Trib Wins the Tape Race

When life hands you an overripe tomato, make bruschetta. And speaking of the dailies and the Mel Reynolds trial . . .

With all the time in the world to get ready for the trial, the Tribune metro staff cooked up a plan to make it edible. The solution was two stories a day–one on the trial itself, the other offering a Big Picture, the same kind of occasional lofty overview that redeemed the O.J. Simpson trial until the media gave up in exhaustion.

So each day found the Tribune probing the collective psyche of Reynolds’s constituents, or contemplating the differing perspectives of male and female jurors on sexual misconduct, or exploring the legal history of statutory rape.

But what buried the Sun-Times from the get go–despite that paper’s flashes of superiority as the trial wore on–wasn’t anything tony at all. The Tribune simply ran the (bowdlerized) transcript of the Heard-Reynolds tapes a day before the Sun-Times did. Sometimes a day is like a century.

Both papers had the transcripts for weeks. They were simply waiting for the trial to begin and for the tapes to be introduced as evidence. That happened Tuesday, July 25, and the Sun-Times ran a page of excerpts the next morning.

But on Monday prosecutor Andrea Zopp had read extensively from the transcripts in her opening statement. That gave the Tribune the excuse it needed.

Managing editor for news Ann Marie Lipinski told me, “After pretty lengthy deliberations that afternoon and evening we felt readers could have different reactions depending on whether they’d read Zopp’s presentation or the entire transcript. In fairness to Reynolds and to complete coverage we needed to publish the entire transcript. . . . We couldn’t find a reason to keep it out of the paper.”

The Sun-Times’s reason for waiting isn’t rooted in decorum. “I think, frankly, we didn’t think of the other option,” managing editor Julia Wallace said.

News Lite

Regular readers of the Tribune’s “Corrections and clarifications” might conclude the paper’s editors endlessly suffer the torments of the damned, wrestling nightly with their souls over venial sins and wringing their hands in contrition every morning.

But last week the Tribune stood its ground. “I find that a correction in this matter is not required,” public editor (i.e. ombudsman) George Langford informed the dissatisfied Paul Wertheimer. Perhaps Wertheimer’s mistake, when he’d written editor Howard Tyner, was to misspell Tyner’s name. From here, the Tribune’s treatment of Wertheimer looks like a botch.

Wertheimer’s the crusader for safer rock concerts who was arrested at the Pearl Jam show, supposedly for pushing in the mosh pit. Bill Wyman wrote about the matter two weeks ago in Hitsville. Wyman accused Jam Productions of “demonizing” Wertheimer and suggested the arrest might have been a setup to get him off the premises. Wyman noted that posters of Wertheimer and Channel 32 investigative reporter Larry Yellen were conspicuously displayed in Soldier Field security areas.

The Tribune’s account of the matter began with a mention of Deadheads who’d commandeered the revolving restaurant of the Days Inn on Lake Shore Drive. It then shifted to the night that “ended for Paul Wertheimer before it really began.”

Intern Graeme Zielinski scattered his story with clues that a light touch was being attempted. Wertheimer “raised the hackles of promoters and local officials with his dire predictions of death and destruction.” Wertheimer “took it upon himself” to write Mayor Daley.

But Wertheimer was not amused. He wrote “Tynor” that the article contained “a number of serious inaccuracies that I believe create in the public eye an unfair and misleading profile of myself and my business.”

(1) He’d made no “dire predictions” about the Pearl Jam concert. “My letter to Mayor Daley warns only that such problems are possible.” (To be precise, he warned Daley that “an extraordinarily unsafe public safety environment appears to be planned. . . . We can anticipate that the high energy Pearl Jam concert will at times become chaotic, volatile and possibly confrontational.”) (2) Zielinski had written, “Wertheimer, who says he operates a crowd-management consulting business, . . . ” Wertheimer noted, “I do not simply say I operate such a business, I do have such a business, and have had one for a number of years. Other Tribune reporters are well aware of my work.” (3) Zielinski had written that Wertheimer “was described as a gadfly by promoters.” Wertheimer responded, “The noted US concert industry publication, Performance magazine, recently referred to me as a ‘. . . concert safety watchdog.'”

Wertheimer’s beef was shunted to Langford, who talked to Wertheimer but wasn’t impressed. I think Wertheimer’s mistake was to stress semantics. The worst thing about the Tribune’s article on Wertheimer and Jam Productions was its disdain for substance.

Such as those mug shots of Wertheimer and Yellen. Wertheimer told me, “They put up these pictures in Soldier Field–not discreetly, but for all to see–of two people who had done nothing wrong, in an act to intimidate us and possibly harm us. Obviously we were considered undesirables.”

Zielinski was interested enough in the poster to ask Wertheimer to bring one downtown and pose holding it outside Tribune Tower. But no photograph was used, and Zielinksi’s mention of the poster was edited out.

The nasty history between Jam and Wertheimer and Yellen wasn’t reported either. Last February Wertheimer and Yellen teamed up for an expose of mosh pits. “I went into areas he had predicted would be hazardous, and I was struck in the face and kicked in the groin within two minutes of having entered the mosh pit at the Vic,” Yellen told me. Jam unsuccessfully went to court to try to stop Yellen’s reports from airing.

The Tribune article doesn’t get to the good stuff until its final paragraph. After skeptically treating Wertheimer’s safety concerns, the Tribune blithely states that “police reported 21 people had been taken to hospitals out of 125 injuries. None of the injuries was reported serious.” I called up someone who’d just come back from Pamplona, where he’s a regular. That city’s festival this year was tragic, but he told me that in an average festival, 21 people who run with the bulls aren’t taken to hospitals in the entire eight days.

Wertheimer told me that “125 is the largest number injured in my tracking of concerts this year.”

Locally or nationally? I asked.

“Worldwide,” he said.

In addition to writing Tyner, Wertheimer called Zielinski. “He seemed like a nice guy,” said Wertheimer. “I said, ‘You really did a number on me.’ He said he wasn’t happy with the way it was edited. He gave the impression he had lost control of the article.”

But by the time I talked to Zielinski the young reporter had his attitude fixed. If the paper where he’s interning isn’t about to express regrets neither will he. “It’s not like he called and I said, ‘Man, Paul, I’m so sorry. I’m really on your side,'” Zielinski told me. “I stand by what I wrote. The guy needs press. It’s how he makes his business. He’s a PR guy. He also was complaining that I wrote he says he was a crowd-control specialist–when he is. The distinction is pretty niggling. The more he calls the more I feel the story should have been harder on him.”

“My old roommate used to make delicious, homemade cream-filled doughnuts. Does anyone have the recipe for these warm treats? –Phil McCraken, Chicago.”

If you think that’s funny you’re pathetic. If you don’t think it’s funny–if you don’t even realize it’s supposed to be funny–you’re in good company.

After the famous query from Olga Fokyercelf about “Western cheese livers and toasted chicken fish” showed up in Swap Shop on May 17, the Sun-Times hired a freelancer to edit the space and screen all double entendres. Well, she missed one. But so did several features editors, even when they were told where to look. There were no calls from readers either.

“Some of the editors around here really had to be led by the hand on this one,” said a reporter outside the food department. “This one was a little more subtle.”

Photographer Art Shay wrote the Sun-Times the other day to defend Hugh Grant. The editors cut the fat from Shay’s letter and then printed the fat.

What readers were left to chew on was Shay’s introduction of himself as founder of the Fruit Juices Racquetball Club. If Grant belonged, Shay allowed, “his minor indiscretions would make him a blood brother to perhaps half of our members, most of whom are happily married. They are known by their women to have been naughty on occasion in the past, but are loved, trusted, and understood by most of their emotionally mature wives or companions. Neither Grant, his cargirl nor his live-in girlfriend was hurting anyone, and should be left alone by holier-than-thou moralizers.” Shay then recalled something his old pal Nelson Algren once said on the subject.

A reader would never have known that Shay had a particular “moralizer” in mind–Sun-Times columnist Judy Markey. Shay had begun his letter by citing a Markey column on “the subtext of suspicion that is the legacy of a moment like this” (said moment being Grant getting nabbed). Shay told her, “Lighten up Ms. Markey!”

The first seven paragraphs of Shay’s letter and every other reference to Markey didn’t make the paper. “I feel strangely denuded,” said Shay, putting it aptly. “It felt to me like an exercise in Soviet journalism, in which anything faintly critical of the establishment was excised.”

Margaret Holt has been replaced as Tribune sports editor by her more popular assistant, Tim Franklin. Editor Howard Tyner brought Holt onto the paper a year and a half ago to shake up the sports section; now she’s moving into a job created for her–“customer service editor,” under ombudsman George Langford.

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