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Look Back in Anger; Clueless in Chicago

The shameful coverage of civil rights in the 60s shouldn't be lost to history.



Look Back in Anger

Bracing John H. Johnson's conviction that a national market existed for a middle-class black press was a white press where condescension reigned. When Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 a Sun-Times editorial that began, "A revolting crime against humanity has been committed in Mississippi," ended with a pitying reflection: "A man cannot help it if his skin is black, but a man whose black heart leads him to lynching has only himself to blame for his crime."

Forty-two years ago this week white papers viewed the great march on Washington with foreboding. "Today is a day to breathe a prayer for peace in Washington," wrote the Sun-Times on August 28, 1963. "This is the day of the march for civil rights in the nation's capital and the dread specter of possible violence hangs over the proceeding." The Sun-Times, "of course, approves of the fundamental cause of civil rights. It does not, however, approve of the march as a method to dramatize that cause." The risks were too great.

Daily News columnist Raymond Moley wrote that the "apprehensions" of labor leaders that the march would get out of hand "are shared by most informed people." The Tribune, the paper of Lincoln, cited French sociologist Gustave Le Bon to the effect that "like the savage and the child . . . the crowd is intolerant of anything interposed between its desires and their realization. . . . The organizers of the Washington march know all this, yet they have persisted in carrying forward this combustible affair." The paper begged for a "rediscovery of reason."

After the march the Tribune let out a sigh of relief. "The planners and participants can consider their job well done, and the residents of the capital, who had to put up with a day's inconvenience, are entitled to acknowledgment of their patience. Such oratory as there was was less superheated than might have been expected." (The oratory included the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King.)

Around 300 marchers returned to Chicago and demonstrated outside the Sun-Times. They'd expected better from that paper. "It was quite obvious that the [Washington] rally was composed largely of responsible and substantial people who were in control," the Sun-Times editorial page allowed. Nevertheless, "the time has come for the demonstrations for civil rights to be taken off the streets and into the conference rooms." The paper hoped that among the march's leaders "were some who agree with this advice for the future conduct of the civil rights crusade."

Two years ago the Library of America published a two-volume anthology Reporting Civil Rights, a history of race in America from 1941 to 1973 as written on the fly by journalists. The anthology's one shortcoming is that it misrepresents civil-rights coverage. The journalism it presents is distinguished. A vast amount of the journalism it omits was dismal.

Eighteen days after the 1963 march four black girls died when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. "Only criminal insanity can explain such a despicable act," said the Tribune editorial page. But the right to live is one thing, the right to vote another. In March 1965 President Johnson asked Congress to pass a voting rights bill. "To those who like that sort of thing," snorted the Tribune, "Johnson was credited with hitting a note of high emotion. We suggest that the legislative process works best when emotion is wrung out of the discussion. There is far too much emotion already about what are called 'civil rights.'"

In the Tribune's view the right to vote was a so-called civil right. "In coupling mass voting with the ideal society," the editorial continued, "Mr. Johnson again presented himself as a miracle man who will bring about the reformation of mankind's soul, spread brotherhood to the farthest shore, educate and make everyone healthy, wealthy, and wise. This is a brand of socialistic nonsense which even such medicine men as Upton Sinclair never had the temerity to preach in their palmiest days."

If the price of a free black vote was socialism, America would be nuts to pay it. "Poverty is overcome by men able and intelligent enough to hold a job," the Tribune lectured. "It is overcome as the post-war West Germans overcame it--by working harder, while their neighbors, the British in especial, hit the featherbed. It is not overcome by beatnik lie-ins and the riots of mobs in cities and on campuses. Nor will it be overcome by visionary boondoggles, politically inspired."

This blather is evidence of how far the Tribune has come since.

Federalism has come a long way too. In the 60s it grew fat on segregation, taking up the states' rights argument for allowing jim crow to die in bed. The Tribune couldn't countenance the Birmingham bombings, but William Buckley's National Review, which would champion Barry Goldwater for president the following year, was able to. "Let us gently say," it said, "the fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur--of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro." The magazine said some evidence supported this possibility.

"And let it be said," the National Review declared, "that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court's manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice. Certainly it now appears that Birmingham's Negroes will never be content so long as the white population is free to be free."

Fourteen months later the National Review weighed in on the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney in Mississippi. It noted that a federal grand jury convened in Neshoba County had returned indictments against local police officers. "It is everyone's impression, including ours, that some, at least, of the Neshoba police are a crummy lot," said the magazine airily. "But we pause for reflection. Are 'violation of the Civil Rights Act' and the even more tenuous 'conspiracy to violate' going to become a catch-all charge by which the Federal Government can get its hands on nearly any citizen?"

In the view of this conservatism, which has slowly taken over the country, the cure for jim crow was far worse than the disease.

Clueless in Chicago

The David Radler indictment let Jim Thompson claim the only vindication open to him: blamelessness on account of cluelessness. "They either falsified the documents or kept them from the audit committee and the board," Thompson told the Tribune's John Kass after Radler was indicted on August 18. "I've served on more than a dozen corporate boards, and I've never been lied to before by management."

As head of the audit committee of the Hollinger International board, Thompson was supposed to be the guardian at the gate, challenging anyone who approached the stockholders' treasure. The committee met regularly with Radler, who in addition to being publisher of the Sun-Times was president, COO, and deputy chairman of the board of Hollinger International. These meetings would be followed by meetings of the full board, which looked to Thompson's committee for direction. During the period from January 1999 to May 2001 Hollinger was allegedly defrauded of more than $32 million by Radler, Hollinger attorney Mark Kipnis, and Ravelston, a private holding company Radler ran with Hollinger chairman Conrad Black. (According to civil suits now being litigated, Black, Radler, and their friends actually raked off many times that.)

Thanks to a bizarre ownership structure, Black and Radler controlled Hollinger International through Ravelston despite holding relatively little Hollinger stock. This arrangement made the value of that stock of dubious importance to them. The indictment explains, "Every $100 that was transferred out of International and into Ravelston...would cost [Black and Radler] $19, but give them $79." A favored means of making these transfers, according to the indictment, was to sell off newspapers and write into the sales contracts spurious "noncompete" clauses that diverted millions of dollars of the proceeds to Ravelston. In one case, Hollinger allegedly sold newspapers to a company Radler and other Ravelston officials partly owned: they had "in essence, negotiated an agreement with themselves . . . not to compete against themselves . . . resulting in them paying themselves . . . approximately $1.2 million."

The indictment alleges ten separate sales in which the defendants "failed to disclose [side deals and payments] to International's Audit Committee, thereby breaching their fiduciary duty." A year ago, after Black and Radler were banished from the board, Richard Breeden, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, submitted a 513-page report to it that reached the same conclusion Fitzgerald's grand jury would reach: the audit committee had been "repeatedly and deliberately misled" by Radler and Black. But Breeden also assigned moral culpability, and he concluded that the audit committee's "ineffectiveness is primarily a consequence of its inexplicable and nearly complete lack of initiative, diligence or independent thought."

Thompson made his reputation in 1973 by sending federal judge Otto Kerner to prison. He persuaded a jury that by accepting racetrack stock while he oversaw the state's racing board as governor, Kerner had deprived the public of its "intangible right" to his honest service. This intangible right was teased out of the federal mail-fraud statute; eventually the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that the statute didn't support it, but by then Kerner was long dead.

Now Fitzgerald has indicted Radler on the theory that he schemed to deny Hollinger stockholders of not only money and property but their "intangible right of honest services." Fitzgerald says Radler intends to plead guilty and cooperate with the ongoing investigation, whose ultimate quarry is presumably Black.

One onlooker would like it to be someone else. Anton Kerner has been trying to vindicate his father since he died in 1976. "My interest is not that Thompson goes to jail," he e-mailed me, "but that the standard of justice he applied to Otto Kerner is either applied to him or is repudiated by the Department of Justice."

Fat chance. Congress wrote the intangible right to honest service into law as soon as the Supreme Court ruled it wasn't there. But though shareholders must have some kind of right to assume a board of directors isn't comatose, a board member simply isn't as answerable as a governor. Kerner knows that, but he's savoring the moment.

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