What Ozzie Meant

A year from now someone will ask Ozzie Guillen, “What about that sensitivity training?” and he’ll say something like “Took a correspondence course–my son helped me fill in the answers,” and the world will laugh.

Jay Mariotti won’t laugh. The Sun-Times columnist isn’t the type to laugh or be laughed with. He’s a humorless loner. And when the White Sox manager called him a “fucking fag,” writers around town wagged a finger at Guillen but sidled away from Mariotti.

“I’ve got a lot of reporters jealous of me. To hell with them,” Mariotti told me. “I call those reporters ‘housemen.’ They need to take care of themselves and break some stories in town.”

Over the years sportswriters have complained to me–perhaps out of jealousy, though I’ve never thought so–that Mariotti takes shots but doesn’t show up in clubhouses. Last Friday the Tribune’s Rick Morrissey went public with that indictment. He noted, in Tribspeak, that Guillen had called Mariotti a “derogatory term for a homosexual.” Morrissey wrote, “Inexcusable and indefensible,” then added context. “Guillen considers Mariotti a coward for not backing up his often-angry columns with even an occasional appearance in the Sox’s clubhouse. Mariotti doesn’t believe it’s his duty as a columnist to meet and greet the people he has ripped. . . . I do know one thing: If you’re a sports columnist, you show up in the clubhouse to face the music. It’s a matter of fairness.”

There’s never been any love lost between Mariotti and his Sun-Times rival, Rick Telander, who last Monday wrote roughly the same thing: “What Guillen kept bringing up was his old-school feeling that something is wrong with the world when a writer–to wit: Mariotti–can write at times personally hurtful commentary about Ozzie and his team without ever being physically present in front of them.” Telander helpfully reminded readers that Mariotti’s column has called Guillen the “Blizzard of Oz,” departed slugger Frank Thomas the “Big Skirt.”

What about that? host Phil Ponce asked Mariotti Monday evening on Chicago Tonight. Mariotti replied that “Blizzard of Oz” is clever and harmless. As for “Big Skirt”–it somehow vanished in Mariotti’s own blizzard of words. “If you’ve read my column I haven’t complained about me being called this name [fag],” he told Ponce. “I am detaching myself from it and looking at the manager of the White Sox who used a slur a year ago and–these are serious issues now, Phil–and why the commissioner of baseball would only give him a fine, which is probably light, and sensitivity training. . . . If this is all Ozzie is going to do, if this is just a silly little thing, then what is Ozzie going to gain out of it?”

Ponce repeatedly asked Mariotti to elaborate on something he’d said on the radio about his own paper not standing behind him, but Mariotti wouldn’t. He came across as a tough guy who’d decided to hang on to his job.

Mariotti told me the day Morrissey’s column appeared that he shuns the Sox clubhouse because of a series of “ugly, vicious episodes that went unaddressed.” Then he e-mailed me a 12-episode list, dating back to a column he wrote accusing Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig–now baseball’s commissioner–of leading a 1992 coup against then-commissioner Fay Vincent. “I was highly critical,” Mariotti told me. “Soon afterward Reinsdorf’s secretary called and said I am never to talk to him again.”

Ultimately Mariotti blames Reinsdorf for everything, including “Ozzie Guillen butt-naked standing behind me in the clubhouse doing a hip salute” and Thomas “telling me he’s going to stick the bat up my ass sideways.”

So sayonara to the clubhouse. “Clubhouse columnists don’t get shit in clubhouses,” Mariotti told me. He turned philosophical. He said that when Guillen called him a fag he could have gone looking for Guillen in the clubhouse. He thought about it. “But what would have happened? He could have hit me. He could have choked me. He could have just screamed at me–best-case scenario. What exactly does that serve? I refuse to be part of this flying circus. If he wants to call and meet like a man and not in front of his frat house, I’m available. But not in that circus. That’s the jock mentality, and I don’t buy into it.”

I’ve been writing about Mariotti since he arrived in Chicago 15 years ago. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Columnists write all the time about people they wouldn’t recognize if they passed them in the street. Editorial writers offer coruscating opinions of people they don’t know and places they’ve never been.

That’s journalism. But witness is journalism’s irreducible core. And sportswriters are the most old-fashioned of journalists and athletes the most old-fashioned of other people. Clubhouses are where jocks and scribes circle and sniff each other. Mariotti boasts of his sources in other places, but he’s remarkably estranged from this environment, where the circlers and sniffers ultimately piss on the same hydrants.

Good News About the First Amendment

The Illinois Supreme Court finally spoke last week in Solaia v. Specialty Publishing, delivering a judgment that comforted the state’s guardians of the First Amendment. At risk in this case was the fair-report privilege, the doctrine that shields journalists from legal liability if they accurately report defamatory statements made in a pub-lic forum, such as a lawsuit or a city council meeting. The court left the privilege healthier than they found it.

“Plainly, freedom of the press is illusory if a cloud of defamation liability darkens the media’s reports of official proceedings,” wrote Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, in an opinion signed by four of the six other justices. “We hold that the fair report privilege does not yield to allegations that a media defendant reported with actual malice false statements made in an official proceeding.” The court reversed a 2005 opinion from Appellate Judge Anne Burke suggesting the privilege does yield. Burke joins the court in July, and journalists and First Amendment attorneys wondered how willing the court would be to contradict her. Because Chief Justice Bob Thomas is pursuing a defamation suit against a columnist for the Kane County Chronicle, he didn’t take part in the case.

Justice Charles Freeman dissented in part. He argued that the privilege shouldn’t protect journalists covering a suit until some judicial action has been taken on it, otherwise suits might be filed simply to pro-vide defamation with legal protection. But the majority preferred a more expansive read-ing of the privilege.

News Bites

The financial troubles and board struggles besetting the Tribune Company are being covered as a business story, but the product of that business is journalism. This week’s three-part Tribune series by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley on the 1989 execution in Texas of a man who was probably innocent was frighteningly good. Few papers would have bothered with the sad story of Carlos De Luna; what’s frightening is the possibility that the Tribune could turn into one of the many that wouldn’t, if different or chastened owners decree stories such as this one–set years ago in a distant state, seemingly remote from the lives of Tribune readers–an indefensible indulgence.

“So what should we think of Ro Marr Gipson?” the Tribune editorial page wondered on June 21. At the age of seven Ro Marr was wrongly accused of the murder of Ryan Harris; now a 15-year-old, he’s just been charged with aggravated battery with a firearm. “Is he a victim because of the trauma he suffered eight years ago. . . . Or is he simply another teenager accused of a coldhearted crime?”

But Ro Marr is both. The Tribune had proposed a paradox, and if the paper had thought it through, this would have been an editorial worth reading. But the Tribune didn’t think it through. “A false accusation creates deep and lasting damage,” it concluded. “It does not create a license to commit mayhem.”

This was a retreat into banality. Arguing against a license no serious person would argue for evaded the difficult question the Tribune had raised in the first place: what should we think of Ro Marr Gipson?

aThere’s no building along the north side of Illinois Street opposite the Reader building, but that doesn’t make this space a “long vacant site,” which is what the Sun-Times’s David Roeder called it in a June 21 column. A park occupies the site: trees, flowers, fountains, benches, and occasionally bands that play noon concerts. A shorter copy of the AMA tower that shares the block was supposed to be built there, and to the relief of lots of people, it wasn’t. But according to Roeder, developer John Buck now hopes to put up a hotel. Roeder hinted at the charm of this space later in his column when he called it a “popular outdoor respite for River North office workers.” As he might have noted, it’s a respite from the cheap beige shoe boxes Buck has thrown up around it, turning River North into the city’s most conspicuous wasted planning opportunity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell, AP Photo/Jeff Roberson.