By Michael Miner
WVON Won’t Take the Bait
Last year black ad man Lowell Thompson reached into his pocket and published a book called “White Folks”, his take on “the debilitating mental disease that afflicts ‘white’ America’s leaders whenever they are confronted with racial issues.”
After a second dip into the same pocket, the paperback edition of “White Folks” has just gone on sale. Thompson hoped to spread the news on WVON. He wrote his own copy for a 30-second spot and sent it to the station. The script began like this:
Bro. 1 White Folks for sale! White Folks for sale!
Bro. 2 N@#*#@ er…you crazy?
Bro. 1 Naw. Dig it…they’re sellin’ “White Folks” at Freedom Found Books.
Powers that be were not amused. Or if amused, they kept it to themselves. The day before Thompson expected to go down to WVON for the taping of his spot the station told him not to bother, the copy was unacceptable. Thompson got the bad news and an explanation from account executive Vivian Carter. “They have white sponsors,” Thompson told me, “and they might not like the idea of saying ‘white folks for sale.'”
Says Carter, “That’s the name of the book, and we’re not saying he can’t say ‘white folks.’ Maybe if he said, ‘The book “White Folks” is for sale.'”
WVON is a call-in station on which white folks are pilloried from dawn to dusk. “If you took that out of the content of WVON there wouldn’t be a WVON,” Thompson observed. But station manager Melody Spann stressed to me that WVON protects itself with the disclaimer that the audience’s calumnies don’t necessarily reflect the station’s views. With commercials, she draws a line.
“I find it offensive,” said Spann, who vetoed Thompson’s spot. “I would find it offensive if WLS, WGN, or WMAQ had a commercial that started off ‘Black folks for sale.’ I think I have a responsibility not to offend segments of my listening audience. I find it offensive as an African-American. I think it would be irresponsible for me to start a commercial off like that.”
As for advertisers, she went on, “I run this station based on revenues. I’m not going to get myself into a situation where I offend anyone. Even if it doesn’t cost me advertisers it’s offensive. There are other ways to get your message across than being inciteful. Listen to it! ‘White folks for sale.’ What does that mean? Can I sell white people? ‘VON sure can’t sell white people. I don’t have any white people over here. It’s sensationalism. And it’s OK to be sensationalistic, but not when it offends different members of our community.”
I told her I thought the spot was kind of witty. Someone might argue with that. Someone might call the spot silly, sophomoric, even stupid. But that’s not the kind of criticism Spann was determined to head off.
“I know a lot of white people who would be incensed by it,” she said. “It’s only fair I take that into consideration. If I put anything knowingly on the air that’s inciteful, inflammatory, offensive to any race of people, then I don’t think I’m being a responsible broadcaster.”
Says Thompson, “This bourgeois black fear–it’s amazing how afraid black people are in 1996 of white displeasure. And this is a station that makes its living by dealing with racial issues all the time. It’s a farce. It’s amazing.”
There’s an attractive if empty logic to the proposition that the way to approach this dispute is to imagine the shoe on the other foot, to imagine a spot on a white radio station crying out, “Black folks for sale!” But that’s not the other foot–it’s the one and only. Slavery was a one-footed monster.
I can imagine a fretting white advertiser hearing Thompson’s ad and picking up the phone to complain. I can imagine an “indignant” white columnist grinding out boilerplate that denounces the double standard. I just can’t imagine white folks in any serious numbers caring one way or the other.
Meigs and the Dailies: The Long View
Meigs Field, which the Tribune cherishes and the Sun-Times has worked itself into a lather over without taking a coherent position on, honors the memory of a newspaperman. When the Northerly Island lease that’s about to expire was signed in 1946, Merrill C. Meigs was vice president of the Hearst Corporation. A pilot, Meigs had formerly been publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and the Chicago American.
But credit where it’s due. The main man behind the airstrip on Northerly Island wasn’t Meigs but Colonel Robert R. McCormick. Lloyd Wendt recalled in his history Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper that the Tribune’s publisher and aviation editor, Wayne Thomis (who doubled as McCormick’s pilot), decided Northerly Island “would make an excellent downtown airport for Chicago.” Whether or not Chicago stood to gain from such an airport, McCormick certainly did. He already had both an Aero Commander and an airstrip at Cantigny, his estate west of Chicago. Now Thomis could fly him in to work each day.
“Thomis began writing articles urging such a project. Ralph Burke, chief engineer for the Chicago Park District, controlling the island, resisted for a while, but by 1949 a runway 3,000 feet long was paved. There were no lights on the field, only a wind sock….If McCormick was aware of the danger of flying through crosswinds into the island strip in darkness, he gave no sign.”
McCormick gallantly campaigned to name the airport for his friend Meigs. His own time would come.
Meigs Field, according to Lois Wille’s classic 1972 text Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront, was “the first major repudiation of the Burnham Plan.” By my reckoning, the plan was repudiated immediately by Aaron Montgomery Ward.
Unveiled by the Commercial Club on July 4, 1909, Burnham’s proposal offered Chicago a civic center at Congress and Halsted, “the most beautiful water front in the history of the cities of men”–or so babbled the Record-Herald–and a Michigan Avenue worthy of 19th-century Paris. “If one does not use the strongest words in the vocabulary expressive of wonder and admiration for these plans, it is because such words have been so much abused for things trivial in comparison,” proclaimed the Record-Herald before fainting dead away.
With its wits still about it, the Tribune remarked, “The ‘Plan of Chicago’ is an attractive and impressive presentment of what the city might be if it had the purse of Fortunatus.”
Ward was even less impressed. An open lakefront’s greatest champion, Ward had been in and out of court since 1890, asserting rights granted by an 1836 plat to an unimpeded view east across Grant Park to Lake Michigan. The Burnham Plan proposed to obstruct that view with three splendid civic assets: the already existing Art Institute and the proposed Crerar Library and Field Museum. See you in court, said Ward.
The Crerar would never rise in Grant Park. Neither would the Field Museum, though Marshall Field I had left the city $8 million to build it, so long as the city found a cost-free site by 1912.
“That provision brought tremendous pressure on Ward,” wrote Wille. “Newspapers, city officials and civic leaders all urged him to pull back, just this once. If we lose that museum, they said, it will be the fault of A. Montgomery Ward. The press called him ‘stubborn,’ ‘a persistent enemy of real parks,’ ‘undemocratic.’ And from his old enemy the Tribune: ‘A human icicle, shunning and shunned in all but the relations of business.'”
Why was the Tribune so hostile? Back in the 90s, when Ward’s suits were clearing the land east of his offices, the press sided with the developers who railed that leaving such prime real estate empty was civic madness. Each paper had its own idea of what ought to be built there; the Tribune campaigned for armories, museums, and libraries.
“The armories were the Tribune’s pet project,” wrote Wille. “The depression of 1893 and the labor union struggles that followed–particularly the bloody Pullman strike–had convinced Tribune editors that Chicago needed troops close at hand.” Warning of anarchy, the Tribune pointed out that Chicago “was the only world seaport without defense installations as part of its harbor facilities. Ward, quiet, hard-working and rather shy, suddenly was portrayed as a threat to the city’s security.”
Chicago was spared when neither rampaging anarchists nor Canadian warships chose to overrun the defenseless beaches. By the mid-1950s the threat had shifted, and the Chicago Park District turned over to the army 88 acres of lakefront on the north and south sides to be used as Nike missile bases. The missiles were removed in the early 70s, by which time America was in a position to win the cold war without them.
The history of the Chicago lakefront is a history of pet projects. The most harebrained might have been McCormick Place, the Tribune’s 1960 monument to its late publisher right where he wanted it, on the open lakefront at 23rd Street, where some summertime “railroad fairs” of old cars had been held that McCormick dearly enjoyed. The first Mayor Daley and his cronies steamrolled local opposition, while in Springfield enabling legislation was rammed through by correspondent George Tagge, another reporter exceeding his ethical responsibilities by a country mile.
As the regime of Richard J. Daley flourished, Chicago found itself no longer dependent on the Tribune for crackpot schemes. Gluttonous developers and political hacks shouldered the responsibility. Lakeside water-filtration plants, an 11,000-acre diked airport east of 55th Street, slash-and-bulldoze highway projects through Jackson and Lincoln parks–these and many another grandiose project leapt from the sketchbooks of city planners. Some came to pass, some did not, as the papers settled back into the more comfortable role of armchair skepticism. (In Jackson Park 800 oaks and willows were felled to widen Lake Shore Drive in the mid-60s before demonstrators chaining themselves to trees brought the half-completed job to a halt.)
Yet by the 70s Meigs Field already was being viewed as a white elephant. The Field papers–the Sun-Times and Wille’s Daily News–turned against it. The Sun-Times said in ’74 that a plan to replace Meigs with a park was “an idea whose time had come,” and the Daily News declared that “Chicagoans will come out winners in almost any plan that returns lakefront space from commercial interests to the public.” However, then as now, the Tribune defended its progeny. “Plays a key role in the transportation system of the eight-county area,” said a 1974 editorial. “A unique civic asset,” said another just last July.
“The Tribune has always had a cavalier attitude toward the south-side lakefront,” says Wille, who led that paper’s editorial board from 1987 to ’91 before leaving Chicago. “The people who ran it all lived in the north suburbs.”
After ardently welcoming the present Mayor Daley’s proposal to turn Northerly Island into a nature park, this summer the Sun-Times abandoned it. Overnight, giving the land back to the public became much less important to the paper than insisting the city not do hastily what the Sun-Times had said it should do more than two decades earlier. Says Wille, “You know, this is not a new position for the city. A whole series of city plans for the lakefront have recommended closing Meigs Field going back 20 years. It’s nothing Daley suddenly sprang as a surprise. His father talked about closing it. But they had to wait until the lease expired. This is not some idea that occurred to Daley in the middle of the night to offend the business community.”
Nigel Wade arrived from London to take over the Sun-Times less than a year ago, and without the weight of history to hold him down he was free to leap to fresh conclusions. Wade did most of the talking for his paper this month when City Hall sent over a delegation led by John Rogers, president of the Park District’s board of commissioners. At issue was whether the mayor was trying to ram a wayward project down the people’s throat without doing his homework. One participant described the meeting as “lively,” another as “contentious.”
A similar meeting at the Tribune was more sedate. The paper’s side of the table wasn’t headed by its editor or even by its publisher, but by John Madigan, CEO of the Tribune Company. The interests Madigan, who lives in Winnetka, had come to speak for weren’t those of inner-city schoolteachers planning field trips.
September 20: “Does suburban sprawl along the metropolitan fringe actually cause urban decay in the city and older suburbs?” asked the lead editorial in the Tribune. The editorial mentioned a new study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago that answered yes, questioned its analysis, but concluded, “On a matter this important, the Chicago region can use all the data and expertise that can be brought to bear.”
September 21: The Tribune reports that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority has hired an expert in environmental law to defend it against a federal lawsuit brought by a coalition opposed to “suburban sprawl.” This coalition wants to stop the planned extension of the North-South Tollway through Will County. The Tribune article, by suburban transportation writer Janan Hanna, goes on to take a broad look at the expanding role of litigation in challenging highway projects.
But when it comes to data and expertise, some parts of the Chicago region must be more equal than others. A reader spotted Hanna’s article out in Will County. The zoned editions of the Tribune I read in Chicago didn’t carry it.
Bensenville’s Luis Pelayo made a pronouncement the other day in La Raza. He’s moving to Little Village to satisfy the city’s yearning need for “authentic” Latino leadership. He’s also considering a run for alderman of the 22nd Ward.
Who’s Pelayo? He runs an organization called the Hispanic Council and delivers radio commentaries, but his chief claim to fame–or at least credibility–is his success last March in bringing about 2,000 demonstrators onto Michigan Avenue to protest a Mike Royko column. Standing up to Royko and the Tribune gave Pelayo standing as a champion of the common man.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lowell Thompson photo by Bruce Powell.