Few things bug a reporter more than an unasked question. The question that isn’t asked–because the reporter didn’t think of it in time, or he lost his nerve, or he was drowned out by oafish colleagues–isn’t answered, and a story that hangs on the answer can’t be written.

Or can it? The Sun-Times opened a new realm of possibilities last week. The question that wasn’t asked concerned race–which the paper apparently decided was too important to leave out of a story simply because it didn’t come up.

Cubs manager Dusty Baker is a familiar figure in San Francisco, where he used to manage the Giants, but according to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, he’s not appreciated in Chicago. At one point in his March 15 column Jenkins wrote, “One of Dusty’s friends, a white man, recently told me, ‘I hate to say this about my town, but a lot of people in Chicago don’t want to see a black man in a job that’s responsible.’ That’s a loaded statement, but don’t dismiss it unless you’ve walked in Baker’s shoes. Racist, impatient or just plain dumb, people in Chicago don’t get Dusty. They don’t deserve him, either. Win or lose, he will be long gone as soon as his contract expires in two years.'”

Strong stuff. And who was that white man? Some reporters have a hunch it was Dan McGrath, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports, who used to work at the Chronicle. McGrath didn’t return my calls. The Tribune broke out a 261-word chunk of Jenkins’s column and published it the next day. But the Tribune was particular about what it used. Jenkins’s diagnosis that Chicago doesn’t understand or deserve Baker and his prediction that Baker will be gone in two years were carefully pruned so there wasn’t a whisper of what Jenkins had written about racism.

Another day went by, and Baker held a morning press briefing at the Cubs spring training camp in Phoenix. Beat reporter Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald had a line of questions ready for him.

“Dusty,” said Miles, “you know Bruce Jenkins in San Francisco, he wrote a column. He said, ‘Chicago doesn’t get Dusty. Chicago doesn’t deserve Dusty.’ His quote was, ‘Win or lose, two years from now he’s long gone.’ Are you happy?”

“Happy?” Baker replied. “I’m happy to be breathing, man. If you had cancer [Baker has been treated for prostate cancer] you’d be happy. That’s Bruce’s column. That’s his opinion. I can’t comment on it. I like Bruce. I haven’t talked to Bruce but one time since I left. . . . I can’t comment on what somebody else said.”

Miles prodded Baker. “I guess he felt you got too much blame for last year.”

“They know me better there than they do here,” Baker allowed. “Anytime you’re someplace 15 years, people get a chance to know you better than if you’ve been in a place two years. People assume a lot.”

Miles asked Baker if–contrary to Jenkins’s prediction–he expected to stay in Chicago beyond his current contract: “You still like seven, eight years?”

Baker didn’t give him a definite answer. “Oh yeah, I’ve got a lot of winning to do,” he said. “A lot of winning to do. You’re asking me about something two years from now, and I can’t answer that.”

Miles said nothing to Baker about race. Neither did any other reporter at the briefing, though Miles wasn’t the only one there familiar with Jenkins’s column. “I wanted to ask him,” Miles e-mailed me later, “but another reporter asked a question on a different topic, and then Baker ended the press conference.”

I’ve heard a tape of the briefing, and after Baker answered Miles’s last question several seconds went by in which nobody said anything. Finally someone asked about the bullpen. Baker dealt with that subject, and then someone else asked about Mark Prior. That’s when Baker got testy. “I don’t know, man. You guys wore me out last year on Mark,” he answered, and ended the briefing. But that afternoon Baker spent more time with reporters. Nobody asked him about race then either. One reporter covering the Cubs in Phoenix tells me nobody took Jenkins’s racism angle seriously enough to raise it with Baker.

But if you don’t you can’t pretend you did. Paul Sullivan’s brief in the Tribune the next morning stuck to what was asked and answered. In his much longer story in the Daily Herald Miles reported what Jenkins had written about Baker and race but awkwardly admitted that no one had brought it up with the manager.

The Sun-Times chose another way. The story under Mike Kiley’s byline began, “Cubs manager Dusty Baker on Thursday downplayed a column . . . that implied racism has figured into how he has been accepted in Chicago.” Kiley’s story quoted at length from the Jenkins column, then went on, “After being informed of Jenkins’ column, Baker was asked if he was happy in Chicago. ‘Am I happy?’ Baker said. ‘I’m happy to be breathing.'”

Kiley advised his readers to trust Baker’s unnamed white friend. “Chances are,” he wrote, “this anonymous friend passed on to Jenkins how Baker is feeling behind closed doors.” The story ran under the headline “Baker won’t say race a factor in how he has been treated.”

Won’t say? How about “didn’t say because no one asked”? This Monday Kiley tried to come clean, washing one hand. At the end of a column of Cubs notes he wrote this:

“CLARIFICATION: A Chicago Sun-Times headline on Friday mistakenly implied that Baker had replied to questions about a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in which an anonymous friend of Baker’s had said some Chicagoans weren’t comfortable with a black man holding a position of responsibility.

“While Baker was asked about other items in the Chronicle story–which also said that he would leave the Cubs when his contract expires after the 2006 season and that Chicago didn’t deserve him–he ended the news conference before reporters could ask him about the racial comment.”

Sun-Times sports editor Stu Courtney concedes that the headline fairly summarized the misleading story beneath it, but he absolves Kiley of responsibility for what was misleading. According to Courtney, Kiley’s original copy distinguished what was asked and answered from what was never said at all–as Miles’s story did in the Daily Herald. But in tightening and brightening that copy, the Sun-Times sports desk made it wrong.

Kiley says he “fell victim to some stupidity in crunching together information. . . . I tried to put in the race item and then have Baker quotes stemming from being asked only about his contract being up in two years. The headline was wrong, as I said in the clarification, but the facts in the story were right.”

Baker didn’t want to comment on the coverage. I think Kiley and Miles both made a fundamental mistake. They wanted race in their stories, and they slipped it in through the back door. Yet nobody had been willing to bring it up with Baker face-to-face.

That Inevitable Trip to the Tower

Hot Type isn’t a collection of career notes, but there are a few journalists whose watershed moments all seem to get into my column. Phil Rosenthal is one of them. In 1996, a couple weeks after he joined the Sun-Times as assistant sports editor, he suddenly showed up as the new author of the paper’s rude and popular “Between the Lines” sports column. The wise-guy creator, Steve Rosenbloom, had jumped to the Tribune.

Was Rosenthal mean enough to succeed Rosenbloom? That was everybody’s question. “I don’t know,” Rosenthal told me then. It turned out he wasn’t, and the column changed. Rosenbloom took his shtick to the Tribune and was briefly a star, but the Tribune overworked him, and his fame dimmed. Rosenthal ground out “Between the Lines” for a couple years and discovered his heart wasn’t in sports, but he wouldn’t mind writing the TV column, something he’d done at other papers. In 1998 the Sun-Times made him happy. “The people who come up to me and say, ‘What? Why do you want to do this?’ see the job as it now exists,” he told me then. “They don’t see what I see. I see it as a great platform.”

The Sun-Times made the platform greater and greater. Robert Feder, whose column covered the business side of TV and radio, was moved into the business section, and Rosenthal wound up with a full page a day to play in, half of it a column and the other half–“What Are You Looking At?”–his smart-aleck comments on the night’s top programs.

On March 16 he went in to see the Sun-Times’s new editor, John Barron, and told him he was going to the Tribune. Says Rosenthal, “He said, ‘Can you tell me why?’ I did, and he said, ‘It sounds like the right reasons.'”

Rosenthal left because he decided to give up a great job before he began to get sick of it. “I’ve been writing for newspapers since I was 17, and I’m 41 now,” he says. “I love this, but what do I want to be doing five years from now, 25 years from now? I’m a different person. I got married. I have a child. If you’re still single and untethered in your 30s, your life is lived through the expiration dates of food going bad in your fridge. Now it’s a whole other thing.”

And he left because he thinks he’s going to a terrific new assignment. He’ll be the Tribune’s media columnist, writing three or four times a week. But he won’t be covering media as a mere business beat, the way Feder does in the Sun-Times and Jim Kirk used to in the Tribune, though like Feder and Kirk he’ll be writing for the business section. A great media writer today is a futurist, and Rosenthal expects to be envisioning, deciphering, and interpreting the bewildering future of mass communications.

“I worked side by side with Rob for a lot of years,” he says, “and there’s no one better at what he does. If this job was to duplicate what he does, I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in it.”

He continues, “To move off of something you’re very comfortable in and very happy, working with great people who have grown accustomed to your idiosyncratic personality–it takes an extraordinary opportunity and platform. And this is it. It’s up to me what I make of it.”

Feder wonders how extraordinary Rosenthal’s job will actually turn out to be. “Phil tells me he does not intend to compete directly on the local TV/radio beat,” Feder e-mailed me. “He says he envisions doing something entirely different. I believe him. But I’m less sure about what his new bosses expect: After all, when I scoop them on Joel Daly’s retirement from Channel 7 or on a scandal inside Tribune Tower that rocks WGN Radio (two exclusives I’ve had in recent weeks), who else will his editors turn to?”

Kirk is now the Tribune’s business editor, and he began courting Rosenthal with an invitation to lunch before Christmas. Will Rosenthal and Feder sometimes be chasing the same stories? “Most likely,” Kirk tells me, but “Phil’s a spectacular talent, and we expect him to reach far beyond the local TV/radio beat for us.” When Rosenthal took over Rosenbloom’s column at the Sun-Times, I got most of my quotes from sports editor Bill Adee, who’d known them both at the Los Angeles Daily News. All three were briefly together at the Sun-Times. Now they’ll all be at the Tribune, where Adee’s the sports editor. Traffic between the two papers is steady, and it moves in one direction only. And just about every passing pilgrim is of a certain age and has a certain nervous concern about what their lives will look like 20 years down the road. Kirk used to be at the Sun-Times himself, and Feder says the Tribune made a run at him several years ago but he said no.

The Sun-Times gave Rosenthal so much space that some days he had more than he knew what to do with. How will the Tribune play you? I asked him.

“I don’t think they’re starting this column and bringing me in to do it to bury it,” Rosenthal replied. That they aren’t, though an inside page of the business section isn’t exactly the village square.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jed Jacobsohn–Getty Images.