By Michael Miner
You Can't Beat a Good Story
Here's what Larry Hamel, the Sun-Times's boxing writer, says happened the night of March 23 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont:
Hamel was out there covering fights. He was on deadline. Promoter Bobby Hitz was on his case. "He followed me back into the media room from the ringside area berating me," says Hamel. "He and a security guard followed me into the media room. I was trying to set my computer up, and he was continuing to berate me."
Said Hamel to Hitz, "Let me do my job here. I'm covering your show."
Hitz and the guard left. Hamel plugged his computer into a jack and sat down at a table to work. That's when another guy came into the room, someone Hamel describes as about six-foot-three, 230 pounds, and somewhere in his 30s, making him significantly taller, beefier, and younger than Hamel, who's 46. Hamel remembers a dark suit and a shaved head.
"Do you know who I am?" the stranger yelled. No, Hamel didn't. "Do you think what you did was funny?" Hamel knows what it's like to be yelled at, and this guy's belligerence struck him as beyond the usual. "I stood up and backed away," he says. "At that point there was a table separating us. He had his hands on the cord of the computer, and he ripped it out of the wall. He picked up the computer and smashed it down on the table, and then he pushed the table at me and took a swing at me with his right hand. I kind of blocked that, but the table overturned on me and all I know is I was down on the floor. He kicked me many times and kept repeating, 'Do you think what you did was funny?' and saying other words that you couldn't say in your newspaper, like 'pussy' and 'cunt.'
"He kind of stopped, and I got up. He got me down on the floor another time and kicked me, and I believe he overturned another table on top of me. I was wearing a suede jacket, and he tore the back of the jacket to shreds throwing me down on the floor. When I got up the second time, that's when he picked up the computer and threw it at me. Then he turned around and left."
Hamel praises his assailant's precisely calibrated kicking. "It was a very violent attack. I'd estimate he kicked me between 10 and 12 times, from the left shoulder and left quadricep muscle down to the left ankle. I was bruised badly in those areas. I also had a bruise on the inside of my right leg. I think that came when he threw my PC at me." Yet nothing was broken, and Hamel was able to report to work the next day. "I got pummeled," he says, "but I didn't get hurt."
Bobby Hitz was a professional heavyweight fighter himself before switching to the entrepreneurial side of the sport. Hamel describes his relationship with Hitz as "contentious" and says, "Very simply, he didn't understand the role of the media. When I first started covering boxing in 1997 Hitz was really the only promoter of any significance in Chicago. And then a couple of other people began to promote in Chicago on a more serious level. Probably the most significant was the 8 Count group, 8 Count Productions, Dominic Pesoli. Seemingly Hitz changed his attitude toward me because I started writing about this other guy. It's that simple."
But the issue when Hitz followed Hamel into the media room was nothing that Hamel had written. "Nana's owner socked with divorce lawsuit" had been the headline over a conspicuously placed news story by Abdon Pallasch that the Sun-Times carried ten days earlier. It reported an alienation-of-affection suit filed by Hitz's estranged wife against Hitz's alleged mistress. According to Pallasch's account, the suit accused Hitz of squandering not merely the earnings of Bobby Hitz Boxing Promotions on "purchasing items of an expensive nature" for the new girlfriend but also the earnings of Nana's Cafe, the restaurant he and his wife had owned together. Nana's Cafe, at State and Kinzie, eventually went out of business.
Hitz "gave me an earful about Abdon's article," says Hamel. "He'll go on and on about things."
"I have no issue with Larry Hamel, and it's unfortunate if this thing did happen," says Hitz, speaking of Hamel's pummeling. "But I wasn't there, and I had nothing to do with it. For him to say I have a dislike for him, that's a little--insecure maybe. He had no problem coming into my restaurant and drinking my booze and eating my food, and if I'd had an issue with him he'd have got a check."
Hitz continues, "If this thing did happen, I hope justice will be sought."
Hitz describes his own reaction to Pallasch's article less as anger than as a kind of worldly-wise resignation. "My life was completely exposed," he says. "And as fabricated as the story was, that's attention that's paid to Tom Cruise and Frank Sinatra, that kind of guy, so I must have done something in my life to warrant that attention."
Nor does Hitz hold Hamel in any way responsible for what Pallasch wrote. It's just that Hamel disappointed him, he says, by telling third parties the night before Pallasch's story appeared what they'd be reading about Hitz the next morning. "From an integrity standpoint, it's wrong for somebody to talk about tomorrow's news today," he says. "So my comment to Larry was, 'That was very unprofessional what you did, and whatever integrity you had, it went out the window.' I got a phone call at ten o'clock the night before saying, 'Did you know what's going on?' I got up at four in the morning--actually I didn't sleep all night."
Says Hamel, "I can count the number of times I ate at Nana's on the fingers of one hand. I probably ate a couple meals gratis on him, but it wasn't like I was over there all the time. A couple of times when my wife was with me I insisted on picking up the check. She liked the Cobb salad."
And did you tip anyone to Pallasch's story? "Well, so what?" says Hamel. "I told a couple of people, 'Hey, we've got a story going in the paper tomorrow morning that you guys might find interesting.'" One of those people was Dominic Pesoli. "We've got a real good relationship," says Hamel.
Though Hitz describes Pallasch's article as "pretty bush" but nothing to get upset about, it appears some readers weren't so sanguine. Pallasch reportedly got as many as a dozen phone calls as soon as the story appeared, most of them angry, profane, and anonymous. A few callers who claimed to be fellow journalists asked Pallasch for the names and phone numbers of his sources so they could write their own stories. A closer reading of Pallasch's article than these callers apparently gave it would have revealed that his principal source was the lawsuit itself, a public record.
Some of these requests were left on Pallasch's voice mail. I'm told the Rosemont police have yet to listen to them. I'm also told that the Rosemont police didn't bother to dust the computer flung at Hamel for fingerprints. Because the detective working the case didn't return my phone calls, I couldn't ask him what strategy guides his investigation.
Hamel, who tells me the police haven't talked to him since the night of the fracas, says a more serious inquiry is being made by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, which oversees prizefighting in the state. Hamel stresses one fact--no evidence known to him links Hitz to the beating; therefore he accuses him of nothing.
The China Syndrome
A.E. Eyre glanced at my Sun- Times and pondered the banner headline on the front page. It said, "U.S. SPY CREW FREE AT LAST."
"That nicely captures the ambiguities," said Eyre.
A harrowing crisis had just been resolved. Now it was time for Americans to dance in the streets and shed tears of happiness and relief. Instead my friend Eyre and I met in a pub.
It says here in the Sun-Times that both countries "went to the brink," I told Eyre.
"That we did," he said.
To the brink of what, exactly? I wondered.
"I have no idea," he said--a rare admission. "That's why this was more harrowing than even the Cuban missile crisis. Back in 1962 the U.S. and the Soviets stood on the brink of nuclear war. This time we teetered on the brink of the unknown. Nothing beats the unknown for giving aroused patriots the willies."
What's the worst that could have happened? I asked him.
"The worst?" Eyre thought it over. "China could have stopped exporting yellow ribbon to us. That would have brought America to its knees."
After what the Chinese put us through, I surmised, the national yellow ribbon reserves are probably pretty much exhausted.
"Eleven days is a long time," Eyre agreed. "To the crew of our spy plane I bet it seemed like two weeks."
I couldn't help but be reminded of the 1973 return of our Vietnam POWs, who staggered home after seven years of torture, solitary confinement, and moldy rice. It was a time of national rejoicing, whose spirit America has been trying to recapture ever since. As I said to Eyre, aside from the duration, the torture, the confinement, and the moldy rice, the situation this time was identical.
"Eleven days of MSG takes its toll," said Eyre. "China's conduct was inexcusable, and now that our troops are out I'm glad to see our leaders giving the Chinese what-for."
He thumbed through the Sun-Times's homecoming edition, pausing at a photograph to read aloud: "Wang Wei, the pilot whose collision with the spy plane started it all, had a reputation for showing off and taking risks in his fighter jet."
Eyre's finger stabbed at the picture. "So there's the culprit! It was just a routine, friendly intelligence-gathering mission off the coast of China until Mr. Wang Wei stuck his nose in and caused all the trouble."
Can you imagine the shoe on the other foot? I inquired.
"You mean," said Eyre, "the Chinese flying up and down our coast every day gathering intelligence on our military installations? And one of our airmen plunging into the sea?"
"A strong, confident nation such as ours wouldn't have batted an eyelash," said Eyre. "When the Chinese spy plane crash-landed on American soil, we'd have treated its crew to a hearty dinner and a good night's sleep and sent them on their way. Anything less hospitable than that and an embarrassed American public would never let Washington hear the end of it."
A reader dropped me a note recalling that misrepresentation was decreed an unethical journalistic practice by former Tribune editor Jack Fuller, who now commands all of the Tribune Company's newspapers. The reminder arrived in the mail accompanied by a clipping from the April 7 Tribune, a page-three story by foreign correspondent Ray Moseley on the indiscretions uttered by the wife of Prince Edward when she spoke to a reporter for Rupert Murdoch's News of the World who claimed to be an Arab sheikh. If the dissembling reporter had worked for the Tribune, the paper would have fired the reporter and not printed a word. But since the reporter hadn't, it did.
A second reader dropped off the McHenry County Metro section of April 8 with two page-one stories marked. One concluded "PLEASE SEE COLLISION, PAGE 1," the other "PLEASE SEE WEATHER, PAGE 1." Of course, we were already on page one, and the balance of neither story could be found anywhere inside the section. "The official end of quality control at Tribune?" asked the correspondent. If so, we can still admire the newspaper for its manners.
Sometimes the Pulitzer Prize judges really get it right. I've already praised "Gateway to Gridlock," the analysis of America's air traffic system that won the Tribune a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting. As for the stories on war and disease in Africa that earned the Tribune's Paul Salopek a Pulitzer for international reporting, I remember thinking when I read them, "What guts!"
Louise Kiernan, the principal writer of "Gateway to Gridlock," was also one of the two other finalists in the same category--for a series of articles exploring the death of a woman killed by glass that fell from the window of a Loop high-rise. This is an astonishing accomplishment--and Kiernan, the mother of two young children, was formally working just three days a week.
The Sun-Times alertly delivered justice this week. When Bob Collins, an experienced pilot and a popular public figure, died in the collision of two small planes last February, it was presumed, and the media suggested, that the student pilot in the other plane was at fault. On April 6 the National Transportation Safety Board released a report indicating that any mistakes in the air were made by Collins. On Tuesday the Sun-Times carried reporter Chris Fusco's interview with Sharon Hock's father, who spoke of the pain of mourning someone publicly remembered only as a culpable footnote.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.