WFMT Watch: Another Sudden Departure

It’s the classic case of the dog that didn’t bark. Nothing whatsoever seems to have gone on behind the scenes to account for Tom Voegeli’s resignation from WFMT. Which makes it all the more mysterious, right?

The Friends of WFMT rather liked Voegeli, the station’s top man. They have long perceived William McCarter, president of the board of the Chicago Educational Television Association, which owns WFMT, as one of the galaxy’s dark forces. So it stands to reason that McCarter drove off Voegeli, his senior vice president of radio. And indeed, various Friends passed along a rumor that this is exactly what happened.

But where’s the evidence? “It was a highly cordial departure,” Voegeli insisted. “I wasn’t asked to leave in any way.” Station manager Al Antlitz says Voegeli and McCarter seemed to get along famously. And we just got off the phone with Patricia Clem, editor of the Friends’ newsletter. “What I heard today from some people is these people think it was Voegeli’s choice to get out,” she admitted.

This much is documented. On April 30 Voegeli attended a Friends of WFMT forum in Hyde Park. He sounded enthusiastic and permanent. “I’m spending every waking hour on a long-range strategic plan to move this station,” he declared.

Two days later Voegeli sent a memo to the CETA Radio Committee, which oversees the station, and to the WFMT staff. “I find that my love of production work remains as strong as ever,” he said. (Before joining CETA last November he’d been a senior producer with Minnesota Public Radio.) “So for purely personal reasons, I’ll be leaving CETA on July 31 for a free-lance production career, hopefully based in Chicago.

What happened between April 30 and May 2 to turn you around? we asked Voegeli. “Absolutely nothing,” he said. So you knew on the 30th you were leaving? we asked him. He said he did.

The Friends were intrigued by the idea Voegeli floated last month to turn WFMT into “a bold new hybrid” whose revenues came not just from commercials and syndication, but also from subscriptions and foundation grants. What now? Has WFMT’s once and future splendor lost its best friend at court?

We asked Susan Lipman, who’s president of the Friends’ executive committee and a new member of the CETA Radio Committee, what she makes of Voegeli’s resignation. “It speaks to a serious management problem that has existed there now for a number of years,” she said. “These are perilous times that we live in, and it would be nice to know that there was some leadership one could count on at the radio station.”

Instability is rife. A year ago Jay Andres was brought over from WNIB to handle the afternoon show, and radio consultant Peter Dominowski came on as program director. Now both are gone. That’s fine with the Friends, who helped run them off. But what about Voegeli?

“If he were for any reason asked to leave, that’s ominous, isn’t it?” said Quentin Young, who chairs the Friends’ executive committee. “I don’t want to believe it.”

It’s a terrible thing to believe. So some Friends don’t and some do.

Palm Beach Story

New York Times bent itself into a pretzel trying to practice situation ethics. The Times, you’ll recall, brought censure and scorn–much of it coming from within–down on its head when it published the name of the woman in Palm Beach, Florida, who’d accused Ted Kennedy’s nephew of raping her.

The Times said why it did this. It blathered some about confronting “the idea that rape is a crime that permanently damages a woman’s reputation.” But the big reason was that the night before, NBC News had identified the woman. So there was no longer a secret to keep.

Well, despite the Times and NBC’s vast combined powers of revelation, the secret is magically alive and well again. Or is the Times just trying to placate its staff with an empty gesture? At any rate, even as the woman’s accusations led to William Kennedy Smith’s being charged with sexual battery, the Times once more drew a curtain around her identity.

At least that’s how the Times handled its own coverage. Its op-ed page was another matter. Last week it published the free-lance reflections of investigative reporter Jonathan Kwitny, and Kwitny named the woman. So the Times had it both ways–on one page keeping the secret, on another spilling it. This performance did not look as Solomonic as the paper might have hoped.

We’re not sure what the best way to cover the Palm Beach story would have been. If someone unknown wandered into the city room of any serious paper, accused a member of a rich and famous family of grave wrongdoing, and asked that these accusations be published before their truth could be clearly established, and further asked that his or her name be kept out of it, he or she would be shown the door. Are a newspaper’s ethical choices fundamentally different if the wrongdoing is rape and the accusations come to it via the police? Shouldn’t a paper that declines to print an accuser’s name also withhold the story entirely?

But millions of Americans would have been furious if the media had hushed up Ted Kennedy’s night on the town with his nephew and its aftermath. Given Chappaquiddick, silence would have been interpreted (when word of the night inevitably leaked out) as one more instance of Kennedy influence buying the family out of trouble.

So the media had two things to offer the woman: (1) blanket coverage of her accusations, and (2) anonymity. The New York Times was condemned for not providing both.

It is not difficult to construct an argument that the woman in Palm Beach deserved her privacy while the police investigated her story, but that once William Kennedy Smith was formally charged, matters had progressed to a point where her identity could no longer be concealed.

It is not difficult to argue (if ironically) just the opposite–that when the media report the terrible things that one person says about another, both parties must be named if either is; but that once these accusations receive the imprimatur of a felony indictment, an alleged rape victim deserves special consideration.

What is less easy to construct is the argument that the woman deserves concessions every step of the way because her needs transcend the story. “First, do no harm” is the creed of another profession, not journalism. The pain and shame of rape are unique. But they do not relieve a paper of its other obligations. Journalism that conceals the accuser is not just incomplete but distorted.

The Times compounded its problems by particularizing the woman in a profile that mentioned her out-of-wedlock child and quoted someone as saying she’d had “a little wild streak” back in high school and someone else as observing that “she liked to drink and have fun with the ne’er-do-wells in cafe society.” A horrified Anna Quindlen, writing in the Times, wished an editor had asked, “How does all this advance the story?”

Well, one of the story’s many lumped-together details was that the woman is the stepdaughter of the former chairman of the General Tire and Rubber Company, a man of considerable means. She does not sound like someone the Kennedys could have just blown off if the media hadn’t stepped in to champion her. And like it or not, the details of her sexual past probably anticipate Smith’s defense.

What if Smith’s lawyer’s tactics, whatever they turn out to be, work? Presumably the woman will be shielded throughout the trial, if there is a trial. But if William Kennedy Smith is acquitted, what then? Will the media decide the verdict reflected clever, vicious lawyering rather than justice and go on protecting her? Or will they turn on her?

As you can see, we haven’t named the woman either. Perhaps you find something offensive about our evasions. So do we. We were decent but we didn’t do our job. Jonathan Kwitny went to the heart of the matter. “A woman who goes home with the Kennedys from a bar in the wee hours doesn’t give up her right not to be raped,” Kwitny wrote. “But she does give up her right not to be written about if something remarkable happens, whether by her will or against it.”

Cardinal Synergy

The Tribune committed one of the cardinal sins last week. It let the advertising paw the editorial.

A full-page ad for the Douglas electronics stores in the Sunday, May 5, Trib ballyhooed an upcoming demonstration of high-definition television–“the television of the future”–at Douglas’s Deerfield store. And the upper right corner of the ad announced: “Look for Rich Waren’s HDTV article May 9th (in Tribune).”

The name’s Warren, not Waren. The article ran May 10, not May 9. And it wasn’t really an article, just two paragraphs at the end of Warren’s weekly column in the Friday section in which he mentioned the demo of Toshiba’s HDTV equipment. Even so, here was an advertiser sure enough of a friendly news story to tout it in advance.

It all happened innocently. Craig Eggers, a local Toshiba rep, called Warren to tell him about the demo. Sounds worth a mention, said Warren. Eggers passed this remark along to the folks at Douglas, who then gingered up their ad.

After the ad ran, Warren was “shocked,” the folks at Douglas weren’t talking, and Eggers–who got it (wrongly) into his head that Warren was in big trouble at the Tribune–blamed himself for everything. “My jaw is on the ground,” he told us dolefully.

Actually, there’s no one to fault here but the Tribune’s display-ad department, which should never have accepted Douglas’s copy. On the other hand, times are tough. If more advertisers start plugging upcoming stories, it can only help.

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