Verbal self-defense is an art of calibration. If they see you sweat when you're settling scores, you lose. If you sound like you're feeling sorry for yourself, you lose big time.
Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times, used her column last week to stand up for herself. What bugged her was a review in the Sun-Times of Out & Proud in Chicago, a new documentary airing on WTTW. The author, Misha Davenport, whom Baim had never met, regretted the absence of certain notables from this history, the "glaring omission" being Albert Williams, best known today as a Reader theater critic and a Columbia College instructor but also a central figure in the development of the gay press.
There's no love lost between Williams and Baim, frequent journalistic rivals over the years, but she could abide a friendly word on his behalf. What ticked her off was what came next. "Instead," Davenport went on, "the documentary features Tracy Baim . . . as both a subject and a contributing resource. [Coproducer Dan Andries] insists that Baim didn't control access to the information and had no editorial input, but it's hard to believe she had no influence over the documentary, given that producers used her own interviews for research and relied heavily on her newspaper archives. It would be an understatement to say that, as a journalist, Williams is far more respected by members of the community than Baim is. But Baim is here. Williams is not. Andries doesn't see this as a problem. I'm sure many will beg to differ."
Baim read this with astonishment and anger. "It's one thing to say someone's missing," she says. "It's something else to say someone else took their place and didn’t deserve it."
Baim was righteously upset. But that's when you need to keep your cool.
She didn't. "First, let me say that I warned WTTW that if I were to help them in any way with the documentary, the same people who have attacked me in the past would very likely do so again with this project, and in fact this has happened," she wrote. "I don't mean to sound paranoid, but for more than 20 years the same few people have been saying the same negative and untrue things about me."
With that Baim had passed the point of no return. When you catch yourself sounding paranoid, don't explain that it's not how you mean to sound. Delete and start over. Since the 80s Baim has been a major figure in local gay publishing, whose history of schisms and scandals guarantees anyone involved in it a healthy crop of enemies. Having decided to publicly nurse her grudge, Baim, whose column was very long and nominally a survey of LGBT history, could not let it go. "I hesitated, because I did not want critics of me personally to taint the WTTW project. But in the end I decided . . . that I would not let those same few critics harass me yet again. . . . I congratulate WTTW on this first step. I hope they do not take the critics to heart. . . . Let's see who is the real enemy here? WTTW, which made tough decisions on this first film, or those who would bomb us?"
Baim changed subjects, or so I thought, and began a discussion of her own Chicago Gay History Project. But she circled back. "Our differences often keep us apart, and are often used to try to keep others down," she reflected. "I sometimes feel upset by how personal the attacks can be on me, and how those attacks could create collateral damage to others (in this case WTTW). . . . No one is perfect, but I believe that even more imperfect are those who never 'do' except to criticize those who try to make a positive contribution."
Out & Proud in Chicago debuted during a pledge drive and made WTTW a lot of money; what's more, it got a glowing review on WFMT by Andrew Patner. Baim needn't worry about WTTW suffering collateral damage. The damage was done to Baim alone, and most of it was self-inflicted.