By Michael Miner
The Truth Still Hurts
In 1995 the Reader introduced Bobwatch, an ongoing assault on the columns of the Tribune’s Bob Greene. The pitiless author, Ed Gold, was no more unfair to Greene than the canons of ridicule allowed him to be, and his occasional pieces became one of the most popular running features in the Reader.
My job when Bobwatch was launched was to edit it. It quickly became clear that it was going to be around for a while, and I had a problem. “Ed Gold” was a pseudonym. If Greene, someone I’d been on decent terms with for a long time, was going to be assailed in our pages, shouldn’t it be by someone writing under his own name? Despite centuries of satirical precedent to the contrary, I thought so. Under ordinary circumstances my job would be to penetrate the deception, not enable it. The Reader could have its fun, but I turned the editing over to somebody else.
Not that “Ed Gold” was top secret. The actual writer even showed up at a Reader party wearing an “Ed Gold” name tag. Neil Steinberg’s problem was that he worked for the Sun-Times and merely freelanced Bobwatch. What his bosses didn’t know, or could pretend they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt him. (Steinberg still contributes to the Reader, writing the True Books column as Ed Gold and other occasional features under his real name.)
It now turns out that years before my paltry troubles with “Ed Gold,” Steinberg weathered a far graver crisis of conscience of his own. Today he’s a Sun-Times editorial writer and Sunday columnist who has a way of finding columns in his brooding. A month ago he was brooding about the death of his paper’s colorful old mob reporter, Art Petacque. Steinberg had written a heartwarming obituary, which the rabbi read large sections of at Petacque’s June 8 funeral. But Steinberg realized he had more to say.
So his June 10 column told stories that didn’t fit the obituary. He called Petacque his “Dutch uncle,” the veteran who’d taught him how to smoke cigars a decade earlier when they’d collaborated on a crime column–Petacque doing the reporting, Steinberg the unattributed writing. He remembered the time he’d said, “Artie, I need a judge to marry my brother,” and Petacque had said, “I’ll get you a judge,” then produced the most famous judge in the city, federal judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz.
Steinberg made it clear he had plenty of affection for Petacque. But that affection brought him to his point. In language much more roundabout than any he’d assailed Greene with, he went on: “Art went by a different code….Perhaps his driven, no-matter-what approach to the news is something I and my namby-pamby college boy pals will never understand. I don’t want to judge. Yet how Art went about reporting seemed, at times, like a kind of mania, primal, like a salmon struggling up river to spawn. He, in a way, represented something outmoded and embarrassing about journalism. He was like those prehistoric fish occasionally discovered in the depths of the ocean, armored and beaked. Art would lie and cheat and steal to get a story, and while that might sound romantic and dashing, in the abstract, it could be shocking to be a young reporter and watch him do it, close up.”
Steinberg then got a little more specific, though not much. “The last time I wrote one of his columns was such a time. I sat at the keyboard and gaped with drop-mouthed shock–let’s just say that he was generating the content of his column in a manner not taught in journalism school, and leave it at that. When I finished copying what he wanted me to put down, I went into the city room and told the night editor a single, entirely true sentence about Art’s column. Then I went to the Goat to get drunk. The whole thing turned into a crisis. I never wrote Art’s column again. He retired shortly thereafter.”
Though Steinberg was artfully vague, Petacque’s next of kin could be forgiven for wadding up their newspapers and flinging them against the wall. There’s no way they could have appreciated the note of sensitive ambivalence Steinberg concluded with: “I always felt bad and good about this incident. Bad because Art was my Dutch uncle and I betrayed him. And good because I stuck up for an ideal that I thought, then and now, was important. We spoke again, eventually, though never about that last column–I like to think he would have waved the matter away with a chuckle. He was an open, generous man, and now that I am growing older myself, and see the grinning new crop of youngsters arriving daily, it scares me how much less I have to offer them than Art Petacque, flaws and all, had to offer me.”
The event–which Steinberg calls a betrayal but presents as a principled stand–happened back in 1989 or 1990 (Steinberg’s not sure of the date). Dennis Britton, who was the paper’s editor then, lives in Chicago and read the column. He told me, “I wondered what the hell he was writing about.” But though Britton didn’t remember the incident–and was certain Steinberg had nothing to do with Petacque’s retirement a year or so later–he did acknowledge that Petacque retired at the pleasure of the company. “I had problems with some of the ways Art pursued his job,” he said.
Steinberg believes the duty of an obit writer is to speak truth to death. He doesn’t understand why a public figure can be excoriated long after he dies–yet at death is entitled to benevolent amnesia. “I don’t think that being dead in and of itself makes one into a saint,” he told me, “and I think it’s a disservice to the reader to suddenly become the Beijing Daily because somebody has passed on.
“I did one of the Greylord judges’ obits. I was talking about what he went to jail for, and I used a phrase like ‘He took cash bribes to let drunk drivers go free.’ And the copy desk changed it to quote judicial corruption unquote. And then after it ran, his sister called to complain that we had treated him shabbily by focusing on this Greylord business. I went in to Nigel Wade [the editor then] and I said, ‘Look what you do. By editing the story for the family you cheat the million other readers of a strong description of his crime–and the family’s still pissed off. You please nobody.’ I would rather cheese off the few members of the family who are unredeemably biased than write some sort of pabulum they can put in their scrapbooks and is a trivialization of the truth.”
Steinberg’s column left some of us wondering what it was Petacque had done that Steinberg abhorred. “I did it in a subtle way because I wanted to talk about the unease I felt on this,” Steinberg explained. “There’s not necessarily a value in setting this out in black and white.”
But there is. Even though Steinberg’s actual subject wasn’t Petacque’s behavior but his own unease, he said enough about how Petacque behaved to entitle us to the rest. You don’t let just some of the chips fall where they may. So I asked Steinberg what happened, and he told me.
“It was something having to do with some sort of pot bust. He dictated a couple of lines of a lead and gave me a big Tribune story that had run months before and said, ‘Take it out of here.’ I did, and then I went to the desk and said, ‘You guys should know this isn’t right.’ Maybe I should have said, ‘Oh Art, I can’t do it like that.’ But I didn’t.”
It wasn’t the first time. “I think that plagiarism is wrong. I think it’s like an ethical wrong, and I hated the fact that when I was working his column I became a de facto plagiarist. I was under orders. I was a nothing night-shift reporter who didn’t realize I shouldn’t do it until I’d done it for a while. It was a painful memory for me, and I saw this as an opportunity to expunge it–perhaps. I had no desire to hurt his family, no desire to taint his name. The man won a Pulitzer Prize. I say that in the column.”
But Petacque’s name did get tainted, and his family did get hurt. Their letters were “vindictive and mean and personal,” Steinberg told me. “The brother felt I had betrayed Art’s faith in me, that I should have taken this to my grave, and that being allowed to type out Art’s column was some type of sacred trust I had betrayed. The daughter quoted from his Who’s Who statement as to his moral uprightness and said the guilt of having impugned Art’s name would go with me to my grave.”
He didn’t answer the letters. “I threw them away. I figured they were grieving and they had a right to castigate me if they had a need to.”
What about “Ed Gold”?
“There’s a very old and honored credo in journalism that it’s easier to apologize than to get permission,” Steinberg said. “I seized on the Ed Gold persona just because I was a nonentity reporter and I was afraid that if I was seen doing it the powers that be at the Sun-Times wouldn’t let me. As time went by it seemed to me a Swiftian thing.”
Steinberg had no qualms about taking Greene on “because I felt and feel that Bob Greene is outside the pale of humanity. I’m not trying to put myself out as some sort of paragon of virtue. I’ve done my share of scuzzy, sleazy things, and writing Art Petacque’s column was one of them.”
But Bobwatch “was a ruthless and malicious piece of work I was immensely proud of. My general take on journalism is that it’s mild and fearful and dishonest. People are so terrorized they might get three letters of complaint from grandmothers in Cicero that they hold themselves in and turn out stuff that’s terribly dull.
“My wife hated Bobwatch. She imagined Bob Greene lying facedown on his bed, weeping into his pillow. I knew better.”
Steinberg poses an interesting question. Why don’t journalists, those implacable enemies of illusion, dish up the hard truths of a life when it ends? The best answer I can come up with is probably a lame one–it’s that a lot of the time journalists don’t feel like it. Out of grace or gutlessness, those hard truths often don’t look to them like the important truths. Steinberg wonders why the hard truths told in the new biography by Dick Ciccone weren’t raised when Mike Royko died four years ago. What can I say? Royko the SOB wasn’t the Royko the city was mourning back then, and even Ciccone’s biography pulls its punches. Royko with no tears at all might have to await a cocky young academic who didn’t know him and never read him in the papers.
Three days after Steinberg’s column on Petacque came out, Greene wrote one of his own. Having started out at the Sun-Times, Greene, like Steinberg, had once collaborated with Petacque–though this was the Petacque with a Pulitzer still in his future, not many years behind him. “He didn’t write,” Greene remembered. “I don’t mean that he seldom wrote; he never wrote. I don’t think the idea of writing ever even crossed his mind. He would gather his savvy law-and-lawlessness information and feed it to rewritemen; sometimes he would pace the city room handing off details on three stories at once, to three different writers.”
Greene wrote about a time in 1973 when Petacque convinced him there was a hell of a story up in Milwaukee. If he made the rounds of the city’s fire stations he’d find the one that had adopted Hitler’s dog. Greene’s column was funny, and it was uncomplicated by moral anguish. When he wants to, Greene can brood with the best of them, but it didn’t occur to him to do so at Petacque’s expense.
But then, Greene doesn’t remember Petacque doing anything that raised eyebrows. Between 1973 and 1989 Petacque may have changed. Or maybe he didn’t change but journalism changed around him. At any rate, Greene remembered a colorful old pro in his prime, Steinberg a colorful old fart who’d outlived his time. Even if Petacque’s relatives were beside themselves, “every other person thought it was great,” Steinberg told me. “People shook my hand in the newsroom.”
Less Talk, Less Action
Network Chicago is a brand name coined by Window to the World Communications Inc. a year ago to impose unity on diversity. It’s branded a TV station, WTTW; a radio station, WFMT; a Web site, www.networkchicago.com; a production house, Network Chicago Events; and finally, a weekly newspaper, CityTalk, that binds everything else together. Launched last November for WTTW and WFMT subscribers but more than a program guide, CityTalk was created to sink its teeth into the cultural life of Chicago. It hit the ground running, attracting good writers from the get-go by offering them the formidable freelance rate of a dollar a word.
But three things have happened. Thanks to the freelance rate, CityTalk’s expenses have exceeded projections; thanks to an industrywide ad slump, its revenues have fallen short of them; and thanks to a readership survey, it now knows that there’s nothing its subscribers wait a week to enjoy that they wouldn’t be willing to wait two weeks to enjoy.
So as of July 20, CityTalk will become a biweekly, redesigned somewhat and printed on glossier stock. Freelancers will have to beat on another door; the new CityTalk will be written entirely by the staff, which at the moment consists of one writer, Kate Zambreno, associate editors Mary Swanton and Tom Valeo, and Dave Wieczorek, newly promoted to acting managing editor. Editor Bob Gallagher was let go two weeks ago.
Publisher Parke Richeson says that if CityTalk is thriving when it turns three in 2003, it might go weekly again.
Next, the Sun-Times’s sassy Sunday supplement, is taking the summer off. The June 24 issue was the last we’ll see of it for a while, though editor in chief Michael Cooke says a retooled Next, still edited by Christine Ledbetter, will return later in the year. Next was rolled out last November, and despite some sprightly writing, it has attracted next to no advertising. “I don’t understand it,” says Cooke. “Maybe we launched it at the wrong time.” Probably. The newspaper industry’s been complaining all year long of soft ad sales.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reprinted with special permission from the Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. 2001.