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When Corrections Don't Count

In a time-honored but sorely outdated tradition, the Tribune buries a couple of real boners about Rahm and Ron Huberman.

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Years ago, in another job, I reported something wrong. Awkwardly, litigably wrong. The editor who could have asked for my resignation told me to write a correction. I poured my heart into it. I owned my crime and marveled at the enormity of my misjudgment. The editor gagged at this cry from the heart and told me to start over. Keep it to a short paragraph, he said. This is a newspaper, not a confessional.

That was a different era, before newspapers came to embrace the daily confessional as good business. But the art of the correction still emphasizes taciturnity, nonchalance, and a knack for belaboring the inconsequential while downplaying everything significantly objectionable about your product.

Rich Miller, proprietor of capitolfax.com, wrote an impressive skinback on his website November 18. "Oops," it began.

Miller continued, "I have a general rule of trying to avoid believing what John Kass says without double- and even triple-checking his alleged facts. I broke that rule today. My bad. Sorry."

Miller was coming clean but blaming Kass. A nice performance.

What Miller had done in his blog a few hours earlier had been to call Kass's column of the day before "the talk of the town" and report that it cast "serious doubt" on whether Rahm Emanuel was a legal voter in Chicago. Miller explained, "The reason this is so important is any irregularities in Emanuel's voter registration could very well undermine his qualifications to run for office."

A mot juste Kass could not get enough of had turned Miller's head. Kass's column had begun: "Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel was twice purged from the city voter rolls in the last 13 months but was reinstated by election officials, who allowed him to vote absentee in the February primary even though he did not live at his North Side address."

He was, of course, in Washington serving the president. Kass said that Chicago's election board "purged Emanuel from the voting lists for the first time" last October, but that before the February primary he'd somehow been reinstated by means election lawyer Burt Odelson called "magical" and "mysterious." After voting in the primary by an absentee ballot that listed the address of the house on Hermitage he still owned but no longer lived in, Emanuel was dropped from the rolls again in May. But this October he was back on.

Kass let it be known that Chicago's residency requirement "is ridiculous," and that if he ran the universe "the talented and driven Emanuel" would be allowed to run for mayor. But the "rule of law," he lamented, is what it is.

A day later Kass returned to his theme. Again he let it be known that he personally believes "Rahm is a Chicagoan and should be allowed to run for mayor." Nevertheless, the "fact" that Emanuel "was twice purged from the Chicago voter rolls yet was allowed to vote absentee" had been "confirmed by all sides now." Now it was mayoral candidate Gerry Chico telling Kass how "mysterious" it was that Emanuel had been reinstated.

In his "oops," Miller told his readers he now knew Emanuel could not have been "purged" from the voting rolls because no one is. You can be "canceled" if you registered to vote somewhere else—which Emanuel didn't—or you can become "inactive" if a notice to your voting address is returned. But you can reactivate yourself, as Emanuel did, simply by returning a signed affidavit with your absentee ballot. There was nothing mysterious or magical about what happened.

Miller came clean by blaming Kass. How would Kass come clean?

The Tribune did it for him, running a note a couple days later under "corrections and clarifications" explaining that "purge" was no longer used by Chicago election officials, who did say Emanuel had twice been added to, and twice removed from, the "inactive" voter list. This was apparently a mere clarification—no change was made to Kass's column online.

Kass lay low for a week, and when he returned to his irresistible subject he'd abandoned the emetics for vivid writing of a new stripe: Rahm's residency was now "that crazed tiger in the ring, skewing the odds."

Again letting no one doubt that "I appreciate and respect Rahm. . . . And I believe he should be on the ballot," Kass shook his head in dismay: "There's that nagging issue. It's called the law." State law said Emanuel had to be a resident of Chicago for a year.

Kass introduced a case study—Paul Vallas. In 2005 Vallas was interested in running for governor. But he lived in Pennsylvania. "The law was used to stop me against Blagojevich," Vallas told Kass. "Ask police and firefighters if residency isn't an issue. You'd better believe it's an issue."

To run for governor, Vallas would have had to be a resident of Illinois for the previous three years. Instead, he'd been CEO of the Philadelphia public schools since 2002, and when he left Chicago he'd sold his house in Beverly. His situation then differs from Emanuel's now in some fairly obvious details, which a crusading columnist who genuinely sympathized with Emanuel might have wanted to point out. If Emanuel were some little guy in the identical predicament, I'm sure Kass would have been storming against the secretive forces scheming to defeat him. Who's behind the suits Odelson and others have filed against Emanuel? What's up with Rob Halpin deciding to stay in Emanuel's home until his lease expires in June and run for mayor against him? But Emanuel is by no stretch of the imagination the little guy. So Kass touched on these other matters but chose to focus on the dire legal jeopardy that Emanuel's campaign may or may not actually be in.

I see in Kass a familiar type—the pundit who from time to time simply wants to make mischief. "There can be no finer spectacle than watching our political gladiators in the Chicago mayoral arena. Aren't you entertained?" he wrote, showing his hand, in his November 24 column. I'm identifying, not accusing: It was that sort of impulse, come to think of it, that led to the near-fatal blunder I mentioned at the top of this column. I'd been making mischief. It's perilous. And when it goes wrong, there's no simple correction that quite gets to the heart of the problem.

The Kass correction wasn't the only one in the Tribune recently that caught my eye. On November 18 the paper ran this: "A timeline Nov. 4 with a story about the resignation of city schools chief Ron Huberman incorrectly stated that 200 CPS teachers were laid off in June because of poor performance. Rather, of the 239 teachers discharged that month, only one had an unsatisfactory evaluation, while 149 had 'excellent' or 'superior' ratings, according to the Chicago Teachers Union."

More specifically, the timeline of Huberman's political career in Chicago had said that in June he laid off "the 200 lowest performing teachers rather than basing it on seniority." This was nonsense—as anyone who's read Ben Joravsky's Reader pieces on those layoffs would know.

It took a few days for the teachers' union to hear about the timeline, but on November 9 a letter from president Karen Lewis was messengered to editorial page editor Bruce Dold. "In the month of June 2010," Lewis wrote, "Huberman did not 'lay off' but fired 239 teachers, severing their benefits and employee status with the Chicago Board of Education. These 239 city-wide teachers consisted of nearly all the literacy coaches, math coaches and other elite teachers, all or nearly all of whom had evaluations of 'excellent,' 'superior,' or at the worst 'satisfactory.' Therefore, it is emphatically untrue that these 239 teachers—some of the best in the city—were 'lowest performing.'" The italics are Lewis's.

In fact, Lewis wrote to Dold, the board of education had fired 1,200 teachers in all, and after the union filed suit over these dismissals, the board's labor relations office testified in court that "fewer than 50" had been rated unsatisfactory.

"It is unpleasant for one of the elite teachers fired in June to pick up the November 4, 2010 Tribune to find Huberman praised as a genius and to see herself listed as 'lowest performing,' notwithstanding excellent evaluations," Lewis went on. "It is unpleasant to have to explain to her friends and prospective employers that the Tribune story about her is flat out wrong."

Lewis's larger complaint was that Huberman consistently insisted he was firing only the lowest-performing teachers, and though it wasn't true the media—"the Tribune in particular"—simply repeated what he said.

"Yes, the Tribune owes a retraction to these teachers," Lewis wrote. "But even more so, it owes a retraction to a readership that understandably believes that all or nearly all of the teachers fired by Huberman in June were the 'lowest performing.' . . .

She finished by asking, "What is the Tribune going to do about this?"

Dold had had nothing to do with the timeline, and education editor Tracy Van Moorlehem turned out to be the Trib person CTU spokeswoman Liz Brown dealt with. Nine days passed before the Tribune finally ran a correction. "Of the 239 teachers discharged that month [June], only one had an unsatisfactory evaluation," the paper noted, and 149 had excellent or superior ratings—"according to the Chicago Teachers Union."

Brown fumed—not simply over the delay, she tells me, but also because of the well-at-least-that's-what-they're-claiming ring to the correction. The CTU's source had been records provided by the school board to the teachers' union, backed up by testimony by a school board official in court.

It was a vintage skinback—grudging, ignoring the core complaint, and hinting that the paper didn't necessarily believe the whiners it was deferring to. Not to mention late. "Frankly," Tribune ombudsman Margaret Holt e-mailed me, "it slipped through the cracks."

And as with the Kass clarification, the Tribune didn't bother to change the original story online.  

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