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Pulling Off the Perfect Merger/ One Side Fits All

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By Michael Miner

Most mergers make a lame pretense of equality. This one has the flavor of Rome merging with Carthage. The Tribune Company intends to swallow Times Mirror and label the combined entity--the Tribune Company. Times Mirror simply disappears--liquidated--honored by not so much as a hyphen in a rejiggered corporate name.

Is it just me, or do you detect candor verging on schadenfreude in the first accounts of the merger in Times Mirror's own two biggest papers? The merger, reported David Shaw and Sallie Hofmeister of the Los Angeles Times, would "effectively mark the demise of Times Mirror." On the opposite side of the continent, Newsday's Rita Ciolli explained that "the deal was expected to be announced today as a merger, but for all intents and purposes Times Mirror, which owns Newsday, will be absorbed." Both papers said CEO and board chairman Mark Willes would be packing his bags.

Willes came from General Mills's Cheerios division in 1995. He knew nothing about journalism, yet he set out to dismantle the wall between news and advertising, eliminated 3,000 jobs, and shut down the Baltimore Evening Sun and the New York edition of Newsday. When Times Mirror stock tripled in value, he was proclaimed a genius and prophet. When the stock began to fall, the cheering stopped. A recent American Journalism Review profile of Willes, the company, and the Chandler family, which controls the company, was excoriating. Last fall the Times cut a deal with LA's new Staples Center sports arena: the Times would publish a special issue of its Sunday magazine devoted to the arena, and the paper and the arena would split the profits. But the Times was found out. A new publisher who knew even less about journalism than Willes did had made the deal. It disgraced the Times and humiliated the journalists working for it.

"A flagrant violation of the paper's editorial independence," reminisced the Times's Shaw and Hofmeister. "An ethical breach," recalled Ciolli.

Their stories reported that the Chandlers initiated the merger talks and for some time Willes was kept in the dark. The Times added the humiliating detail that the deal will make LA "the largest city in the country without a locally owned metropolitan daily."

Reporters from both coasts called me asking for a Chicagoan's perspective on the Tribune Company. They do like their profits, I replied, but be aware of this: Jack Fuller, head of the company's newspaper division, came up through the ranks as a journalist and a few years ago actually wrote a book on ethics. The book's a little fussy, but Fuller's a thoughtful, serious, decent man. So that'll be a change.

One Side Fits All

Since there's rarely a way for reporters to get the full story, they normally call it quits once they have a good one. The rule of thumb is narrative, not epistemological: editors like reporting that asks every obvious question and poses none that it doesn't answer. Beyond every "what" there's a "why." But beyond that "why" is another "why"--and by then most reporters have called it a day.

Two cases in point. The first is last year's Methodist church trial of the Reverend Gregory Dell. A team of students from the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media reviewed the coverage of the Dell trial, and their analysis is now a case history in Media Coverage of Religion, Spirituality, and Values/1999, a report issued by the center last month. The students generally admired the Dell coverage, but they noticed one piece that was missing.

The media--aided by the adroit PR instincts of both Dell and the Methodist authorities--found a narrative line that flattered all parties, including the media, and told a riveting tale. The protagonist was Dell, who'd violated church law by sanctifying the union of two gay men at Chicago's Broadway United Methodist Church. "The most prominent theme observed in the media coverage of this case is that Dell is a hero," observes the report. "The impression one gets...is that Dell is a lone crusader willing to uphold his principles even at the price of losing the job that he loves."

But Dell's prosecutors were also presented sympathetically. The media made it known that Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of northern Illinois admired and praised Dell. He filed the official complaint against the pastor because it was his duty to the laws of his church, even to a law with which he personally disagreed. The report goes on to observe that the churchmen who conducted the prosecution "skillfully avoided attacking Dell as a person" while stressing their obligation to defend church law as they found it. Just as the principled rebel commands our respect, so does the principled conservative. There's a passage from Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (not cited by Media Coverage) that explains why: "This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast," Thomas More argues to a young hothead. "Man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

More was on the wrong side of history but the right side of honor. In the same spirit, the Methodist authorities stood up for their own laws, which they knew all too well had been written by men, not God. And there we had it--a wrenching moment in time when a better world not quite arrived collided with a lesser world not quite spent and good people of conscience felt obliged to disagree. For a villain, the media took full advantage of a ranting interloper, the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. When Phelps brought his dog and pony show to the doors of Dell's church, the media--TV in particular--swarmed. Quoting from an emblematic WFLD report, Media Coverage commented, "The 'face off' and 'clash' between 'one of the country's most notorious anti-gay protesters' and 'nearly 1,000 gay supporters'...was almost a made-for-TV story."

The tale told by the media advanced to an inexorable but by no means tragic conclusion. Last March, two days before Palm Sunday, Dell was found guilty, and he was suspended indefinitely from his position as pastor of Broadway United. But his church quickly rehired him to direct its chapter of In All Things Charity, a national Methodist movement dedicated to changing the denomination's position on homosexuality. And on appeal, his sentence was reduced so that it would expire on June 30 of this year.

In a conversation with me, Roy Larson, executive director of the Garrett-Medill Center, found the precise word to describe the coverage of the Dell trial--"cosmopolitan." A comfortable urbanity marked it. Twenty or 30 years ago, as the Garrett-Medill report suggests, the coverage would have been very different. We can easily imagine an earlier generation of reporters and editors recoiling from the notion of church sacraments uniting two gay men. Columnists and editorialists might have chastised Dell for mocking his faith and rebuked the gay demonstrators who massed to confront Phelps for "taking the bait" and "spoiling for a fight" and exposing their lack of "true Christian spirit."

But even today, well-meaning journalists in parts of the country less cosmopolitan than Chicago might have covered a similar trial in just this way. The portion of the story that the Garrett-Medill researchers discovered our urbane reporters didn't tell is the portion they were too enlightened to take seriously. Media Coverage, whose approach throughout is more descriptive than critical, observes that both the Tribune and New York Times "ran stories that placed the Dell case in the context of how society in general is grappling with the issue of homosexuality....But, interestingly, with no quotes from representatives of the other side, the anti-gay position was not reflected in their stories. In these stories, the only voice opposing same-sex unions was that of Phelps and he was caricaturized and discredited."

In other words, Media Coverage located no stories with enough regard for the law Dell broke even to explain why most Methodists support it. The Methodists had passed this law at their 1996 General Conference, yet the concerns it embodied were disdained, as the concerns of rustic white men out of step with the times usually are. The Methodist laity that opposes gay rites was disregarded as lumpen less progressive than its Chicago leaders, less progressive than Dell, and less progressive than the journalists who wrote about the case. Not to mention you and me.

And then there's John Rocker, the Atlanta Braves closer who disgraced himself in Sports Illustrated last December with his breezy discussion of things he despised: "Imagine having to take the [number] 7 train to the ball park, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing." And this: "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners....How the hell did they get in this country?"

Sportswriter Noah Liberman has given this SI profile a lot of thought, and last week he E-mailed me to say what it was missing. "Questions like: Why do you feel this way? How do you feel about working with people who might fit these categories? How does it affect your play, or perhaps theirs, given that you're all a team and supposed to work together? How do your feelings, and especially the fact that you're willing to express them to me, jibe with your responsibility to represent your employer in the public arena? Does the Braves organization know how you feel and, if so, what is its position? Have you considered that your success and the peaceful existence in this country of the people you object to are made possible in part by the same freedoms?"

Liberman, a Chicagoan, is a staff writer for SportsBusiness Journal covering media. Until it folded, he'd been a senior writer at Inside Sports magazine. "Questions like these," his letter to me went on, "would have done what few player profiles do. They would have encouraged the player to describe himself in terms other than the usual: wealth, fame, physical exertion, competitive pressure, family. They would have been hard to answer in platitudes. They would have, more importantly, satisfied the writer's responsibility to 'get the story.' As printed, the piece is essentially a case of a writer running a tape recorder, transcribing, and then turning to the rest of us and yelling, 'Look at this!'"

But the thing is, Rocker's transcriber hit pay dirt. Sharp reporters know better than to jeopardize the parts of an interview they intend to make hay with. Like the sly general manager who avoids all contact with the college player he's lusting to draft, they think, "Why tip my hand?" Follow-up questions can give away what's coming. They can warn the subject it's time to end the conversation, or to start taking things back, or to swathe candor in qualifications.

Candor of Rocker's purity is as precious as gold in the hills. You can dig deeper, but you'll find nothing that gleams more on the page. So take it and run.

News Bites

From the Tribune's obituary last Saturday for Lincoln Park raconteur Melvin Miles: "His wife told one about Mr. Miles vacationing in Florida and having a few drinks with a young entertainer; he later found out it was Frank Sinatra."

What bottles were they drinking from? Sinatra was 29 when Miles was born.

Since I started getting off the subway in the morning to a sonorous voice intoning "This is Grand!" life has seemed better in every way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Lennihan/Brian Jackson--Chicago Sun-Times.

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