Betrayed by the Tribune?
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible," the journalist Janet Malcolm asserted famously. She would have been right if this were a child's world in which only things that are morally pure can be morally defended. Because this world is not, she sounded silly.
The fundamental act of journalism is the invasion of privacy, and Malcolm in her book The Journalist and the Murderer goes on and on about betrayal. But evils such as these can be lesser evils, forgivable sins. And they sometimes are.
Dr. Frank Pirruccello and his family assert that he was betrayed by the Chicago Tribune. On October 31 the Tribune began a nine-part series on medicaid in Illinois. The subject of the first article was the Cottage Grove Medical Clinic, which--although the Tribune didn't say so explicitly--has been closed for a year and a half.
The doctor on duty there back when the Tribune called was the then 70-year-old Pirruccello. The Tribune identified him as someone who "at his peak" had been "one of the city's better known plastic surgeons, a man who sculpted new noses and corrected cleft palates," and who, "antsy in his retirement," answered an ad placed by the clinic's owner and began commuting three days a week from his home in Lake Forest to Chicago's south side.
Reporters Bonita Brodt and Maurice Possley spent 13 days in Pirruccello's clinic asking questions, taking notes, speaking to the stream of indigent patients. Brodt tells us the tenor of her questions was unmistakable; she was challenging Pirruccello to defend lapses from acceptable medical practice. And yet somehow he didn't see what was coming.
"I have really been kicked," he told us after the story ran. "I didn't know what attitude they were using. I thought they were friends of mine. I was real nice to them."
Pirruccello was portrayed as an amiable but slipshod practitioner who freely prescribed drugs he knew little about, allowed his lab technician to diagnose and order tests, and often examined patients just by looking at them standing there with their clothes on. "I'm just a plastic surgeon," he told the Tribune.
"He was probably one of the top plastic surgeons in the world," says his son Frank Pirruccello Jr., an attorney. "He's the author of a four-volume set of books on plastic surgery used in medical schools. He was on the team of surgeons that first successfully separated Siamese twins conjoined at the head. He was a professor at the Northwestern medical school and dental school and the University of Wisconsin medical school. You know he worked for the Shriners Hospital. He'd work on the burns of children, he'd reconstruct their faces. He still gets letters from some of those cleft-palate repairs."
The son goes on, "He doesn't have the natural skepticism that one would normally have in dealing with the press, especially one who has something to hide or is doing something wrong. Basically he thought they were there because he was doing something good for the community. He was kind of under the impression he was giving back. It's an absolute battlefield condition. These people would go in--some would be lice-ridden. This is not a North Shore medical practice. And essentially what you do down there is try to get the people the health care they need and make referrals. It's almost like triage. You try to give as much help as you can and then send them to the proper place. It's not a long-term-care facility. It's neighborhood medical help. You can probably take any doctor who is trying to give treatment to poor people under adverse conditions and say that the standard of medical care is somehow not what it should be. But it's the nature of the beast.
"My father is not a person who talks in a guarded fashion. He's a well-known kidder. And what they did--they would take statements from him that we all know were jokes. Like, 'I'm just a plastic surgeon.' It's out of context. It's kidding. And it should have been, '"I'm just a plastic surgeon," he joked.' He had had extensive general-practice experience."
Dr. Pirruccello trusted the Tribune because he thought well of himself and because he and the Tribune went back many years together. In 1977 Carol Kleiman interviewed the doctor, a "well-known specialist in skin cancer," for an article on that subject. A year later she returned to him for an article on face-lifts. "I'm such a damned square," Pirruccello said about the cosmetic surgery, "that I've even talked to some theologians about it."
In 1986 reporter Barbara Sullivan observed and described one of his face-lifts. "It's a big operation," Pirruccello told her. "The surgeon's brain is on the tip of the scissors all the time."
And in 1977 Pirruccello actually published an article in the Tribune's Sunday magazine. It was about the death of George Washington. Pirruccello contended the general's own bloodletting physicians killed him.
"If you want to quote me on what he used to do, he was top-notch," says Kleiman. "When he retired it was a loss."
"He was a very, very kind person," says Sullivan. "He was interested in a lot of different things. He even lent me some books on philosophy." She also remembers that his hands trembled slightly as he operated, and she wondered if he'd become too old to be a surgeon. When she read the article on the Cottage Grove clinic "I found it very, very sad. If I had not known the man it would have made me angry. But because I knew him this was superceded by a sadness."
Bonita Brodt told us, "I really don't know what people's motivations are for letting reporters into their lives. Everyone has their own motivations. It's not my job to be the caretaker of motivations. It's my job to find out how things work so people can understand."
But do you have any idea about Pirruccello's motivations?
"No," she said. "It's just a guessing game, and it doesn't make any difference."
Did his previous career belong in the story?
"I'm not sure that it mattered," Brodt said. "What mattered was what he was doing. He was working as a medicaid doctor. What you're asking me is much like whether you should ask about the previous sexual history of a rape victim on the witness stand. It doesn't matter. She was raped. It seems to me you're asking me to excuse doctors because of who they were or what they were, and that's ridiculous."
We asked her if she perceived Pirruccello as in any sense another victim of medicaid. "That's just ridiculous. I'm surprised you would even ask that," said Brodt. "A victim of what? I don't understand the word 'victim.' If you're going to look at the word 'victim' you'd have to say taxpayers are the victims. And the patients."
We told Brodt that Pirruccello felt humiliated and deceived. "He's certainly entitled to those feelings," she said. "But there was never any discussion I had with him that would have encouraged him or nurtured him or fostered him. The last thing he said was 'I've been very open here. I have no secrets.'"
The sympathetic illustrations that accompanied the Tribune's reprt suggest that the paper's photographer, and even its caption writer, shared Pirruccello's impression of what sort of article was in the works. But evidence of misplaced trust doesn't discredit the article's details. Some sin can't be helped, and that may include the Tribune's sin against Frank Pirruccello.
Publicist Marilyn Katz called the other day to reveal "the most irresponsible act I have ever seen." With much to choose from, Katz selected a weekly paper's exclusive on Chicago's new trolley system.
The Near North News disclosed that Michigan Avenue is about to become a one-way street. "Circulator would make Michigan, State 1-way," said the shocking headline, and the story explained that when the trolley's built "Michigan av. would become 1-way north between Grand and Walton."
"It's one thing to exaggerate. But to tell a bold-faced, panic-inducing lie is another," said Katz, who not coincidentally represents the Central Area Circulator Project. She called editor-publisher Arnie Matanky, and he told her--as he would later tell us--that his scoop was based on assiduous reading of the circulator's new Traffic Management Plan.
It's there on page 24, said Matanky.
Katz told Matanky page 24 says nothing about Michigan Avenue. It proposes turning Wabash into a one-way street and is headed:
ANALYSIS OF CIRCULATOR ALIGNMENTS
NORTH MICHIGAN AREA: WABASH STREET
Matanky did not back down. Well, his page 24 said Michigan Avenue was going to be a one-way street. Katz asked if he'd mind faxing his page 24 to her office.
The fax arrived. Matanky's page 24 began:
ANALYSIS OF CIRCULATOR ALIGNMENTS
"There's nothing about Wabash on that page," Matanky told us.
We told Matanky Katz suspects him of playing fast and loose with the Wite-Out. Matanky denies it.
Last week he struck again with a front-page story headlined "Say Wabash will be 1-way, not Michigan." The article explained, "Marilyn Katz . . . said the Michigan av. 1-way scheme was merely a proposal (NNN, Oct. 30)."
Proposal? "He is really unbelievable. I said no such thing--with seven witnesses standing around," says Katz. Again she dialed the Near North News. "He said, "Is Bernardine Dohrn still giving you advice?' I said, no, she never has. He said, "I know who you are. I think it's terrible that you're working on taxpayer-supported projects."'
What was that about? we asked Matanky.
"Hold on a second. I'll pull her card out," he said. Matanky has a "few thousand" cards in his file. He's been collecting them since the 50s.
"In the 60s she was an activist for SDS," he reported, "and a good friend of Bernardine Dohrn. I asked if Bernardine Dohrn advised her, and she said no, she advised Bernardine Dohrn. She's quite proud of her background."
Katz may be irredeemable. Matanky went on, "And she was an aide to Mayor Washington, of course."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.