Yes, Virginia, Some People Still Care About Ethics
Journalism is parched for honor, and Virginia Gerst is a glass of water.
Journalists watch journalists on TV lick George Bush’s boots when the country’s united behind him and gang up on him when it’s not. They see themselves making news by getting fired in disgrace or resigning under fire. Howell Raines resigns as editor of the New York Times over Jayson Blair, Karen Jurgensen as editor of USA Today over Jack Kelley. But last August, Gerst walked out with her head high.
She’d been arts and entertainment editor at Pioneer Press, a Chicago-area chain of suburban weeklies owned by Hollinger International. Last May, the Diversions section she was responsible for carried a critical review of a Lincolnshire restaurant that had been a big advertiser and whose owner was president of the Lake County chapter of the Illinois Restaurant Association. The publisher of Pioneer Press tracked down the unhappy owner on vacation in Florida and promised him a new review. A marketing executive was assigned to write it, and Gerst was told to run it immediately.
So she quit. “I understand that these are tough times for newspapers,” she said in her letter of resignation. “But economic concerns are not sufficient to make me sacrifice the integrity of a section I have worked for, cared about and worried over for two decades.”
Pioneer Press isn’t a news outfit most American journalists had ever heard of (though Hollinger is). But when Jim Romenesko reported her resignation on his popular Web site, the deed resonated. “Bless you,” a reporter in the east e-mailed Gerst. Her first intern wrote to express her “utmost admiration.” A science writer in New Hampshire predicted, “You will ultimately find the honors you clearly deserve.” A journalist overseas told her, “As a former senior staff member of a Hollinger newspaper, I can appreciate the impossible situation in which you have found yourself. I hope you receive the full backing of your colleagues and your union.”
Gerst, in fact, was management. Yet the day she quit a sign in Magic Marker went up on the Newspaper Guild bulletin board at Pioneer’s Glenview headquarters that said, “Integrity died here 8-27-03.” In retrospect, that was the day integrity got a new lease on life.
Last Friday, Gerst received the Ethics in Journalism Award at the annual dinner of the Chicago Headline Club. Announcing the award, guest speaker Bob Schieffer of CBS News said that five nominations had come in and four were for Gerst. In years past, there have been some eccentric choices for this award and some head-scratching in the audience. But when Gerst accepted hers she was given a standing ovation.
This week Gerst went west to lecture to journalism classes at the University of Oregon and receive the university’s Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. The judges declared that Gerst had “set an example for journalists everywhere to not compromise their ideals, whether in life or in print.” Gerst was nominated for the Payne Award by Lynne Stiefel, chair of the Pioneer Press unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild. According to Gerst, Stiefel told her, “I had to search to find that. There aren’t many organizations that give awards for ethics. I wish I could have done something better for you.”
“It was the sweetest thing,” says Gerst, who knew Stiefel only casually at Pioneer. “The authorities were always grousing about her, but she was always mad for just the right reasons.”
Gerst calls theater her first love, and for years she’s reviewed suburban theaters for Pioneer. On May 23 Evanston’s Next Theatre will honor her. “I tried to talk them out of that,” she says. “That’s very, very sweet. They’re having a dinner. I’m going to say a few words.”
Gerst didn’t want to surmise what her celebrity might say about the present state of journalism. But she told me she hears life’s been better at Pioneer Press since David Radler quit under fire late last year as boss of Hollinger’s Chicago Group. John Cruickshank took over, and he went up to Glenview and had a talk with Pioneer’s publisher, Larry Green. “After that,” said Gerst about Green, “he got nice.”
When the NFL’s Pat Tillman was killed in combat in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, his death was front-page news. Columnists and editorial writers hailed his patriotism and heroism. Of course hundreds of other Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most interesting thing about the enormous coverage given Tillman’s death was that it wasn’t excessive. Tillman hadn’t been a reservist sucked back into action. He’d voluntarily given up his heady and lucrative career for something he considered more important. Pro athletes don’t do that. Neither do columnists and editorial writers.
After Gerst was honored at the Headline Club dinner, for quitting her job, an arts critic she knew came up to her. “He said that everybody in this room would like to think they would do it, but if push comes to shove, there aren’t many who would.”
Wycliff Lets It Out
“I’m in kind of a grumpy mood these days,” Don Wycliff told me. “I wanted to like Bush. I wrote good things about him. I thought he wasn’t doing too bad until he went on this Iraqi adventure, which I thought a personal indulgence.”
Since 2000 Wycliff has been the Tribune’s public editor, which is what some papers call their ombudsman. Many ombudsmen are one step from retirement and write that way. Some think hard and deep about the ways of the press; a few are scourges.
Wycliff has turned his job into a forum. In his previous Tribune assignment he ran the editorial page, a big job but a constraining one. Now that he’s speaking only for himself he can let ‘er rip. His last couple of columns were so pointed and angry–OK, grumpy–that I called him to ask about it.
The other day President Bush spoke in Washington at a joint meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America. Last week Wycliff called the speech “one of the most confusing, inarticulate public addresses since… well, some people would say since his press conference a week earlier.”
Wycliff is on the board of ASNE. His point was that Bush gave a dreadful talk to a roomful of journalists, but no one reported that it was dreadful. “Why is the press protecting George W. Bush?” Wycliff’s column began.
“You heard me right, Russ. And Larry. And Byron,” Wycliff went on. “And all the rest of you folks who pen those jeering notes to me to every day about anti-Bush bias in the Tribune’s news reports.” Truth is, he told them, the Tribune and the rest of the press clean up Bush’s act, wipe his nose, and put words in his mouth that make sense. That’s what they just did in Washington. “Those hopelessly biased reporters who cover Bush overlooked the mangled syntax, penetrated the rhetorical fog and extracted some usable lines from the dross and manufactured stories that had the president sounding, if not quite statesmanlike, then at least intelligible.”
They did this, Wycliff explained, because they’re pros “trained to seek meaning and the meaningful in any utterance by the president.” And Bush provided just enough quasi-coherent scraps for some papers to hang dutiful stories on; others, such as the Tribune, simply wrote nothing. “Bush has benefited from this journalistic professionalism throughout his presidency,” Wycliff wrote. He noted that when Bush utters a word that doesn’t even exist, a word such as “misfeance” (2002 press conference), reporters make an educated guess and replace it with a word that does, such as “malfeasance.”
I couldn’t be sure whether Wycliff was mad at Bush or mad at journalists for giving Bush a pass. Both, I decided. The editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who didn’t think Bush’s speech was so bad, wrote a column offering a third possibility: Wycliff was mad “at his paper’s readers who bother him with their nonsense about bias.”
How should the papers have handled Bush’s speech? I asked Wycliff.
“I don’t have any idea,” he started out. On second thought, he did. “The usual thing,” he said, “is that when there’s a presidential event of some sort, you write a story about the event and [Tribune Washington reporter] Mike Tackett or somebody does the analysis. The analysis becomes the lightning rod. It’s where you can describe the stagecraft, the politics.”
Don’t expect perfect consistency from a passionate man. After Bush’s last press conference, Tackett wrote just such a piece of analysis. The story ran on page one of the Tribune under the headline “Under pressure, a leader stumbles in the spotlight,” and in his April 22 column Wycliff called the headline “bad, overreaching.”
When we spoke, Wycliff stressed that he’d objected only to the headline, not to Tackett’s story. But an accurate headline to an honest story on Bush’s speech in Washington (as Wycliff described it) would have been just as pejorative. The difference seems to lie with Wycliff, who watched the speech but only heard an audiotape of the press conference and “did not find that the president sounded at all foolish or hesitant or uncertain.” (Most people who heard the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio thought Nixon had won it.)
About the jeering notes denouncing the Tribune’s anti-Bush bias, I asked, do you get more of them than you do notes denouncing the Tribune’s pro-Bush bias?
“To be frank,” Wycliff said, “I think they probably number about the same. The people who write on behalf of Bush–I have to choose my words carefully–they’re a less restrained crowd.”
Because they feel betrayed?
“I’ve never subscribed to the notion that being a Republican paper means genuflecting and kissing every piece of the ground a Republican president walks on. They can do dumb things too.”
Yet in October the Tribune will endorse the Republican president for reelection. Wycliff knows that as well as I do.
“I’ve no doubt that it’ll be a sincere editorial too,” he said. “I think [editorial page editor Bruce Dold] and his people are sincerely of that view. I’ll be very frank with you–John Kerry is no one to write home about.”
But it’ll be an endorsement determined by the Tribune’s political legacy, not by a considered and disinterested weighing of the candidates.
“It’s always hard to write endorsement editorials, yeah, and I’ll say no more,” he said.
Do people look over your shoulder who aren’t normally there?
“Absolutely, and to my mind that’s entirely appropriate–because you stamp yourself with an identity when you endorse, and that’s part of the paper’s tradition and philosophy. The publishers and the others are entitled to be part of that.”
Wycliff’s April 22 column covered a lot of bases. Besides knocking the Tackett headline, he contemplated the rising tide of blood in Iraq, loosely tying it to journalism by recalling that last July the Tribune’s Michael Kilian had warned of a bloody insurgency. He fretted about soldiers of fortune on private payrolls in Iraq. He offered a short, sharp comment on Bush’s decision to go along with Ariel Sharon’s plan for Israel to withdraw from Gaza but annex parts of the West Bank. Bush had promised to “ride herd” on the peace process there, Wycliff wrote, but “today he looks less the rider than the ridden.”
A furious reader immediately protested.
“I had to read your column twice this morning because I could not believe my eyes,” Carol Felsenthal e-mailed Wycliff. “What was ‘Bush still is unable to stand up to Israel’ doing in your ombudsman column? It’s not in response to anything published in the paper except to something you yourself wrote three years ago. [Wycliff had quoted from an old column.]
“I know you were formerly editor of the editorial page but isn’t your job description different now? I think the public editor is an important position and I’ve been reading the columns of the new guy at the New York Times with interest. I want to be able to take you seriously, but your insertion of your opinion on Israel does not inspire confidence. This rant in this morning’s ‘From the Public Editor’ is the sort of lapse on which a public editor ought to comment….Please explain.”
Felsenthal is a friend of mine who’s written biographies of Katharine Graham and S.I. Newhouse Jr. When she hadn’t heard from Wycliff a few days later, she sent her letter to him to me. She’s got a point, I told Wycliff.
“She probably is right,” he said. “Let me put it this way. I’ve never written about what Israel ought to do. I’ve written about what the United States ought to do. I think that’s an important distinction. I guess I end up saying those things because I don’t see anybody else saying them.”
Wycliff said he’d been thinking over his response to Felsenthal. On Wed-nesday she was still waiting for it.
The story went nowhere. Not even Romenesko highlighted it.
Actually it had entered a kind of larval stage on obscure but significant Web sites such as americanprogress.org. The Center for American Progress describes itself as a progressive research and educational institute. It channels obscure information to people who know what to do with it, e-mailing a daily report to about 46,000 people, then posting it on its Web site. On top of that, David Sirota, the director of strategic communications, passes along selected items such as the Bremer story to his media contacts.
My Bremer quote showed up as an “Under the Radar” note at the bottom of the American Progress report the Monday after Hot Type ran. It reappeared Thursday in a more conspicuous item written by Sirota that was tied to Bush’s appearance that day before the 9/11 commission.
Bingo. Bremer made the networks’ Thursday news shows. Catching the story on TV, the Associated Press prepared its own version. So did Reuters. I woke up Friday morning to hear my week-old story broadcast on WFMT, then read it in the Sun-Times and New York Times. (The Reader’s role had vanished by then like a shucked cocoon.)
By Sunday the story had advanced to its next phase: Bremer was taking everything back.
The Sun-Times said Monday that the Civic Federation supports “key parts” of the Blagojevich budget, “giving the governor some much-needed ammunition to fire back at lawmakers critical of fee increases and borrowing stategies.” The headline: “Group backs gov against tax hikes.”
The Tribune said the same day that the Civic Federation “is now raising serious concerns about [Blagojevich’s] fiscal priorities.” The headline: “Governor loses budget backer.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Betty Lou Wacko.