The Unwilling Witness

Newspapers gotta do what they gotta do–which in the case of the Sun-Times and a south-side man named Seasons Woodlock seems to be making his life miserable before giving him one of the bigger breaks of his life.

Last month Woodlock stood before a traffic judge in Bridgeview and threw himself on the mercy of the court. He admitted to driving with a suspended license, suspended registration, and no insurance, and the judge came down on him with a $1,500 fine and 12 months of supervision. Woodlock didn’t know it at the time, but when he left the courtroom Sun-Times reporter Lucio Guerrero followed him out the door.

Here’s Guerrero’s published account of what happened next: “After being sentenced, he walked out of the south suburban courthouse and to his 1990 Chevrolet. He got behind the wheel and drove off–still without a valid license. It was only minutes earlier that Circuit Judge William J. Aukstik…had sentenced the man. If Aukstik was trying to throw the book at Woodlock, he may want to try to heave the gavel as well next time.”

Guerrero’s been skulking around Cook County traffic courts for more than six months now. As investigative journalism goes, the Sun-Times’s “Why Is He Driving?” series has been cheap and easy, but it’s produced devastating results. Every Monday it yielded a new scofflaw who’d taken a beating in court and then driven off without a license; always there was a photo of the brazen perp back in his car.

“It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Guerrero. “I had one guy who told his girlfriend or wife–whoever it was–to look around and see if I was there. I was right behind them, but he didn’t realize that.”

Put on the spot by the series, the Cook County state’s attorney’s and sheriff’s offices launched their own sting operations. Guerrero gave us the results in a story in last Sunday’s paper: “More than 125 scofflaws were arrested; some of them were jailed, and judges, angry they’d been lied to, set high bail amounts.”

Once the Sun-Times had made its point, Guerrero cut back to a story every month or so instead of one a week. So it was Woodlock’s rotten luck that he and Guerrero both showed up March 26 at the Bridgeview traffic court. On March 31, the day before Guerrero’s story would appear, he called Woodlock to warn him and get a quote. “I have to drive to work. I can’t take the bus,” Woodlock told him. “I need to make money for my family.” Guerrero says Woodlock pleaded with him to write about somebody else.

“I felt sorry for him,” says Guerrero. “He seemed like a kid, in his early 20s. There’s no excuse for it, but he seemed like a nice guy.” And in truth, there was someone else to write about, another unlicensed miscreant Guerrero had observed the same day driving away from the courthouse. Unfortunately, the photo of that guy didn’t turn out, which left only Woodlock to serve as Guerrero’s object lesson.

“His actions are frustrating to legislators, law enforcement officials and prosecutors,” Guerrero wrote, “who know that people routinely walk out of court with suspended licenses and get behind the wheel but who don’t have the manpower or laws to make a real dent in the problem.”

But what prosecutors in Bridgeview do have now, thanks to Guerrero, is the page-seven Sun-Times story accusing Woodlock of flouting the law. “The thing of it is,” says assistant state’s attorney Dan Collins, “if it’s a sting operation by our office we have somebody from law enforcement who observes them driving away. But in other cases where the Sun-Times is acting on its own, the only person to witness the event in question is the Sun-Times reporter and photographer.”

Collins’s office had tried to get Guerrero to testify against a scofflaw he’d written about in February. When that subpoena came in the mail Guerrero turned it over to Sun-Times attorney Linda Lloyd, who told him not to worry about it. As Collins found out when he talked to Lloyd, the Sun-Times stood by its story in principle, which wasn’t the same as standing by it in court.

“Their legal department said they understand our position,” says Collins, “but that it would be their position that the information we’re looking for is protected by the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act and by general constitutional law.”

In the end push didn’t come to shove. The February scofflaw pleaded guilty and Guerrero’s testimony wasn’t needed.

But when I spoke with Collins a few days ago, the Seasons Woodlock matter was shaping up differently. Woodlock was due back in court April 22 to face the scofflaw charge, and Collins was pressing forward with another subpoena. “We’re here to prosecute these cases. We need our witnesses in line,” says Collins. “It’s all going to come down to whatever the judge decides. [The law] can be applied that they should have to [testify], and another way to apply it is that they don’t have to.”

From a prosecutor’s point of view, when a newspaper rakes muck but won’t back up its own stories in court–even when this means that wrongdoers the paper has exposed go unpunished–well, that newspaper is perverse, obstructionist, and hypocritical. But newspapers have their own logic. They are nobody’s investigative tool. They don’t enter alliances. They establish facts as an end in themselves, not as a means to the ends of others. Say something to a reporter and you’re not also saying it to law ‘n’ order.

“We’re not the enforcement arm,” says Guerrero feistily. “It’s not our job to go out and enforce the law.”

No, it’s the state’s attorney’s job, I reply. But when they try to do their job why not help?

He reminds me of a crucial difference between prosecutors and the press. They have Seasons Woodlock in their sights. He didn’t and doesn’t. “I haven’t done these stories to go after Seasons Woodlock. It’s not our job to carry the ball forward,” he says. “Maybe they can just wait for him to come to court again. They have a lot more resources than the Sun-Times. If they’re determined to get Seasons Woodlock they could stake out his house.”

A fundamental disagreement about the public duty of journalists is reflected here, and when the stakes are high enough, tight-lipped reporters have been known to rot in jail rather than break their silence. In this case the stakes are as low as they can be. “I was at the Tribune for 26 years,” says John Gorman, the state’s attorney’s press spokesman, “and when somebody would show up with a subpoena there’d be reporters hiding under their desks. Reporters are protected under the shield law. The work should speak for itself, and we understand that. We would hope that Lucio would show up and testify, but what ultimately will happen I’m not sure. I’m willing to bet we’re not willing to throw any reporters or photographers in jail.”

Which sounds like very good news for Seasons Woodlock.

Sympathy for the Tribune

I finally read a column that left me with an ounce of sympathy for the Tribune Company’s side of the brouhaha at Wrigley Field. Rick Telander reflected in the Sun-Times last Friday on the new green outfield curtain and the rooftop profiteers across the street, and it might have been the felicity of the writing that won me over, or the reminder that the city of Chicago licenses the rooftop boys–which is to say that the city colludes in the profiteering and this is no simple David versus Goliath story.

But the strongest part of Telander’s argument was that he–unlike Eric Zorn, Steve Rosenbloom, and Rick Morrissey–didn’t make his case in the Tribune. As I nodded at Telander’s better points, I understood in a new way just how compromised any writer will be who puts in a good word for the Cubs’ management in that paper.

Last week I offered a hunk of invective accusing Tribune baseball writer Phil Rogers of being a company toady because he’s taken a pro-owners slant on Major League Baseball’s current labor troubles. But I wasn’t able to talk to Rogers himself; he’d been in Detroit bolstering the Tribune’s coverage of the White Sox series there. “Part of the reason to be there,” he tells me, “was to not be accused of blowing off the White Sox. Because of the Cubs’ ownership, we’re always accused of giving the Cubs more column inches.”

Rogers doesn’t think of himself as a biased reporter, but, he says, “When people want to have that perception it’s pretty much impossible to get around.”

People like the players? I wonder.

“I don’t know that the players pay that much attention to it,” he says, “but when I talk to people in the players’ union–like [executive director] Don Fehr, [associate general counsel] Gene Orza, their PR people–they’ve brought up the question.”

My point last week was that the question can’t be dodged, and therefore the Tribune shouldn’t go much further in covering the hostilities between the owners and players over their next basic operating agreement without adding dutiful boilerplate to each story acknowledging that the Tribune Company owns the Cubs. Rogers disagrees: “Space is tight, and the less of that I can be obliged to include in a story the happier I would be. I don’t know why we’d want to advertise that. It would be almost like a nondenial denial.”

He’s wrong.

“It’s a no-win situation,” he went on.

He’s right.

New Look for Spring

When newspapers redesign themselves they aspire to what the Wall Street Journal achieved last week–a new look totally consistent with the old but jauntier and friendlier. This wasn’t a new Journal; it was the old inner Journal revealed.

The biggest change is a new section, Personal Journal, created to lure readers who aren’t captains of industry but want solid financial information anyway. Chicago designer Ron Reason had a lot to do with creating Personal Journal, and he also oversaw the writing of the Journal’s first-ever design stylebook, which extended the Personal Journal’s design principles to the rest of the paper.

I got to know Reason while he was at the Sun-Times, which brought him on in 1998 to overhaul the paper and let him go two years later after a change in editors and chronic production problems caused the paper to drop his project. He’s always preached that a newspaper’s looks and its voice are inextricable, and a glance makes clear that the Journal had no intention of reinventing its voice. In an exchange of E-mail I asked how what I called the paper’s “strong, compelling, traditional image” affected his work.

“It does explain why it had to be a lengthy, very methodical process,” he replied. “Lots of ideas were explored, even very subtle ones, that didn’t make it into print. Even things I think would have shocked no one were abandoned for fear that it ‘just wasn’t the WSJ.'”

That was fine with him. “I don’t even want to work on prototypes or think about fonts until I have a very clear idea where the editors are coming from,” he said. What he admired about the Wall Street Journal redesign was how content driven it was. The content of the Personal Journal prototypes that were kicked around internally and shown to focus groups was never dummy text. They were always actual Journal stories, some of them previously published stories that had been revised to suit the new section and others brand-new and written expressly for the prototypes.

“Most newspapers,” Reason said, “don’t have the resources to do this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.