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Truth in Political Advertising!

Lynn Sweet took a fall at the Sun-Times, but now she’s back. While Basil Talbott was the paper’s political editor, Sweet became number two. But in 1987 publisher Robert Page hired Steve Neal away from the Tribune and gave him Talbott’s job.

Neal’s star gleamed doubly, his column on the op-ed page and his byline on page one. Talbott went off to Washington, and Sweet became harder to spot with the unaided eye. Never as marginalized, however, as some of her sympathetic colleagues made her out to be, Sweet kept busy in Coventry, spending some time in Springfield, poking into abortion and riverboat gambling, showing a nose for good stories.

Late last year the Sun-Times got a new editor. One of the most peculiar things about the paper, Dennis Britton soon concluded, was the political editor’s traditional double role. In September Britton ended the tradition. Steve Neal can still grind his axes to his heart’s content, but that’s his only chore now. Britton named Lynn Sweet the paper’s “political writer,” which is to say its top political reporter. She’s made an immediate difference.

With assistant city editor Steve Huntley, Sweet has been primarily responsible for designing her paper’s coverage of this fall’s elections. Britton gave the two of them top reporters such as Mark Brown and Jim Merriner to work with and plenty of space to fill; they’ve stuffed it like a New Age fruitcake, with tasty odds and ends high in protein, low in fat. We can’t remember seeing more useful information, more accessibly presented.

Sweet’s brightest idea was to scrutinize the candidates’ broadcast commercials. Media critics are always clamoring for this sort of hard-nosed response to the lies and hyperbole the candidates slosh over the air, and the reason there isn’t more of it is probably that it’s such damned hard work.

“These things are so labor-intensive,” Sweet told us last week, the same day the Sun-Times published her take on the ads in the Netsch-Suter race for state comptroller. Sweet said she’d worked on the piece for a week. “I’d say I had five or six pounds of material, including audits. I had faxed to me half an hour’s worth of fax time to get some more stuff, plus a bunch of phone calls, plus just going through it all to check each fact. But the whole point of these commercial checks is to be definitive. What we’re trying to avoid is ‘Candidate A said this and Candidate B said this’ and you leave the reader saying ‘So, what is the bottom line?'”

Sweet’s bottom line was that Netsch’s spot “inflates Netsch’s role as a cutter of state bureaucracy” and “tries to diminish Suter’s former Cabinet member status [she ran the Illinois Department of Public Aid] by calling her Thompson’s “aide.”‘ On the other hand, “the spot is correct in noting that agencies Suter ran were criticized by the auditor general. . . . A followup special audit noted improvements.”

As for Suter’s spot, “the biggest flaw . . . is the claim that Suter increased child support payments by 50 percent in one year. A generous interpretation of child support collections during Suter’s time as public aid chief, including months before and after she took office, pegs the increase at 38 percent.”

Sweet told us, “I did have the luxury here of going back to the campaign and saying, ‘Talk to me! What is your background information for generating this number [50 percent]?’

“Their argument on that was, ‘Well, you have to let her count the few months after she left office because her program was in place.’ Fine. I’m a realist.” But no matter how generously Sweet cooked the figures she couldn’t find 50 percent, and she said so.

“I’m sitting at my desk right now,” Sweet told us, “and on my desk I’m looking at nine cassette tapes and four audio tapes next to the press releases and the Almanac of Politics. Do you know that putting on those political ads was the first time I ever used one of those VCR machines? But I do know exaggeration and distortion and truth and accuracy when I hear it and see it. And when I don’t know it, I know the documents to go to.”

The reaction to Sweet’s little investigations has been interesting. From the phone calls she’s gotten, it’s clear that readers appreciate them. She’s even heard from two campaigns for state office. They want her to do their races.

We asked Sweet what she makes of that? She assumes that if she put their ads “under my nitpicker’s microscope, I could find stuff to critique,” but supposes these candidates are willing to take what she dishes out as long as their opponents catch it too.

Possibly, she said, artistic vanity is involved. Political advertising is, after all, a modern art form. It deserves its own new breed of critics, who may award one star for truth but three and a half for creative use of poetic license.

Our theory is that candidates for public office might have resorted to truth long ago if only there’d been some reason to. Lynn Sweet’s made honesty newsworthy; now you can read about it in the morning paper.

Sending in the Reserves

The authorities over at the Tribune told us they didn’t see anything wrong with their coverage out of New York. The Tribune ran perfectly fine wire-service copy on a distant labor dispute that, as managing editor Richard Ciccone told us, was at this point “no more than the banging of buses.”

“It’s not a big Chicago story,” explained media reporter James Warren. If the Tribune had gone after it full-tilt boogie, “I think you could have raised the question, ‘Why are you doing this, except you have a big financial interest?'”

What a mistake! The strike at the New York Daily News is no more a financial story about a massive media conglomerate crushing its unions in a distant city than the face-off in the Middle East is about oil. Chuck Goudie wasn’t over there interviewing derricks; he was talking to plucky Chicago lads who answered the call.

Would it be naive or unfair, we asked Ciccone, to observe that there was a wonderful human-interest story to be written about the Tribune volunteers airlifted into a potential combat situation in order to keep the Daily News up and running?

“Ahh, naive, no. Unfair, no,” said Ciccone, who gave us no reason to believe this gripping tale had been considered for an instant. “Everybody in this building had the not necessarily pleasant experience of walking through picket lines for a few years from the ’85 strike. I don’t think that’s a comfortable position for anyone to be in.”

Just as total American troop strength on the sands of Araby has remained a secret, so is the size of the Tribune cohort flown east last weekend to take up positions on 42nd Street. We estimate the editorial force at about a dozen. It’s a grim life facing them: 12-hour days, six-day weeks, doing work other journalists vacated out of principle, the same radiantly hostile journalists outside on the picket line. The new troops are being bunked at the New York Helmsley, separated from the Daily News Building by an alley under guard. But the Tribune Company provided strong financial incentives for these troops to sign up, not to mention the satisfaction of saving a great American newspaper.

The Chicago Tribune’s implacable loathing of its own unions and bold schemes to rid itself of them are old news in Chicago. Imagine the depths of passion in New York, where the Tribune’s sister paper, the Daily News–a crumbling giant that lost more than $100 million during the 80s–long ago convinced itself (and a good part of the newspaper industry) that it must crush labor or die. The standoff between the United States Army and Saddam Hussein is no more volatile than were the ten months of phony contract talks that ended last week, when the Daily News seized the pretext it had been praying for.

The incident was no more than a squabble at the Brooklyn printing plant over whether a union driver who was helping operate a conveyor belt could do his work sitting down–he said he had a bad knee. Hot words were exchanged between a business agent and some plant managers, the agent was evicted, and 34 angry drivers followed him out in sympathy. You’re on strike! the Daily News at once decreed, and within the hour a bus load of replacements was rumbling up to the printing plant. Full of fury and despair, nine unions and more than 2,000 Daily News employees quickly hit the bricks, knowing full well the paper wanted most of them gone so that a far cheaper work force could be assembled.

In Chicago the volunteer force was awakened well before dawn by ringing telephones: Be ready to move out! But this heart-wrenching drama made no appearance in the Tribune’s prosaic reportage. Denying all its natural instincts, the Tribune let an official spokesman do most of the talking. “It is indeed unfortunate that a strike was provoked by these unions against the Daily News at a time when we were involved in the collective bargaining process to resolve our differences,” said John Sloan. After a night of “scattered violence,” the Tribune had Sloan declaring, “These are orchestrated and purposeful criminal acts.”

The Tribune identified Sloan as the Daily News’s vice president for labor relations. His actual title is vice president for human relations, perhaps an insignificant difference.

We did our darnedest to reach the Tribune volunteers at the paper or at the Helmsley and ask the questions Chuck Goudie would ask about duty, morale, and the folks back home. But no one could say anything. One editor apologized and hung up, another said we’d have to speak to corporate relations in Chicago.

So we called Tom Stites, who’d be out there on 42nd Street right now except that he recently quit the Tribune, where he was an editor, and moved to Kansas City. Stites said that months ago, well before the Daily News’s labor contracts expired last March, Ciccone asked him if he’d go to New York when the time came.

“No arm-twisting was done,” Stites told us. “On the other hand, it goes with the territory–if you’re a management person, you do what your country needs you to do. I gritted my teeth and said, ‘If you need me.’ I’d worked in New York 12 years. I couldn’t figure any excuse I could make.”

In the months to come, the volunteers stayed pretty quiet about what they’d signed on for, Stites said. “It was kind of understood it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d have gung-ho conversations about. But nobody was gung-ho anyhow.”

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