You Get What You Pay For

Everyone pitches in at the Sun-Times. Take Deborah Douglas. Her voice mail identifies her as deputy features editor and director of the library. But I was calling to discuss Red Streak, and when I reached her she assumed I had questions about Fluff. She’s in charge of both these helium-filled products. She wears hat after hat.

“Fluff is fluffier than the previous fluff,” she said helpfully.

Feigning interest in her new section, the Sun-Times’s latest bid to find readers for its failing Sunday paper, I’d asked what distinguishes the fluff that already stuffed every stray crevice of the Sun-Times from Fluff-worthy fluff.

“I guess I just haven’t codified a philosophy of Fluff,” she said. “If it’s fun and goes down easy, then I run with it.”

What if it catches a little on the way down? I asked. What if, like pistachio ice cream, it’s a little bit chewy?

“Fluff is uncomplicated,” she declared. “It’s like cotton candy. It won’t get stuck in your braces.”

Do most of your readers wear braces?

“No, they’re not that young,” she replied. “But twentysomethings I’ve talked about it with say they love having Fluff. You don’t have to pay $5 for your fluff magazine because they have it in their Sunday paper. Hopefully we’re going to pull in some new readers. It’s a fun thing. It’s postmodern. It’s ironic. It’s a joke, and we’re in on it. We’re all having a good laugh.”

She did point out that the Sunday paper isn’t all fun and games. When the Sun-Times added Fluff five weeks ago it also added Controversy, a growly new commentary section (with an impressively expanded books department). “And you know ‘Scurrilous’ has been immensely successful, and ‘Scurrilous’ lives in Fluff.”

It’s not in the daily paper any longer? (I’d been caught napping.)

“‘Scurrilous’ lives in Fluff.”

But I’d called about Red Streak. I was thinking Douglas must spend ten minutes a day tops on that paper.

“Red Streak is status quo,” she said. “We’re publishing it five days a week, and we’re going to do that forever.”

I wasn’t so sure. Weeks ago, when the Sun-Times decided to give away Red Streak, I noticed something. The Tribune’s competing RedEye was being handed out free to commuters at CTA stations, but most RedEye boxes on street corners still required a quarter. At the end of the day those boxes were full, yet the adjacent Red Streak boxes, with big free stickers plastered on them, were empty. It seemed clear that the brand loyalty RedEye worked so hard to cultivate didn’t exist. Its readers seemed to have switched to Red Streak the minute they didn’t have to pay for it.

Then I noticed something else. The Red Streak boxes that were empty at the end of the day were also empty at the beginning. (The crumpled-up paper at the bottom of one box near my house is dated March 9.) Making the Red Streak boxes free to open was a splendid gesture diminished by the failure to put anything in them.

This made me wonder if Red Streak still existed. The Sun-Times admitted from the get-go that the only reason Red Streak was launched was to stir up confusion in the marketplace. Perhaps the Sun-Times had figured out that empty Red Streak boxes could do that by themselves. The big free stickers said loud and clear to anyone tempted to pay a quarter for the competition, “Don’t be a schmuck!”

And if RedEye retaliated and marked all its boxes free, the Red Streak boxes could switch to 25 cent rebate on each paper. This was the kind of circulation war Red Streak couldn’t lose, since it wouldn’t actually have any.

Douglas seemed intrigued by the possibilities. But she informed me that Red Streak was really and truly still a daily newspaper. She said, “I see it every day when I walk in front of the Apparel Center”–which is where the Sun-Times now has its offices. It’s a matter of knowing where to look.

Bad Bedfellows

America Supports You is a Defense Department program that spoons up war the way noncombatants have always liked it. The last time I visited, its Web site offered the headline “Denver Broncos Thank Troops.” You could also click on “Thank the Troops for Your Freedom–Send a Message” or choose the “Kids Take Action” link. Or you could follow the “Photo Essays” prompt to the one titled “Armed Forces ‘Salute’ Suzanne Somers” or the one of Donald Rumsfeld on the set of CSI: New York.

On August 9 the Pentagon announced the first-ever “America Supports You Freedom Walk,” a two-mile hike on September 11 from the Pentagon to Arlington National Cemetery, where country singer Clint Black would give a concert. The purpose of the walk was “to remember the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, to honor U.S. troops and veterans, and to highlight the value of freedom.”

The curious assortment of cosponsors included Lockheed Martin, Subway, and various media entities, who’d be providing publicity: the Washington Post, two Washington-area TV stations, and radio station WTOP. When the role of the media was called into question, in view of the debate over the war in Iraq, a WTOP vice president explained, “We’re not making a connection between the war and 9/11.”

Plenty of critics of the war in Iraq would agree that there’s no connection, beyond 9/11 giving President Bush cover to start a war he wanted to fight anyway. But the Pentagon’s press release drew no distinction between American troops and the war they’re fighting at the moment. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Clint Black made the charts with a song that goes like this:

It might be a smart bomb

They find stupid people too

And if you stand with the likes of Saddam

One just might find you.

I roq, I rack ’em up and I roll

I’m back and I’m a high tech GI Joe

I’ve got infrared, I’ve got GPS

And I’ve got that good old fashioned lead

The involvement of the media in the Freedom Walk became a national issue in large part because of Christopher Hayes, a contributing editor at In These Times. (Hayes also happens to be the author of this week’s Reader cover story.) On August 11 he wrote a sharply indignant e-mail to Jim Romenesko’s popular media-news Web site: “Bracket for a moment the heinous company in which this places the Bush administration (Cuba, Iran, and China, just to name a few of the regimes that regularly utilize state-sponsored marches and rallies as propaganda tools), and bracket for a moment the fact that this march for ‘freedom,’ which will take place on public streets, apparently requires participants to register with the DoD.”

What really widened Hayes’s eyes was the willingness of the media to sign on. “Funny,” he wrote, “I thought it was the role of the press to challenge not collude with the government when it attempts to disseminate propaganda.” He pointed out that the rally was being organized “by the United States military, the same entity currently administering and promoting an increasingly unpopular war, one that remains the single biggest news story in the nation.”

Romenesko immediately posted Hayes’s e-mail, and the heavily read blogger Atrios immediately picked it up. Denunciations rolled in from coast to coast: “Wait waitwaitwait! The fucking Washington Post is sponsoring a fucking Pentagon march/!?!?”

Meanwhile, Post columnist Marc Fisher had gone online to take questions from readers and been hammered. “I mean, how inappropriate is it to hold a parade and country hoedown on the Mall to celebrate 9/11?” “If only Leni Riefenstahl hadn’t died. Truly, she was the only person who could do film justice to something like this.” Fisher allowed that the promotional tone of the event was “yucky.”

The next day the Post ran a story in which various media execs tried to defend themselves. A spokesman for the commonly owned TV stations insisted, “You don’t lose your patriotism because you become a journalist.” A Post spokesman said lamely, “The event was never presented to the Post as a rally to support the war. We would be disappointed if it took that approach.”

On August 15 the paper’s Newspaper Guild leaders issued a resolution asking the paper to withdraw from the Freedom Walk, and media critic Howard Kurtz said in an online interview with readers that he wished his paper weren’t involved with it. The Post caved. By the end of the day it had announced it would make a contribution directly to the Pentagon Memorial Fund and that would be that. As for the Freedom Walk, “It appears that this event could become politicized,” said the Post.

Two conclusions can be drawn. No matter how liberal the media’s working stiffs might be, they can count on their corporate bosses to provide them with conservative cover. And though the so-called coalition of the willing the Bush administration slapped together to share the burden of the war in Iraq was a huge disappointment, the Pentagon hasn’t given up on coalition building. Baby steps.

News Bite

Last week I wrote about, a Web site looking for dirt on the late Haroon Paryani. He’s the cabdriver who died under the wheels of his own cab last February 4. “Have you had a memorable, unusual or bad experience with this cab driver?” asks the Web site, alongside a picture of Paryani. The site was launched by friends of Paryani’s fare that night, Michael Jackson, who’s accused of resolving an argument with the cabbie by taking control of the cab and driving over him three times. Jackson’s in jail awaiting trial.

Now a second site is fishing for tipsters. was launched by Chicago Dispatcher, a trade paper for the city’s taxi drivers. Alongside a photo of Jackson, the site asks: “Have you witnessed Mr. Jackson using illegal drugs or otherwise behaving violently or erratically? If so, please share your story with us.”

In addition to the usual questions about what they’ve read in the papers, jurors will now have to be asked about Web sites they’ve visited.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.