When the media sink their teeth into a big and powerful institution, it loses control of its own narrative, in the revised script playing the part of crook or dupe or incompetent. The PR department scrambles to respond. New TV ads are hastily created that balance humility and vision; you might see the CEO himself in shirtsleeves looking dead center into the camera and musing, "Yes, we've come through a rough patch here at International Turpitude, but the future has never looked brighter. And that's because of something we will never let ourselves forget—it's all about the children." But reclaiming lost mojo is a slog.
Unless it isn't. Earlier this year the Tribune's Heather Gillers and Jason Grotto published a devastating series of articles on the Field Museum. Well, they looked pretty devastating to me. The Trib accused the Field of bad management, fiscal incompetence, and auto-dismemberment.
"Hamstrung by debt payments, the museum is facing far-reaching consequences: layoffs and a massive restructuring that has stirred controversy around the globe," said the Tribune in a March 8 story headlined "Dinosaur-size debt." A dissident insider—Jonathan Haas, curator of the department of anthropology—was quoted: "What the administration is talking about in terms of cutting curators and scientists will dramatically and permanently change the nature and mission of the Field Museum. It will remove us from those ranks of internationally recognized natural history museums."
This sounded calamitous. Imagine the Art Institute selling its Impressionists, selling its Hopper, its Seurat, and its Caillebotte, and hoping no one would notice the difference if it covered its walls with Peter Max. The Tribune was revealing a civic tragedy.
Other stories in the Tribune series ran under such headlines as "Field Museum was warned years ago about budget issues" and "Field Museum again offers its curators early retirement" and "Field Museum cutting costs, losing scientists." Reported the Tribune, "The museum has slashed millions from its research budget; merged its anthropology, zoology, geology and botany departments; and sparked fears that it is going—in the words of a curator at Harvard's zoology museum—'from being a major research institution to being a local museum where people go to see things.'"
But once the Tribune had had its say, something strange happened. Nothing. The Field went back to making the kind of news it's made since it opened in 1893, and plenty of it was made in the Tribune. "Need a skeleton or artifact? Ask the Field," said the headline to a September 11 Tribune story by beat writer Steve Johnson on the museum's N.W. Harris Learning Collection, "one of the most unusual and unsung lending libraries you will find." Johnson's October 2 story, "Echo-Hawk's vision at the Field Museum," began, "As formulas for a show go, this is proving to be a winner: The Field Museum has once again let an artist plunder its store of artifacts, and the result, again, is a pretty magical 'small' exhibition."
The capper was this November 22 headline: "Field unveils dinosaur that rivaled T. rex's dominance." The Tribune devoted an entire page to Johnson's big story: Field scientists had discovered "a new 'top predator' dinosaur in North America, a significant precursor to Tyrannosaurus rex and an important part of an emerging fossil record for the continent."
Pretty sweet work for a "local museum" with no purpose beyond giving people a place to "go to to see things."
Naturally, folks at the Field take issue with the Tribune. One partisan told me the museum had made a shift "away from individual scientists pursuing their own agendas" to more focused research by "teams of scientists working in clusters"—a sane and responsible reorganization that was launched prior to and independent of the "financial crisis" that struck the Field (and many similar institutions) when the economy collapsed. In other words, the Field hasn't destroyed itself to save itself; it's moved smartly ahead.
Don't ask me to adjudicate that one. For all I know, the Field will announce next week that as an austerity measure it's shutting half its galleries, will open only on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and will limit its digging for fossils to Grant Park. My point is that it did amazingly well at regaining control of its narrative. I called PR director Nancy O'Shea and asked if her staff had been given orders to launch a counteroffensive and she said, not really. "We do a good job at what we do," she said, "and I don't know if you'd say we've redoubled our efforts. We've always done a good job. We have great stories to tell, and that makes it a joy to go to work every day." She sent me a pie chart of Field Museum clips from July 1 to October 31 of this year; there were 2,767 clips (well over 20 a day!), and just 377 of them dealt with what the Field calls its "refocusing." (Some of these, says O'Shea—but certainly not all—followed the Tribune's example and called the museum's future into question.)
And Steve Johnson tells me that he hasn't noticed any "special push" from the Field to stir up positive coverage. "They send out a lot of material, but they did that before those stories ran, as well," he e-mailed me.
So write this in your little book of practical wisdom: An institution in trouble has a good shot at weathering the storm if on the next slow news day it can announce it just discovered a new dinosaur.