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Called to Account/The Overindustrious Opiner/Neil Steinberg, Chicago's Treasure

Will the Conrad Black trial shed light on exactly how the Sun-Times got screwed?

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As the Conrad Black trial got under way this week, Steve Rhodes, proprietor of beachwoodreporter.com, mourned that the most important part of the story--the Chicago part--would go untold. Namely, "a full accounting for what Black's actions and, more particularly, those of publisher David Radler, wrought on the editorial integrity of the Sun-Times and the public discourse of our city." Rhodes pointed out that the paper is still run by Radler's men and suggested they resign.

I can't go that far. I respect publisher John Cruickshank and editor in chief Michael Cooke, and if the past embarrasses them, so much the better for the Sun-Times. Perhaps I simply have a weakness for underestimated yes-men who finally got out from under the thugs they served--men like Gorbachev and Sadat. The last thing the Sun-Times needs is a knight pure and beyond reproach who has no guilt, no history, and no serious commitment to a staggering corporation. On March 16 the Sun-Times Media Group reported a fourth-quarter loss of more than $34 million.

Besides, some sort of accounting may yet come to pass. When I asked Cooke the other day if there was any chance he and Cruickshank would testify, he reminded me that the charges against Black have nothing to do with the Sun-Times. He seemed surprised that I even imagined them as witnesses. But Ted Rilea, the media group's vice president for labor relations, is on the witness list, and so is Larry Green, who runs Pioneer Press. The trial pits Black, who rarely set foot in Chicago, against his former sidekick David Radler, who operated the Sun-Times and Hollinger International out of Chicago, and the defense surely would like to make the case that Radler ran Chicago as he pleased and boasted of it. Radler's the state's star witness, and I don't see how the defense can try to destroy him without getting into what he did here.

As for the present crop of Media Group employees, a sort of gag order is in effect. The company line, set forth at the company's internal Web site, is this: "The Sun-Times has survived a lot. We are resilient and we are focused on the future, with new management in place [corporate management, at least] and exciting developments planned for our print and online news products." If you're asked for an interview, "it may be tempting to pop off, particularly if the defendants in the trial malign our colleagues, or our company, or say things that are inflammatory." But don't. Direct questions to the company spokesperson. Remember that Black "has publicly threatened litigation against anyone who he believes has besmirched his name, if he is acquitted. If you speak, you speak for yourself."

Cruickshank made a statement in the paper that hinted at the furies he hopes to suppress while the trial continues. "These events stir strong feelings in those of us who lived through the trying years of Black's control. . . . While our talented staff made valiant efforts to improve the quality of the paper, far too little was done by our parent firm to invest in a unique community enterprise experiencing intense competition in a challenging industry. Despite feelings of resentment that are still quite inflamed in some quarters, our coverage of Mr. Black's trial will be founded on the presumption that he and [three] colleagues are innocent until they are proven guilty."

Since Radler's already pleaded guilty, the Sun-Times doesn't have to presume anything in his case. Which is good: presuming Radler's innocence might've been beyond anyone at the paper.

The Overindustrious Opiner

The Daily Southtown came clean the other day about a goofy little matter in which it didn't do much of anything wrong. Another paper has much more to answer for.

A note that ran in the Daily Southtown on March 15 revealed that "in recent months" the paper had published some letters that weren't entirely original. There's nothing new about that. As I've written recently, unoriginal letters to newspapers are a plague: advocacy groups think they're doing their cause a favor when they blitz papers with computer-generated boilerplate that sharp editors spot and delete. But the letters to the Daily Southtown were unoriginal for another reason: their author, Daniel John Sobieski, was repeating himself.

The Southtown explained that it had "included passages that also appeared in unsigned editorials" in Investor's Business Daily, a financial newspaper based in Los Angeles. These editorials had been written by Sobieski. "Such a practice by a letter writer, even when repurposing his own prose, is a disservice to our readers," the note continued. "Whose opinion is this? Mr. Sobieski's or the editors of Investor's Business Daily? Readers deserve to know. Had the Southtown been aware the passages appeared as the editorial opinions of another newspaper, the letters would not have been published as signed opinions by Sobieski."

Sobieski has been one of Chicago's most prolific letter-to-the-editor writers for more than three decades. "I like to wake up in the morning knowing that I have a chance every day to be published everywhere," he told the Reader's Tori Marlan when she wrote a profile of him ten years ago. Marlan reported that whenever Sobieski found himself screaming at his TV he knew it was time to write a letter. "If a particular topic is hot," she wrote, "he has no qualms about sending out the same letter to numerous publications. He might disregard a newspaper's expectation of exclusivity, but he increases his chances of getting heard."

Because Sobieski didn't return my phone calls and Investor's Business Daily didn't respond to a list of questions I sent, I wasn't able to find out how Sobieski hooked on there. But he's become what IBD calls a "contract writer," which is a freelancer with a fancier title. On March 5 IBD posted online--and published the next day--an editorial on the Scooter Libby trial that called Joseph Wilson an "ex-minor league ambassador" and a liar, Valerie Plame his "CIA desk jockey wife," and the two of them "Democratic activists" who used their positions "to undermine their president and their country in time of war." Four days later the Daily Southtown ran a letter by Sobieski on the Libby trial that called Plame a CIA "desk jockey" and made several of the same points that the IBD editorial had made, occasionally in identical language. That same day, March 9, IBD ran a second editorial on the Libby trial, and once again Plame was dismissed as a CIA "desk jockey." For the third time, certain points and certain passages made an appearance.

A reader called the similarities to the Daily Southtown's attention. John Hector, the paper's director of editorial and commentary, did some research online, came across three other recent letters that shared language with IBD editorials, and called Sobieski. "He made no mention to me of a relationship with Investor's Business Daily," Hector says. "When I first told him about the similarities that were pointed out to me, he sounded kind of surprised, like 'No, that can't be.' When I confronted him with the goods he said, 'You know, I do a lot of research and maybe I didn't attribute that one.' We told him we probably wouldn't be running his letters and if it got around other papers wouldn't either."

Next, Hector called IBD. That's when he found out that the editorials Sobieski didn't attribute were editorials he'd written himself. This is the part of the story that's really strange. Soon I was listening to IBD's vice president for corporate communications, Kathleen Sherman, call Sobieski a "very ethical, very strong writer," dismiss the duplication as an "honest oversight," and tell me that "from what I understand, this was an innocent situation and he felt strongly about his position and was writing in." She assured me that "we only want to use the best people who are representing us in the best way possible."

I said it was unusual to run across a newspaper that allowed freelancers to set forth its editorial position and followed up with an e-mail that asked IBD to defend the practice and explain how Sobieski became the beneficiary of it. This was last Friday, and she said she'd have the answers on Monday. But she didn't write and she didn't call. Someone else told me she wasn't at the office and that the other editors were all too busy to talk to me.

Neil Steinberg, Chicago's Treasure

I impulsively e-mailed Neil Steinberg at the Sun-Times the other day to say I liked something he'd written, and he wrote back, "Does this mean you might be preparing the: 'Neil Steinberg, Chicago's treasure' column? It is my 20th anniversary here Saturday."

Twenty years! I had no idea the milestone was approaching. It's been rocky between Neil and me the last several years, and it was clear from his reply that the Fates were whispering in my ear. They weren't saying "Seize the moment" or "Smoke the peace pipe" or anything that bathetic. More like, "You don't have the chops to match Steinberg's industrial-strength malice, so stop trying."

No one knows better than my family how Steinberg's calumnies have affected me over the years. Yet my wife persists in reading him aloud at the breakfast table. That column of his in which I was called a "moron"? A daughter immediately stuck it on the refrigerator. So there's been none of the support at home that a good grudge requires to endure.

On the other hand, when my wife reads him aloud I usually laugh along. Although a lot of columnists sound like a lot of other columnists, nobody sounds like Steinberg. And 20 years really is an admirably long time to keep it coming. Personal torments have wiped out a lot of high-flying careers in Chicago journalism, but so far Steinberg has faced his down and survived.

So there you are. What was that headline he suggested?

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Black photo/Tasos Ktopodis/Getty Images; Sobieski photo/Randy Tunnell.

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