High School Confidential: The Sun-Times Sports Sex Scandal
Make someone happy at the Sun-Times. Call an editor and praise the paper to the skies for holding its newsstand price at 35 cents when the Tribune jumped to 50. Say you think it's the PR triumph of the decade. Well no, on second thought, don't bother. Anyone you ask for will assume the call's about Peter Anding and won't want to take your call.
Lawyers and publicists have been doing the talking since Anding was arrested on the job in late September and charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault and manufacturing pornography. Lawyers airbrushed last Sunday's long chronicle of the Anding saga, a mix of investigative reporting and damage control that said more about the history of Peter Anding than the workings of the Sun-Times. There was one key admission--Anding was hired as a sports desk clerk last June without being asked if he had a criminal background. That's not surprising--the question's almost unheard of in journalism. The proof of Anding's merits was in his clip file: he'd been free-lancing for the Sun-Times since 1986, minus 39 months from 1987 to 1990 when he disappeared. Anding explained when he returned that he'd gone to college. Now everyone at the Sun-Times knows he was in prison.
Even though competent, honorable institutions have been blind before and will be blind again to malign forces functioning silently in their midsts, in retrospect the blindness always seems inexplicable. Certainly the Sun-Times failed to explain away knowing so little about Anding. His work wasn't one thing and his allegedly criminal life another. Anding covered prep sports for the Sun-Times; his ability to bestow ink not only gave him access to young athletes but great power over them. The alleged victim of assault is a 15-year-old basketball player; the alleged pornography was described by the state's attorney's office as up to 150 sexually explicit videotapes of prep athletes and prostitutes. The time Anding already served was for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy in a swimming pool locker room and kidnapping and attempting to molest a 15-year-old boy.
Now the Sun-Times has pledged to review its editorial hiring policies. More to the point would be a review of its massive, gossipy coverage of prep sports. We're not going to call prep sports a disaster waiting to happen or argue that a Peter Anding was inevitable. That's ridiculous. But the Anding affair has thrown a stark light on a sort of demimonde: kids so hungry for attention they'll accept the most bizarre terms to get it; adults who traffic in this need; coaches who don't see, or if they see don't tell. Simeon football coach Al Scott told the Sun-Times he'd been informed about Anding by someone who knew him in prison. Scott shooed Anding away from practice, and that was that. Another coach said that Anding "was well-known and suspicious to high school coaches." Why did so few of those suspicions get back to Anding's paper? According to the Tribune's Sunday piece on Anding, Al Scott didn't want to offend the Sun-Times.
Such is the power of reporters in this dubious milieu. Once only the games were deemed newsworthy, along with the top seniors' college choices. Now disciplinary measures and transfers and matters as obscure as an eighth-grade prospect's choice of high schools make the papers. It's excess born of desperation: there are simply so few ways known to lure teenage readers.
Until he joined the staff Anding was one of 70 or more free-lancers under the direction of prep supervisor Taylor Bell. He wasn't just another name on the Rolodex. Since 1986 the Sun-Times has published 145 articles carrying his byline, 71 of them just this year (the Sun-Times didn't offer these figures; we ran a computer search). He covered big games and wrote profiles, and last February produced a weirdly portentous account of the life Mike Tyson could expect to lead inside the big house. No, Anding didn't ask to do that story; he happened to be down at the paper when the guilty verdict came in, and the shorthanded sports editor drafted him.
Even so, why did no alarm bells ever ring? It's a question the Sun-Times might have devoted more space to pondering. "He did a good job for me," Bell told his newspaper. "I had absolutely no reason to suspect anything that we now know has happened." Bell allowed that there had been two phone calls. One was from a coach who told him of a set of parents unhappy that Anding was "harassing" their son. Bell confronted Anding, who said there was no problem. The other call came from a mother asking "about Anding's interest in her son. He was taking the boy for pizza and to games." But after meeting Anding, the woman "called back and said she approved of the relationship."
Relationship? Are we meant to understand that if the mother was happy then Bell was happy and the Sun-Times was happy? That there's no problem with a reporter inviting kids he covers to dinner and a ball game? But mind you, Anding was just a free-lancer. Perhaps he went to dinner wearing another hat--say, that of contributor to the scouting newsletter the Windy City Roundball Review. Or buddy and mentor.
At any rate, we talked to the coach at the school where the woman's son plays. Did Anding win her over? we asked him. No way, said the coach, who asked for anonymity. "She told [Bell] in no uncertain terms she didn't want the man there. She didn't validate the relationship at all."
This coach says he called Bell himself last April after he'd heard from a mother and father who wanted Anding to lay off their son. "I proceeded to tell him I thought the guy was a loose cannon. His first response was, 'Are they willing to go on the record?' I said, 'Absolutely.' So then he changed his approach and started defending him. I said, 'Fine. When this blows up in your face, don't say I didn't warn you.'"
Bell also got two calls from Jim Prunty, the basketball coach at Saint Rita High School. Prunty told us he called "to voice my displeasure that one, Anding was spending too much time with my kids and, I'd heard, with other kids. And two, going beyond the role of what a reporter should do. He was telling them what to do, suggesting they might be better off in another program [than Saint Rita's]."
And what did Bell say? we asked Prunty.
"He just suggested I was perhaps overreacting. And Peter Anding was just digging up information that could help in his writings regarding high school basketball."
Not that either of these coaches guessed there was a sexual dimension to Anding's behavior. "There's no way on God's green earth I suspected the magnitude of this," said the anonymous coach. Anding's behavior on the job simply rubbed them the wrong way. Now they wonder how the Sun-Times could have been so gulled. "How did this guy get hired?" the coach wondered. "How didn't they know? He disappears for three and a half years--and no one wonders where he's been! And this ridiculous posture of the Sun-Times that he's a stringer and not full-time!"
At this point our column cries out for a response from Taylor Bell. But he couldn't talk to us--the newspaper gagged him like everybody else. Instead we heard from a courageous publicist who returned our call even though she was so sick she belonged in bed. She knew next to nothing.
Is There a Rich Man in the House?
Sometimes when you can't pretend you're voting for the right person, you can at least go ahead and vote for the right reasons, which is why a lot of people we know will cast ballots next month for Carol Moseley Braun and why we suppose the Sun-Times eventually will endorse her for the Senate.
But despite the Sun-Times's friendly coverage of her campaign, our guess is that the paper's editorial board despises Braun. Braun's early champion Carole Ashkinaze has left the board, and Ray Coffey, who heads it, is notoriously unsympathetic to emblems of feminist values, especially emblems as personally careless as Braun seems to be. Rightly enough, the Sun-Times came down on Braun over her handling of her mother's $28,750 windfall in 1989 and her recent lame attempts to explain the matter away. But the paper was less indignant when Rich Williamson disgraced himself back on September 14 by absurdly linking Braun to the worst excesses of Gus Savage. CONDUCT twice condemned Williamson for this shameless attack; the Sun-Times editorial page has yet to write a word.
No Hanging Allowed
Mayor Daley in the Sun-Times, when grilled by reporters about the Michigan Avenue bridge fiasco:
"This was just an accident. Let's not--I know you guys want to--get somebody and hang 'em from the top of Tribune Tower," the mayor said after touring the accident site.
Mayor Daley in the Tribune's account of the same grilling:
"This was just an accident," he said. "I know you guys want to get somebody and hang 'em."