Trib Checks Its Art Beat

One of Jack Fuller’s best moves as editor of the Tribune was to give his careerists a way to grow old gracefully. Young reporters full of beans one day catch themselves gazing slackly at the deadly more-of-same: more deadlines, more airports, more exposes, more years of the ritualized transience that ultimately can make a journalist’s life feel partly unlived.

Some escape into editing. But one reporter per decade winds up running the shop. At a huge paper like the Tribune it’s possible to spend decades shuffling from one desk to another, briefly bestriding this piece of that section and then moving to another.

What Fuller did was create an avenue for some of his best writers to go into editing and back out of it. The new position is called “senior writer,” and Fuller explained it as his way “to deploy against some large issues some really excellent reporters and writers.” The handful of senior writers include Charles Leroux, a former Tempo editor, Charles Madigan, a former national editor, and Bill Neikirk, a former financial editor.

On September 1 entertainment editor Richard Christiansen, who’s 59, joins the company. Chicago’s most prominent arts critic, Christiansen presides over all the Tribune’s critics and entertainment writers and the Sunday Arts section. While administrating, he has continued to write: he’s still the Tribune’s principal theater critic, and he also reviews dance.

“I have often felt,” said Fuller, “that there was a way to deal with the arts, to write about the arts in the Tribune–on the front page of the Tribune from time to time–that we don’t often do. Which is to write about the ideas that animate the various arts. To write about the things that give art its life and be very serious about it.

“I have for quite some time been interested in having Dick Christiansen do that work for us. . . . I want him to reduce the amount of theater criticism he does and eliminate the amount of administrative work he does, in order to do a different kind of writing about the arts that I’ve desperately wanted for the Tribune.”

That sounds OK by Christiansen. “Everyone’s saying congratulations, so I assume it’s a good thing,” he told us. “I’m actually quite excited about it.”

This could be a simple matter: move Christiansen into his new job and move someone else into his old one. The Tribune being the Tribune and Fuller being Fuller, it isn’t. “Removing Dick from the mix,” as Fuller put it, means that arts coverage is bound to change anyway. So Fuller has created a “task force” to rethink arts and entertainment from top to bottom. “You have to ask the fundamental questions once in a while,” Fuller told us. “You have to shake out the cobwebs, make sure you’re not acting from inertia.”

Was Fuller reacting to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s recent survey of the arts in Chicago? As a couple of Reader drama critics reminded us, the MacArthur report came down hard on local media. “Participants repeatedly stated that there were not an acceptable number of well-informed critics for a city the size of Chicago,” said the survey released last March, “and that the media did not allocate enough space or time for serious criticism to be heard.”

Fuller left town on vacation before we could ask him directly. But Christiansen said definitely not. He said that in all their discussions about his new job Fuller never once mentioned the MacArthur report, and that in fact, the idea of redeploying him had been kicking around the Tribune since Jim Squires was editor. Squires left the paper in 1989.

Christiansen told us the MacArthur report didn’t impress him much. “Theaters and music groups are always going to insist they should get more and better coverage. I tend to take some of that with a bit of salt–not much, but a bit. God knows there’s more to be done, and we hope to improve on that a little bit in the next several months. But some of the complaining is almost knee-jerk complaining.”

Maybe so. Nevertheless, we think the MacArthur report put its finger on a genuine need, and it will be interesting to see if the Tribune responds to it. The task force that will study the question is headed by Tempo editor John Twohey and also includes the Arts editor, the Friday editor, the Style editor, the editor of the Overnight page, and a few other editors with paddles in the swirling waters of cultural coverage. Before the next entertainment editor is named–before it’s decided if the post will still exist or in what form–they will brood.

As Christiansen described the job he’s giving up, his authority over his writers sounded more personal than formal. “Mostly,” he said, “it was being there as a kind of guide and ally and liaison to the rest of the paper.” The critic-at-large of the old Daily News when that paper folded in 1978, Christiansen was hired by the Tribune in the same capacity; he became entertainment editor in 1983. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer in criticism in 1986 and a juror for the Pulitzer drama award in ’87 and again in ’91. He told us the drama jury was expanded this year from three members to five–two of them from outside New York–to deal with the fact that America’s best new drama isn’t clustered in Manhattan anymore.

“Wouldn’t you know that this year we picked the quintessential New York dramatist, Neil Simon!” he said. “I was pushing very hard for Marvin’s Room by Scott McPherson, which was done at the Goodman Theatre Studio.”

Masters of Deceit

A mot is sometimes juste because it’s perfectly right, and other times because it’s perfectly infuriating. The Tribune enraged more readers than it enlightened recently when its editorial page rang in favor of a Springfield bill that certain elements “are mounting a disinformation campaign against.”

Disinformation? Could any 14-letter word be more antagonistic than that? We looked it up in four dictionaries, two of which pointed out that it was derived in the 60s from the Russian word desinformatsiya. It means, according to the World Book Dictionary, “distorted or false information designed to mislead.” The windier American Heritage Dictionary calls it “incorrect and deliberately misleading information leaked especially by an intelligence agency as a means of negating and discrediting authentic information that an enemy has obtained.”

In other words, it’s a cold-war term tinged with the notion of “commie lies.”

And who are these masters of deceit? School-reform groups such as Designs for Change.

Ellen Soeteber wrote the editorial. Don Wycliff, the Tribune’s new editorial-page editor, noted Soeteber’s zinger and approved. “I remember thinking that was a good way of describing it,” Wycliff told us.

Of describing what? A full-court press by various reform groups against a bill to freeze the transfer of state money from the school system’s general fund to individual Chicago schools. The bill passed the Illinois house 97 to 12 on June 21, and it’s a testament to the lobbying prowess of these groups that it’s since gone nowhere in the senate.

The money in question, formally known as state Chapter I funds, used to go into the general fund, even though the program supplying it had been created to attack poverty.

The 1988 School Reform Act was written to change that. A key provision required the annual Chapter I allocation to be redirected–in a five-year, step-by-step process–to the individual schools. Each school’s share would be prorated according to the number of poor students enrolled there, and the money would be controlled by the school’s newly created Local School Council.

This past year the LSCs received $80 million in Chapter I aid. Next year they were to get $133 million. The bill that the Tribune applauded would have allowed Pershing Road to keep the extra $53 million, plus another $25 million or so in Chapter I money that the LSCs hadn’t spent during the ’90-’91 school year but intended to roll over. This extra $78 million would have sharply diminished next year’s budget deficit, which Superintendent Ted Kimbrough had been estimating at $315.8 million.

But the reform groups said the idea was terrible. They reacted so swiftly and effectively that the Tribune article reporting the house vote the morning after was headlined “Plan to shift school funds blasted.” By the following Tuesday evening, both WBEZ and WTTW were devoting programs to the issue.

But where was the “disinformation”? The Tribune spotted it in the argument that the bill was inequitable because it imposed the heaviest “cuts” on the neediest schools, the schools with the largest numbers of low-income students.

And Soeteber believed there wouldn’t be any cuts at all. There’d be no cuts because no school would get any less Chapter I money than it got last year. She wrote: “Opponents say local schools would ‘lose’ these funds. But they haven’t had the extra $53 million yet, so their ‘loss’ is far less tangible than the gaping hole in the overall school budget.”

That’s arguable: LSCs that had spent hours deciding how to spend money they now wouldn’t get might find that “loss” more palpable than a deficit Kimbrough hadn’t itemized, hadn’t attempted to reduce by any other means, and was asking the city to take his word about.

But surely Soeteber was right when she told us, “The most tangible thing is if the schools don’t open in the fall.”

But as our wife tells our kids, it’s just as easy to be civil. When Soeteber talked to us, she described the reform groups’ analysis as “to our way of thinking, not quite correct.” For publication, this flawed thinking became “disinformation.”

“We got a lot of reaction,” Soeteber said.

The Tribune has an image problem. It gives the impression every now and then of suspecting and resenting every power center in Chicago that isn’t as traditional as it is. By and large, the Tribune has been sympathetic to school reform. Why then, when the reformers took a position that the Tribune didn’t like, was there an irresistible temptation to slap them down?

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