By Michael Miner
Kicked Off the School Paper
"I can't say too much. I was fired and escorted out of the building Friday by security guards," said Frederick Lowe, founding editor of Chicago Educator. "It was kind of funny though, in a way--if that can be funny. One of the security guards looked at me and said, 'We need a better way of doing this.' Another one said, 'Aren't you Fred Lowe? Didn't you create the Educator?' I said, 'Yeah, but fame is fleeting.'"
"We don't have an upheaval here," says Reanetta Hunt, who replaced Lowe with herself. "There was no upheaval even in Mr. Lowe's departure. He truly was not escorted out."
What about the letter you sent him last Friday telling him that was his last day? I asked.
"That's standard policy," Hunt said. "I don't think it's an upheaval at all. I don't think you have the facts."
Hunt, who worked for Harold Washington back in the 80s, returned to Chicago from Memphis this summer to run the communications office of the public schools. There she found Lowe, dug in deep, bristling with autonomy. "I had a rocky experience with him," says Bennie Currie, Hunt's predecessor in the office. "It was my assumption that he didn't want to have a boss or supervisor. The Educator was my responsibility, so I had input. We would sometimes become at odds over my input."
Two years before Hunt arrived, Lowe had left the business desk of the Sun-Times to create an in-house newspaper for the public schools. Lowe wrote, edited, laid out, hustled ads, and set up distribution--by various accounts he labored into the night seven days a week, while his marriage went down in flames. And he produced a biweekly that gleams with professionalism. One issue a month goes out to the staff; the other, which is sent home with students, has a circulation of 547,000 (including 60,000 copies in Spanish), larger than the Sun-Times's.
Hunt decided the product could stand improvement.
"If you notice our Educator, we've never even had a table of contents," she told me. "There's no way to know exactly what's in the paper unless you turn every page."
The last Educator I saw was 12 pages long. Turning every page was not an insuperable burden.
"You have one in the Reader, right?" Hunt pressed on, still speaking of a table of contents.
Not exactly, I said.
"You have four sections, and the sections are called something--right? With our paper we were not able to do that. This is not a criticism necessarily of Mr. Lowe. This is an administrative thing. We've made changes--added sports, more on local school councils, more on the wonderful things the Chicago Public Schools have done with minority business enterprises. We also wanted to give our students a chance to get some of their writing in the paper. So we're adding some things that will be very interesting to our readers."
Hunt told Lowe that she would assume the title of editor and he'd be managing editor. "As director of this department I'm automatically the editor," she explained to me. "I oversee it."
Your predecessors didn't name themselves editor, I pointed out.
"I don't know where their mind-sets are," she said. "But I will tell you, I have published a number of papers."
Aside from the fact that Lowe used to be the editor, reporting for the most part to nobody, and now he'd be the managing editor, reporting to her, "Fred basically had all the same responsibilities," Hunt told me. "I thought we got along fine."
"They've been clashing since Reanetta was brought in," says Paul Vallas, CEO of the public schools. Vallas has bigger things to worry about, and he let the two of them rumble. Lowe groused, threatened to quit, and was looking around for another job even before Hunt got rid of him.
The September 10 Chicago Educator contains six articles written by Lowe and eight by freelancers Susan DeGrane and Laurens Grant. The paper's losing all three writers; one of the last things Lowe did before leaving was tell his freelance writers that Hunt was cutting the budget and wasn't going to pay for their stories anymore. From now on the Educator would be written in-house by Hunt's staff.
"He was basically saying the new head of communications is going to take it over now and make it a PR thing for the board administrators," Grant told me. Not that it hasn't always been something of a PR thing, even if an unusually elegant one. Grant, who speaks fluent Spanish and used to run the Reuters bureau in Panama City, told me that Lowe owed her $1,000 for her September 10 stories and to make sure she got something paid her $400 out of his own pocket. "That was way above and beyond the call of duty," Grant said. "He said, 'Well, I appreciate your work.'"
Hunt told me, "In the communications department we have very competent writers--at least eight writers. Given that all of our staff are college graduates, what level of skill do you think is required to write a story about the public schools?"
Bennie Currie says, "We had writers on staff paid for by tax dollars not being fully utilized. That's counter to the lean-and-mean approach they want to have at the board of eduction." Chicago Educator, he went on, is a "public relations function," whether Lowe liked it or not. "It's not a newspaper per se. It's not the Sun-Times or the Tribune. He struggled with that initially."
Lowe told me, "I wanted a paper that when people picked it up there was no drop-off from reading the Sun-Times or the Reader or the Tribune. That the editing was well-done, the headlines were good, and the writing was really good. And you had really great photos. A lot of people were opposed to it, but I believe quality will pay off in the end. It will attract advertisers. It will attract readers. That was one of my biggest battles. I believed in it so much I spent $6,000 out of my own pockets for copy editors. It took about a year and a half to get it back. The feeling at the time was the Educator didn't need copy editors.
"The school system is not viewed as a place where high-quality people work or that produces a high-quality product. To help counter that, my idea was that you can't present a sloppy product. You had to let people know that Gery Chico, the mayor, Paul Vallas were part of a new regime that was going to turn this system around, and excellence was their bottom line."
Sports? "This is nothing new," Lowe insisted. He showed me back issues with articles on hearing-impaired athletes at Whitney Young, on pro football players from public high schools who donated thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to grade-school programs, on the impact of Tiger Woods on the public schools' new golf program.
Student writing? "This is not a new idea." Lowe said that last year Chicago Educator ran ads offering students $25 an article. "We got one response."
"There is no upheaval here," Hunt again insisted. "This is strictly policy, strictly administrative."
But Lowe created Chicago Educator virtually by himself, working his fingers to the bone, I said. For him the changes you're making aren't just policy--they're personal.
"He has never done anything with the paper by himself," Hunt replied. "It's a Chicago Public Schools production. Listen to what you're saying, which is a personal testament to what the person did. He had the resources to do that and was supported in his efforts to do that. Not to cast aspersions, but a lot of people work long hours here. I work many nights till nine o'clock, and I don't have a copyright on that. Who doesn't work their fingers to the bone? The Chicago Public Schools is a massive operation. This is a difficult job to do--it's really important to have people who will work with you. I'm in a position of being the director of the department, and in that position I have to do what is best for the office, for the organization, and for the paper. We all have rules to abide by.
"I think you'll learn I'm not the problem at all. And I don't think the paper's in any jeopardy."
Was Paul Jenkins quoted out of context? The Police Department's top spokesman resigned under fire last week, a victim of his own clarity. Asked if the department would find a job for quadriplegic James Mullen, an officer shot in the line of duty, Jenkins said no.
"Could we conceivably find work for anyone of any disability?" he told the Sun-Times. "Could we create a job? The answer is yes. But are we being fiscally responsible to the citizens who are paying for officers to fight crime? We're not an employment service. We're a police department."
There it was, the department's position, stated with admirable concision. The quote appeared halfway through the article on Mullen, after it jumped from page one to page two, but the last two blunt sentences also ran in display type in a box on page one.
"It is impossible for me to believe that the quote was not lifted out of context," wrote Tribune columnist John Kass the next day.
"Jenkins claims his remarks were taken out of context," said the introduction to Jenkins's interview last Sunday with Tribune reporter Steve Mills. Mills tells me Jenkins was referring only to the two highlighted sentences on page one. Kass had the whole quote in mind.
"There is no mention that as a Naval officer and fighter pilot, Jenkins flew missions," Kass noted, presumably in complaint. "And a military officer does not make light of wounded men."
Kass approved of what Jenkins told the Sun-Times but disapproved of the way the paper reported what he told it. Actually the paper handled Jenkins the way papers handle everything--getting to the point and sticking there. Jenkins isn't the first veteran whose years in uniform didn't find their way into a story.
"He was not taken out of context," Sun-Times reporter Michelle Roberts told me. "Paul Jenkins was not taken out of context, and Paul Jenkins knows he was not taken out of context." She says she called him and asked why the department couldn't find a job for Mullen. "He asked for time to collect his thoughts and called me back two and a half hours later."
Did he say anything you didn't use? I asked Roberts. Only this, she said, checking her notes: "We have reviewed as promised. We looked at what they did in New York [where a quadriplegic officer was kept on the force] and decided we would remain with the policy that stands in Chicago."
According to Roberts, "That was the entirety of what he said to me."
Jenkins got as much time as he wanted to compose an answer to the Sun-Times's question. The paper reported virtually all of his response, emphasizing the most pungent part of it. By newspapering lights, that's a square deal.
"Have I met Mel Gibson? No," Michael Sneed was saying. "Do I have any desire to meet Mel Gibson? It would be OK."
But what if she met him and didn't like him?
When we spoke, Sneed hadn't written a column in two weeks without Gibson in it.
Sighted...at Hugo's Frog Bar, Iron Mike's Grille, Habana, Little Havana, Mother Hubbard's, Gene & Georgetti's, Tempo...
With Joe Carlucci, the mayor and Maggie, Tony Durpetti and his daughter Michelle, some Chicago cops, some pals...
Smoking Avo, Griffin, P.G., Romeo & Juliette, a Dominican, a Grand Torpedo, cigarettes...
Chowing down on sea bass, crab cakes, slabs of beef, an "18-ounce filet steak medium rare accompanied by a salad"...
And "having cocktails," water, H2O, water.
Sample language: "How can this guy stay in great shape if he is cleanin' his plate all over town? Simple. He eats lots and lite. But booze is off the menu. A teetotaler, Gibson drinks...water. Even when he bellies up to the bar to smoke a Dominican cigar."
Sneed told me, "I have never in my life had so much E-mail. And it's women, all women. There were like 350 people in some sort of chat room that do nothing but look for my column on Mel Gibson."
Then she said, "Make sure you put in there I'm the one who put Mel Reynolds in jail."
The next morning she wrote, "Don't have a heart attack, but there are no Mel Gibson items today. OK. Deal with it."
Searching for Mel Gibson, I read in Sneed that the Lerner papers' "fashion maven" Sandy Kagan is getting married soon (though not to Gibson), which may explain why she's been so other-centered lately. A vigilant reader who keeps a Kagan watch has sent me a couple of recent efforts by the self-effacing fashion and style editor-columnist for the neighborhood chain.
Sample language: "I have found that even I, yes, I have fallen victim to items that looked good when I tried them on, but thought later, 'What was I thinking?'"
September 11 column: The hunt for a fall wardrobe. The count: "I" appears 24 times, "my" four times, "me" twice. There's one "you."
Sharing the page: An unsigned article announcing that Kagan will be getting a "prestigious award" from the state of Israel. The count: "Kagan" nine times, "Sandy" three.
September 25 column: Kagan's report on the Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's fashion show. The count: "I" 16 times; "we" four times; "my" three times; "I'm," "our," "us," and "myself" once each.
There are four pictures of Kagan on the same page.
Headline in last week's Crain's Chicago Business: "Libel laws should hold the press liable for its lies."
Actually they do. But the headline caught the spirit of the essay, in which attorney Daniel Weil kvetched that it's too hard in this country for a public person to sue for libel.
Weil nominated the British model. Since the British never got around to writing a Bill of Rights, there's no First Amendment there to be overextended.
"With the death of Princess Diana raising questions of the role tabloids and paparazzi had in that fatal crash, and the publication of Kitty Kelley's latest scandal book, 'The Royals,' the issue of the parameters of a free press is once again being discussed," Weil wrote. "'The Royals' is not being published in Britain because truth remains the only defense to a libel suit in that country. Yet free speech and a free press do seem to thrive there."
Weil may not be familiar with such silencing tools as Britain's Contempt Act and Official Secrets Act, which allowed Margaret Thatcher to ban a book on the secret MI5 and media baron Robert Maxwell to keep his corrupt business conduct under wraps by threatening legal action against journalists who accused him of anything. And Weil may have forgotten that Britain's daily tabloids put America's weeklies to shame. It was the predations of the homegrown penny press that prompted Diana, shortly before she died, to say of Britain that "any sane person would have left long ago." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frederick Lowe photo by Charles Eshelman.