It's odd to break a good story only to see the readers you most wanted to reach blow it off. On October 27, as Republican congressman Jerry Weller rolled toward reelection in Illinois' 11th District, the Reader reported on its front page that Weller's apparently been buying up beachfront property in Nicaragua without disclosing it, in possible violation of the federal Ethics in Government Act. To give the story by freelancer Frank Smyth maximum exposure, the Reader posted it online on October 25.
Would John Pavich, Weller's underdog Democratic opponent, seize the issue and run with it? Would other media pick up the story?
Well, no. Pavich let six days go by after the Reader posted Smyth's story before he held a telephone news conference and asserted that Weller "may have ethics violations" and that his "lack of response is a disturbing pattern of behavior voters in the 11th District have come to know all too well."
The major Chicago papers didn't cover Pavich's less-than-dynamic pronouncement, and neither did the biggest paper in his district, Bloomington's Pantagraph. The Daily Herald in Morris, where Weller lives, treated the matter like a tennis match. The Daily Herald saw its duty as reporting what Pavich said about Weller and what Weller said back. Applying intelligence to the back-and-forth apparently ex-ceeded the paper's job description.
When the Daily Herald called, Weller let campaign manager Steve Shearer do the talking, and Shearer went after the messenger. "He does not own three [undisclosed] parcels in Nicaragua," Shearer told the paper. "He does not own six parcels in Nicaragua. He has filed his disclosure for everything that he owns. The evidence Mr. Pavich is using is a Chicago left-wing-newspaper article." Elaborating on his description of the Reader, Shearer said, "Half of it is sex ads, so it's not exactly a Grade A newspaper. You have to consider the source in this, and the timing."
If Shearer seriously believes the Reader is half sex ads--well, that's between him and his therapist. But I called the Daily Herald reporter, Jo Ann Hustis, and asked why she let Shearer's attempt to discredit the paper stand unchallenged.
"This is between the two candidates," she said. "It wasn't my description. It's his description. I had never heard of you before two days ago."
If Hustis had bothered to read Smyth's article online she probably wouldn't have spelled his last name "Smith." And chances are a little fact-checking would have kept her from identifying Gerald Craig Weller as "Gerald Kent Weller."
Smyth was taking a close look at Weller's Latin American entanglements because Weller is vice chairman of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. In an August 25 story in the Reader, Smyth looked into the questions raised by Weller's marriage to Zury Rios Sosa, who's not merely a Guatemalan legislator but the daughter of a former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, still one of that country's most powerful men. Two months later, on October 31, the Sun-Times carried a story, "Is dictator's daughter a conflict?" that played catch-up with Smyth's first Reader piece.
But the beachfront revelations in his second story weren't mentioned. Sun-Times reporter Dave Newbart says he called Shearer, who said Weller had "consolidated" his various properties into the three the congressman did report. Smyth, who has copies of the titles, says there's not only no evidence that Weller's newly acquired properties were disclosed before they were consolidated but also no evidence of any consolidation. Newbart and cowriter Abdon Pallasch didn't have the time or space to sort it out. (The article covered most of a page, but a sweet family shot of Weller and his wife and their infant daughter took up more space than the story did.)
The Tribune has a way of writing editorial endorsements that refer to campaign issues as if it had actually covered them. In an editorial announcing that the paper had decided not to endorse either candidate in the 11th District, it said Weller "needs to recognize that he has a vast conflict of interest: His wife is a leading member of Guatemala's Congress and the daughter of a former Guatemalan dictator who has been accused of war crimes, yet Weller continues as vice chair of a House subcommittee on the western hemisphere. He says it's enough that he recuses himself on matters that deal specifically with Guatemala. But the committee deals with many regional matters that have potential impact on that nation."
Tough language. But the Tribune's archives indicate that the nearest the paper's reporters came to the subject during the campaign was a September 2 story on a campaign donation Weller accepted from a telecommunications executive vaguely linked to phone-sex lines based in Guyana. Here's the reference in its entirety: "Efforts to reach Weller for comment were unsuccessful. The congressman has been in Guatemala since his wife gave birth to their first child there a couple of weeks ago."
Though most papers turned their back on Smyth's beachfront story, it sped through the blogo-sphere. It was a bumpy ride.
Links promptly appeared on the popular sites dailykos.com and wonkette.com. "Munguza," who planted the story on dailykos, announced that Smyth "reveals that Rep. Weller has been quietly purchasing parcels" of beach property. That wasn't quite true: Weller's acquisitiveness wasn't a secret, just the scale of it. And Munguza said of various lots that Weller "managed to get them at below-market-rate prices"--something Smyth didn't report because he wasn't sure. And Munguza was wrong about the date of Weller's marriage, which was in 2004, not in August.
On Wonkette, freelance poster "Ken" pureed Smyth's careful research with rumors that President Bush and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon have been picking up tens of thousands of acres in Paraguay--"just in case." (Meaning just in case these jokers have to disappear fast, you know, like some Germans after World War II.) Ken didn't sweat the details. "To avoid the appearance of being a Global Criminal Mastermind or whatever," he wrote, "Weller asked his buddies in Congress for various waivers. He got them." Smyth had reported a single waiver, and he didn't accuse Weller of cronyism. I reached Ken by e-mail. "I can't really explain
all our inside jokes and cross references, or the whole meta-paranoid lefty or righty thing (which changes hourly), or the wild-eyed innuendo," he e-mailed me back. "It's just what we do. We also love shaking huge alt-weekly or 'three part series' stories down to a few sentences of hysterical exaggeration. We definitely aren't interested in precision or whatever."
Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., one district north, entered the picture when Weller released a campaign flyer painting Pavich as Jackson's puppet. "Mr. Weller wants to divert attention away from the fact that his father-in-law was a brutal dictator whose regime killed thousands of people...and that he failed to report all of his Guatemalan beachfront property as required by federal law," Jackson snapped back in a prepared statement. It could have been prepared better. He put the beachfront property, if not the father-in-law, in the wrong country.
aTribune headline November 1: "Parties pouring big bucks into area." Subhead: "Democrats, GOP spend $7 million on 2 Congress races." And the article began:
"The Republican and Democratic national congressional commit-tees have already poured more than $7 million into TV ads,
mailings and phone calls in Illinois' two hotly contested suburban contests, Federal Election Commission reports show." Note the Tribune's evenhandedness--going so far as to vary the order in which the parties are named.
The article went on to say that in the Sixth District, where it was Roskam versus Duckworth, the two committees had spent a "combined $4 million." Farther along it said the Republicans spent about $2.3 million, the Democrats $1.7 million. The article said that in the Eighth District, Bean versus McSweeney, the Repub-licans spent "almost $2.4 million." At another point it said the Democrats spent $723,000.
Do the math the Tribune didn't and you see that the GOP spent just under two-thirds of the $7 million announced in the headline.
aThe only thing to be said for the Sun-Times's endorsement of Todd Stroger last month is that publisher John Cruickshank--unlike his disgraced predecessor, David Radler--allowed the lesser papers in the Sun-Times News Group to make up their own minds. Neither the Daily Southtown nor the Pioneer Press papers nor a single other STNG paper came out for Stroger. No surprise given the fundamental democratic principles that were violated in making Stroger a candidate.
The Sun-Times vowed "to assign extra reporters to watch [Stroger] to make sure that he follows through on his promises." Extra reporters?
aWhen Jerry Weller accused his opponent of being a tool of Jesse Jackson Jr., Jackson shot back that Weller "is desperately trying to divert attention away from stories about himself." This made me wonder: When does hackneyed rhetoric become full-blown cliche? I did some googling.
Columnist Deirdre Griswold in Workers World, 2004: "The Bush administration is desperately trying to divert attention at home from the disaster it has created in Iraq." Wesley Pruden, Jewish World Review, 2002: the Saudis are "desperately trying to divert attention" from the role of Saudi terrorists in 9/11. The minister of planning for the state of Victoria, Australia, two months ago: the federal environmental minister, an "orange-bellied embarrassment," is "desperately trying to divert attention" from his wheel-ing and dealing.
A candidate for parliament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last January: prime minister Paul Martin is "desperately trying to divert attention from the Liberal record of corruption, empty rhetoric and broken promises." Minnesota's house minority leader, two years ago: the Republicans are "desperately trying to divert attention from their miserable failure." Blogger "Clif" at lydiacornell.com, last month: "Foley is NOT the only one, according to the former clerk of the House. No wonder they are desperately trying to DIVERT attention."
The total number of Google citations comes to about 50--too few for "diverting attention" to earn full-blown cliche status. But it's got promise.
aThe Chicago Humanities Festival is under way, its theme "Peace and War: Facing Human Conflict." I have a few thoughts on the subject that you can find online at chicagoreader.com.