Zorn and Ebert Play Beanball

The new screens around the Wrigley Field bleachers are one of the great issues of our time, and when Roger Ebert joined the debate on April 16 he brought Mike Royko with him. The “infamous ‘security shields'”–Ebert’s term–reminded him of the great Wrigley lights debate of 1988, which he couldn’t think of without thinking of Royko. What a shame, he said, that when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984, Royko forfeited his “Screw-You Chip.” With that chip Royko “could have attacked Murdoch all he wanted to because Murdoch’s managers would have been terrified that he might go to the Tribune.”

But Royko left as soon as Murdoch showed up. “Something was lost,” Ebert wrote. “And when in 1988 TribCo decided to install night lights in Wrigley Field, we didn’t get to read the great columns Mike might have written about that victory of bookkeeping over tradition.” To Ebert the bleachers screens were the lights of our time and a “public relations meltdown for TribCo,” and he wondered why none of Royko’s successors had been willing to say so. “Sixty-six percent of the fans and zero percent of Trib columnists are against them….Does every single columnist at the Tribune agree with the corporate bean-counters who would mortgage the soul of the Cubs? There have to be at least a few Screw-You Chips still in circulation over there.”

He wasn’t wrong about the screens, but I questioned some of Ebert’s premises. A Screw-You Chip isn’t much of a reason to work for someone you loathe, someone, incidentally, with the power to screw you back by spiking your columns. Ebert’s own Screw-You Chip went unplayed; he stayed at the Sun-Times and did his job, just like all the reporters who told themselves the best thing they could do for their paper was to hang in there and try to keep its standards up. Screwing your employer is a tacky way to behave, and not much of a career move for serious people.

I E-mailed Ebert my thoughts, and we had an exchange. We agreed that Royko lost something when he crossed the street. It seemed to me he might have been happier being unhappy at the Sun-Times than he was being unhappy at the Tribune, and I tried to imagine the columns he would have written about the new lights at Wrigley Field if he’d stayed at the Sun-Times to write them. He might have done one extolling the time-honored compact that guaranteed Cubs fans the opportunity to see their heroes lose and still get home for dinner. And another explaining that Cubs baseball had always been something you snuck off to see, and that if it became possible to see a game without lying to your boss the Cubs would lose all their appeal. I told Ebert, “He’d somehow encompass both sides of the argument (even if his heart lay with one), and he’d be amazingly funny.”

We both assumed that at the Tribune he hadn’t written a word. After a time I wondered why we assumed that. With an uneasy feeling, I searched the 1988 Tribune archives. Royko had written about those lights at least three times in 1988. What’s more, he took the Tribune’s side.

“It’s amazing how sensitive aldermen have suddenly become,” he wrote. “They’re in a rage because they were described as ‘boneheads’ and ‘political bums’ in an editorial in this paper….The point was that some aldermen and other City Hall officials are trying to use the lights issue to blackmail The Tribune into being kinder to them and switching some of its editorial positions. I don’t know why that upset them, since it happens to be true. What probably bothers them is that they can’t pull it off. Some of them mistakenly believe that because they’re adept at shaking down contractors and other businesses, they can muscle editorial writers.”

Royko got pretty nasty in this one. “Consider the chairman of the City Council committee that has pondered the lights issue,” he wrote. “His name is Bobby Rush. Background? He used to be ‘defense minister’ of the Illinois Black Panthers. His job in those days was to see how many automatic weapons he could stash in one room….At his side is the grim-faced Ald. Helen Shiller, a career revolutionary.”

He went on, “No, the Cubs aren’t going to move to the suburbs. But when you consider that the country’s third largest city is now being run by a crew that includes the traditional pocket-stuffers of both races, a couple of crime syndicate lackies, an ex-Black Panther, a career revolutionary, and other assorted oddities, it wouldn’t be a shock if they, or any other business, did.”

On a cheerier day, Royko addressed Alderman Bernie Hansen’s sanguine prediction that people living near Wrigley Field would avert the scourge of drunken Cubs fans wandering the streets late at night by voting the precinct dry. Royko suggested voting the entire 44th Ward dry. “If Cubs fans, who include many children, elderly people and peaceful rubes bused in from Iowa and Wisconsin, will pose a terrifying menace only 18 evenings a year, what about all those thousands of drunks who are in Hansen’s ward every night of the year. Don’t they ever urinate on someone’s lawn? Are we to believe that only Cubs fans have erratic bladders? Nonsense. They come lurching out at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., (long after any ball game will have ended) and carry on shamefully. They fall down, throw up, urinate, shout, fight, perform lewd acts and take the Lord’s name in vain….Hansen seems perfectly content to have a million people getting drunk in his ward year in and year out. He just wants to prevent Cubs fans from having a few beers before the 7th inning, 18 evenings a year.”

Would Royko have written the same columns for the Sun-Times? We can’t know, but I doubt it. His performance at the Tribune led me to three conclusions. One is that anyone’s view of the world depends on whose window he sees it from. Another is that there’s plenty of hypocrisy to exploit on every side of every argument. And the last is that, on the subject of night baseball and its threat to the fabric of life in Lakeview, Royko was completely right.

I E-mailed Ebert with the troubling results of my research, but it turned out he already knew.

By then the debate had shifted from the Chicago papers to Jim Romenesko’s Media News Web site, where it was no longer about the paltry bleachers screens but about the honor of journalists. Eric Zorn–one of those unnamed Tribune columnists who, in Ebert’s dismissive words, “agree with the corporate bean-counters”–had all but challenged Ebert to a duel. “I must call him out,” he wrote Romenesko, “for the disgraceful intimation that his (and my) late former colleague Mike Royko became a cowardly, corporate lackey when he left Ebert’s paper in 1984 to join my paper.” Ebert and Royko were friends, “making it all the more puzzling that he’d defile Royko’s legacy in order to tweak the enemy newspaper during a controversy in 2002.”

Ebert promptly wrote in to declare his “love and respect” for Royko and to stress that “cowardly, corporate lackey” was Zorn’s phrase, not his. “I think it is legitimate however to observe that Mike never wrote about the controversy over night lights in Wrigley Field, a curiosity that Zorn does not address….Nothing I know about Mike leads me to believe he would have supported [them]. I welcome Zorn’s theory about why the subject never appeared in a Royko column.”

But by this time Zorn was on to the facts. So he replied by offering his own excerpts of long-forgotten Royko columns–excerpts not as savory as the ones above–and concluding with something he’d spotted in Richard Ciccone’s Royko biography. Back in 1984, in only his third Tribune column, Royko had written, “I used to be against lights in Wrigley Field. Now I’m on the Trib payroll. Therefore, good company man that I am, I’m no longer against lights in Wrigley Field. So I’m a fink.”

This was the true Royko, the realist kidding on the square. Going to the Tribune would change things, and he knew it.

Avid Media News readers had to wait all last weekend for Romenesko to update his Web site with Ebert’s inevitable response. Posted Monday morning, it was both abashed and ingenious. Zorn’s excerpts had proved Ebert’s point that “we didn’t get to read the great columns Mike might have written about that victory of bookkeeping over tradition.” Which was indisputable. “I did not say Royko never wrote about the subject AT ALL,” Ebert continued, “but since any reasonable reader, even me, might interpret my remarks that way, for penance I have taken my copy of ‘For the Love of Mike’ and pounded myself over the head with it, not too hard.”

That might have ended it, but Zorn had one riposte left in him. It was “infamous,” he replied, to suggest Royko “pulled his punches.” The record now showed that if Royko “was more amused than passionate on the subject of lights,” he considered the naysayers “alarmist ninnies.” And just as one could disagree with Royko about those lights then, so today one could disagree with Tribune writers about the virtues of those screens “without impugning anyone’s integrity.”

He brought it all back to the screens.

For the Love of Mike is a posthumous anthology published last year. Ebert wrote the foreword. There’s a copy on the shelf over my computer. On page 46 there’s a column that ran in the Tribune on August 8, 1988, the day of the Cubs’ first night game. “Tonight in Chicago,” Royko wrote, “we’re going to begin finding the answer to a fascinating psychological question that concerns the debilitating effect of night on the human mind: Does the coming of darkness cause otherwise decent, polite, hygienic Cub fans to have a fiendish compulsion to make wee-wee on a stranger’s lawn?” He imagined “Nadine Yuppwife” telling a concerned news anchor how the bladders of Cubs fans had destroyed her home. “We lost everything. Even our beloved BMW has floated away with my husband in it.”

This was Royko at pretty close to his best, however in thrall he was to his masters.

Screen Wars: Attack on the Clone

Our story so far: When publisher Ruth Ratny fell down an elevator shaft in October 2000 the reign of the feisty septuagenarian seemed near its end. She’d launched Screen magazine as a newsletter in 1979 and made it the weekly voice of Chicago’s booming film industry. But the industry stopped booming. Financially she was reeling; physically she was bruised and battered. She cut back production to an issue every two weeks, and she laid people off.

Michael Lundbom, who was Screen’s special projects manager, saw the writing on the wall. Certain that Ratny was about to close up shop, he raised money and recruited Jane Burek (a former Ratny columnist) and Lisa Hemminger and Carl Kozlowski (former Ratny reporters). Last August he launched Chicago Imaging & Sound, which looked so much like Screen Ratny called it “the clone.”

But what the handwriting on the wall had actually said was, “Not on your life.” To Lundbom’s amazement, Ratny went on publishing.

Last December she sold Screen to a group of investors led by Robert Leach Jr., the former associate publisher of Contigo, a family-owned Spanish-language entertainment guide. It was supposed to be a friendly sale, and Ratny was going to stay on in some capacity “to contribute her industry expertise.” But she didn’t. If she couldn’t run Screen she wasn’t interested. She announced that she would devote herself to movie projects.

And so it came to be that in a time of recession the ailing Chicago film industry was being covered by two slick biweekly magazines, though it was by no means clear the industry could support even one.

This week’s episode: E-mail from Ratny arrives at my desk, alerting me to the “impending demise” of the clone. “I haven’t seen an issue since mid-March,” she writes. She’s overlooked the April 8 issue, which appeared April 10, but she’s correctly surmised that the situation in Lundbom’s shop is dire. On April 15, payday, Lundbom can pay his staff only half of their salaries, and in a staff memo he explains his troubles, describing “an ongoing financial battle on a variety of fronts” and offering four reasons for it. The first is “Ruth’s decision to continue publishing….I didn’t see this coming.” Another is “Ruth’s ability to find a buyer for SCREEN.” He also attributes his difficulties to the “recessionary market” and to “overly optimistic decisions on my part with regard to our issue size and printer vendors.”

On the bright side, Lundbom asserts that Imaging & Sound has been “successfully positioned and branded,” that new advertisers are signing on, and that the cash-flow crisis was caused by advertisers $30,000 in arrears to the magazine and would soon be resolved.

But not all anxieties are assuaged. The next day editor Burek resigns. “I can’t work for you anymore,” she tells circulation manager Kenn Peterson, a Lundbom ally. She puts a message on her voice mail saying where to find her and goes home.

Lundbom has lost not only his editor but his next cover story. Burek had just come back from Las Vegas, where she’d covered the National Association of Broadcasters convention; the story was going to lead the April 22 issue, but she’d taken all of her notes with her. Lundbom predicts the April 22 issue will come out as much as a week late.

“Towards the end, every day was like being a fourth-class passenger on the Titanic,” Burek tells me. Other staffers rally behind Lundbom, and Kozlowski brings me a statement asserting that recent publishing delays “could be placed squarely on the shoulders” of the former editor.

Meanwhile, over at Screen Robert Leach receives a phone call from a magazine broker sampling his interest in Imaging & Sound. “We had no interest,” says Leach. “The phone call lasted about five minutes.” Lundbom tells me he didn’t hire the broker but allows that “he may be an associate of a friend of mine.” Lundbom is openly interested in a deal. “I told Robert all along it would be great if we could get together. Given the economic conditions in Chicago, one magazine surely makes more sense than two.”

And two magazines make more sense than three.

“I’m bored,” says Ratny, though she insists her new career making movies is coming along nicely. That’s why by May 1 she hopes to have a Web site up and running that she intends to call either filmchicago.biz or chicagofilm.biz. There will be some sort of E-mail newsletter component, and Ratny thinks she can turn a profit. “The content will be all the important trade stories that I still have access to, obviously. People tell me things. And it will have a calendar of events and probably classifieds.”

Leach thought he’d seen the last of Ratny. Rumblings of her new adventure astonish him. “You can say this loud and clear,” he tells me. “If she starts another magazine she’s going to have some legal problems. We have a noncompete contract. If she goes into publication we will seek legal advice immediately.” In his view that contract forbids an electronic newsletter just as surely as it does something hot off the presses.

But not in her view. “It doesn’t cover the Web,” says Ratny jauntily. “It covers print only, and it’s very vague and nonspecific, and it wouldn’t stand up in court. The lawyers tell me not to worry.”

News Bites

One reader’s response to the Ebert-Zorn exchange on Media News was nostalgic. Alex Gordon, managing editor of Hockey Digest, wrote in to say that Ebert “showcased that old acerbic wit that used to make Siskel & Ebert a delight to watch.” Gordon thinks Ebert needs someone he can really argue with on his TV show and suggested Zorn be taken on as cohost.

From the Tribune, April 18: “Because of a technical problem, every event published in the music listings of the April 12 Friday section contained incorrect performance dates. And because of an editing error, a correction in Wednesday’s paper relating to those listings was inaccurate. To determine the correct performance dates, subtract one day from the dates printed in the music listings. In other words, shows listed as occurring Tuesday actually are scheduled for Monday; shows listed as occurring Wednesday actually are scheduled for Tuesday, and so forth….The Tribune regrets the errors.”

No doubt it does.

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