Trib’s Capitolist Attitude

Alfred Nobel Elementary School in West Humboldt Park stands half a continent beyond the Beltway. But the Tribune’s Mitchell Locin, who’d spent the last five years of his career reporting on Congress and the White House, was still in the grip of Potomac fever when he showed up at the school this month to cover a visit by two high-ranking federal officials.

Locin, writing his first story since the Tribune transferred him to Chicago, construed the visit of secretary of education Richard Riley and White House drug chief Lee Brown as political opportunism, Clinton versus Gingrich. The tone of his report offended the grade school, and Locin’s facts weren’t rock solid either.

He wrote that Riley and Brown were two of many Democrats who’d fanned out “to campaign against the Republican “Contract with America.”‘ They were at Nobel to “laud” the Orr Safe Schools Network–an alliance of 13 Humboldt Park schools, community groups, and businesses–and deliver their “political pitch.” However, “Riley and Brown couldn’t have picked a worse example for arguing in favor of saving nearly $500 million for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act that Republicans under the guidance of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) eliminated: There’s not a dime of federal money in the Chicago program.

“The network might well be a better fit for the Gingrich model of local funding and control of programs in which the federal government now plays a role.”

The article infuriated Nobel’s principal, Mirna Diaz Ortiz. Her three-page letter to the Tribune (which the paper hasn’t published) protested, “You made a highly positive event sound dismal. . . . The Tribune put the most negative spin possible on Secretary Riley’s visit to our school. . . . We were honored to host a visit by the Secretary of Education, but this was not a “campaign’ visit–we welcomed him to see what we’ve been doing.”

In a very narrow sense Locin was right about federal aid. Nobel doesn’t receive a penny of it earmarked specifically for the Safe Schools Network. But far from fitting a “local funding” model, Nobel receives half a million unearmarked dollars a year from Washington, plus $800,000 from Springfield. “There’s no way we can function without it,” Ortiz told me.

She wrote the Tribune, “If the reporter had asked me, I could have told him how we spent Nobel’s 1995 allocation of $4,332 in federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act dollars. (In 1994, Nobel received twice that amount, but unfortunately, the funds were cut in half this year.) We’ve used those dollars to purchase armbands and walkie-talkies for the dozens of members of our parent safety patrols. (We have anywhere from 30 to 50 parent volunteers per day working in and around our school.)

“I could have told him how Nobel pools much of its money together with that of 12 neighboring schools in the Orr Safe Schools network to create parent networks to get kids to and from school safely. . . . I would also have reminded him that Nobel received more than half a million federal Chapter 1 dollars this year for the improvement of instruction for children in poverty. Aside from hiring teachers and teachers’ aides with those federal Chapter 1 dollars, I also pay small stipends to parents who assist us in multiple ways–monitoring the halls and streets for safety, listening to children read in the classrooms, providing one-on-one tutoring and after-school supervision and craft lessons. Can we really separate these activities from safety?”

What’s more, she wrote, federal AmeriCorps dollars were now being used “to renovate 3 former crack houses across the street from our school”–this being a project launched by Nobel. “Once the scenes of murders and rapes, these 3 buildings will soon provide affordable housing.

“If we had more federal assistance, we’d use it to reach out even farther and wider in our community, to keep the schools open longer hours, and to take over more of the gutted and crime-infested buildings surrounding our schools.”

Ortiz’s letter fumed, “What’s this about calling our school the “Gingrich model’? That’s no compliment. As far as I can see, the Gingrich model, if there is one, calls for school lunches to be available only to cash-paying children. I’m going to have a lot of hungry kids at my school if that plan ever becomes a reality.”

Ortiz submitted her letter hoping the Tribune would publish it in the op-ed space labeled “Voice of the people.” All she got was a paragraph buried in “Corrections and clarifications.” The Tribune acknowledged the $4,332 federal grant (which Ortiz concedes is “nothing significant”), but none of the other $1.3 million in federal and state funding.

Locin admits he messed up. There was “a serious misunderstanding about federal funds made available specifically for the parents’ control,” he told me, weighing each word. “I am sorry for my role in the misunderstanding. It was not intentional.”

Instead of asking Ortiz whether the Safe Schools Network received federal funds, Locin asked a spokesman for the Bank of America, which spends about $400,000 a year underwriting educational programs for the 13 Orr schools. Uncertain, the bank spokesman, Kevin Anderson, checked with Freddie Calixto, head of Broader Urban Involvement Leadership and Development (BUILD), which receives federal funds to train volunteer parents in safety procedures. Then Anderson told Locin apparently not.

“I think what really happened is he asked the wrong question,” Anderson told me. “He asked a very narrow question: “Was [Nobel] funded specifically for the Safe Schools Network?’ Freddie Calixto said no. [But] they do receive federal funds. If they put money they receive toward [safe schools], fine. I answered the question he asked absolutely correctly.”

News Not Fit to Print

Cokie Roberts may deserve every drop of ink that Jim Warren drips on her, but Illinois’ junior senator is also worthy. When Carol Moseley-Braun and the Tribune Company collaborated on a legal loophole big enough to drive $13 million through, Warren’s Washington bureau didn’t file a word on it.

The deal–which allowed the company and its African-American partners to purchase two southern TV stations while taking advantage of a minority tax preference being eliminated everywhere else–was twice noted in the Tribune of April 4. A short, unsigned article in the business pages emphasized the $63 million tax break coming to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which was selling one of the stations the Tribune Company intended to buy. And there was a brief mention at the end of a section-one Reuters article headlined “Health deduction for self-employed OKd.”

Warren said news of the deal broke April 1 in the New York Daily News, as his distracted bureau was moving into a new space. He didn’t catch up with the story until early the next week. “I said, “Have we had something on it?”‘ And the editor back in Chicago he was talking with (Warren can’t remember who) said yes, a couple of articles. Warren was satisfied.

“It was [former editor Jim] Squires’s view, I remember, that more often than not no one will believe you when you write about yourself,” Warren told me. “So you might as well use the wires.”

Warren allowed that his bureau doesn’t normally pay much attention to the “intricacies of the Senate Finance Committee. Certainly not now, with only one person up there [on the Hill]. If you’re covering Congress in a broader fashion than Mike and Basil and Lynn do, you’re covering a lot more than just Illinois.”

The Sun-Times’s Michael Briggs, Basil Talbott, and bureau chief Lynn Sweet are under orders to cover the state delegation and nothing else. The Braun-Tribune deal did not get by them.

“If I had three people to focus just on Illinois I might have focused on Carol Braun’s day with the tax bill,” reflected Warren, whose staff is about five times the size of Sweet’s.

Joanna Slaney, Braun’s press contact in Washington, says she hears from the Sun-Times much more often than from the Tribune. “They generally call you every week, call you every day to find out what’s going on. That’s the Sun-Times. With the Tribune, it’s much more specific.” In other words, the Sun-Times calls looking for stories. The Tribune calls once it’s found one.

Ironically, reporter Dorothy Collin had begun working last October on a profile of Braun for the Chicago Tribune Magazine. Three months later Tribune Company lobbyists set out to save their tax break from the new Congress. But Slaney says the company didn’t approach Braun until March, a month after Collin turned in her copy. And by the time the Daily News story broke, Collin’s profile was locked into the issue of April 16.

This happenstance looked terrible. Ann Marie Lipinski, managing editor for news, and Owen Youngman, managing editor for features, talked it over; then Youngman suggested to Warren that his Sunday Watch column examine the apparent quid pro quo. The column “deals with isssues of conflict and the appearance of impropriety,” Youngman told me. Warren exonerated the Tribune, but gave it “this week’s John Dillinger Award for Maladroit Timing.”

Two’s Zoo Review

It’s never too long after the fact to write a good story about it, a lesson in journalism I keep relearning. Last week the Tribune’s Jean Davidson published a carefully observed Tempo piece on the havoc wreaked at the Lincoln Park Zoo by last February’s Channel Two “expose.” Larry Mendte’s report leaned heavily on grisly canned footage that had nothing to do with the zoo, some of it six years old. But zoo patrons were outraged by the case that Mendte sounded like he was making–that a callous zoo was allowing its animals, or at least their offspring, to be put up for slaughter at hunting ranches.

Davidson observed that Mendte’s report was a local skirmish in a national offensive against zoos and hunting ranches by the Humane Society of the United States, and that a more enterprising and responsible report on hunting ranches had been broadcast three months earlier by Channel 32’s Larry Yellen.

I was working on a story along the lines of Davidson’s when something bigger came along. A week later my zoo story seemed dated, so I dropped it. Big mistake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jon Randolph.