You Snooze, You Lose

There was a time when Jim Thompson must have admired Conrad Black’s chutzpah. The ex-governor joined the board of Hollinger International back in 1994, and he surely wouldn’t have stayed if he’d been offended by chairman Black’s arrogance and bravado. The makeup of the board Black chose–Thompson, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Perle, among others–reflected Black the man, not the marginally profitable chain of newspapers he’d put together.

But that was then. In the last year and a half Black and his sidekick David Radler lost control of Hollinger, which is now in court trying to recover hundreds of millions of dollars it accuses them of raking off. Thompson himself has been impugned. While the top brass “were treating Hollinger like their private piggy bank,” alleged a shareholder suit filed by Cardinal Value Equity Partners, the board–in particular Thompson’s audit committee–was “totally quiescent,” closing its eyes to the “unfettered raid on Hollinger’s finances.”

In May, Black made a spectacular legal move. He, Radler, and three other defendants argued in a complaint filed in federal court that if they’re found liable in the Hollinger suit–“despite all the evidence to the contrary”–Thompson and the two other audit committee members should help pay off the debt. Didn’t Thompson, as head of the committee, meet annually with Radler to discuss Black’s and Radler’s management fees (which Hollinger now denounces as a boondoggle)? Didn’t Thompson then submit the fees Radler had proposed to the full committee for approval, and didn’t the committee always say yes? Of course Black and Radler assumed the fees were fair–they’d “reasonably relied on the Audit Committee’s unanimous approval.”

Likewise, the “Audit Committee was deficient in reviewing and approving International’s asset sales, related non-compete payments and other transactions”–all of them being devices that Radler and Black allegedly used to sack the company. Black and Radler “had a right to rely in good faith” on the judgment of the committee members, for these were matters within their “professional or expert competence.”

The complaint is a gleaming example of Black’s brazen wit. He recasts Thompson, a former prosecutor, as the trusted elder whose duty was to keep the company on the straight and narrow but played the enabler instead.

Last week Thompson and the other two audit committee members, Marie-Josee Kravis and Richard Burt, filed a response to Black’s complaint. They called it “legal nonsense” and compared it to a “complaint by a group of (alleged) bank robbers, sued by the bank to recover the loot, seeking to keep part of the loot by obtaining ‘contribution’ from a bank guard who (allegedly) failed to stop the robbery.”

That’s a pretty good analogy. I’ll make it even better. The bank guard not only failed to stop the robbery but picked up the robbers at home and drove them to the bank, never noticing that they were masked and carrying guns.

Like everyone else, Thompson and the other audit committee members admit to nothing, but they argue that if they owe anyone it’s Hollinger, and they’ve already settled. According to a tentative agreement worked out in May in the shareholder suit, Hollinger’s outside directors will repay the company $50 million. That’s serious asleep-at-the-switch money, but it’ll come from Hollinger’s insurers, not the directors’ own pockets.

But Hello Beautiful! Is Safe?

WBEZ sank half a million dollars a year and a chunk of its prestige into Odyssey, a daily talk show hosted by Gretchen Helfrich whose selling points were thoughtfulness and civility. Less than four years after it was launched nationally, 30 stations around the country were carrying Odyssey, and just the other day the show was picked up in Washington, D.C.

But on June 30 the executive committee of the WBEZ board met, and later that day Helfrich was notified that WBEZ had decided to pull the plug. The board felt that the station could find something better to do with its money. Helfrich knew about the meeting and was worried, but not that worried. “I thought we might be told the board expressed concerns,” she told me, “but I never thought I’d hear we’d been cut.”

And that’s not all. WBEZ is also dropping Schadenfreude, its two-year-old Saturday afternoon comedy show. And Stories on Stage, which has been around since 1993, is going on what general manager Torey Malatia is calling a one-year hiatus.

In a July 6 memo to WBEZ’s staff, board members, and Community Advisory Council members, Malatia said production of Odyssey will end on September 30 and of Schadenfreude on August 31. “We own considerable archives of both which may continue to be broadcast for a short time after live production ends,” he wrote, and added that Ron Jones, the vice president for programming, was working up local shows to replace them.

Odyssey’s success in other cities made that show seem more prosperous than it was. “Carriage revenue is relatively low,” Helfrich explained. “Shows don’t usually rake in big carriage fees until they’re huge hits.”

Which the board decided Odyssey would never be? I wondered.

“Either that,” she said, “or they weren’t willing to give it time to happen. This is pretty sudden. This is not at all how I would have expected it to happen. But the board, the station, is entirely within its rights. I can’t act all outraged.”

Justin Kaufmann, executive producer of Schadenfreude, told me cancellation “says Chicago Public Radio may not be the place for this kind of experimental comedy.” He always felt Malatia was behind him. He never thought the board was.

Don’t Judge the Criticism by the Critics

In Chicago it’s been one media scandal after another. Peter LaBarbera just accused the local media of “violating all the rules of impartiality in covering controversial issues.” Debbie Schlussel just jeered that “in his zeal to call me a ‘creep,’ Chicago Sun-Times sports ‘columnist’ Ron Rapoport invented and attributed to me a quote I never wrote or uttered.”

If only these accusations were totally false.

Consider LaBarbera’s first. He’s executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, which is based in Glen Ellyn and exists to defend “marriage, the natural family and the sanctity of life.” In his view, “Homosexual behavior will always be wrong–no matter how many ‘pride’ parades are held or how powerful the ‘gay’ lobby becomes.”

So how is it, he wonders, that Chicago’s media can claim evenhanded coverage of the Gay Pride parade when they have floats in it? I’m not sure Chicago’s media make any such claim, but that’s not to say they shouldn’t be able to. I said to him, is it like a radio station having a float in the Cinco de Mayo parade but having no time for anybody who advocates shipping all these people back to Tijuana?

“Ethnic- and racial-heritage parades are by and large noncontroversial,” said LaBarbera. “There’s a huge societal split on the issue of homosexuality.”

Not in Chicago, I said.

There’s more to Illinois than Chicago, he said.

The Illinois Family Institute Web site bubbled with activity in the days before the June 26 parade. One headline fretted: “Will It Happen Again This Year? IFI’s LaBarbera Filmed Homosexual Men Committing Lewd Act Directly in Front of Police Line at 2004 Chicago ‘Pride’ Parade. Warning: Graphic Description Follows.”

The morning of the parade LaBarbera fired off a news release announcing that he was available “to provide another viewpoint.” But his cell phone didn’t ring.

“No media called for another viewpoint,” his Web site admitted the next day, “and the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times both included only homosexuality-affirming voices in their stories.”

I called LaBarbera and said it was unusual for an organization to let the world know it had issued a news release everyone ignored. “We didn’t want to telegraph our impotence,” he explained, “but we did want to telegraph to the media that there are two sides to this issue.”

Then there’s Debbie Schlussel. She’s a blogger, online columnist, and Fox TV personality whom Ron Rapoport had somehow never heard of despite her appearances on Howard Stern. Schlussel was outraged at the way the Sun-Times sports columnist had misrepresented her. On June 22 he wrote: “OK, who’s the bigger creep? Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, who said women in racing like [Danica] Patrick should be ‘dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances,’ or conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel, who wrote, ‘Patrick looks like a woman, as opposed to the 169 players in the WNBA, who look like men.’ In case you didn’t get what Schlussel was driving at, she labeled her piece ‘Lesbian Basketball, Season 9 vs. the Indy Chick.'”

Rapoport hadn’t actually read Schlussel’s commentary, which appeared online on June 1. “I made a mistake,” he told me. He’d read a column in the Arizona Republic by the WNBA’s Kayte Christensen, who was responding to what she called Schlussel’s “idiocy and insults.” Christensen had quoted the title of Schlussel’s piece accurately, but she’d paraphrased the rest of it, writing, “According to Schlussel . . . the difference between WNBA players and Patrick is that Patrick looks like a woman, as opposed to the 169 players in the WNBA, who look like men.” Rapoport carelessly attributed this paraphrase to Schlussel.

Here’s what Schlussel actually wrote: “What’s the difference between the WNBA and Danica Patrick? For one thing, she looks like a woman, and they don’t.” For those of you curious about Schlussel’s thought processes, here’s more: “Take a look at the raven-haired, petite Patrick with her long tresses,” she went on. “Then, look at the 7’2″ Margo Dydek of Connecticut’s WNBA team–if you dare. Which one would guys rather date? Which one would most young girls rather be like when they grow up? Hint: They aren’t making a scale version of Dydek Barbie anytime soon. Dyslexic young girls might unscramble the letters of her surname and get the right idea of what the WNBA is really about.”

Schlussel e-mailed Rapoport demanding a retraction. What she got was a wretchedly worded correction on June 24 that said a “quote attributed to commentator Debbie Schlussel . . . should have been attributed to Phoenix Mercury forward Kayte Christensen.” The Sun-Times was fortunate not to hear from Christensen’s lawyers.

If Schlussel–who didn’t answer my e-mail–spotted the correction she didn’t acknowledge it. Her last word online was: “***UPDATE: After an e-mail to Rapoport pointing out that he fabricated and plagiarized his column, attributing a quote to me that I never uttered or wrote, Rapoport has the chutzpah to ask me to send him the column. What am I–his researcher? Call me a ‘creep,’ do your own research, lazy writer.”

It’s not that Schlussel can’t take criticism. On her blog site, readers tear into her. “If you are a woman, you’re a disgrace to our gender,” one posted. Another said, “Very offensive and very shallow.” A third said, “If Danica Patrick is even one-half the woman I think she is, she will demand you take her name out of your pathetic, sexist, homophobic diatribe.”

Schlussel kept her silence. But she won’t sit still for inaccuracy.

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