By Michael Miner
Trib Business: Now More in Your Pocket
At some point along the glory road Bulls basketball stopped being simple fun. Triumph became a drug, the players its procurers, four past championships all but meaningless without a fifth. As the shadows of age fall across the Bulls we wonder if there’s one more title in them before things fall apart. We watch the long-bullish stock market the same way, hoping against hope but beginning to fill with dread.
Until he retired at 46, Peter Lynch was also a procurer. He managed the Magellan mutual fund, which he, in his sports-tinged argot, called a “28 bagger”–$1,000 invested in it when he took over the fund in 1977 would have become $28,000 by the time he retired in 1990.
Unlike the financiers of old, who spoke only to each other and made money only for themselves, Lynch had a common touch. “If the mutual-fund industry had not had a Peter Lynch, someone would have had to have gone out and invent Peter Lynch,” financial writer Jim Jubak said in an interview for the recent Frontline report “Betting on the Market.” Jubak went on, “Here you had a face that you could put on an investment pool. ‘I’m giving my money not to this bureaucracy–I’m giving it to Peter Lynch.’ He comes across as a smart but down-to-earth, but commonsensical, kind of guy. ‘I’m giving my money to a mutual-fund manager who gets great returns, but who tells me that the way he finds his returns is he goes shopping with his wife in the supermarket and looks at what she’s buying.'”
Sports are woven through the interviews Frontline conducted for “Betting on the Market.” Lynch said he picked up his first stock tips while caddying, and he explained that he owes the expression “bagger” to a lifetime of devotion to the Boston Red Sox. (As in, “Yastrzemski lines a two-bagger off the wall.”) During the 80s millions of Americans began scanning stock tables as raptly as they studied last night’s box scores, but Lynch recalled an earlier period: “You’d say to somebody you worked in the investment business. They’d say, ‘That’s interesting. Do you sail? What do you think of the Celtics?’ I mean, it would just go right to the next subject.”
How things have changed. Bill Fleckenstein, president of a capital-management firm, told Frontline, “Hot fund managers are well-known, like all-star athletes. Everyone knows who Garrett Van Wagoner is and Jeff Vinik….I mean, so these are household names.” Hedge-fund manager Jim Cramer said Lynch was his inspiration, because “Lynch said you didn’t have to go to Harvard Business School to be in the business.” A year or so ago Cramer wrote Lynch a fan letter. “I didn’t hear from him, I have to tell ya, but that’s like me trying to shake Joe DiMaggio’s hand and Joe DiMaggio saying, you know, waving me off. But that’s OK. Joe DiMaggio never made me any money.”
Where’s the market headed? Frontline asked Fleckenstein. “Trying to determine what the end of mania is is almost impossible, because by definition you’re not talking about investment ideas and logical analysis,” he replied. “You’re talking about the madness of crowds.”
Joseph Nocera, the Fortune editor who reported “Betting on the Market,” wrote for the program, “The money in the market today is money that people feel they can’t afford to lose….It’s scary to have that much riding on something that you have absolutely no control over.” As Lynch put it, we’re in an era when workers are being handed back their pension plans and being told, manage it yourself. We’ve seen the madness of crowds when no more’s at stake than a trophy and sweet illusion. What’s the level of hysteria when the superstars are playing for our lives?
The daily business pages were once written for a priesthood of white Republican male executives that, beyond hiring us forever, had nothing to do with our lives. Now that same priesthood is downsizing and offshoring and outstaffing in favor of intemping. And we’ve invested billions of dollars in their companies to urge them to keep on doing it. Everyone’s a player today, and the business pages have to understand that.
I was astonished only for a second when I heard last week that Tim Franklin, architect and editor of the Tribune’s “in your face” sports section, had just been appointed the paper’s business editor. He takes over Monday, as John Cherwa moves up from number two to run the sports department.
“Was I a financial reporter and do I have a tremendous amount of background in financial news?” said Franklin. “No. But I do have experience now in managing a news department. And I have a sense of what changes to make here to give the section more aggressiveness, more vibrance, more sophistication.
“The mutual funds are an area where we’ve really got to beef up. You’ve got all these boomers who perhaps unintelligently have plowed money into mutual funds. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining what the funds are and what the risks are. A lot of business sections write about CEOs and senior vice presidents and Fortune 500 companies, but they don’t write about business as it affects people.”
He went on, “I think 65 million people are now invested in the stock market, many through the vehicle of mutual funds. People know in kind of vague terms they have to invest their savings in the stock market, because the market traditionally outperforms fixed instruments. But they don’t know what that means. And they’ve never been in a bear market. I think sometime this year there will be some sort of correction. I think it’s inevitable.”
Tribune editor Howard Tyner, who appointed Franklin, told me, “I think the business section can use the same energy that we’ve managed to inject into the sports section in the last year or so.
“Business people are going to read the Wall Street Journal under any circumstances. But what I want is for them to say, ‘I know I’m going to get this type of story from the Wall Street Journal, so I have to read it. But there are certain types of stories about Chicago business I’ll only find in the Chicago Tribune, so I have to read that too.'”
What stories? I asked.
“Well, I can’t cite a specific example, but Chicago is a major communications center, and we should, better than anybody, on a daily basis know what’s going on at the Board of Trade, at Sears, at Amoco–and the list goes on,” Tyner said. “We should be the ones that break the stories on those companies and on communications activities in Chicago. We publish every day. Crain’s does an excellent job, but they’re a weekly. I don’t want to see Crain’s scooping the Chicago Tribune.”
Said Franklin, “I’m a very competitive person. My stomach fills with acid when I get up in the morning and see the Sun-Times has beat us on a story.”
Bowles’s Bile Banished
Linda Bowles has disappeared forever from the Tribune, and I’m going to miss her very much. She sent me candy once, and I’d like to think that when the cultural wars are over and God’s firmly on his throne and the Democrats and other deviants are rotting in the lowest bowels of hell we can be friends.
“I think there are other ways to express that point of view,” said Howard Tyner, meaning a point of view that combines the best features of 17th-century Salem and antebellum Mississippi. I urged Tyner not to go hard on Don Wycliff, the editorial-page editor I once identified as the decision maker in bringing Bowles’s syndicated column aboard a year ago. “I did it, not Don,” said Tyner. “And I don’t regret it, to tell the truth. But I thought it was time to take a look at someone else.” So he’s replacing her with the more moderate Linda Chavez. “I guess they figure, ‘Another Linda–nobody will notice the difference,'” said Bowles when I called her at her California ranch.
Almost from the day the Tribune started running Bowles’s weekly column the paper occasionally held it out on grounds of over-the-top irresponsibility. She knew she was in serious trouble when the Tribune began alternating her irregularly with Cal Thomas. In January she stopped appearing at all in the paper of Lincoln.
But Bowles loyalists didn’t sit idly by, and the paper’s on-line bulletin boards have throbbed with indignation. Wicker Inc whimpered, “What happened? Is the liberal press afraid of printing a view that does not conform to their narrow ideological beliefs?” And JMpuma threatened to hit back where it hurts: “If I don’t see her soon, I, my family, and friends will boycott the Trib. After all, she & Royko are the only stimulating columnists you have.”
LorandSean tried to calm the waters. “Doesn’t the substitution of Cal Thomas sate the appetites of the far righties out there?” he-she-they wondered. “After witnessing him endlessly berate and criticize an eighteen-year-old woman on C-SPAN (one of their First Vote essay award winners) for saying she supported President Clinton, he certainly could qualify as partisan (and jerk) of the year. His hairpiece was utterly twitching with indignation.”
But CarlHit thundered, “I hear you are icing one of your best columnists. Like the Princess, the Trib cannot tolerate a Pea of conservative thought, and Linda Bowles has got to go! Folks, you could use some diversity. Your staff is at least 80% registered democrats–your reporters reek liberal perspective. Once again, the readership loses. We are so tired of hearing you tell it like it isn’t. Consider this my cancellation of the Chicago Spittoon–a more appropriate title for a paper that regurgitates its own biased swill.”
As the circulation department searched for a CarlHit to strike from its rolls, InfoBabe7 chimed in. “Carl, if you think they give a rat’s behind about your conservative viewpoint, you have another think coming. They buy ink by the barrel and hope the easily duped will continue to swallow it. They would rather eat a poison pie than print an effective column like Linda’s. Silence her!”
Now ChiEd (Howard Tyner himself) emerged from his tent to answer CarlHit’s sally. “Hard to imagine how you swam through the swill for so long to find Ms. Bowles,” he replied. “But, hey each to his own. Best wishes on your trip elsewhere.”
Other Tribune swords also joined the fray. Columnists Eric Zorn and Steve Johnson threw in with the good-riddance crowd, while Mike Royko came forth as Bowles’s champion in late December, when her fate was still unclear. “Is there anything we can do about shutting this lady up?” Sjwinkel had written, and Royko advised:
“Since we don’t have death squads, concentration camps, or press-muzzling laws drafted by military rulers, you might try organizing a big rally of anti-Bowles liberals to gather on Michigan Avenue and make angry speeches. If that doesn’t work, you can call your broker and buy up 51 percent of the Tribune Company common stock, become board chairman, and install your own editor and instruct him to fire her. Or you can take the easy way out by not reading her weekly column. But if her presence in the Tribune, even unread by you, proves too awful to endure, you might try killing yourself.”
A very plucky-sounding Bowles told me last week, “I have a sense I’m not through in Chicago. My mission is not complete. Nigel Wade over at the Sun-Times has been flirting with me. Like a typical man, he’s not willing to make a commitment. But he’s written and called saying he enjoys my column.”
At the Tribune she got in trouble with her first column, which Wycliff at the time called a “caricature” of conservative thinking, and looking back, she’s surprised she lasted as long as she did. “I was in a hostile environment,” she said, identifying Royko as “probably the only support I have in the paper. We respect each other’s work. He was encouraging to me. He said he wanted to keep up with the column.”
She sighed, “Whenever an editor steps between me and my readers it breaks my heart.” Fortunately there’s been a lot of fan mail to keep her spirits up, some of it written by liberals who for their own reasons hate to see her go. “I’ve written back to them and said, ‘It’s over. Sorry to break your heart, but it looks like I’ve been betrayed.'”
She said, “I’ve gotten at least a thousand letters from Chicago, and when the story gets out I’ll get some more. And then maybe the Tribune will reconsider. That would be a storybook ending–what do you think?”
I said Tyner has a heart of stone.
¥ Cal Thomas told me he’s now carried by almost 450 papers, nine times as many as run Linda Bowles, and that George Will is just 40 papers ahead in the race for the coveted Voice of Conservatism. “I’m gaining on him,” said Thomas, who’s known to personally knock on editors’ doors and pitch his column.
A columnist since 1984, Thomas said he’s been in journalism 35 years, working for armed forces radio, NBC, and public television. What about the time you were Jerry Falwell’s press spokesman? I asked him. “Everybody likes to bring that up,” said Thomas. He sympathizes with Linda Bowles. “I often wonder about freedom of speech when it comes to conservatives,” he said darkly.
¥ Ebonics was a national story on the scale of Dennis Rodman’s groin probe locally–every writer with a shred of ego to assert had to step up and take his cut. Now it’s time to move on to phase two of the reaction: the panel discussion. A performance this Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Science and Industry presented by Kuumba Theater and celebrating black creativity will be followed by a sorting out of the ebonics controversy by a panel that includes Warner Saunders of Channel Five and senior editor Salim Muwakkil of In These Times.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tim Franklin photo by Terri Wiley Popp.