Trib vs Tribe, Part II: Shooting Blanks?

A mysterious study of the Tribune’s Middle East coverage is being kept under wraps in Chicago, though if you can wait eight months all will be revealed in Louisiana. It’s a study the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago commissioned last year to back a charge many Chicago Jews passionately believe: that the Tribune has maligned Israel and romanticized the Palestinians during the latest intifada.

Apparently the study didn’t produce the empirical evidence the Jewish Federation was looking for. Its leaders have now read the study, as have top editors at the Tribune. The editors don’t object to its being made public, but the federation’s leaders do. “It’s the basis for constructive engagement and dialogue,” says Michael Kotzin, the federation’s executive vice president. “On that basis it’s not a public report. We felt the likelihood of it continuing to be a constructive engagement was for it to be a working document.”

Has he seen a change in the Tribune’s coverage?

“I wouldn’t want to evaluate that,” he says. “They reviewed it. They’ve taken it into account.”

“I can say unequivocally we have no objection to its release,” Don Wycliff tells me. Wycliff is public editor of the Tribune, and he’s not aware that the Tribune’s doing anything differently. When I say I’m not sure what the federation means by “constructive engagement,” Wycliff replies, “To be frank, I don’t either.”

Barbie Zelizer, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, conducted the study. She compared the Tribune’s Middle East coverage with coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post over several months of 2001. Her contract with the Jewish Federation allows her to make academic use of her research, and that’s why she feels free to discuss her conclusions this coming November at the National Communication Association conference in New Orleans. But she won’t discuss them with me.

She says, “I’d love to talk to you.”

People like me who’d heard of the federation’s research project months ago and then forgotten about it were reminded by the column Wycliff published on February 28. He was fresh from a “vitriolic”–his word–confrontation between Tribune editors and the congregation of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. “What struck me most forcefully in the exercise,” he wrote, “was that, in a very real sense, we stand on opposite sides of a vast gap or gulf in our perceptions of the personalities and situations in the Middle East.”

Wycliff stood his ground. “The greatest gap is in our perceptions of what a newspaper is supposed to be and do,” he wrote. “The ideal to which a paper ought to aspire is to give an account of the news that an unbiased observer would recognize as true and honest if thrust into the situation himself or herself.”

Journalists are generally terrible at making their principles sound transcendent, and Wycliff was no exception. He seemed to be saying that no one can appreciate unbiased coverage but an unbiased reader of the coverage, which critics of the coverage by definition can’t be. But his stab at lofty rhetoric isn’t what caught anyone’s eye. It was his allusion to an “academic study” commissioned to measure the Tribune’s “putative bias.” He went on, a bit teasingly, “The results of the study have been shared with Tribune editors on a confidential basis, but for reasons not explained publicly the sponsoring organization has chosen so far not to make them public.”

Wycliff obviously meant the Jewish Federation. A small Jewish peace group called Not in My Name, which believes the Tribune’s sympathies for the Palestinians don’t go far enough, spotted the reference and set out to rattle the federation’s cage. The founder, Steven Fuerstein, E-mailed his “friends” the federation’s phone number and contact person, and commented, “I believe that we should argue strenuously (and perhaps do so in a public way, organizationally) that after so many leaders of the Jewish community have publicly expressed criticism of the Tribune (with an implication, sometimes made explicit, of anti-Semitism), it is incumbent upon the Federation to release this information so that everyone can see the results. We should, in essence, call the bluff of the Federation and have them admit that independent analysis cannot validate their criticism.”

No one who hasn’t read the report can say for sure what Zelizer’s analysis can or can’t do, or for that matter whether it deserves to be taken seriously. Doni Remba is someone who wonders. Remba is coordinator of Chicago Peace Now, a local affiliate of the Peace Now movement in Israel, which supports a two-state solution and claims adherents in Yasir Arafat’s administration as well as in the Israeli government. Remba might be presumed to admire the Tribune’s coverage, but in fact he despises it. He attended the meeting at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, read what he’d describe as Wycliff’s “self-serving and outrageous column” discussing it, and composed a long “cri de coeur” that he submitted to the Tribune’s Perspective section.

Like Fuerstein, Remba reached out by E-mail to his “friends,” sending them his lament accompanied by a note that explained he’d written it out of frustration with many Tribune editors–not all, he carefully noted–over their “anti-Israel positions and utter failure to understand some of the central issues.”

Remba hadn’t read Zelizer’s study, but he’d spoken with people who had, and his note shared what he’d heard. “I understand that it did confirm bias in the way pictures and headlines were handled by the Trib…but did not bear out the charges of bias in the news stories themselves; I don’t believe the study considered the content of the opinion columns….However, any careful reader of the Trib who cares about Israel has amassed his or her own file full of examples of inaccurate or biased news coverage which cannot be explained away. I have seen enough cases myself that no study in the world would convince me to deny the evidence of my own senses: what I myself can clearly see.”

Remba’s cri de coeur was an angry analysis of the word “terrorist” as the Tribune applies it, and declines to apply it, in the Middle East. He accused the Tribune of holding to “a fool’s idea of fairness.” He tells me Perspective rejected the piece but invited him to write an essay on terrorism and the peace process, leaving the Tribune out of it.

A Bit Too Sweet

Crain’s Chicago Business had a small problem as the year ended, a story it needed to illustrate. The magazine’s premise was that even though the economy had crippled Chicago’s condo market, there was action at the high end. For example, South Michigan Avenue’s legendary Blackstone Hotel was being converted into 39 condos priced at $3.4 to $8.5 million each. But most people who can afford $4 million homes like their privacy, which is why Crain’s was having trouble finding a mover and shaker to take a picture of.

But then one came along. “Besides being a novelist and a fund-raiser and sitting on the state committee on fine arts–those little things,” explains Sugar Rautbord, “I have a very special marketing-consulting firm. These lovely people came to me from the Blackstone–they said they were converting. I was a little hesitant. I said, I usually do much larger corporations. And they said, ‘Well, we’re new to Chicago, and we’d like sort of a guide’–sort of a Virgil, I guess–‘through that which is Chicago.’ So I went down and took one look at it–and put in my dibbies on the apartment above the ballroom.”

But not the ballroom itself?

“That’s a little too Tolstoy for me. But eight of my girlfriends said, ‘Why don’t we take that? There are nine doors that open onto the ballroom, so no man can date all of us at the same time’–which happens occasionally. We toyed with that, but I think I’m going to go for myself and whomever in the apartment above, which is not quite as grand.”

The Blackstone’s redevelopers were so thrilled that the prominent socialite had decided to move in that with Rautbord’s blessing they issued a two-page press release. Crain’s promptly called.

“She was an ideal subject for the story,” says editor Robert Reed, “because there she was in all her glory saying what a great buy these condos were.” Rautbord was delighted to pose for a photograph, which is why the front page of Crain’s on January 7 centered on a large picture of Rautbord beaming from the ballroom’s balcony. To justify this picture, the article began with and focused on the Blackstone conversion, though other projects were also mentioned.

“This is not an apartment building,” said Rautbord of her new home. “This is little palaces connected by elevators.” She’d bent over backward to give Crain’s everything it needed.

A week or two went by, Reed recalls, before word got back to him that Rautbord was not merely moving into the Blackstone–she was a paid marketing consultant to it. “We went back to her and asked her,” he says. “She was very nice about it and very up-front. She had a deal with them, and she didn’t think it

was something that needed to be disclosed. We, on the other hand, had a different opinion.”

So a dutiful editor’s note appeared in the February 18 Crain’s. “In the interest of full disclosure,” the confession ended, “readers should be aware of the relationship.”

I ask Rautbord if she understands the journalistic ethic that obliged Crain’s to come clean.

“I totally understand the editor in chief’s point of view,” she says. “He’s right to let his readers know. I was under the impression everybody knew. I’ll try to wear a little sign on my forehead that says ‘consultant to and living in.'”

News Bites

The National Arab Journalists Association held a two-day conference for Arab and Muslim journalists last weekend at the Radisson O’Hare, and Tribune journalists faced another challenging audience. According to notes taken by Reader contributor Bill Stamets, someone in the audience told a Tribune panel to stop worrying about losing credibility with Jewish readers and start worrying about losing it with Arab readers.

“I’m the official worrier,” Wycliff replied. “One of my duties as public editor is to worry about our credibility.”

Another questioner noted that the latest Nixon tapes found the former president and evangelist Billy Graham agreeing back in ’72 on a Jewish “stranglehold” on the media. “Any grain of truth in that?”

“I heard that everywhere I went,” said Colin McMahon, who recently returned from five years in Moscow to become the Tribune’s foreign editor. “Until I went to Israel. Then I hated Jews. I found out I’m working for Arab groups.” McMahon said the Nixon tapes reflect more on that president and Graham than they do on any supposed conspiracy.

McMahon told me later that the idea of a Jewish conspiracy that controls American media is common currency in several of the countries he’s reported from. But in Israel, where he spent a few weeks reporting late in his Moscow tour, he began getting E-mail calling him a Jew hater. “I was trying to point out the absurdity of the idea that there was a Jewish cabal or Jewish conspiracy or Jewish plan to run the media,” he said. “I was saying there are any number of groups who like to assign motives to journalists. [A Jewish stranglehold] is one of those cases. People will try to assign motives to journalists who are trying to do their jobs.”

McMahon was impressed by his audience at the Radisson. “The questions were very specific and very challenging. Nobody was openly hostile.”

A saving grace at the Sun-Times is management’s willingness to let the rabble ignore the editorial page or even flash bunny ears behind it. Last Sunday the paper listed its endorsements, among them Rod Blagojevich, Lisa Madigan, Rahm Emanuel, and Ted Lechowicz.

There was talk around the paper that these ukases from on high might have something to do with the paper’s need for a zoning change to build that skyscraper with Donald Trump, and the next couple of days brought–inadvertently or otherwise–a Dilbertian response. On Monday, Mark Brown’s column championed Madigan’s opponent, John Schmidt; Steve Neal’s column savaged Emanuel; and reporter Abdon Pallasch’s election roundup piece focused on Lechowicz’s opponent, Forrest Claypool, whose view of the Sun-Times’s choice is that he’s “a symbol of everything wrong with the [Cook County] board.”

On Tuesday, Jack Higgins’s cartoon ridiculed Blagojevich.

Daily Herald story on February 26, with the byline of staff writer Teresa Mask: “Forget ‘Ozzie and Harriet.’ The married-with-children crowd no longer dominates the suburbs. Homes headed by a young, single professional or an elderly widow, for instance, now outnumber married couples with kids in the suburbs of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas…”

Chicago Tribune story on March 3, with the byline of Genaro C. Armas of the Associated Press: “Forget ‘Ozzie and Harriet.’ The married-with-children crowd no longer dominates the suburbs. Homes headed by a young, single professional or an elderly widow, for instance, now outnumber married couples with kids in the suburbs of the nation’s largest cities…”

Note at the end of the Herald story: “The Associated Press contributed to this report.”

From the March 12 New York Times: “A senior ABC executive…said, ‘I’m proud of what we did,’ and noted that the situation was extremely delicate because ABC had to go all out to woo Mr. Letterman while trying not to offend the staff of ‘Nightline’ and the ABC News division. ‘I don’t see how we could have handled this much more adeptly,’ the ABC executive said. ‘It was a very, very difficult corridor we were navigating.'”

The most dangerous people in the world don’t know the difficult from the impossible.

Saint Sabina suddenly withdrew last Friday from the Southside Catholic Conference. The predominantly black grade school’s struggle to get into the predominantly white athletic conference, which found the Reverend Michael Pfleger accusing the other schools of racism and Cardinal George eventually intervening, was big news last spring, national news even. It still is. The Sun-Times and Tribune both carried Sunday stories on Saint Sabina’s change of heart. But the New York Times ran its story on Saturday. On Monday reporter John Fountain, a product of Chicago’s west side, wrote an elegant follow-up that the Times put on its front page.

The Sun-Times can’t be praised too highly for transportation reporter Robert Herguth’s big scoop last Monday about the CTA’s proposed “Super Loop.” I was studying the full-color, visionary front-page map of the CTA’s blue-sky future all the way in to work.

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