Dear Letters to the Editor:
In "Consider the Source," his April 4 Hot Type column, Michael Miner raised a number of pointed criticisms of "Anatomy of a Smear Campaign," Chris Geovanis's (aka Lillith del Cerdo) critique of the allegation that political indoctrination in radical proindependence Puerto Rican politics had overtaken the education of students as the primary goal of the faculty at Roberto Clemente High School, on Chicago's north side.
Well. As everyone knows, the Chicago Sun-Times was the first of Chicago's mass-circulation dailies to "break" this story on page one of its February 4 edition ("School funds used to push terrorists' release"). What fewer people know, but Geovanis had written about, was that allegations such as the ones reported by the Sun-Times have been circulating around Chicago's Puerto Rican community for quite some time, including reports in El Pito--a publication that Miner himself once called "an underground rag published anonymously by political enemies of [U.S. representative Luis] Gutierrez and [Alderman Billy] Ocasio..." Both Miner ("Sun-Times, School Bully," Hot Type, February 14) and his Reader colleague Ben Joravsky ("Lessons in Propaganda," Politics, February 21) have written previous stories for the Reader about the Sun-Times's coverage of Clemente high school, and the possible sources and likely motives of the allegations behind it. But in neither instance was I able to detect that Miner or Joravsky had paid much credence to the allegations--though Miner did aver on February 14 that the "hard kernel" of the Sun-Times's case against Clemente high school was "that political ideologues have held sway there and distorted the educational process." A charge which reflects the earlier reports in El Pito. And a charge which, if true, would be a serious one indeed.
Perhaps we might characterize the general theme of Miner's April 4 Hot Type as "Introduction to Journalism 101." That is, Miner used that particular Hot Type to upbraid Chris Geovanis for what he regards as the sloppy way that she practiced "journalism" in her "Anatomy of a Smear Campaign" article, which first appeared in the inaugural issue of the new muckraking publication, Chicago Ink (March 1997). Since I've come to the conclusion that Miner himself has misrepresented the main thrust of the Geovanis article, it couldn't hurt for us to take another look at both articles, and see what's up.
When I read Miner's "Consider the Source," my first reaction was that Miner was onto something important about the Geovanis article, something potentially devastating: that Geovanis had "made a huge mistake" (his words) in using her impromptu conversation with the Board of Education's Charlie Kyle at the El Nandu restaurant to attribute comments to Kyle that Kyle himself now charges were "false and libelously attributed" to him, comments that he says he "never made," comments that were "totally contrary" to his views (to quote from Kyle's letter to Chicago Ink).
Some serious charges, Kyle's. Surely they would have serious implications--if true. But are they true? And to what extent do they impugn the credibility of the Geovanis article, Miner's main point in his April 4 Hot Type? Not having read Geovanis's "Anatomy of a Smear Campaign" since early March, I frankly couldn't remember how, precisely, Geovanis had handled Charlie Kyle in her article. So I checked it. And upon checking it, I was startled to learn that Geovanis had barely mentioned Kyle in her article. Instead, she attributed one, and only one, word to the man. She reported that Kyle had said to her that Clemente's local school council "was 'worthless' and that he could see few options besides closing the school and dissolving the LSC" (Chicago Ink, March, page 4). What's more, Geovanis devoted one, and only one, paragraph of her entire article (less than 4 percent of the total) to Charlie Kyle's thoughts on Clemente. That is, Charlie Kyle wasn't only a bit player in Geovanis's "Anatomy." He practically didn't even figure into her critique. Charlie Kyle's comments were absolutely incidental to the analysis that Geovanis presented.
Notice, however, that Kyle played a somewhat different role in Miner's April 4 Hot Type. It was only in Miner's article that Kyle became the lead protagonist. Shortly after Miner's prologue, Kyle took center stage, and dominated it to the very end. That is, of an article that was roughly 34 column inches in length, Miner devoted some 27 column inches (approximately 79.5 percent of the total) to the saga of how Chris Geovanis allegedly mishandled Charlie Kyle.
Thus in the end it was Michael Miner, not Chris Geovanis, who made Charlie Kyle appear to be central to the Geovanis article, when in fact he wasn't. Furthermore, it was Michael Miner, not Chris Geovanis, who turned Geovanis's handling of Kyle into a crude and false test of Geovanis's credibility as a "journalist." In his eyes, her "Anatomy of a Smear Campaign" failed the test of good journalism because one single sentence that attributed two thoughts to Charlie Kyle might have misrepresented what Kyle truly believes--or at least would feign to believe, when a public spotlight is shined on him. Call that "balance"? Not on Miner's part.
Neither were Miner nor Kyle able to substantiate Kyle's charge that Geovanis "falsely and libelously attributed to me [i.e., to Kyle] comments which I never made and are contrary to my views" (to quote Kyle's letter to Chicago Ink again). Geovanis attributed only one word to Kyle (i.e., "worthless"), embedded within a single sentence in the fourth-to-last paragraph of her Chicago Ink article--a sentence that paraphrased what she still maintains faithfully captured an opinion that Kyle had volunteered to her at the restaurant, when he thought nobody would repeat what he said. How does the fact that Charlie Kyle didn't speak to Chris Geovanis "on the record" disqualify the truth-content of what he said to her? More important, in what way could it possibly invalidate her "Anatomy of a Smear Campaign"?
Last, shouldn't a good Introduction to Journalism instructor teach his students to be able to distinguish between the hard kernel of truth that a story contains, and the layers of worthless chaff that surround it?