The View From the Pressroom

Two Sundays ago the Sun-Times covered “a slashing attack against American Jews” made by Gus Savage at a “candidates forum.”

An unusual “amplification” two days later told the rest of the story, which demands of time and space had obliged the Sun-Times to leave out. The speech, it seemed, “wasn’t the only feature of the rally sponsored by the Black Independent Political Organization and the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment.

“Another feature was the formation of an anti-Daley coalition among unlikely allies–the black political activists who long have opposed Mayor Daley and white Hegewisch residents fighting the mayor’s plans to bulldoze their homes for the proposed Lake Calumet airport.”

Lu Palmer acknowledged past differences, but told a delegation of about 50 Hegewisch community members, “If we can get rid of public enemy number one we are with you.” The visitors left Bethel AME Church before Savage spoke.

This new alliance may not come to anything. Even so, it’s the sort of street-level development the media used to overlook routinely. Headlines are easy; news is hard.

Writing for the Reader during the years of the Washington administration, Gary Rivlin went into the city and got news. He had a rule of thumb: “Don’t talk to more white people than black people.” It was easy, he says, to tell the story of political reform as white reformers understood it, “progressive white people like me.” But, Rivlin recognized, “I knew about me.”

Rivlin, who now lives in San Francisco, has just published his history of that era, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race. Despite the concessions he made for the national audience he hopes the book will find, it’s a bounty of familiar local detail, remembered with a clarity beyond the media’s abilities in the mid-80s.

Young Rivlin (he’s just 33 now) hung around the pressroom and watched the media watching City Hall. White aldermen like Eddie Burke and Eddie Vrdolyak–or Bernie Stone and Fred Roti, who reminded Rivlin of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble–wandered in and held court. “You just didn’t see Danny Davis or Dorothy Tillman or anyone else black. It was a white room.”

Which was the blacks’ mistake? Yes, said Rivlin. “But isn’t it the job of the reporter to go out and make sure you have good relations with people on both sides of the aisle? I’ll go a step further and say most of the reporters had a better relationship with [white reform alderman] David Orr than they had with Tillman or Davis. There was something between a naivete and a distaste for the public-relations aspect of politics that you saw in the Washington administration. Almost as if the whole thing was dirty. I’d had a notion Chicago reporters were aggressive in pursuit of a story. [But] they just sat there waiting for someone to come in. And it was usually Burke or Vrdolyak–and that would be today’s story. They would charge, and the administration would or wouldn’t respond.

“Covering city politics in Chicago,” Rivlin went on, “is sitting downtown at City Hall schmoozing with the politicians in the hall and never venturing out to any part of the city. Not just black Chicago but the northwest side –unless you go in an entourage with a politician. Personally, I found it much more interesting venturing out to the 14th Ward, hanging out in the bars. Talking to a politician is next to meaningless.”

According to the latest Chicago Reporter, minority employment in the Tribune newsroom climbed from 7.4 percent in 1986 to 15.9 percent in ’91, and at the Sun-Times it rose from 9.7 to 15.3 percent. That’s good news. It’s a sign the papers have been dealing with the ignorance that plagued them when Washington was elected by a movement they didn’t understand. Rivlin remembers how reporters once saw Bill Singer and then Marty Oberman “as the whole of the antimachine movement, as though it’s a totally white movement.” They measured Harold Washington as a self-professed reformer by holding him up against Lincoln Park’s good-government principles.

But in addition to white reform, Rivlin explained to us, there was wholly legitimate black reform–“fairness, justice, opening up government to those locked out. All those were legitimate complaints against the machine, but it’s as if they were never important.”

Rivlin said, “I like pointing to the ’87 aldermanic election in the 43rd Ward, where you had Perkins versus Eisendrath, and there were articles and columns weighing in on that. But on the south side there were these fascinating elections where longstanding machine stalwarts like Marian Humes and William Beavers were challenged by reformers. Two very clear sides fighting it out–and they’d be written about in these meaningless roundup articles. In the 43rd Ward, where I guess the reporters live, there were differences no doubt, but small degrees of differences. While on the other side of town you had two sides duking it out, the kind of story the media usually eats up. I don’t think it’s racism. I think it’s myopia.”

Sex! Death! Priests! Sweeps Week!

Last month Channel Two devoted a good minute or more a night to a two-part “examination” of a “crisis”–the crisis being “AIDS in the priesthood.”

The Chicago archdiocese, intoned Mike Parker, has seen AIDS take “a terrible toll.” He said a “growing number of priests now have AIDS or have died from it, many of them here in Chicago.”

Gay activist Rick Garcia has known “several.”

But the church has covered up. “Experts estimate there are as many as–” and here Parker produced an actual number “–200 priests in the United States who have AIDS or have died from the disease but have kept it secret or have been shielded by the church.”

Cardinal Bernardin would not be interviewed. And Parker wondered if “the realization of the presence of AIDS in the church reveals secrets about celibacy, sexual behavior the Catholic Church will simply not discuss outside the family.”

But Channel Two got hold of a videotape, Shadow on the Family: AIDS in Religious Life, “distributed in virtual secret to the heads of Catholic men’s religious orders.” A glimpse of the video: “At that time, though,” says a Father Flavian Walsh, identified as a vicar of priests, “I had five men dying on me. I had one in Saint Clare’s, one in Saint Vincent’s, this one dying of AIDS . . . ”

Parker offered: “In Chicago the Alexian Brothers and the archdiocese responded with Bonaventure House. . . . When Bonaventure House first opened its doors back in 1988, a Catholic priest with AIDS was among the first residents. A Catholic lay brother with AIDS is currently here.”

The actual news content of the Channel Two “examination” would not quite cover a soda cracker. Parker told us, “We stand totally by the story,” which we’re sure they do, too little having been said for much of it to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, the station made some partisan viewers furious.

From the Chicago chapter of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights came a letter to the station denouncing the story as “an extreme example of trash television, inaccurate, sensational and irresponsible.” The league furnished us with a copy of this letter and some supporting materials.

From Father Flavian Walsh (of New York, not Chicago): “Yes, I did have five men dying at one point in time–but to infer those five men were dying of AIDS is a ridiculous statement. Four of those men were dying of (1) cancer, (2) heart trouble, (3) old age, (4) kidney failure.” And the fifth man, who did have AIDS, was not a priest.

“In retrospect, that’s one I wished we’d couched a little differently,” says Parker.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Maryland, which produced the video, issued a statement declaring that the notion the tape had been distributed in virtual secrecy was “patently false. The tape was advertised frequently in CMSM mailings.”

We talked to Father Robert Rybicki of Bonaventure House. He explained that the house was opened in 1988 for clergy as well as lay people with AIDS, but “what they found out is there’s only been two active clergy we’ve had to work with and a couple of ex-religious. There’s never been an overwhelming demand for our services among Catholic priests with AIDS.”

Why didn’t the cardinal want to talk to Channel Two? we asked Sister Joy Clough, the archdiocesan spokesperson. It was sweeps week, she said, and it was clear what the station wanted. “They were going to do two pieces on the evening news. And no matter what else they contained, they would contain a false story–namely that this was a big problem among priests and a problem uniquely focused on the Catholic Church.”

Is the problem big? The Catholic League’s letter to Channel Two observed: “You failed to report that there are 53,000 priests in the United States. Even if your undocumented estimate [of 200 priests with AIDS] were true, it would mean that the ‘terrible toll’ you were so eager to report would really affect less than one-half of one percent of Catholic priests in America.”

The league stands vigil against attempts to defame the church. “It seems they’re alleging widespread sexual immorality among priests in Chicago and across the country,” director John McDermott told us. “Those are extreme charges, and they’re out of line.” Priests who “reject the teaching of the Church on sexual morality,” he explained, are “bad priests.”

The letter to Channel Two, signed by McDermott and executive director Thomas O’Connell, dismissed Rick Garcia as “someone who openly rejects Catholic teaching on sexual morality.” Quoting him was like “interviewing someone from the Palestine Liberation Organization as an expert on life in Israel.”

As you can see, the league’s reaction was as overwrought as Channel Two’s report was underwrought. The letter made Garcia furious. “I’m a faithful and practicing Roman Catholic,” he told us, “and none of the positions I’ve publicly taken are contrary to church teaching.”

For the record, Garcia says he’s known six Chicago priests with AIDS, two of whom are still alive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Duffey.