’s campaign for the appellate court, that the firm hired his daughter after she graduated from Chicago Kent College of Law, and that another Jenner & Block partner is now representing him in the federal ghost-payrolling investigation.

Crain’s acknowledged that its parent, Crain’s Communications, is a client of both Jenner & Block and the alderman’s own law firm, which specializes in property-tax appeals. The Sun-Times is negotiating with the city to buy land for a new printing plant, and as finance chairman Burke conceivably could cause all kinds of mischief. To the credit of both papers, the story ran.

Late last year the Tribune sent its freelancers a new contract they considered so onerous that they organized against it and found a lawyer to try to negotiate better terms–and then caved in. Not everyone caved, however, and those who didn’t won’t be writing for the Tribune anymore.

One of Shirley Gregory’s last assignments was to compile a listing of Naperville restaurants for the Tribune’s new on-line service, Digital City. The work took her two and a half weeks to complete, and she was paid $1,100 for it. And over the Christmas holidays the Tribune lost every last word she turned in. Thomas Cekay, a Digital City editor in Naperville, asked her for another copy.

“I said, well, this is something I might be able to find in my files, but I can’t just do this for no pay,” Gregory recalls. (She’d done the work on paper and didn’t have a disk.) Cekay said he understood and he might be able to pay her $200.

But Cekay’s bosses downtown told him no way: Gregory wasn’t on contract any longer, and there was no way the Tribune was going to give her a dime. Sometimes a nose simply has to be cut off to spite a face. “Once you start changing your policy for certain circumstances it gets confusing for everyone,” says Cekay.

“Essentially,” says Gregory, “they decided it’s better for them to go out and assign somebody else to do this entire project, which would cost them another $1,100. Which strikes me as an incredibly ridiculous business decision.”

The Naperville restaurant listings were missing from Digital City for six weeks. They finally showed up on February 7.

Mike Royko’s contract’s up next month, and people who know him at the Tribune say he’s thought seriously about retiring. But Royko flatly denies he’s going anywhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Timothy McNully photo courtesy Chicago Tribune.