There Oughta Be a Law

John Stroger is president of the board of Cook County, where I pay a lot of taxes, and I should have the right to find out if he’s physically able to do his job. The law doesn’t agree. When he was rushed back to the hospital two weeks ago the Sun-Times referred to the unpierced “veil of secrecy” that has surrounded him since his stroke in March. We’re lucky we even know he had a stroke.

We also know that Lane Evans, a downstate congressman, suffers from Parkinson’s and has decided to retire when his current term expires in January. But can he function in office for the rest of the term? We don’t know.

Reporters hoping to find out were in the courtroom June 9 for a hearing in which a Rock Island judge approved an arrangement making Evans’s chief of staff his personal guardian. But over the reporters’ protests the judge, Alan Blackwood, closed the hearing and sealed the medical records he’d consulted.

Journalists like to think that at some point the health of a Stroger or Evans stops being strictly his own business and also becomes the public’s. Surely that point was reached when the question of Evans’s condition moved into a public forum, a courtroom. Attorney Don Craven–representing the Associated Press, papers in Moline and Rock Island, and the Illinois Press Association–has filed a motion asking for a transcript of the hearing and the medical records Blackwood reviewed. The judge will consider the motion on July 26.

“The sad part of this Evans thing,” Craven told me, “is that we’re dealing with a member of Congress who’s now been declared incapable of handling his own affairs yet he remains in Congress. How unique is this? The fact that a court file is sealed is not at all unique. The fact that it deals with a member of Congress is, so far as I know.”

Craven’s motion could wind up before the Illinois Supreme Court, a bench that’s already made a lot of journalists in the state uneasy. There’s the John Doe matter, “Doe” being a former assistant state’s attorney who appeared before the grand jury investigating police torture in Chicago. Doe asked the supreme court not merely to order his name struck from the special prosecutor’s report but to suppress the report itself. Given the transcendent public interest in a full accounting of police torture in Chicago, journalists thought the court should deny Doe’s motion by the equivalent of return mail. Instead the court sat on it almost a month before saying no on Tuesday. Special prosecutor Edward Egan wondered, “What took them so long?”

The court also hasn’t ruled on two cases where legal doctrines fundamental to journalists hang in the balance: the innocent-construction rule in Tuite v. Corbitt (I wrote about it April 7) and the fair-report privilege in Solaia v. Specialty Publishing (April 7 and 14). The innocent construction rule requires the courts to interpret ambiguously worded reporting in the way most favorable to the author. The fair-report privilege protects journalists who accurately report accusations made in a public forum, even if the accusations aren’t true. Media organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases. In Solaia, journalists are asking the justices to overturn an opinion written last year by appellate judge Anne Burke, who, at the court’s invitation, joins the supreme court next month.

While the Illinois press waits for the supreme court to decide these matters (an opinion in Solaia was expected late this week), Chief Justice Bob Thomas pursues his own defamation suit against a columnist for the Kane County Chronicle. So journalists worry.

Small Victories

Howard Rosenberg is being ignored. He’s written books that major newspapers pay no attention to, just because he published those books himself.

My advice to Rosenberg is to present himself not as an author but as a blogger. Old media tremble before bloggers as Aztecs once trembled before invaders with muskets and horses. Rosenberg knows his way around a computer. He uses Adobe PageMaker and Photoshop to design the books no one reviews. He e-mails me incessantly to recount the latest skirmishes in his crusade for attention. This March he posted on a screed denouncing the literary gatekeepers Booklist and Library Journal for having “summarily decided to censor” his latest book. But blogging, he says, holds “little appeal.” He prefers the old-fashioned way of making the media pay attention: hound them to death.

Rosenberg–who lives in Arlington, Virginia, and has an editing job in the federal government he’s vague about other than to say it’s not in national security–heard this month from the ombudsman of the Washington Post. “Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg, the rule is no self-published books,” she wrote. He was right back at her, having spotted a Post travel story on Baltimore’s wonders that said, “Patterson Bowling Center on the Fells Point/Canton line is one place where duckpin bowling is act-ive in the city that gave birth to the game.” He wrote her and the travel editor asserting that the hoary duckpin canard had been refuted in his 2005 book Cap Anson 3: Muggsy John McGraw and the Tricksters: Baseball’s Fun Age of Rule Bending.

There was also a 2004 book, Cap Anson 2: The Theatrical and Kingly Mike Kelly: U.S. Team Sports’ First Media Sensation and Baseball’s Original Casey at the Bat, and a 2003 book, Cap Anson 1: When Captaining a Team Meant Something: Leadership in Baseball’s Early Years. His obsession with Cap Anson has led him to write what amounts to a multivolume history on the origins of baseball.

The focus of Rosenberg’s current distress is the press’s unwillingness to consider his 2006 book Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago even as it reviews inferior books on baseball history published by commercial houses. This 500-page biography argues that Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings between the wars (Civil and Spanish-American) was one of baseball’s great popularizers, the Babe Ruth of what Rosenberg calls its pre-Ring Lardner era. An actor and vaudevillian when his playing days were over, a vice president of the American Bowling Congress, and a politician who became a Chicago city clerk and ran for sheriff, Anson was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1939. Anson’s often identified as the person primarily responsible for banning blacks from organized baseball, a charge Rosenberg doesn’t dismiss but considers overwrought.

For some time I’d assumed I was Rosenberg’s chosen confidant. I learned this week that he writes everybody: his list of contacts at the Sun-Times alone is so long it extends from managing editor Don Hayner, a likely target thanks to Hayner’s claim that his grandfather Fred named the Chicago Cubs, to mystified reporters with no interest in baseball. Yet the Sun-Times has been a wall he couldn’t breach.

“This past Sunday was quite a brutal day for me,” he confided on June 7, in an e-mail directed at the paper’s new books editor, Cheryl Reed. The New York Times and Washington Post had both run reviews of new baseball books and could easily have mentioned “Anson’s definitive biography” as well. “But as you might know, those publications have a blanket policy against even acknowledging the existence of self-published books.

“(So, in effect, some book review sections are treating living Americans who devote huge amounts of time to advance public knowledge–the very same mission that newspapers have–as persons who don’t exist, and yet many book review articles are concerned with books about discrimination.)”

Reed was unmoved by this grandiose attempt to shame her. “We too have a policy about not reviewing self-published books,” she replied. “Sorry.”

Reed wouldn’t discuss Rosenberg with me, but she explained why she’s not interested in featuring self-published books on her pages. “Refusing to compete in the marketplace of publishers while expecting to still be reviewed,” she e-mailed me, “is like strolling up to Cellular Field and saying you’d like to swing for the White Sox but you just couldn’t bear to live through the years of the farm league.”

Why didn’t you enter that marketplace? I asked Rosenberg. He said he’d dipped a toe in years ago and been told he needed “big-time editing help.” He decided to strike out on his own after a professor read his first manuscript, remarked on its “stream of consciousness” flow, and added that “there’s a reward for the reader on pretty much every page.” Rosenberg went on, “So I figured that my content was so fascinating that it would override any real concerns about presentation, and still feel that way.”

On June 13 Rosenberg called ecstatic. The Sun-Times was going to mention him after all–not in the book section but in a major news story. “This changes everything,” he said. “I’m not so mad at the Sun-Times anymore.”

The story ran on June 14. Under the headline “Laski gets 2 years in prison” was a sidebar, “Crooked Clerks,” a look at previous miscreants who’d held the post of city clerk. One was Walter Kozubowski, convicted of paying ghost payrollers in 1993 and sentenced to five years in prison. The other was Anson. Said the Sun-Times, “He was in charge when three workers were fired after accusations they took pay for a combined 100 days they hadn’t worked, according to Anson biographer Howard W. Rosenberg.”

“I got a mention in Chicago finally,” Rosenberg told me. He recalled reaching out to James Laski about a year ago, suggesting that he honor Anson in some way. But Laski thought Anson was too controversial. “So it’s come home to roost,” Rosenberg said. “It’s the pot calling the kettle, you know.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP Photo/Stephen J. Carrera.