News & Politics » Media

Next Time Maybe They'll Listen/Off the Team/News Bites



Next Time Maybe They'll Listen

Andrew Greeley was steaming.

And he doesn't know the half of it, I was thinking as I read his column.

"It would appear that the same mind-set that left us unprepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor also left us unprepared for the World Trade Center attack," Greeley asserted in last Friday's Sun-Times. "In both cases, bureaucratic incompetence blinded the decision makers to what was about to happen....Despite Osama bin Laden's warnings, despite the successful attacks on the embassies in Africa, despite the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, despite the first assault on the World Trade Center, despite the warnings from our own experts, no one took the threat seriously--not several administrations, not the CIA or the FBI, and not the Congress."

Not exactly true, I thought. Greeley's gone easy on the biggest culprit of all--the media. My mind was bent by an article I'd read a day or two earlier, Harold Evans's infuriating piece in the November/December Columbia Journalism Review that began, "We were warned." Evans's story--which was headlined "Warning Given...Story Missed: How a Report on Terrorism Flew Under the Radar"--told the dismal fate of a 150-page study three years in the making. The study's authors could not have been more distinguished nor their assignment more vital, he said, yet the media largely ignored it.

The United States Commission on National Security/21st Century was created, Evans explained, "during a rare moment of agreement between President Clinton and House speaker Newt Gingrich." Chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, the panel also boasted a former secretary of defense, a former ambassador to the United Nations, a former president of the Rand Corporation, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a retired general, a retired admiral, and other luminaries. The commission's report, Evans wrote, "was a devastating indictment of the 'fragmented and inadequate' structures and strategies already in place to prevent, and then respond to, the attacks on U.S. cities, which the commissioners predicted."

The report, Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change, was made public last January 31 at a press conference in the Senate's Mansfield Room. To make sure reporters understood what they were getting, the commission also scheduled private briefings. How did the media respond? "Network television news ignored the report," Evans wrote. "So did the serious evening news on public television. Only CNN did it justice....The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal did not carry a line, either of the report or the press conference." Evans wrote that the commission's executive director, a retired four-star air force general and former Vietnam war POW, "watched in disbelief as the Times reporter left before the presentation was over, saying it was not much of a story."

Some papers did better, Evans acknowledged, but "nowhere did Hart-Rudman get the kind of discussion and amplification of the sort that tends to prompt the political machinery to operate." As the beast slouched toward Bethlehem, the media preferred to chase rabbits.

And what were the rabbits that so distracted journalists a year ago? Gary Condit? Brad and Jennifer? Tom and Nicole? Wasn't stem-cell research tearing the country apart? Whatever. Everything before September 11 is a blur.

I went on-line to revisit the self-absorbed era when Road Map for National Security appeared and vanished. It turned out that the Tribune didn't even run its own story on the study: it lazily picked up the Los Angeles Times's instead, shortening it by about 25 percent. But then I spotted something else in the Tribune archives, a January 30 mention of the New York trial of "supporters of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden" accused of blowing up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998--an act one defendant had called a "martyrdom operation."

The Tribune's Lisa Anderson covered that trial, which didn't end until late May. In story after story, she presented the names, tactics, and ambitions of bin Laden and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda "has stated its intention to take American lives anywhere in the world they can be found, including on U.S. soil," she and Stephen Hedges reported in a 2,900-word Sunday essay in mid-February. "By the mid-1990s, al Qaeda's 'agenda' had crystallized around attacking the West and, in particular, decapitating the 'snake,' as bin Laden described America."

Equally dire, and even more detailed, was a three-part, 13,500-word study of bin Laden and al Qaeda by Stephen Engelberg and Judith Miller of the New York Times. It ran in mid-January, two weeks before the Road Map for National Security report that the New York Times would disdain was issued.

Road Map is a dense, sweeping document that analyzes, critiques, and proposes. The proposals are many and often recondite: for example, the abolition of the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict in favor of a new assistant secretary for strategy and planning. But it did offer reporters a nut graph--a passage they could circle with their pens and put in their leads--that was easy to find, just four paragraphs into the executive summary. "The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack. A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century. The risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership. In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures."

From the commission's point of view, the key sentence here was the last. But journalists would have focused on the threat itself, and the more specific and immediate it sounded the bigger the headlines over the story would have been. "Likely over the next nine months" would have guaranteed the blanket coverage that "likely over the next quarter century" did not.

Embracing its 25-year time frame, Road Map declined to specify mortal enemies who might be here today and gone tomorrow. Because the whole report can be found on-line (at, it's easy to search, and I searched for al Qaeda, al Qaida, and bin Laden. Nothing. For Islam and Muslim. Nothing. For "passenger jets" and "air safety." Nothing.

Harold Evans told us that Hart and Rudman tried to slip their study into the New York Times through a side door by submitting an op-ed essay, but the Times turned it down. And Evans observed that on October 9 the Times reported, "Tom Ridge was sworn in today as the first director of homeland security, a position the country's leaders never felt was needed before September 11," betraying the paper's ongoing obliviousness to the study it had ignored nine months before. "There is a keen sense of frustration among the fourteen commissioners," wrote Evans, "that the marriage of two inertias--one in the serious press, the other in the [Bush] administration--delayed the taking of action" after September 11. Despite the commission's best efforts, the World Trade Center attacks caught the nation unprepared.

Road Map is an impressive piece of work. Evans's point is that the media failed to do their duty to make sure it mattered. But journalists have their predilections--and one is to snicker at the yeasty reports of blue-ribbon panels recommending fundamental structural changes in government, especially reports from blue-ribbon panels appointed by one administration and reporting to another. Evans was right to complain. But we shouldn't suppose that the Times, the Tribune, and other major newspapers hid from their readers the danger the nation was in. They were much more explicit about that danger than the Commission on National Security.

Off the Team

Last September John Cherwa, the Tribune's assistant managing editor for sports, made an astonishing admission. "I wish that my reporters had the fire in their belly that a lot of the Sun-Times reporters do," he told Chicago magazine's Steve Rhodes. "Without them, my reporters, God love them, would be even more lethargic than they are now."

Coaches who say their players are dogging it are coaches who can expect to get fired themselves, and editors have no reason to expect better. To make matters worse, Cherwa's stars had been jumping ship. Columnist Bernie Lincicome quit in the summer of 2000, complaining on his way out that he and Cherwa had trouble communicating with each other and that he didn't feel appreciated anymore. When columnist Skip Bayless resigned last summer he said the Tribune had stopped making him feel important. And just last month, columnist Michael Holley told Cherwa he was homesick and went back to Boston. He'd lasted two months.

These embarrassments added up, and last week Cherwa was removed as sports editor in favor of Dan McGrath, his department's popular number two. Next month Cherwa will coordinate the Tribune's Olympics coverage from Salt Lake City, but after that his future isn't clear. He's from Orlando, and I hear he wouldn't mind going back there. Hired by the Tribune in 1995, Cherwa was promoted to AME sports in 1997 when his predecessor, Tim Franklin, became financial editor. Franklin's now editor of the Tribune Company's Orlando Sentinel, where Cherwa broke in as a clerk back in the 70s.

Though Cherwa wouldn't comment on his demotion, over the years he's been accessible and open. Last summer the Columbia Journalism Review asked him to contribute to a survey on morale in the nation's newsrooms. Cherwa's wish--to see "staffing levels increased with company profits so as to make it seem we all have the same goals"--couldn't have endeared him to his bosses. On the other hand (or is it on the same principled hand?), in 2000 he won the Chicago Headline Club's Ethics in Journalism Award. A Sports Illustrated writer had been denied credentials for the Indianapolis 500 because he'd criticized the race in the past. In solidarity, Cherwa returned the Tribune's credentials. Other papers followed suit, and the 500's management caved.

News Bites

Richard Flavin, whose spirited letter to the editor appears in this issue of the Reader, tells me he became interested in Frank Joseph in 1989, when he came across a book Joseph had written on Atlantis in a Chicago bookstore. "The owner said, 'You'd never have guessed it, but the little creep who wrote it is Frank Collin.'"

Flavin remembers Collin from the mid-70s, though not as well as I do. I was a Sun-Times reporter, and he was leading a small band of uniformed neo-Nazis that operated out of Rockwell Hall in Marquette Park, which at the time was a racial frontier. I recall writing a Sunday story that was held out of the paper because what it reported--that to many of the local white youths, Collin's Nazis were heroes--was too unpleasant to print.

Later in the 70s Collin became nationally notorious, enlisting the American Civil Liberties Union in the legal battle he and his National Socialist Party of America waged for permission to march in Skokie. The ACLU won the case while losing 30,000 members, and in the end Collin decided to march in Chicago instead.

He would soon be drummed out of the extremist right-wing establishment in disgrace. First, his father was revealed to be a Jewish survivor of Dachau. Second, he was sent to prison for taking sexual liberties with children. Flavin says that after being released in 1983, Collin changed his name, moved to Wisconsin, and set himself up as a writer, editor, and authority in "fantastic archaeology," the quasi-science that looks for evidence that ancient civilizations visited the Western Hemisphere thousands of years ago.

My view is that when someone starts out in life as a Nazi, there's nowhere to go but up. If today Joseph is peddling the wacky theory that the Waubansee Stone--the mysterious carved boulder that was the subject of Jeff Huebner's January 4 Reader cover story--was sculpted by visiting Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, that's a lot less odious than the racial theories Collin pronounced back in the 70s. But Flavin sees a line from then to now. On his Web site,, he asserts, "The current rhetoric of Frank Collin is familiar to any reader knowledgeable of his past, as when Collin writes of an 'Aztec holocaust,' or discusses 'miscegenation,' and 'racial identity.'" Flavin tells me, "In fact, some of his magazine articles and books are actually being marketed in some skinhead catalogs."

Flavin, who describes himself as a "struggling novelist," lived in Chicago until 1994, when he moved east. He's a fantastic-archaeology buff himself but takes it far less seriously than Joseph: "If a couple of Romans did come over here, who cares?" As a writer, he's turned Frank Joseph into a cottage industry. He tells me he's had at him in the Greenwich Village Gazette and New City and the CD-ROM database Ethnic Newswatch, as well as on his own Web site.

I reached Joseph by phone and inquired about his unusual path through life. "I have nothing to say about that," he responded.

Though Dave Kehr, who used to be the Reader's movie critic, now writes regularly for the New York Times, he's a freelancer and the critics ahead of him are on staff. He and the others were asked to turn in Ten Best lists at the end of the year, and Kehr, never one to travel in a pack, named The Royal Tenenbaums the best film of 2001. Ever since, the movie's producers have promoted it as "the best film of the year" according to the New York Times.

This is OK by the Times, to judge by the two-page ad for The Royal Tenenbaums it published in last Friday's Weekend section. The Times has granted Kehr the lofty status of one who speaks in the name of the paper even though he isn't on its payroll.

Add a comment