By Michael Miner
Under intense community pressure, the executive editor of the Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph killed a story that would have presented too positive a picture of homosexuals. Or so I’ve been told.
“You’ve been told incorrectly,” said the editor, Fred Kardon.
Would you mind explaining what happened? I asked him.
“I don’t do interviews,” he said.
This struck me as not especially appropriate for an editor.
“Well, that’s the way it goes.” And he hung up.
Too bad. Kardon has much to reflect on. He’s just spent hard time vised between two local gay leaders and the Christian Coalition. Looking on in horror was a reporter who’d thrown her heart and soul into the story he didn’t run. This story–which has either been killed or, according to features editor Steve Gleason, simply held up until whenever–describes several months in the lives of the two gay men and their teenage daughter. The sin I wanted Kardon to explain is why he had the story in hand and then let the Pantagraph suffer the embarrassment of being scooped.
More than a year ago Pantagraph reporter Mary Fergus approached Ron Frazier, Tom McCulley, and 15-year-old Heidi Frazier and asked to tell their story. She would observe them over a year, write about them in her paper, and perhaps ultimately do a book. They decided to cooperate.
And what a year it was. First Bloomington and then Normal was split by a proposed gay-rights ordinance. The Pantagraph–which despite its motto “Independent in everything, neutral in nothing” knows when not to stick its head out (in 1994 it withheld as “religiously offensive for a family newspaper” a Doonesbury encounter between gay Mark Slackmeyer and a Christian fundamentalist)–was by Frazier and McCulley’s partisan measure honorably covering the passionate debate. The two of them emerged as leaders in the gay cause, while the Christian Coalition of Illinois–headquartered until very recently in Bloomington–led the opposition.
Fergus took it all in. She would visit Frazier and McCulley at home some evenings, follow them to rallies some others. She was doing the patient, observant, sensitive sort of reporting from which a superior work of journalism might emerge.
But last March the comfortable relationship underwent a sea change. With the Bloomington vote already lost but the Normal vote ahead, Frazier and McCulley welcomed any publicity they could find. They began talking to Barbara Sandler, a Chicago-based reporter for People magazine, which had decided to do a long feature on gay families in America. Frazier and McCulley’s story no longer belonged just to the Pantagraph and Fergus. Obviously given new orders, says Frazier, “she went to work with a fervor that irritated us. She was being demanding and pushy.”
That’s what happens to reporters when working conditions change, when the magnum opus they intend to finish in the fullness of time suddenly collides with a deadline. But then the Pantagraph either thought better of racing to publish or lost its nerve. Even before the People story appeared in June, Fergus told Frazier and McCulley that hers was being held up indefinitely.
“The editors felt it was not a good time to run the story,” McCulley says. “Given that our family had chosen to expose itself to Mary for a full year–in very intimate detail, in more intimate detail than People magazine went into–that upset us. And so we told Mary we were really unhappy. Angry enough to say we were considering whether to withdraw our support of the story, even though we know that when you talk to reporters they own the story.”
Frazier and McCulley went in to confront Kardon and Gleason. Frazier told me that Kardon “alluded to receiving a great deal of mail, and all of it, he said, was fervently against the Pantagraph printing any kind of news of any sort having to do with gay and lesbian issues. They were going to pull their subscriptions. The volume was tremendous.”
“Fred said a lot about hate mail, there’d already been a lot of coverage, the story was not necessarily timely,” McCulley remembers. Assuming Kardon did raise the issue of timeliness–and it’s an argument an editor backed into a corner almost certainly would make–what he meant was the show was over. The Normal council had just rejected that city’s ordinance, and the local gay-rights debate was therefore history. McCulley says Kardon told them the time had come for people’s wounds to heal. Given those angry subscribers, no doubt he was thinking along the same lines about his newspaper.
Says McCulley, “We told them point-blank we felt they were suppressing the story because it was a positive portrayal of a gay family. We also told them that we were very political now, we’ve spoken at a lot of public forums, and if people asked us for instances of discrimination we’d give the example of that meeting, because we felt they were withholding the story for improper reasons.”
Was Fergus at the meeting? I asked Frazier. Yes, he said. “She looked pretty beaten. She sat there all hunched over, looking down at the floor. She looked miserable. To tell the truth, we really haven’t talked to her that much since then. There’s nothing to really talk to her about anyway. They’ve got their article, whatever it is. We’re certainly not going to work with them any further.”
The opposite case against the Pantagraph was advanced by David Curtin, a former legislative aide to James “Pate” Philip, Republican majority leader of the Illinois senate. Today Curtin’s executive director of the Christian Coalition of Illinois.
“I don’t think they were criticized for their coverage of the ordinance,” Curtin told me. “They were criticized for their coverage of other pieces on the homosexual issue. I do know they ran one first-page story on homosexuals living in Bloomington and their plight, with a color photograph and continued on another page. A lot of people canceled their subscriptions over that.”
What was the problem with it?
“They only gave one side of the story,” Curtin said. “It was that gay rights were civil rights, and here are the things they’re going through, and this is what the heterosexual community is inflicting on the homosexual community, and isn’t this all terrible! And people were looking for the other side of the story. I called them up and asked when they were going to do the other side of the story. They said, ‘We aren’t going to do the other side.’ I said, ‘Don’t you normally do the other side?'”
What other side did you have in mind? I asked.
“I suggested, perhaps you could do a story–and I’ll be happy to provide names to talk to–maybe you can do a story on, if they pass the ordinance, what discrimination that will cause people who believe homosexuality is wrong. You can interview a landlord. You can interview the clergy. They weren’t interested in doing that. I pretty well knew that. You could pretty well tell where the reporters’ leanings were. The night after the Bloomington vote the line was, well, there aren’t going to be any civil rights in Bloomington. It’s always slanted that way, which is no different from any other paper.
“I’m very comfortable with the fact that most reporters are either moderate or liberal–moderate on the Democratic side or liberal on the Democratic side. That’s just the way it is and the way it will be. But the people I work with and the people living their lives and raising their families, it’s a little different.
“The paper itself, interestingly enough, came out against the Bloomington ordinance. I didn’t think they had very good reasons. It was pretty shallow. I think they said there’s no evidence of discrimination. I forget the other reason. We had a lot of other reasons.”
The article on local gay life that Curtin dismissed as one-sided and the editorial he dismissed as trivial both appeared last October. “Since 1989, only 10 complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation were received by the commission. That hardly seems sufficient to justify expanding the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance,” the Pantagraph editorial had argued. “Adding another protected class…will put people at risk of becoming involved in an expensive legal situation, but it will do little to help homosexuals gain acceptance from those who strongly oppose them.”
After Bloomington’s city council voted nay in January the editorial page spoke again. “If acts of discrimination escalate in the wake of the ordinance’s defeat, that could change the minds of many who thought the ordinance was unnecessary….The debate surrounding the issue drew attention to the depth of feelings–some might say outright hatred–among many opposed to a gay rights ordinance….Vandalism associated with the issue was unnerving.”
As the May vote approached in Normal the Pantagraph kept its opinions to itself. Frazier and McCulley say Kardon told them he’d considered running their story just before the climactic city council meeting but decided the Pantagraph would then appear to be taking sides. By that point neutrality must have been looking pretty good.
Mary Fergus, still hoping her story will appear one day in the Pantagraph, wouldn’t speak to me. Good luck to her, and she should hang on to that book idea. Everything that’s happened will only make it more interesting.
What does a woman wear? Nigel Wade (along with millions of other men) probably doesn’t have a clue. The celebrated memo the Sun-Times’s editor recently posted in the newsroom decreeing that reporters “should wear business attire when on duty” went on to say that “for men, this means a jacket and tie are required.”
“He ignored the women,” noted the swift rejoinder posted by the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which also filed a grievance alleging a unilateral change in working conditions. “Don’t they count?”
When I called Wade he was too sick of defending his ukase to discuss it any longer. So I’ll answer for him. Of course women count. But no male editor unwilling to make a fool of himself would dare try to dictate style to women.
Wade might have gone on to say, “For women, this means, well, you know, a fetching ensemble.” Or he might have approached the matter negatively, proclaiming, “For women, this means no going barefoot and no jeans with holes in the knees,” striking a decisive blow against a nonexistent problem. He was wise enough to do neither.
The dress debate reminded me of a story I covered for the Sun-Times back in the 70s, a catastrophic fire in a nightclub outside Cincinnati in which dozens of people died. The assignment was strictly come as you are: reporters poured in from across the country in jeans, sweatshirts, bush jackets. No one hauled out of bed by an editor paused to shave before racing to the airport.
But that afternoon two exceptions to the rule arrived on the scene. The man was the picture of thoughtful dignity in his three-piece pinstripe suit and glistening shoes. He moved among the authorities and mourners, jotting notes with an air of concerned elegance that the crusty press corps couldn’t approximate. The woman with him was equally resplendent.
A ragamuffin by comparison, I approached the man and introduced myself. Who are you with? I asked.
“The National Enquirer,” he said.
So how much is Michael Jordan making next season, the $25 million reported by the Sun-Times or the $30 million reported by the Tribune? It’s been inspiring to see both papers stick by their guns and their sources, even though one (if not both) has to be wrong. If you’re looking for a tiebreaker, the New York Times came down on the side of the Sun-Times, noting that Jordan had inked a “reported one-year $25 million contract.” The trifling discrepancy is twice the size of Phil Jackson’s $2.5 million contract, which looked like serious money when he got it.
Putting on airs? There’s nothing unusual about the Tribune lifting a story from the New York Times News Service–what’s a little deja vu among newspapers? But last Sunday, when the Tribune sports section carried an Ira Berkow column on Michael Jordan and sweatshops that the Times had published two days earlier, the Tribune grandly presented it as a “guest column.” The Tribune is the most hospitable of papers. It welcomes as guests not only the New York Times but Reuters, the Associated Press, and even its own reporters, many of whom are invited to stay for a whole year.
The best journalism I’ve seen on Woodlawn’s Green Line controversy is Shannon Jones’s piece in the new StreetWise. It hits all the main points of the tear-down-the-el/leave-it-up debate, and comes with a map that shows us where things are. What’s more, StreetWise doesn’t zone, so no matter where you buy the paper you can be sure Jones’s article will be in it. Not every Chicago paper is so considerate.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ron Frazier, Heidi Frazier and Tom McCulley by People Weekley/Taro Yamasaki.