Winning Isn’t Anything

The Chicago Headline Club’s Ethics in Journalism Award, always an eccentric honor, was bestowed last Friday night on the editor of the Daily Southtown, who wasn’t sure he deserved it, and on the Tribune, which wanted nothing to do with it. Even though the Tribune delegation filled two tables at the Lisagor Awards dinner, held annually to recognize winners in the Headline Club’s journalism competition, its ethics award went unclaimed. At the end of the evening, ethics committee chair Casey Bukro took it home with him. The next day Bukro, a night reporter at the Tribune, talked a security guard into unlocking editor Ann Marie Lipinski’s office, and he left the award on her desk in its box, under a copy of the dinner program.

Bukro is the father of the ethics award. “Our critics say that ethics in journalism is an oxymoron,” he wrote in 1999, three years after the award was established. “The Chicago Headline Club tries to prove the critics wrong.” My own view is that ethics in the kind of journalism the Lisagors honor each year is closer to redundant than oxymoronic, and that Bukro’s quest for ethical conduct that goes above and beyond has led his committee to make some quixotic choices.

History offers several examples, but I’ll stick to this year’s. In February Mark Hornung, publisher of Hollinger International’s Daily Southtown and south-suburban Star newspapers, decided to publish a house ad in support of the U.S. troops in Iraq. It would run as soon as war broke out and carry the names of everyone at the papers who wanted to be listed. The editors told Hornung it was a great idea.

But then Southtown news columnist Phil Kadner and sports columnist Phil Arvia told their editor, Mike Waters, it was a bad idea. The ad would be read as prowar. It would compromise the objectivity of any reporters who signed it, make it harder for them to cover antiwar activities. If some reporters signed, readers might question the patriotism of the ones who didn’t. Waters decided he agreed with them. Though his first reaction had been to encourage his staff to sign the ad, his second was to tell them they couldn’t.

Among journalists, refusing to play along with a publisher’s PR caprices is the virtual definition of righteous behavior. Kadner, Arvia, and Waters were all nominated for an ethics award, and the next move was Bukro’s. “It’s my custom to talk to all the people who are nominated,” he explains, “and so I called Kadner and also called Arvia and Waters and asked why they did what they did and under what circumstances they did it. We ought to prove that the reasons proposed are accurate.”

When Waters found out what he was being considered for, he was astonished. Hornung, who thought Waters had it right the first time, says, “When Mike got nominated he came up to my office and said, ‘Guess what, I’m Mr. Ethics.’ He said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘As long as you’re competing, I want you to win.'”

“I feel really ambivalent about it,” says Waters, “partly because, as I told the ethics committee, I didn’t see a big problem in supporting the ad. And then to get an award for changing my mind–I’m a little sheepish about it, I guess. I’m comfortable we did the right thing, but I’m not sure I see it as black-and-white as some other people do.”

Waters worries that “sometimes newspapers, in an effort to be objective, in an effort to appear detached, might be putting themselves out of touch with readers, and I guess that’s part of my ambivalence as well. I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t have values, that we don’t share their values.”

When the board of the Headline Club voted unanimously to give each of the Southtown trio an ethics award (there was some hesitation over Waters), that might have been that for this year. But the board isn’t limited to the recommendations it gets from the ethics committee, and this year some members had a nominee of their own: they wanted to honor the Tribune for getting rid of Bob Greene.

Christine Tatum, a Tribune technology reporter and the Headline Club’s immediate past president, was one of those board members. “The reason,” she says, “is that I considered it a swift handling of something very serious brought to their attention. It was brought to their attention, and they handled it. End of story. Do I like every way in which they went about making their decision known? No, absolutely not. Could they have done a better job of informing readers? Sure. At the same time, it’s very easy to play Monday-morning quarterback. With all of that said, it’s not so much for me how the decision was made but that it was. I support the end result, and to a certain extent they did stick their necks out, they did open themselves to criticism, to all the speculation as to how long was this really going on.”

Early last September the Tribune received an E-mail from a woman who claimed she’d had a brief relationship with Greene that began in 1988 when she interviewed him at the Tribune for a high school assignment. She said she’d recently tried to contact him, and he’d sicced the FBI on her. Six days later Greene was off the paper, his “resignation” announced by Lipinski on the front page.

I asked Tatum if it had occurred to her that the Tribune’s swift response might have been driven as much by fear of litigation as by virtue. “Sure. And it was spoken of during the board meeting,” she said. “But that is complete and utter speculation.” Tatum and a majority of the voting board members were willing to set aside motives they couldn’t be sure of and focus strictly on conduct. “Bob Greene violated a position of trust. He was using his job and prestige as chick bait,” says Bukro. “Our business tends to shrug off stuff like this, and I’m glad to see the Tribune didn’t.”

But Bukro had called one and all at the Southtown in order to reconstruct events and satisfy himself that the journalists nominated for an ethics award had earned it. In the Tribune’s case he made no calls. “The thing was laid out on the front page,” he says. He had Lipinski’s terse published statement of what happened, and it would do.

The eventual vote of the Headline Club board at its March meeting was five to three in favor of honoring the Tribune, with three abstentions. Being a Tribune reporter, Bukro abstained; Tatum did not. Given that the board has 23 members, the group that carried the day came nowhere close to a majority; but attendance has always been spotty at board meetings, and a mere eight members constitute a quorum.

President Molly McDonough, a reporter at the ABA Journal, voted against the award. “I generally vote against ethics awards that have more to do with business and personnel decisions,” she says. “But that’s not how the rest of the board saw it.”

So then it was Bukro’s assignment to notify Lipinski. He E-mailed her at work. Her reaction was what you’d expect of a serious person told she was to be given an award at her professional society’s annual dinner for taking someone’s job and publicly humiliating him.

Lipinski E-mailed Bukro back: “We feel uneasy about appearing to accept an award for something that was so painful and difficult for Bob, for us and for the readers. I applaud the club’s desire to call attention to ethical decision making, and think our profession is well served by your focus. But it makes me uncomfortable to celebrate the enforcement of our ethics policy over such deeply intimate issues as this.

“We have tried to remain discreet about this matter, knowing how personal it is for those involved. And while the Headline Club is certainly free to present the award, I don’t think it is proper for us to be there to accept it.”

So no one did. The tag end of the article in the Sunday Tribune on the Lisagors the paper had won said merely, “At the same event, the Tribune was presented an Ethics in Journalism award for its handling of columnist Bob Greene’s resignation,” thereby thoroughly obscuring the aggression it had been honored for.

The Southtown winners got a nice hand at the Lisagor dinner. The announcement of the Tribune award was greeted with more consternation than applause. “It seemed like an awkward moment to me,” says McDonough.

So it goes. “The ethics award is intended to be a good deed,” says Bukro, “but it always gets its share of punishment.”

Domestic Violence Beats Out the Imports

Laci Peterson is one of those stories that spread from coast to coast for no clear reason. As TV critic Steve Johnson put it in last Sunday’s Tribune, “Is Peterson, in the bigger picture, anything more than a tabloid story gone national?” Someone who couldn’t wait for the war to be over, Johnson was nonetheless appalled by the swift resurgence of trivia. He was so upset he forgot that every tabloid story is a national story. In Peterson’s hometown it was a tragedy.

On Tuesday, April 22, the Laci Peterson story exploded in Chicago. Instead of the usual war banner, the front page of the Sun-Times offered a huge picture of her husband, Scott, in handcuffs and a red jumpsuit, a small head shot of the victim, and the bold headline: LACI KILLED IN HER HOME, D.A. SAYS.

A Reader colleague on Johnson’s wavelength E-mailed me: “What in the world is this story doing all over our front pages here in Chicago? The Sun-Times especially–though the Trib is also squeezing the goose pretty good on this one, as well as all the local TV. Horrible murder, yes. Sure. But what an incredible insult to all the little south-side/west-side Chicago ‘nobodies’ who get rubbed out in nasty and horrible ways every day AND to the Peterson family, to be used as Iraqi war diversion/entertainment in this way. This is really gross. To me & mine, anyway. How did this stupid Modesto, California, murder story jump all over us like this?”

Good questions–and already being asked. On March 30 the Sun-Times’s Mary Mitchell had written a column about a middle-aged south-side woman whose dismembered body was discovered in plastic bags seven months after she disappeared. A friend told Mitchell, “I find it amazing that someone missing in Modesto, California, made page one news here, and someone missing in Chicago is buried on page 57–without a photo.”

Surely Chicago, proud birthplace of Roxie Hart, doesn’t need to import its crime sensations from 2,000 miles away. Last Thursday night, watching Diane Sawyer’s Primetime report on the Petersons, I puzzled over why this had happened. Primetime made it clear, without necessarily intending to, that a lot of luck was involved. The show offered the fascinating piece of information that aside from medical complications, murder is the leading cause of death in pregnant women, and briefly looked in on another murder that might have caught the media’s fancy but didn’t. Naturally there were no numbers. Given that pregnant women tend to be young, healthy, and careful, homicide might be both a leading cause of death and extremely uncommon. Whatever. Primetime’s point was that this isn’t just about Laci Peterson. This is a public health issue.

So then I made a list of likely reasons the story took off.

1. She disappeared on Christmas Eve.

2. She wasn’t just pregnant but very pregnant.

3. A mistress promptly made an appearance, accusing the distraught husband of being a lying weasel.

4. The abortion debate soon came into it. Is a fetus a human? The question was spotlighted by the two counts of murder, allowing California to seek the death penalty.

5. We’re all, thanks to CSI, fascinated with forensic medicine (as was discussed at length in a Sun-Times article last Sunday).

6. Again, there’s the violence-to-pregnant-women issue to justify the hoopla.

7. There’s just enough of a possibility that the husband everyone knows did it didn’t do it to keep us hanging on every detail.

8. And that if he did, he could get off anyway. Will a new courtroom superstar emerge, a Billy Flynn for homicidal husbands? Or was that Johnnie Cochran?

. America has had it with war.

10. Everyone’s good-looking.

I showed my list to another colleague, someone who says, “I simply can’t get enough of the Laci saga.” She replied, “All excellent points. I think you could take any one of them away and it would still be a story–with the exception of number ten.”

Liberty Fries, Anyone?

“T hese are hard times,” said A.E. Eyre. “I can’t go to Chinese restaurants because I don’t want to die of SARS, and I can’t go to French restaurants because I’m a patriot.”

So we met at a Golden Nugget, and he expected me to pick up the tab.

“What this town needs is a great Swiss restaurant,” he mused, “for gourmets who support the president.”

I’m Swiss myself, but I’d never considered Emmentaler a political statement.

“Think again,” said Eyre. He cracked open his New York Times and read the headline: “U.S., Angry at French Stance on War, Considers Punishment.”


He read, “When President Bush attends an international economic summit meeting in Evian in the French Alps later this spring, he will stay at a hotel across the border in Switzerland.”

I swelled with ethnic pride. You don’t see the Swiss ducking out on a fight, I told him.

“This is the sort of quiet statement of principle that gleams with leadership,” Eyre mused. “And the chocolate on his pillow will be delicious.”

The waitress approached. Eyre studied the menu. “American fries and a freedom muffin,” he requested.

He noted my puzzled look.

“It’s the way the wind’s blowing,” he said. “Blair’s taken a troublingly Old Europe stance on the United Nations. He needs to be brought into line.”

Brooking no nonsense, our president had recently canceled a trip to that bog of appeasement Canada. Naturally Eyre approved. “Nothing’s more important than for America to teach its many friends a lesson,” he said. In the way Blair is Bush’s poodle? I said.

I told Eyre I’d done a Google search of “French jokes” and turned up 5,720 listings. There was the one about the blind bunny and the blind snake groping each other to figure out what they were. And the bunny said, “You’re smooth and slippery and you have a forked tongue, no backbone, and no balls. You must be French.”

Eyre nodded. “It’s remarkable,” he said. “Six months ago most Americans didn’t give a second thought to France. Now everyone understands that millions of American doughboys laid down their lives while effete French lads nibbled quiche in 1918, that when Pearl Harbor triggered World War II, France allowed our gallant army to face the Axis powers alone, that the French lied to LBJ when they said Ho Chi Minh would happily sue for peace if he got to visit Disneyland, and that it was French masterminds behind the Iraqi terrorists who hijacked the airplanes on September 11.”

A crash public-education program of the first order, I said.

“Bush could never have done it alone,” said Eyre. “Think of all those unsung op-ed columnists and editorial cartoonists and 50,000-watt disc jockeys who rose to the occasion and got John Q. Public fighting mad.”

So it’s back to Normandy, I guessed.

Eyre munched on his freedom muffin. “This time we’ll be going in alone. The damn limeys don’t have the stomach for it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William Brown.