News & Politics » Media

The Tribe Takes on the Trib/News Bites



A watershed in the estrangement of the Tribune's Jewish readers was the publication on August 24 of this front-page story: "'No room for mistakes.' Radicals lament rash of thwarted suicide bombings."

The article was written by the Tribune's E.A. Torriero and datelined Jenin, West Bank. It began:

"Abdel-Fatah Toubassi wishes his son would have blown himself up and taken Israelis to their deaths too. Instead, Samir Toubassi, 19, sits in an Israeli prison after police outside Haifa caught him with a huge bomb as he was supposedly on his way to bring terror to an Israeli dance hall last week.

"'It would be better for him to be dead than to be in an Israeli jail for most of his life,' said Toubassi, a technician for the Palestinian communications company, sitting in his living room and holding a thumb-size photo of his son. 'There is no room for mistakes if someone wants to be a suicide bomber.'"

A large photograph of Toubassi reaching toward the camera with the picture of his son accompanied the story.

It would not occur to every reader to object to anything about this enterprising reporting. But Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview looked at it aghast. "I read this not as objective reporting but as a story on the trials and tribulations of a suicide bomber," he says. "It was far too sympathetic, and I feel it was dangerous."

The next morning, a Saturday, he denounced the article to the congregation of his synagogue. "I suggested the Jewish community give serious consideration to protesting in front of the Tribune. I'd been critical of the Tribune before, but I felt this was so egregious that we ought to be thinking in terms of a community protest. In the course of the service a congregant came up and said, 'If you're so concerned, why don't you organize a protest yourself?' I said, 'OK. Anybody who wants to join me in front of the Tribune, bring your voice and a placard.' That Monday afternoon 60 or 70 people showed up who'd been at the service, and I realized I'd touched a serious button.

"The next week there were another couple of articles, one of them by Salim Muwakkil on Palestinians that was unusually offensive. It was decrying the colonialism of Israel, and the Palestinians' plight, and all the rest. I felt his criticisms were really over the top, so I organized another one the following week. This time 120 to 130 people showed up. I think people had started sending E-mails out. There was a fair number from the synagogue, but there were also people from the Orthodox, Reform, and secular communities, all standing outside and protesting." The protest was spreading from temple to temple. Siegel had lit kindling.

He says, "I realized now that the concern in the Jewish community regarding news coverage of Israel, in the Tribune in particular, was more significant than I'd realized. Now I called for a boycott of the Tribune. I wrote to my congregation and encouraged them to think about it--at least for the period of the High Holidays. Following that, I decided to stage one last protest. I wanted to make a statement to the Tribune and not become a fixture outside it."

This rally was scheduled for September 14, the Friday before Rosh Hashanah. September 11 intervened, the rally was canceled, and Siegel doesn't plan another. "I didn't want to place undue focus on Israel," he says, "when we are mourning the loss of thousands of lives."

September 11 was the day "the unthinkable became thinkable," in Siegel's words, but many Jews point to another date as the time when everything changed. "My September 11 came a year earlier," Siegel says, "when Barak made the most far-reaching attempt to create a Middle East settlement, and Arafat's response was this intifada. What I came away with after the debacle of a year ago August was the idea that what we're talking about is not this border or that but the destruction of the state of Israel. And I began to read newspapers differently, and I realized the war being fought was not only being fought with bombs and suicide bombers and the rest, but it was being fought in the pages of American newspapers. So when the Tribune continued to lambaste Israel for its policy of quote, assassination, end quote and not allow its readers to fully appreciate that the people being killed were terrorists themselves and not simply political leaders, I found that to be unconscionable."

The August 24 article, he says, was "the straw that broke the camel's back."

I quote Rabbi Siegel at length not only because he took action, but because it wasn't like him to take it. On October 18 several Jewish leaders visited Tribune Tower at the paper's invitation to talk things over with editor Ann Marie Lipinski and other editors. One of the visitors was Jonathan Levine, regional director of the American Jewish Committee. Levine, who describes Siegel as "not a grandstander, not a guy who goes out and does demonstrations," says he told Lipinski, "When Michael Siegel stands up, something's going on."

The Tribune knew something was going on. A few days later Siegel himself was visiting Lipinski at the Tower.

These troubles are rooted in the era of Colonel McCormick, whose isolationism blinded him to everything about the Nazis, including the Holocaust, that required opposing with arms. Jewish leaders today take pains to distinguish that era from this; they describe today's editors as accessible, thoughtful, and certainly not anti-Semitic. Even so, public editor Don Wycliff, who reads the mail that comes in, says some of it tells the Tribune, "You haven't changed a bit."

On November 5, Wycliff and three other Tribune editors ventured out to Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Glenview to face a highly critical audience of at least 500 people, an audience limited primarily by the number of spaces in the temple's parking lot. On the apron of the stage sat a stack of reprints of a column Wycliff had written last May 31, a column this audience considered outrageous. It began: "As near as I can figure it out, the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians comes down to this: The government of Israel is demanding that the Palestinians allow their homeland to be colonized, and that they do it without complaint. That, anyway, seems to be the sum and substance of all the to-ing and fro-ing about 'settlements,' which are, in actuality, nothing more than colonial outposts planted in the midst of a deeply embittered and hostile population."

Wycliff sat onstage with editorial writer Storer Rowley, foreign editor Tim McNulty, and Tribune attorney Dale Cohen, whom many in the audience supposed was there because he's Jewish. The audience had been asked to send written questions up to the stage to be read by a moderator, but that system quickly was overwhelmed, and the moderator began taking questions directly from the floor. Hands shot up everywhere, and the first person to speak demanded an explanation of the August 24 article. "What a shame an Arab suicide bomber was unsuccessful and has to spend the rest of his life in jail," he said sarcastically. "What went through your mind when you put that on page one?"

McNulty acknowledged that the article had gone off "like a rocket." And he conceded that "lament" was the wrong word in the headline. But McNulty didn't apologize for the article itself. The Tribune was there to listen, not back down.

"This is about as hard as it gets," Rowley told me several days later. "I can't remember any other story that's engendered such fiery, passionate emotions. In some ways we are approaching this issue from two different planets. The Jewish community is approaching it from the point of view of national identity and passion and advocacy, and we're approaching it as journalists. We are always trying to tell a story."

Rowley--who reported from the Middle East for four years before joining the editorial page--stays in cordial communication with several of the community leaders he and his paper infuriate. So does Wycliff. This isn't personal. While Siegel was outside the Tower picketing, Rowley told me, he was in his office writing an editorial defending Zionism. (That editorial was mentioned gratefully by Jews I've talked with.) "That said," Rowley went on, "we've taken Israel to task for its settlement policy. I happen to think a lot of Israel's policies have been hurtful to Israel. I was a great supporter of Barak, but his proposal didn't go far enough. The longer the intifada goes on, the more doubt I have about Arafat's ability to seize this opportunity to be the statesman he needs to be. But there's a great preponderance of opinion that it's all Arafat's fault--he turned on the violence. That's a very simplistic attitude."

The Tribune supports a Palestinian state, and no Jewish leaders I've spoken to deny that lasting peace will require one. They do deny that there is any reason to believe peace is something Yasser Arafat has the ability or inclination to negotiate. Their case against the Tribune is built on a perception of the paper as naive, ahistorical, and sophomorically attracted to the Palestinians as plucky underdogs. "Why don't you inform yourself about the true facts of the area for 3,300 years?" a woman in Glenview demanded. Less strident critics ask the paper to at least consider the facts since Israel's founding in 1948. "It's as if it's only the intifada, as opposed to five separate wars," says Siegel. "The reality quite clearly is that the state of Israel is unwelcome in that neighborhood."

On September 20 the Tribune carried another story by E.A. Torriero about a father and his son. The son was Mohamed Atta. The headline said, "Father insists son just a scapegoat in attack on N.Y. landmark," and the story began, "Mohamed al-Amir al-Sayed Awad Atta says he wishes America would stop smearing his son's good name." Torriero went on to describe the father stomping around the living room of his Cairo apartment, "sometimes screaming, often ranting until his face turned red, denouncing America and its leaders." A cigarette was "dangling from his mouth." In dozens of small ways, beginning with the careful recitation of the elaborate name, Torriero signaled his lack of sympathy for the father of the terrorist who led the attack on the World Trade Center. To those with eyes to see, the gentler treatment given Abdel-Fatah Toubassi suggests an ain't-our-dog-in-this-fight disinterestedness in Israel and the intifada, and that grates on Jewish readers who consider the fight their own.

There's been no actual content analysis of the Tribune's Middle East coverage. The case that's being made against the paper is just an accumulation of grating moments. There was this Wycliff column, that Muwakkil column, apparently any number of columns by Georgie Ann Geyer. There was the Tribune of October 13, 2000, with its row of pictures running across one page. The first showed a Palestinian youth, his hands smeared with the blood of a Jewish soldier, standing triumphantly at a window, the second a retaliating Israeli helicopter firing rockets, the third a target of those rockets, a burning Palestinian police headquarters on the West Bank. A delegation from the American Jewish Committee immediately went to see Rowley. "It was counted in the Jewish community as the Tribune keeping score, two to one against Israel," he remembers with some bemusement. More than a year later it's still counted the same way. Furthermore, Jewish readers point out that a more powerful first picture--of the body of an Israeli soldier being dropped out the window--could have been published and wasn't, and that the Tribune caption didn't note that the police headquarters were empty because Israel had warned the Palestinians before the attack.

The second paragraph of a story last March 11 acknowledged Kamal Hemeid to be "leader of the Fatah faction that oversees paramilitary gunmen in the Bethlehem area." But the first paragraph presented him as a mourning son unable to travel to his mother's funeral because he feared the Israeli army would ambush him. More to the point of the argument being made by offended Jewish readers was the design of the page the story appeared on. Headlines bristled: "Sharon crackdown...iron fist...'There will constraints on what we allow ourselves to do.'" Encircled by these expressions of Israeli ferocity was Hemeid himself, in an enormous photograph of a silver-haired man with piercing yet melancholy eyes.

The first paragraph of an October 15 story said that Abdel Rahman Hamad was reading the Koran on the roof of his home when he died. The second paragraph explained that Hamad was a Hamas leader gunned down when Israel violated a three-week-old agreement that had ended sniping. In paragraph three we were told that the Israelis blamed Hamad for organizing the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub last June in which 21 Israelis died.

Last February editor Joseph Aaron of the Chicago Jewish News weighed in with a column. He considered a headline that had just appeared on the front page of the Tribune. The New York Times, Aaron noted, reported the same event under the headline "Arab Drives Bus Into Crowd, Killing 8 Israelis." But the Tribune headline said, "Attack fuels fever in Israel to seal off Palestinian land." Aaron commented, "Somehow, the Tribune twisted what happened to focus on the Israeli reaction, calling it a 'fever,' a provocative term, and talking about 'Palestinian land,' another provocative term."

However, the subhead to the Tribune's story did go on to say, "8 killed, 20 injured as bus driver rams vehicle into crowd." There's nothing here that the Tribune can't easily defend as responsible journalism that humanizes the combatants and seizes the narrative thread. But Jewish critics see a pattern. It is on such nuances of the journalistic craft as the size and placement of pictures, the word choice of headlines, and the structure of leads that their case against the Tribune stands.

In a journalist's idea of a perfect world, Arab readers would be just as dissatisfied. They're not. "We are actually happy with the coverage we see in the Tribune," says Mohammed Aburmishan, director of the United Holy Land Fund, a local charity that supports programs on the West Bank. "They were never anti-Israel. They are pro the American point of view as it should be. Israel is there to stay. They [the Tribune] know it, and the American people know it, and their [Jewish] readers, no. It is the Palestinians who need a place to stay, because they're not going anywhere. The best peace I could get is a Palestinian state where Jerusalem is the capital--I'm sure you've heard that before."

Attorney William Haddad, a second-generation Lebanese-American Christian, leads several local Arab-American business and professional organizations. "The Tribune is a world-class newspaper, and they've treated this in a professional way," he says. "I'm surprised there have been demonstrations against them, and I can't see why."

I read him the first couple of paragraphs of the article about Abdel-Fatah Toubassi. "What kind of father would think that way about his son?" Haddad wondered. "To me, that report sounds like it's pro-Israeli." He went on, "Palestinian families are suffering from poverty, occupancy, and the violence done to their populations in the West Bank and Gaza. It's a breeding ground for the violence reported in the article. Don't Americans have a right to know that?"

Last Friday the Tribune carried an editorial that declared, "The U.S. could not be blamed if it made a cold reassessment of its military and political relationship" with Israel. The editorial argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only not serving Israel's interests but in this time of war manifestly not serving America's. It was one more piece of writing that didn't go down well. An official of a prominent Jewish-American organization sent me a bitter E-mail. "Pretty typical," he wrote. "God knows American's other 'friends' the Egyptians and the Saudis have been such strong allies of late."

News Bites

Not every newspaper article that has distressed Jewish Chicagoans has appeared in the Tribune. Another appeared in the September 24 Chicago Defender. It was a report on an appearance by political scientist Robert Anthony Pape of the University of Chicago at a public forum moderated by WVON's Cliff Kelley and broadcast by the station.

"The most important thing to do is understand how individual terrorists did this," Pape was quoted as saying, "slipping through our fingers."

The article continued: "On the contrary, Cliff Kelley brought to the public's awareness that of the 4,000 Israelis that worked in the World Trade Center, none reported to work that Tuesday and no Israeli children were present in the WTC's nursery either, making some knowledge of the events two weeks ago known publically to one nationality."

The article then moved on to other matters without giving this irresponsible passage another thought.

What actually happened, says Kelley, is that he'd been reading news accounts of September 11, making it clear that the above allegations were coming from a Jordanian newspaper. Pape says he immediately exclaimed, "I find it beyond belief that September 11 was some sort of Israeli plot," and Kelley chimed in that he didn't believe it either.

"We were talking about all the misinformation forthcoming," says Kelley. "Pape was excellent. It's just a shame the reporter wasn't better."

Last March the Tribune began searching for a successor to chief drama critic Richard Christiansen, who's 70 and early next year will enter semiretirement. They've just made their choice. Michael Phillips, 40, a native of Racine, Wisconsin, is being brought up from the Tribune's Triple A farm team, the Los Angeles Times, to take over Christiansen's spot.

The Times newsroom takes little pleasure in being controlled by the smaller, noncoastal Tribune. But Phillips, the Times's lead critic for three years, applied for the Tribune job. He's certain that Chicago is the better place to be.

"For theater? Absolutely," he says. "I don't know precisely what I'm in for, but its reputation precedes it. I've seen a little [Chicago theater] over the years, and it's the reason I'm going." Theater in Los Angeles, what there is of it, can be more "scene" than art, he says. "At its worst, there's a distracted quality to a lot of the theater here, simply because so many people doing theater here are really here for other reasons. And I can't blame them."

The Tribune passed over Christiansen's stylish sidekick, Chris Jones, for the top job, but it's done the decent thing and put him on the payroll after letting him dangle for years as a freelancer. Jones will double as critic and theater reporter, and Phillips says he's grateful to have a "good, seasoned Chicago veteran" backing him up. "I'm probably the only guy in America who's never seen Second City," he allows. "I've only seen its influence."

But he vividly remembers a Steppenwolf performance of And a Nightingale Sang he saw just after he graduated from the University of Minnesota. "I've never seen ensemble acting like that in my life. It was the kind of theater I don't ordinarily go for that easily--which is straight-ahead realism--and I was a wreck at the end of it."

While researching the lead item in this column, I called historian Richard Norton Smith and asked about anti-Semitism at the Tribune in the McCormick era. "It's not a subject that I would claim to know anything about," said Smith, who in 1997 published a 600-page biography of Colonel McCormick that must have taken years of his life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment