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The Seattle Guide to Chicago/A Toll on the Truth/The Sack of Monseur: History Revised/Judgment Calls



By Michael Miner

The Seattle Guide to Chicago

Two Sundays ago the Tribune's Blair Kamin denounced the ugly new Nordstrom building. Why stop there? I wondered. He didn't intend to. Four days later he took a step back and denounced the entire concrete warren that developer John Buck grandly calls North Bridge.

The series of ads Nordstrom ran in local papers to build excitement before last Friday's opening nicely captured the folly. The ads were variations on a theme--the new store rising from a cartoonish map of the neighborhood, with such headlines as "Reinvent the Scenic Route" and "Reinvent the Landmark." Actually Nordstrom was reinventing the map of Chicago. Just as it matters little to Hollywood producers whether a landmark like Wrigley Field is downtown or four miles north, Nordstrom's owners in Seattle seem blithely unconcerned whether Wabash is west of Michigan Avenue or, as some of their ads had it, east, whether their store is on the south side of Grand or, as other ads had it, the north.

I called Nordstrom spokesman Mary Ann Lucchesi and pointed out these mistakes.

"I'm sorry you feel that way," she said.

I replied that feelings had nothing to do with it. The maps in the ads were objectively wrong, and I was simply wondering why. I asked who designed them.

"We have an in-house corporate team in Seattle," she said. "We were very aware of making sure we very accurately reflected the city. We did not want people to think we're not very knowledgeable about the marketplace. We spent countless hours making sure those maps were accurate."

Which they're not. Judging from the numbers of people swarming through the new store when it opened, no harm was done. But if you tore out one of those maps and now you're not sure you'll be able to find the new Nordstrom store, just get yourself to the North Bridge district and then look for the beige box.

No, you'd still be confused. You'd better ask.

A Toll on the Truth

The secret each Chicago daily tries to keep from its readers is that the newspaper they hold in their hands isn't the only one in town. The papers' low cunning is too frequently displayed for each example of it to be noted. But I got a call the other day from a Sun-Times writer arguing that the latest Tribune trespass was too "blatant" to overlook.

A couple of Sundays ago, the Sun-Times reported on its front page that it had forced the resignation of Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar from the board of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. This was a coup for the Sun-Times, which announced that Claar had quit just five hours after the paper "questioned his practice of soliciting tollway vendors for contributions to his mayoral fund." The Sun-Times reported that in the last decade Claar had received about $105,000 in donations from firms that had received $170 million or more in tollway contracts, and that Claar defended the donations on the flimsy grounds that these firms also did business with the village of Bolingbrook.

The Sun-Times's Tim Novak had called Governor Ryan's office the previous Friday morning for a reaction to Claar's fund-raising activities. By mid-afternoon he'd heard back that the governor wasn't amused and Claar was out. One-upped in the early edition of the Sunday paper, the Tribune struck back as best it could. Reporter Rogers Worthington tracked down Dennis Culloton, Ryan's press secretary, and got him to confirm Novak's story. The Tribune then went to press with a story that featured a detail buried in Novak's account: according to Ryan's office, the governor had asked his staff to draft a bill addressing Claar's kind of wheeling and dealing.

Claar's ouster from the tollway board is a lot more real an event than a vague assertion that reform might one day be forthcoming. Nevertheless, by leading with Ryan's reaction to Claar's shenanigans, the Tribune created the illusion that it was moving the story forward. This was simple professionalism on the Tribune's part.

But in noting Claar's resignation, the Tribune reported that it took place "after questions were raised about his campaign fundraising practices."

Raised by whom? Isn't this the sort of question a newspaper normally feels an obligation to answer? "If Pat Quinn had raised the question, or some Democratic or do-gooder group like the BGA had raised the question, the Tribune would have said who raised the question," commented the irritated Sun-Times writer.

And of course he's right. But a reporter's obligation to the facts is nullified when the facts flatter the competition. I called the Tribune to ask a question that more or less answers itself: Why didn't the Tribune give credit to the Sun-Times?

"We talked about it," said Robert Manor, who collaborated with Worthington on the Tribune story.

Not for long, I'd bet.

Another odd thing about the coverage was something both papers left unsaid--that Claar's fund-raising had been common knowledge for years. Last February, for example, Robert Heuer wrote a two-part study of the toll-road authority for the Reader that said this about Claar: "A college fraternity brother of Jim Edgar at Eastern Illinois University, Claar had become a cash magnet after his appointment [by Edgar] to the tollway board in 1991. In 1990 Claar's campaign fund had raised just $683, but a year later it collected $54,710. Now the fund typically receives more than $100,000 a year. Claar claimed the size of his war chest had little to do with his clout at the tollway. 'Critics can say, "Oh, they got something for it," but that's a crock,' Claar told National Public Radio reporter Rick Karr in August 1997. He claimed people contribute only because they're his friends."

In other words, Claar had been defending himself against these charges for at least three years. Which is why the highlight of the Tribune account was tollway authority chairman Art Philip's explanation of why nothing had been done about Claar's fund-raising. "Apparently nobody knew anything about it," Philip replied. "I didn't know about it."

"What we thought was new," says Novak, "was the magnitude to which he raised his fund-raising. In the past year he'd raised a phenomenal amount of funds. He was just doing it a lot more." Nevertheless, he added, "I don't think he's gone because of the increase in volume. I think he's gone because of the embarrassment. It was a matter of timing. Two years ago this probably wouldn't have happened."

Two years ago George Ryan wasn't governor and wasn't up to his ears in scandal. The Sun-Times's sharp new columnist, Mark Brown, made the point a couple of days after Novak's story ran: "He knows he can't take any new hits on the ethical front." That's why Claar went away immediately, just like Sam Panayotovich, who--Novak had earlier reported--was soliciting political donations from companies he oversaw as executive director of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

"The real George Ryan," wrote Brown, "would have growled something like, 'So what's the problem?'"

Brown suspected the real George Ryan was lying low but far from dead, and apparently this is so. Novak's winning streak ended last week when he came out with the story that attorney Jeremy Margolis had recruited members of the Illinois Gaming Board for Ryan and later represented clients before the board. Ryan as much as drew a line in the sand and declared, "Good government stops here!"

"I don't think there is a conflict at all," the Sun-Times had him telling reporters. "I'm not sure you understand what a conflict is."

The Sack of Monseur: History Revised

CLTV anchor Lee Ann Trotter wishes I'd called her before writing last week's lead item in Hot Type. I should have. I was telling the story of Mike Monseur, her predecessor as weekend anchor until he was demoted last winter. This month CLTV fired Monseur outright, and he's now being championed on the Web site, which alleges he was sacked because he's Arab-American.

Hot Type described a three-page statement Monseur wrote before his dismissal that management cited when it got rid of him. It said that Trotter "felt like she was being used as a pon [sic], being an African American female would make it harder for me to claim discrimination. Lee Ann said she was offended that her race would be used in such a way."

"I didn't say that," says Trotter. "Mike told me that. When everything happened and they put me in the anchor chair, he said, 'Not to take anything away from your abilities, but the only reason they have you there is you're a minority.' I said, 'I hope that's not true, and I don't think that's true.'"

Trotter tells me that nobody at CLTV she's talked to believes Monseur was fired because he's Arab-American. But, she says, "There are a lot of people who think it has a lot to do with the union." Monseur led an attempt to organize CLTV employees that failed a year and a half ago.

"The reason they fired Mike was entirely for union activities," says another former employee active in the same fight. "Mike saw it coming. Most of us saw it coming too."

Judgment Calls

To return to the subject of reticence in the newspapers, the Sun-Times provided an unusual example of it last week. Reporter Abdon Pallasch told the story of a catastrophic 1996 wedding reception. The newlyweds alleged that the owner of the Royal Restaurant on Chicago's northwest side had called the bride a "coke whore" and the two of them "drug users" and "cocaine users," told them that if she'd known they were Muslims she'd never have rented them her place, and then thrown the wedding cake in the garbage and ordered everyone out at 10 PM, two hours before the reception was supposed to end.

All this detail is of course what made the story a story, and the Sun-Times immediately planted readers on the couple's side. The account began: "Adel and Doris Ubeid couldn't believe the disaster that struck their wedding reception."

Not until paragraph five did the article mention that the Ubeids had taken Royal owner Diane Pannells to court and that Pannells had triumphed there. "A judge tossed out half the suit because she said the owner's conduct was not 'outrageous,'" Pallasch wrote. "A jury rejected the other half of the suit because of very narrow instructions given by the judge."

And not until paragraph seven did the story get to the actual news peg-- the state appellate court had just overruled the trial judge and ordered a new trial.

So who was this trial judge? Any reader with a speck of curiosity would have wondered, but the story never said.

Pallasch is one of the Sun-Times's best new reporters. "We could have thrown [the judge's name] in there," he says. But "she was not a judge accused of wrongdoing," and it was "more a matter of space." I think I see his point. It would have taken no more space simply to identify the judge as Deborah Dooling. It would have taken a lot more space to put Dooling, who enjoys a good reputation as a judge, in a context that didn't make her look like a nincompoop.

The appellate order, written by Judge Anne Burke, makes it clear that Dooling deemed Pannells's alleged statements slanderous. Where Burke parted company with the trial judge--in a dry, citation-ridden analysis--was over what under the law constitutes defamation and "the intentional infliction of emotional distress." Responsible people can disagree, and here they did.

If a newspaper tells a legal story in such a way that a judge is unfairly cast in a terrible light, it has a problem it doesn't solve by the expedient of not saying who the judge is. I don't know that the decision not to name Dooling was even Pallasch's. It certainly wasn't his alone. Editors are supposed to get the facts in, not keep some out.

News Bite

Time gallops on. That "latest" example I discussed above of the Tribune pretending the Sun-Times doesn't exist was promptly superseded.

Last Sunday the Tribune reported the retirement of J. Terrence Brunner as executive director of the Better Government Association. Recounting Brunner's first years at the helm, the Tribune said they "brought heady successes, such as when the BGA made a national splash in 1977 with its Mirage tavern investigation, a scheme in which the group bought a Chicago bar along with a newspaper and proceeded to record a parade of bribe-seeking city inspectors in action."

In the annals of journalism, the Mirage tavern is identified with the Sun-Times nearly as closely as "Dewey Defeats Truman" is with the Tribune.

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