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Is Bob Greene Irresponsible?/ Sun-Times: Appearances Be Damned

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Is Bob Greene Irresponsible

"To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with a single writer being both reporter and commentator. The fact just places a greater responsibility on the writer to ensure accuracy and objectivity in reporting the underlying facts, especially if the object of his commentary is to be extraordinarily and incessantly criticized."

Former state appellate judge Gino DiVito made this argument two weeks ago in the Tribune, in the course of a long, careful critique of the columns Bob Greene has been writing for the past three and a half years on the little boy Greene calls Joe.

But DiVito is mistaken. Can a newspaper columnist satisfactorily report a controversy when the only reason he's writing about it is that he's convinced one side is right and the other's wrong? Newspaper tradition as well as DiVito sanction the duality, but I don't think so. Whatever journalistic sins Greene might have committed in the course of his 50-some columns on little Joe--14 of them in the last few weeks--since January of 1995, he can't be censured just because he slighted Justice James Heiple's side of the story. If Greene hadn't thought Heiple had done something terrible to an infant he wouldn't have written a word.

Newspapers traditionally give columnists their head. They have earned the right to crusade. They have earned the right to be wrong. But the papers can always step in with their own nonpartisan reporting. The Tribune didn't, and not because the idea never occurred to its editors. DiVito, a former president of the Illinois Judges Association, tells me he met two years ago with Greene and the Tribune editorial board. "I told them to please do some independent investigating, in the interests of fairness. I really thought the Baby Joe thing was off the wall."

When DiVito finally submitted his own independent report, the Tribune accepted it eagerly. "Obviously we should have had a news story, in retrospect," says George Langford, the public editor. "I can understand why we didn't in the beginning. It was a downstate story that was basically Bob's alone, and I don't think we anticipated the volume of columns on it. There were so many columns that it did require a dispassionate news story at some point, for balance. In the Baby Richard and Wisconsin cases [the latter was the girl in the cage] we've had accompanying stories. When Kass breaks something we always do. [With Joe] at some point we should have. It didn't happen--I really can't tell you why."

Both DiVito and Greene say they are on cordial terms and respect each other. That respect did not keep DiVito from being blunt. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "Bob Greene...has never defined the issue that confronted both the trial and the appellate courts and, more egregious, he has never evaluated Heiple's decision based solely upon the record developed in the trial court. That is inexcusable, especially because in the Baby Joe case, Greene, as both reporter and commentator, has been the source of all the information his readers possess concerning the case."

What has Greene told his readers? "This is the one that will break your heart," he warned them in the first line of his first column on Joe. He explained that Joe had been born in 1987 to a woman who didn't want him and who turned him over to a friend Greene called "Teresa Smith" and to her husband, "Ronnie Smith," a sickly ex-con. A local sheriff told Greene these were "a couple of lowlifes--real bad people."

The Smiths tried to adopt Joe, but a judge in Toulon, Illinois, where they were living, placed the infant with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois instead. The Smiths appealed, and it was a three-judge panel's unanimous decision to return Joe to the couple that Greene considered heartbreaking. For the Lutheran agency had placed Joe in "what, by all accounts, was a wonderful home," with Craig and Karyl Findley of Jacksonville.

"Remember--the Smiths were not related to Joe. They had never adopted him," Greene wrote. "Yet the appellate court somehow believed they had rights that exceeded Joe's.

"'No inquiry was made about what was good for (Joe),' Karyl Findley said. 'No one from court spoke to us, or asked how (Joe) was doing. They just said he had to leave.'

"The author of the appellate decision was James D. Heiple--the same James D. Heiple who now has a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court, and has been the court's dominant voice in the case of the 31/2-year-old boy known as Richard."

In later columns Greene wrote about Joe passing from hand to hand and school to school, about Teresa leaving Ronnie (who's now dead) and moving in with a man who'd been convicted for criminal sexual abuse, about Joe becoming suicidal, being charged at the age of eight with criminal sexual assault, being returned to foster care, and at age ten being confined involuntarily. His life after the Findleys was "pure and utter horror," Greene wrote at one point, and these are words no one disputes. In every column Heiple was the villain. Visit "that shattered, lonely child," Greene told the judge on August 2, in the last words of his most recent column on Joe. "And look that little boy in the eyes and try to explain to him that this is the best Illinois justice can do."

DiVito told me, "The incessant attacks on a single judge are really an attack on the justice system, which in this case has worked appropriately, albeit the results are disastrous. What seems to have failed in this case is that the investigations were not complete. It appears, based on what Greene has written, that a lot was known about the evil parents, the Smiths, that was not developed. If developed and known to the court, the tragedy might have been averted."

The trial judge, he went on, might have known more about the Smiths than was introduced in court. "But the trial court must base its ruling on evidence, the facts presented, and cannot conduct a private investigation. The judge cannot base his ruling on stuff he knew." Such as that the Smiths were evil personified? "If he knew that, he would have to recuse himself," said DiVito. "If we allow a trial court judge to base his ruling on things not disclosed on the record, we're in trouble. How would we ever know why a judge is ruling?"

DiVito reminded me that the Findleys had not yet entered Joe's life at the time of the adoption trial and therefore could not possibly have figured in the appeal, which was based on the trial record. That record offered the testimony of a social worker that Joe was thriving in the Smiths' care and no testimony to the contrary. The record also showed that "the Smiths were not related to Joe"--as Greene has repeatedly reminded us. But DiVito responds, "Of course. That's true in every adoption. And neither were the Findleys, for that matter, related to Joe."

The story Greene should have told, if he'd paid close attention to the details DiVito considers vital, would have been about how various officers of the court did their duty by a justice system DiVito considers the world's best yet produced a catastrophic result. There'd have been no flagrant villain in this saga, certainly not Heiple, giving Greene no reason to write about it more than 50 times.

"I had in mind someone like Royko, who would write about subjects no one was aware of, and in a real way he was both commentator and reporter, and I always felt the underlying facts were accurate," DiVito told me. "And of course there are other writers who'll do that--and Greene himself on many occasions has done it very effectively. In this case I really think he was somewhat out of line."

And perhaps he was. But when a columnist paid handsomely to write tendentiously is too inflamed (some would say cynical) to ponder a matter's subtleties, it's up to the newspaper to assign someone else to lay them out. Greene says it would have been fine with him if the Tribune had assigned a reporter to the story of Joe--just as Tribune reporters complemented his coverage of the Baby Richard and Wisconsin stories. "But the strength of my columns isn't commentary," he argues. "The strength was reporting. This child was lost. No one knew where he'd ended up."

Until Greene found him.

If DiVito--and even Heiple--now concede that what happened to Joe was tragic, they know this only because Greene told them. "The child should have had a court," Greene says. "Instead, he had a newspaper. It comes down to one thing. If you don't know where you're sending a child--an appellate court--you remand. The trial judge knew what awaited that boy. Perhaps he didn't write his decision in a way that the appellate court agreed with, but you don't just reverse and send a child somewhere. You remand. You take the extra step.

"The trial judge [denied the adoption petition] for a reason. [Toulon] is a very small town. He knew where they were sending the child. [The appellate court] wouldn't send the case back to him. They threatened him with contempt if he held up the transfer. And that's Heiple and that's Heiple's meanness. And the person who paid was the boy. For Heiple then years later to say, unfortunately this went bad--he had no idea what happened to the child until these stories appeared. He had no idea!"

DiVito didn't discuss remanding in his Tribune commentary, but only because the Tribune, editing for length, took out that passage. "Any negative things about the Smiths should have been--had to have been--presented at the trial court hearing," that passage read. "An appellate court does not review a trial court's orders, enter a ruling, and then send the case back to the trial court on the basis that the litigants might be able to do a better job concerning the very issue that was the subject of the litigation and the appeal." Or, as DiVito told me, if appellate courts kept telling trial judges to try again, "you'd never have a termination of litigation."

When Greene began to write about Joe, DiVito was the immediate past president of the Illinois Judges Association. One of the goals he'd set as president was to get at the problem of what he saw as unfair criticism of judges. Greene's columns struck him as a flagrant example, and he began to study the case. If Greene had bent to DiVito's critique, he would have written much less about Joe (something few readers would have minded) and he would have had as much concern for judicial procedures as for the devastation of Joe's life.

Stuck in a rut, Greene cared only about the boy. The Tribune should have stepped in and provided the rest of the story.

Sun Times: Appearances Be Damned

In the last couple of years the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association have all held conventions in Chicago. Among their other functions, these confabs serve as job fairs, and the Sun-Times didn't have a booth at any of them.

Last week the Asian American Journalists Association met at the Sheraton Chicago. Once again, the Sun-Times blew off the event, but the AAJA didn't suffer the snub in silence. "Chicago Sun-Times, where are you?" asked the headline in Voices, the convention's daily newspaper.

The Sun-Times "is providing neither financial nor professional support, and will not have recruiters at the convention's job fair," reported Voices, which observed that the Tribune had ponied up more than $75,000 "in cash and in-kind services" and that it was the primary sponsor of Voices, being printed at the Tribune plant.

Tribune public editor George Langford told Voices, "Working to bring minorities into the newsroom is a good investment. Newspapers and others have to come to the mindset that you must have intellectual diversity."

Voices reported that before Hollinger International took over the Sun-Times in 1994, the paper actively supported the Chicago chapter of the AAJA. Today it offers "a summer minority internship and scholarship program." But editor in chief Nigel Wade doesn't seem to see the point of a convention presence.

"Personally, I don't believe in job booths," Voices quoted him as saying. "I think journalists should have the initiative to come and see us. My name is in the phone book. If they want a job they can call me up."

Wade has a point. Job-fair booths are typically manned by minions who can't hire anyone anyway. Nevertheless, a booth sends a message--even if sometimes a wildly misleading one--about corporate hospitality.

"When you go to Chicago and see the Tribune Tower and the Sun-Times together by the river," said Thomas Huang, executive editor of Voices, "it just was clear the Sun-Times was missing from the convention, and from supporting the young journalists--especially the students--interested in getting into the business."

Huang's a staff writer at the Dallas Morning News. "It was a major question [within AAJA] why a major newspaper in downtown Chicago had absolutely no presence....It's the sense of AAJA that newspapers ought to be interested in developing relationships with young, talented journalists of color."

I reminded him of Wade's invitation to knock on his door. "Well, I hope people give him a call," Huang said. "I hope they find out that he was being sincere when he said that."

Wade's sincerity is rarely questioned within the Sun-Times, though I have heard his sensitivity doubted from time to time. When he says he favors the bold, direct approach, I'm sure he means it--not that it's likely to work.

"Besides," Wade told Voices, "we rarely have vacancies."

This can only be because of the love affair with attrition at the Sun-Times. Otherwise, there'd have been several vacancies created during the Hollinger era when, among many other losses, minority journalists Maudlyne Ihejirika, Alan Marumoto, David de la Fuente, Maureen Jenkins, Lou Ortiz, Olivia Wu, Tamara Kerrill, Phil Velasquez, Celeste Garrett, Pablo Martinez Monsivais, and Jorge Oclander left the paper. A long-standing guild-management joint committee on minority affairs met briefly with Wade to discuss hiring and promotion but collapsed. Two of the three guild members on the committee soon resigned.

News Bites

A millennial profile: The current Ameritech yellow pages contain 27 pages of plumbers, 48 pages of escort services, and 175 pages of lawyers.

Another astonishing revelation: "Lewinsky is prepared to testify that she and Clinton had a sexual relationship and that, while she was never explicitly told to lie about it, it was understood that the affair would be kept quiet, sources close to the case have told Reuters."

Producers Jack Smith and April Oliver were fired after their CNN report that in 1970 the Pentagon had hunted American defectors in Laos with sarin gas. A critique of the report prepared for CNN by attorneys Floyd Abrams and David Kohler concluded that the producers' faith in their story had blinded them to its weaknesses. If so, Smith and Oliver still haven't regained their vision. They've written a long, vigorous rebuttal to the critique, and a piece of it shows up in the next In These Times. The magazine is posting the entire rebuttal, along with the attack by Abrams and Kohler, on its Web site, www.inthesetimes.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gino DiVito uncredited photo.

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