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Hands Off Our Basil!/ Dragging the Past Into the Light



By Michael Miner

Hands Off Our Basil!

There are second and even third acts in American lives, but it becomes harder to raise the curtain when you're 61. After a third of a century as a Sun-Times reporter, and just three years before he could retire on full pension, Basil Talbott was recently told by his paper to get off the stage. Public figures who know Talbott immediately defended him, arguing that the Sun-Times was being not only cruel but perverse. The Chicago Newspaper Guild assailed his dismissal on grounds that it violated the employment contract.

Jesse Jackson called editor in chief Nigel Wade and then called me. Jackson said he "indicated" to Wade that "Basil had given many years of dedicated service to the Sun-Times and to the Chicago community, and that at this stage of his life--he's married, with a young child, and with three years to go to retirement--to throw him to the wolves would not be fair. He's earned the right of job security. He's earned the right to retire.

"Nigel was very decent about it," Jackson told me. "He said it was not totally final--there was some negotiating process to go through with the guild. But I wanted for the record for him to consider the moral consequence, the precedent. Honor has to count. Morality has to count. Longevity has to count. And I think the broader community should realize that in some sense none of us are secure if the best years of our lives are thrown away with the mark of a pen."

Talbott has taken his lumps before. In 1987 he was in Springfield covering Jim Thompson's inauguration as governor when an editor called him home to tell him he'd lost the title of political editor to Steve Neal, who'd just been hired away from the Tribune. Later that year Talbott was transferred to Washington against his wishes. But no kick in the teeth compares to having a career summarily ended.

"It's a real mistake," says former senator Paul Simon. "Basil was aggressive, he was just a good reporter in every respect. It is a loss to the Sun-Times--it's a loss to the people of Illinois. If I were a newspaper publisher, I would grab Basil right away." When Simon was in the Senate, he held small breakfasts every Thursday morning. These weren't A-list news makers getting together, but "You'd find out what people from Chicago, Evanston, and Joliet are interested in," Talbott says. According to Simon, "Basil was the only reporter who consistently showed up. The Tribune, the AP, and the others would show up on rare occasions."

Alton Miller, who was Harold Washington's last press secretary and is still active in independent Democratic politics, was astonished by the news. "This is the institutional memory of Chicago politics over the last 30 years," Miller says. "It's just amazing to me to think the Sun-Times would willingly break up a matched set between Steve Neal and [Washington bureau chief] Lynn Sweet and Basil Talbott. They have a machine there to cover politics in all its dimensions, and taking Basil out is like breaking up a set of dueling pistols.

"I really think they have the edge on the Tribune in political coverage. And we did not always see eye to eye. He could be painful. But he was always fair. You could always say, 'Wait a minute,' and make him hear one more argument. I wrote a letter to Nigel Wade, and I hope other people are doing the same. I don't believe this could have been thought through. This is something your competition does to you--it's not the sort of thing you do to yourself. I've met Nigel a couple of times, and I find him a reasonable man. I believe this is something somebody else did that he's in a position to reverse. Who in the hell is safe and what is sacred if you toss somebody like Basil? What does that say about all the other journalistic decisions that are being made?"

For more on the decisions being made by the company that owns the Sun-Times, consult last Sunday's Tribune business section. Media writer Tim Jones reported that Hollinger International, headquartered in the Sun-Times Building, has become the world's third-largest newspaper company, and "strict adherence to profit goals is the guiding principle." Noting that Hollinger cut the workforce by a fifth when it bought the Sun-Times in 1994, Jones observed that "companywide cuts of those magnitudes contribute to one of the largest profit margins in the newspaper industry--about 30 percent, nearly twice the industry average."

Sounding impossibly romantic, Miller contemplated this lust for profit and compared Talbott to a flagon of malmsey. "What does the wine seller buy?" he wondered. "There's some old Hebraic or Arabic song, 'What could the wine seller possibly buy that could be better than what he's selling?' Well, you get the point."

Congressman Rod Blagojevich called me to talk up Talbott. "He is a real presence in Washington," Blagojevich said. "You can't miss him. You see that shock of white hair, and there's Basil. When he calls, before you call him back you take a deep breath and brace yourself, because you're going to get a lot of tough questions. And he's very astute and canny in the way he asks those questions. He would make a great cross-examiner."

When Congressman John Porter heard that Talbott was on his way out, he told his press secretary, "Talbott's a son of a bitch but he's our son of a bitch." Dave Kohn, the press secretary, passed this along to Talbott, who wasn't sure what to make of it. "I would say it's probably meant as a compliment," Talbott told me, "but you'd have to ask him."

Yes it was, says Kohn. "Every press secretary in the Illinois delegation who deals with Basil on a regular basis knows he can be a real pain. But frankly, you have to respect the guy. The reason he can be a pain at times is he digs. He works his butt off to get stories."

The contract between the Chicago Newspaper Guild and the Sun-Times guarantees that an employee laid off to cut the budget will get two weeks' notice. And before he's formally notified, the guild is allowed two weeks to suggest alternatives. Once Wade told Talbott last week that he was being let go, Talbott and the guild had four weeks to fight for his job. The guild promptly told management to read the contract.

"Yes, the company has the ability to reduce the number of people who work in the Washington bureau," guild unit chair Daniel Lehmann explained to me. "But no, it does not have the ability to dismiss Basil Talbott. Our point was simple. We think it's a decision you will regret and that will hurt the paper. However, if the decision goes forward, you must make a job available to Basil back in Chicago. Then Basil decides. He's a 33-year employee, and seniority rules in these situations. We reminded the company of the situation that happened when the bureau was cut from three to two."

A couple of years ago, Wade tried to fire the junior reporter in Washington, Mike Briggs. The guild protested, and eventually the Sun-Times offered him a job back in Chicago. Briggs turned it down to stay in Washington and was hired as a press secretary by Paul Simon.

One other thing, Lehmann said. "If this move goes through, the sole remaining person in Washington--who had been classified as the bureau chief--will no longer have any supervisory responsibilities. Therefore, under the contract she should be brought back under union jurisdiction."

What was the reaction to that? I asked.

"They didn't think much of the idea."

Dragging the Past Into the Light

Edwin Black lived with an ache for 14 years--the ache of the unwritten. In 1984 he'd published The Transfer Agreement, a controversial, heavily reviewed, prizewinning study of the 1933 negotiations between Zionists and Nazis that brought German Jews to Palestine but ended a Jewish boycott of German goods. Given Black's five years of research--the 35,000 documents he compiled--he could have carried his story forward to 1941. Originally he planned to write a trilogy.

He hasn't. Instead he's lugged the boxes through his life, wondering when and if he'd begin again. "They resided in my basement, first in Rogers Park and then, when I became a foreign correspondent, in Jerusalem," Black says. "And when I came back and settled in Washington, they again remained down in my basement. I've been waiting a long time to feel emotionally strong enough to part with them. I had to emotionally say I was not going to write any more books on the subject."

What helped Black to finally make the break with his papers was the 50th anniversary this year of the founding of the state of Israel--too auspicious an occasion to resist ceremony any longer. This Sunday afternoon, Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Black will formally donate his files to the Chicago Jewish Archives of the Spertus Institute.

Black was a frequent Reader contributor back when he was a Chicagoan, and he's an occasional one now that he lives in Maryland (as it happens, he's got a piece in this issue). "I spent five years on the first book, traveling to archives all across Israel, Europe, and the United States," he says. "I didn't have a family back then. I indentured my life. I indentured my career. And by the way, that was before computers. My manuscript--a 400-page manuscript--was retyped 40 times. Today, I admit, I could write that same book in two or three years."

"It focuses on a little-known chapter of the Holocaust," says Byron Sherwin, the Spertus scholar who pointed Black in the direction of his subject nearly 20 years ago. "The Nazi government got a piece. Palestine got a piece. The problem is, this is an area that very little has been written on. There's no competing book. The book deals with only a part of the story, whereas the archives we're getting deal with longer periods of time."

How does The Transfer Agreement stand up today? I asked Sherwin. "There was some debate amongst some historians about how sound it is," he replied. "But I really personally think this was more a matter of historians looking at somebody who was a journalist and saying, we don't take him seriously. Just about everything in the book is documented. If there'd been a whole literature on the subject there'd be some problems, but it still remains the definitive book. Not necessarily because it's definitive, but because it's the only show in town."

News Bites

Studs Terkel put down last week's column and dropped me a note. "In reading of Nigel Wade," it began, "Australia's pre-aboriginal gift to Chicago journalism, I experienced a lovely fantasy. An enlightened billionaire, as envisioned by George Bernard Shaw, bought the Chicago Sun-Times and chose me as its publisher. His dictum: Do what you think is best for the paper and for Chicago.

"First. I'd ask Nigel for his resignation on my desk first thing in the morning. Sayonara, mate. Second. I'd re-hire Basil Talbott immediately, of course. Third. I'd choose Bill Newman, one of our city's most respected all-around journalists, as editor-in-chief. Fourth. I'd run Garry Wills as often as I'd run George Will. No, that's not quite right. After all, it's my fantasy. I'd run Georgie once a week. Saturdays.

"This should make stimulating reading for Nigel Wade, as on Quantas, first class, he soars back to Sydney."

Angela Davis, who figured in last week's Hot Type, also sent me a note. Wade had vetoed a piece on Davis after objecting to a story that did make the paper--a profile of Paul Robeson. Both the performer and the 60s revolutionary were attracted to the Communist Party, a fact that apparently put them beyond the pale of responsible journalism as it's defined by the Sun-Times's conservative owners.

No longer a party member, Davis is now a college professor in California. She said in part:

"This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson's birth [last Thursday was his birthday], numerous tributes have appeared in the form of newspaper and journal articles, conferences, exhibitions. Therefore it was quite surprising to learn about the controversy surrounding a Chicago Sun-Times feature on Paul Robeson. And it was disturbing to discover that the publication of an article based on an interview I did with a Sun-Times reporter during my recent visit to Chicago was blocked apparently because of the fact that--inspired by such great fighters for peace, equality and justice like Paul Robeson--I have tried to encourage radical social critiques of U.S. society. Such efforts to censor ideas that are offered to the public for their critical consideration--efforts that apparently are based on my past membership in the Communist Party--vividly recall the un-democratic spirit of the McCarthy era. It seems to me that given the social crises we are currently experiencing--such as homelessness, attacks on immigrants' rights, the deterioration of public health and education, and the unbridled expansion of the prison system--creative and radical approaches are more necessary today than ever before."

Accuracy-in-reporting file: Basil Talbott's new child is actually a stepdaughter about to enter graduate school. The Sun-Times now runs George Will once a week as it is, and usually on Saturday. And in case you're curious, Alton Miller was reaching for "I wonder often what the Vintners buy / One half so precious as the stuff they sell," from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which also reminds us, "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on..." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Basil Talbott photo by Charles Steck.

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