By Michael Miner
Black White and Reds All Over
The editor in chief of the Sun-Times just issued a couple of startling edicts. On Monday morning Nigel Wade called the Washington bureau and laid off Basil Talbott. And last week Wade killed an interview with Angela Davis on the grounds that Davis was not the sort of person he wanted to feature in his newspaper.
Sun-Times staffers were stunned. But the direct victims of Wade's decrees showed remarkable understanding toward their leader. "I guess everybody has a right to put in their newspaper what they want," said Lori Rotenberk, the reporter who interviewed Davis. "They assigned me, I do the work, and they pay me for it. What they do with it afterward, that I have no ownership over."
I talked to Talbott, who'd worked at the paper nearly 35 years, minutes after he was axed. "I don't know what to make of it at this stage," he mused. "I got a call from the editor, who in a very matter-of-fact way told me they'd decided to go with a one-man bureau. So they had to lay off one person, and I'm the person."
Talbott insisted there are no hard feelings. "He was very polite, regretful. Given the resources of this paper, in light of the financial cuts, I think he's done a good job with it."
The Davis saga began last Thursday, when the Sun-Times feature section carried a profile of Paul Robeson written by freelancer Andrew Patner to mark the 100th anniversary of Robeson's birth. "This country has produced no greater Renaissance man," Patner began, then recounted Robeson's life as an all-American football player at Rutgers and as an actor, singer, orator, and civil rights champion. Patner skirted Robeson's encomiums for the Soviet Union that eventually led to his being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and ordered to surrender his passport. In Wade's eyes, Robeson's romance with communism disqualified him as a topic of commemorative journalism. When he saw Patner's piece in his paper, he blew up.
Acting features editor John Barron took the tongue-lashing and went for a walk. As he brooded, he realized he had a problem. If Wade disapproved of the Robeson profile, there was no reason to believe he would like the pending Angela Davis profile any better. The 60s radical, who long ago vanished from the public eye, is now a college professor at Santa Cruz and on tour promoting her new book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Davis's three subjects--in case Wade doesn't recognize the names--are musical artists, not a troika that ran domestic espionage at Stalin's bidding. But Davis is black, a lesbian, a former Communist Party member, and a prisoner back in the early 70s on murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy charges (she was acquitted).
So Barron went back into the building and asked Wade what he thought. What he thought was no, never, not in a million years.
"I've never received so much E-mail from coworkers as on that particular day and the subsequent day," Rotenberk acknowledged.
First, everyone wanted to know if the rumor was true. Second, did Davis say something sensational that killed the piece? "And when I explained what happened, the third response was, 'You've got to be kidding! McCarthy's dead!' A couple of them responded, 'Doesn't he know he's in the United States?'"
On Tuesday the Tribune ran its own Angela Davis story on the front page of Tempo. Rotenberk read it in Starbucks and cried. "They presented her as a 90s woman, and said 'communist' in the lead," she told me. "When you care about the people you interview and your job, it's very painful to see yourself get beaten by another paper. I feel like I got punished. You go on to the next thing, but this one hurt terribly."
Wade, an Australian native who arrived in Chicago from London a couple of years ago, doesn't seem to grasp which of yesterday's notorious American figures arouse only curiosity in today's multitudes. His grip on his own paper's history is equally shaky. Wade's review of Basil Talbott's file seems to have left him ignorant of every aspect of Talbott's career except the sum that could be saved by dumping his salary.
I asked Talbott if he'd be willing to accept reassignment back in Chicago--not that Wade proposed it.
"I wouldn't foreclose any option, since I'm 61," Talbott said. "I don't have a full pension yet. As you may recall, you're vested after some ten years or so, but the amount of the pension--which is not a great pension anyway--increases the number of years you get toward 65. So I'm four years away."
Syndicated columnists Robert Novak and Carl Rowan nominally work for the Sun-Times, and this year Novak was president of the Gridiron Club. Which is why Wade and his Hollinger International bosses Conrad Black and David Radler sat on the dais at last month's Gridiron Club dinner in Washington. Black sat right next to President Clinton. Radler sat right next to Hillary. Wade sat right next to Janet Reno. To the guffaws of the newsroom rabble, the seating chart was proudly posted on the management bulletin board back in Chicago, making clear management's vision of what constitutes a desirable presence in Washington. Actual reporters such as Talbott, who was assigned to cover the Chicago angle of Washington stories, have no place in that vision.
Twelve reporters are assigned to James Warren, the Tribune's bureau chief in Washington. When Talbott leaves, no one will report to the Sun-Times's Lynn Sweet but herself.
"Today I'm doing a story on whether or not veterans' hospitals in Chicago should be downsized," Talbott told me. "Very appropriate, huh?"
Talbott isn't bitter or vindictive by nature, and even if rage were to be his reaction at some point, Wade's dismissal was still too new when we talked for him to sound anything but gently ironic. "I don't know if there are many people at the paper who have a history of covering both Daley mayors and all of the interim mayors, as well as the governors going back to Kerner," he told me. "Apparently there's not a premium on that. Also, we're coming into a season where we'll have a very active senate race, and I've been covering Carol Moseley-Braun. Actually I not only covered her term, but I came back and covered her ['92] campaign--the last part of it. It's one of the big races coming up in Chicago. So we won't be getting that."
Talbott wrote a political column for 11 years in Chicago before the Sun-Times ordered him to Washington in 1987. The measure of his popularity in this city was his farewell party--thrown in a River North gallery and attended by Studs Terkel, Walter and Dawn Clark Netsch, Ed Vrdolyak, Neil Hartigan, and Mayor Harold Washington, who made a speech and two days later dropped dead. Talbott's farewell was the mayor's last social event.
"The current mayor was there as state's attorney," Talbott recalled. "It was quite a cast of characters. The current candidate for governor on the Republican side [George Ryan] came. I don't think Jim Thompson was very pleased with me--I'd been bugging him quite a bit--so Ryan came as lieutenant governor and made a presentation. Chicago is a place where the political personalities don't change a great deal. They just go in and out of jail--and then onto the radio. They remain a part of the Chicago scene. I'm sorry I'll be severed from the city, but this is business."
Wade came to the phone, but he wouldn't discuss either Angela Davis or Basil Talbott. Asked if he'd blown up at the Robeson piece, he replied, "I don't get upset very easily."
Chasing the Kassmobile
I don't know what Mayor Daley said to the Irish queen with the Italian surname. Your guess is as good as mine and probably the same. Let's move to a related subject.
The mayor was far from being the only public official in anguish last week over a John Kass column. And while the mayor could do no more than look teary-eyed at the TV cameras and insist on his dignity, a furious policewoman with a major in journalism wrote an "open letter" denouncing Kass's "ego-driven personal vendetta."
We'll get back to that open letter in a minute. It was the second letter I read denouncing Kass's March 26 column, which told the story--or did it?--of his brother Peter's "beloved beater," a car mysteriously stolen twice.
According to John Kass, Peter was wakened in the dead of night by cops telling him they'd located the beater parked near the corner of 38th and Kedzie. Come and get it or it'll be towed, said the cop on the line--and bring a screwdriver. But Peter Kass couldn't see asking his wife to drive him from the suburbs to Chicago's south side at 2 AM, not when they'd have to wake their two small kids and drag them along. Go ahead and tow it, he told the cops. He'd rather pay the towing charge and pick up the car later at the pound.
"But the next day, the clerks at the auto pound told him it wasn't there," John Kass wrote, "that it was still on 38th Street." So Peter and his father-in-law went looking for it. "He didn't find the car," the column went on. "It had been stolen a second time....The bureaucrats at City Hall didn't know anything about it. Neither did the Chicago police. Nobody knew nothing."
Kass informed us that the rapacious city squeezes drivers for almost $80 million a year in parking-ticket fines, another $4 million from Denver boots, $12 million in towing fees. "But when your car gets stolen, nobody can find the time to do the paperwork and tow the car to the pound. Instead, they tell you to find it yourself with a screwdriver."
The first letter I got was so carefully phrased it looked like the work of another journalist. "I am not a part of the police department," it said, "but I have heard from a reliable source that the police actions when the car was discovered were quite different than Kass describes....If you checked with the 9th district commander, you might find that it was officers from his district who discovered the car, abandoned by the thief at 38th & Kedzie. It was those same officers who phoned Kass' brother at 2 a.m., but they say they told him the car was driveable and that they were taking it to the 9th District station parking lot so he could avoid the tow fee and so they could assist him in starting it (with the screwdriver) if he got there before their shift ended at 7 a.m. In other words, they were trying to do him a favor and explicitly told him where the car would be."
Yet Peter Kass, perversely, "began searching for the car everywhere except where he supposedly was told it would be and everywhere except at the district in which it had been found. (Even Kass' description of the search sounds dubious, since clerks at the auto pound could have no idea that the car was still on 38th Street when it never entered the towing system.)
"I would love to sign this," the letter's author said in conclusion, "but I am in a position where Kass would be able to retaliate and I have absolute faith that he would do so."
What to make of this? I scratched my head and picked up the phone. I called the Ninth District commander (who never did call me back). I also called Commander Jose Velez at Auto Theft. In his column, Kass wrote that Velez "was amazed that the police found the car and let it get stolen again." He quoted Velez as saying he was "beginning an inquiry."
I reached Velez and asked what the inquiry had turned up.
"[Kass's] version of the events is skewed at best," he said. "The car was never restolen. The car was driven to the Ninth District police district for safekeeping, in lieu of having it towed."
Velez told me an officer in his unit had written a rebuttal to Kass's column and it would be faxed to me. This "Open Letter to Mr. John Kass" arrived within seconds. It was signed "The poor souls involved in the KASS case...aka...'THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY' as written by JOHN 'No Class' KASS." The CC list began with the editors in chief of the Tribune and Sun-Times; informed various other editors, reporters, and columnists of those two papers; didn't overlook the Defender; and blessed radio and TV personalities such as Bob Sirott, Jonathon Brandmeier, Howard Stern, and Mancow Muller.
The letter ridiculed Kass's version of the missing-beater drama. "Here," it announced, "are the facts:
"The police saw your brother's car on the street, and upon checking, found that it had been stolen. They called your brother, told him the steering column was peeled, and that he would need a screwdriver to start it. They told him the car would be in the 9th district. As a courtesy to him, they started his car and drove it to the police lot themselves. They told him this on the phone. However, since your brother was 'half-asleep,' he failed to write down this critical information and therefore found it necessary to call in his big brother who then proceeded to threaten, belittle and insult anyone unfortunate enough to be subjected to his numerous diatribes."
In closing, the anonymous letter told Kass he was a "pompous ass, a coward, a whining crybaby." It declared that an apology is due but not expected. "We know the public won't see a word of this in the Tribune. Case closed."
I asked Velez if I could speak to the author.
Within seconds she called. "We just wanted to set the record straight," said Detective Suzanne Chevalier of Auto Theft. "He made us look like a bunch of fools. John Kass called here and said, 'Look, I'm getting the runaround. My little brother's car was stolen'--blah, blah, blah. He was a real butt. And the whole time this car was in the Ninth District lot, and his brother had been told that. And he went ahead and wrote this stupid article anyway."
You write a lively letter, I told Chevalier. She replied that she studied journalism at Northern Michigan. "I moved down here and got a job with an ad agency. The pay wasn't there, and the police test came up. I thought I'd take it and write an article about it. I never wrote the article, and here I am, 12 years later."
Anybody show much interest in your letter? I asked her.
"No, and I didn't expect much to come of it," she said. "It's like any profession. You stick up for your fellow writers, or policemen, or whatever."
I'm not asking you to swallow whole the idea of a reckless columnist and a blameless constabulary. Whether Peter Kass should have known his car had been driven to the Ninth District lot because that's what the cops told him, the fact is he didn't know it. And until Wednesday evening, a day and a half after the cops spotted his car on the street, Auto Theft didn't know it either. Maybe nobody knew it was there but the cops who drove it in. Peter Kass's wife Georgia told me she still doesn't believe the car was taken immediately to the Ninth District, because the next day district cops called her to say they hadn't found it yet.
Cops might think Kass had plenty of time to kill or rewrite his column. But when his brother finally located his car and got it back Wednesday night, Kass was past his deadline. Kass, who doesn't write a Friday column, relaxed his policy of not commenting on his columns to tell me he'd intended to bring his readers up to date on the recovered beater the next week. But by Monday he was up to his ears in Richard M. Daley and Jennifer Battistoni. The beater story had become ancient history. (This Monday Kass got around to his update. He thanked the police "for finding the beloved beater and driving it to the station.")
"To be fair to Kass," wrote my original correspondent, "one might speculate that the police report...is inaccurate; that they actually did not tell Peter Kass where his car was taken. But the fact that the car was there is a point for their credibility....Unless one believes the car thief abandoned the car in the police parking lot, it had to get there somehow."
Georgia Kass talked to me briefly before she became uneasy and excused herself. Her husband Peter deferred to John Kass, and John Kass refuses to defend his columns anywhere but in his columns. Auto Theft, on the other hand, was more accessible than any Chicago police unit I ever remember approaching. In light of Jennifer Battistoni, you probably think you know why. But if you suppose Kass's enemies came out of the woodwork to carry water for the mayor, note that the first letter I saw attacking Kass's missing-beater column was dated Friday, March 27. Chevalier said she started her letter on March 26, the day the column ran in the Tribune. "I mailed it out," she said. "Some went out Friday, and some went out Saturday, and some I dropped in the mail Sunday night. This was before the Italian princess thing came out."
The first Jennifer Battistoni column ran Monday, March 30. And when the mayor blew up, Kass's best friend was his reputation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nigel Wade photo-uncredited.