White Guys Need Not Apply

The Tribune’s looking for a new movie critic, preferably a woman. It wants someone “to review major releases and to enhance our coverage of an increasingly important area in American culture and of heightened focus at the newspaper.”

It’s the number two slot that opened up, but the job notice the Tribune posted in-house, at other Tribune Company papers, and on www.journalismjobs.com didn’t get into that. “The critic should possess a broad knowledge of movies, a contemporary perspective on their evolution and have an informed, entertaining, accessible writing style. Candidates should have the ability to analyze movies as individual works of art and to relate movie themes to the larger world of pop culture and trends in society.”

Nothing in the job notice says the Tribune favors a woman, but it does. Entertainment editor Scott Powers concedes that “the diversity of voices has to be an important factor for any hiring decision.” The Web site www.moviecitynews.com reported this week that seven women critics were flown to Chicago to discuss the job, but that’s probably an overstatement. I know of two women and a man who have been in Chicago for talks.

The Tribune made the opportunity sound spectacular: “Coverage of major film festivals is a key part of the job, as is writing larger expository pieces on developments in the industry….This critic’s reviews should appeal to readers as great pieces of writing, beyond their crucial function in guiding readers’ moviegoing decisions.”

Mary Elson, associate managing editor for features, says the Tribune was hit with a “tidal wave . . . hundreds of responses . . . a pool of really, really spectacular people.”

The most obvious in-house candidate to fill the new position–not that in-house candidates have been seriously considered–is Mark Caro. After all, Caro filled the old one–“Tribune movie reporter.” He began reviewing movies for the Tribune in 1995 as Michael Wilmington’s number two, more likely to write up the new movie opening at the multiplexes than the one at Landmark’s Century Centre. A versatile writer, Caro took on occasional other assignments, such as a profile last fall of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. But film was his focus, and the Tribune Web site called him a movie critic.

His byline didn’t, however, and neither did his pay grade. From time to time Caro suggested he be formally upgraded to critic, but his bosses kept finding reasons to say no.

A month ago the ambiguity was lifted from Caro’s status. He was taken off movies and reassigned as an “entertainment reporter.” Powers says, “He’s extraordinarily valuable to the paper in that role.” Elson says, “He had reporting skills that were the best of anybody on our staff.”

The search for a new critic is to fill the hole caused by Caro’s transfer. Caro could be indefinitely denied the title of critic because he was already on staff, but you can’t string along somebody you haven’t hired yet or cheap out a position if you hope to fill it with anyone good. So the title denied Caro is being dangled before the applicants to succeed him.

Caro has mixed feelings about this. “I’m glad I was finally able to convince the Tribune they need a second critic,” he says. On the other hand, “I think in the Tribune culture reporting is valued higher than reviewing. I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong. I’ve always valued reporting myself.” When he was young he wanted to be Royko, not Siskel.

Wilmington has a favorite candidate, but he wouldn’t tell me who. He’s contributed his own opinions to the search process, but he’s basically watching it from the sidelines, perhaps uneasily. “We’re creating an additional full-time critic’s slot,” says Elson. “Not number one or number two.”

Wilmington has his own memories of life as a number two. Until the Tribune hired him away in 1993 he’d been the second-string critic at the Los Angeles Times. The Times had hired him from a local alternative paper nine years earlier. “He thought the Times was offering him a job on staff,” I wrote in ’93. “What he got, thanks to management shifts, routine bureaucratic betrayal, and his own naivete, was high-profile piecework–no desk to call his own, no health insurance.” He was still freelancing when he left the Times for the Tribune.

Praise or Petulance?

Journalists don’t read newspapers the same way other people do. Here’s evidence of that.

On Friday, July 30, Michael Sneed, reporting from the Democratic National Convention for the Sun-Times, contributed a juicy little story that posed the question in the headline: “Is Jackson Jr. jealous of Obama’s ascent?”

“It all began quietly enough,” Sneed wrote. “A chance encounter in the elevator of the Hilton Boston Back Bay Hotel, where the Illinois delegation was staying . . . and a whispered comment by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. about the Democratic Party’s new messiah, Barack Obama.

“‘If I’m not mistaken, I believe he took elements of Dr. King’s original “I Have A Dream” speech to use in his address,’ stated Jackson–referring to Obama’s Democratic National Convention oratory, which has propelled him into the political stratosphere.

“Hmmm. Compliment or criticism?

“It sounded more like a whiff of jealousy . . .”

No way, said the congressman, who called Sneed as soon as he read the story. Obama and I are old friends.

So Sneed took it back. She squeezed in an extra paragraph at the top of her column on Sunday, August 1, that said:

“First let me clear one thing up. I wrote about Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. making a comment about Barack Obama’s speech and I wrote it the way I heard it, but Jackson told me Friday that definitely was not how he meant it. He said Obama’s speech was strong and compelling like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and I apologize to Jackson for any misunderstanding.”

Letters from Jackson and Obama in the same issue of the Sun-Times insisted on their amity.

Sneed reader Darrell Mitchell, a belligerently familiar presence in the in-boxes of Chicago journalism, launched e-mail to every Sun-Times personage he could think of denouncing her for bowing to the “Jackson family mafia.” Assuming we’d appreciate his critique, he included the Reader on his mailing list. I’d barely finished his diatribe when I got a call from one of Chicago journalism’s shrewd old hands. His take on Sneed’s story was totally different.

I’ve read it a couple of times, he said, and I’m not sure she was even in the elevator.

He pointed out the telltale signs of professional-strength weasel wording.

“A chance encounter . . .” By whom? Sneed? But it doesn’t say that.

“A whispered comment . . .” To whom? Sneed? It doesn’t say that.

“It sounded more like a whiff of jealousy . . .” To whom? Sneed? It doesn’t say that.

“I wrote it the way I heard it . . .” From whom? Jackson? It doesn’t say that.

My caller, who knows how the sausage gets made, had a hunch it wasn’t Sneed who overheard Jackson but someone who passed along the story to her. No wonder she backed down when challenged.

So I spoke to Sneed and Jackson. Yes, the columnist and the congressman did briefly find themselves in the same elevator, and during the ride Jackson did remark on Obama’s speech to another passenger. Sneed’s column was on the up and up. Or to put it another way, she lavished her powers of guile on a situation that didn’t require them.

But in the end it did. I took a second look at Sneed’s retraction, again doing a careful reading of the text. “I wrote it the way I heard it, but . . . I apologize to Jackson for any misunderstanding.” Any? In other words, Sneed wasn’t actually conceding there’d been one.

Extras! Extras!

Last Sunday three copies of the Sun-Times were tossed onto my porch. One I got because I subscribe. The other two came wrapped in coarse paper that said “This newspaper compliments of Jacobs Bros. Bagels. Get Fresh With Us!”

A day later I noticed two bagel-underwritten copies of the Sunday Sun-Times still lying on the porch of the empty house next door. I presume two copies were tossed at the front door of every house on the block.

Surely Jacobs Bros. expected the 60,000 papers it paid a cut-rate price for to be delivered to 60,000 front doors. Nobody needs two copies of the same newspaper–let alone three. But it wasn’t the interests of the bagel purveyor that concerned me as I lugged the three papers inside. The Sun-Times recently made headlines by admitting to circulation fraud. Was this more of the same? And whether or not it was, wouldn’t a lot of people think so?

Paul Glaeser, the paper’s new circulation boss, says it’s “a little strange” that anyone would get two Jacobs Bros. papers; the “alternate delivery program” obviously has some kinks in it. Up to a point newspapers can legitimately count these papers as paid bulk circulation. But if a household is already a subscriber, the extra paper (or papers) that arrives at the front door shouldn’t get added in.

A pall of desperation hangs over the circulation-boosting ploys of today’s publishers. A newspaper that obtains a foothold on a front porch won’t easily surrender it–as Carrie Weston of Logan Square recently discovered.

Weston explained to me that she’s “completely anal” and recycles everything. The free weekend editions of La Raza and Hoy that kept coming and coming drove her nuts. And they weren’t all. “There’s the ‘Galaxy of Mailbox Values,’ unsolicited catalogs, the endless stream of restaurant menus, home service flyers–it all adds up,” she said.

In March she fired off identical e-mails to La Raza and Hoy. “Every week we get multiple copies of [name of paper] delivered to our English-speaking, single-family home. I don’t want the continued hassle of throwing them away every week, and I am sick of picking up papers that have come apart and blow all over my yard and neighborhood. Is it possible to get the person who works this route to stop delivering them to us?”

Hoy’s a daily paper published by the Tribune Company in Florida, New York, and Chicago. Its interim publisher is Digby Solomon of Chicago, who was promoted last month from general manager of the Chicago Hoy after Hoy admitted to overstating circulation figures in New York and Solomon’s predecessor suddenly retired.

Solomon got back to Weston. “We will take care of this immediately,” he told her, and asked if she was getting Hoy itself or the weekend edition, FS (for Fin de Semana).

FS, Weston answered. “Thanks for your help.”

But FS continued to arrive. As did La Raza. In April Weston e-mailed La Raza a second time. “What is it going to take?” she wondered. “I swear I am getting so frustrated I am going to collect all the issues I get and dump them on your front doorstep.”

In May she tried again. “I have written to you twice and never has anyone written me back about the problem I have with delivery of La Raza. I don’t want it, and quite frankly, none of my neighbors do either. . . . I don’t know what to do since you never ever respond. So, to make myself at least feel better, please feel free to go fuck yourselves.”

That ended her correspondence. “At least they put the things in plastic sleeves now,” she told me later. “It’s less of a hassle to pull the plastic off and put it in a blue bag and take it to the recycling place.”

One of Weston’s neighbors is the Reader’s managing editor, Kiki Yablon. In May she posted a sign in two languages that said she did not want FS or La Raza in her yard, but the sign was disregarded, as were her telephone calls. On August 5 Yablon got personal. “I would think,” she e-mailed La Raza, “that with Hoy and the Sun-Times getting busted for puffing up their circulation numbers you would want to be more careful about distributing your paper where it is clearly not wanted.”

Last weekend La Raza didn’t arrive at either house. FS didn’t either.

“If the implication is we’re flooding the market with tens of thousands of [unwanted] papers I deny that categorically,” says Digby Solomon. “There’s no way to make any delivery mechanism perfect. We get 30 or 40 calls a week. Mistakes happen. Some agents cheat. What we do in that case is, we fire them.”