Bulls Win! Joyous City Goes Shopping!/Good Names, Bad Names | Media | Chicago Reader

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Bulls Win! Joyous City Goes Shopping!/Good Names, Bad Names

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Bulls Win! Joyous City Goes Shopping!

After a night of mayhem a front page virtually designs itself. Looting. Arson. Two cops shot. A thousand arrests. All this calls for the usual big-city-in-chaos type of layout.

But once in a while the mayhem will keep. During this spring's rampage in Los Angeles no one wanted to read about blacks looting a Korean-owned store here in Chicago, and so you didn't, even though such looting happened in Hyde Park.

And last Monday morning Chicagoans preferred to revel in triumph. Consider headlines the papers might have plastered on page one:

Rampage on Michigan Avenue!

Bookstore Ransacked

Police in Riot Gear Retreat From Mob!

Blocks in Flames!

Instead, the Sun-Times devoted page one to a color picture of Michael Jordan and the enormous banner headline "CHAMPS!" over a story that began, "All over the city, a joyous yell went up. WHOOOOOOOOO!"

Before this saga jumped to page four, the Sun-Times did allow that "high spirits turned to trouble in the hours after the win as looters struck businesses and fires broke out." Vandalism chronicled on the inside pages more than justified the paper's observation that "the enthusiasm got out of control in some areas." And a page of pictures was titled "Win Brings Joy, Destruction." But if the kind of mob action that made the nation shudder when it occurred in LA can possibly be rendered benign by context, it was in Chicago. The Bulls had won. Whatever followed was high jinks.

The Tribune's front-page banner cried "Two for two: Bulls still champs!" Of three page-one stories, just one hinted at trouble: "Chicago sports fans, accustomed to loving losers . . . could be forgiven their exuberance, if not their scattered displays of criminality. . . . In a few areas, victory brought broken windows and uninvited shopping."

Uninvited shopping?

Specifics were relegated to page eight, where the headline across the top of the page got down to business: "Victory turns violent as Bulls fans stampede through streets." But even here the blissful fiction prevailed that nothing went on that couldn't be laid to "Bulls fans" letting off steam.

A young photographer from Hyde Park who'd spent Monday evening cruising the streets called us the next day. "I'm amazed at how the media seems to have missed out on what happened on the south side," he said. "I saw at least five or six stores in the process of being looted--and no cops. At 47th and Cottage I saw cops drive up to a Rainbow clothing shop being looted and do a U-ey and drive away. At 45th and Cottage I tried to take a picture where they were looting a liquor store and got rocks thrown at me, so I got out of there. I saw two cops in riot gear trying to get people out of the store. All the cops were in riot gear."

A Rainbow employee told us his store had been cleaned out. Was anyone else hit? we wondered. "It was stores up and down 47th and 63rd. It was kind of all over last night."

But not all over the Monday papers.

How did others see us? Monday afternoon's Detroit News carried a page-three wire story headlined "Looters and vandals slam dunk Chicago." The subhead went on, "Bulls win, city loses: Michael Jordan asks, 'Let's not tear up the city,' but plea is ignored." The New York Times led its "National Report" Tuesday with "Basketball Title Spurs Violence Around Chicago: Crowds Loot and Burn on a Warm Evening."

All of which made Chicago look as uncivilized as, well, Detroit looked in 1990 after the Pistons copped the NBA title. Our city got no credit for its prevailing tone of cosmopolitan ebullience. Only the local papers understood.

An earlier test of the papers' ability to confront gritty reality followed the Bulls' come-from-ahead loss in the fourth game against Portland. Facing reporters, Phil Jackson proclaimed the team "pissed off."

The Sun-Times didn't bleep it. "I ran it by the executive editor, and we talked about it," sports editor Rick Jaffe told us. "Normally we don't use it, but we felt it was important enough that on a one-time basis we'd use it. But we don't generally."

The Tribune coyly reported, "'Everybody's pretty ticked off,' said Jackson, only he didn't say ticked." Sports editor Richard Leslie explained, "We just decided it wasn't worth using. We felt it's an expression that isn't necessarily vulgar but not necessarily descriptive either. There wasn't a compelling need to use it."

Actually there was--the need to spare the sports page the ridicule of that day's Bernie Lincicome column. Lincicome began: "Today's game between the games is Pick a Euphemism. The mood of the Bulls, to misquote Phil Jackson, is one of irritation, displeasure, general grumpiness. The adverb is 'Off.' Match the verb . . . "

Good Names, Bad Names

The trouble with a good reputation--as the closet drunks who litter the American short story exist to remind us--is the way it leads inexorably to impossible expectations and complete disaster. Otherwise it's probably a terrific thing to have.

Consider the New Yorker magazine's lofty reputation for checking facts. It's helped land the magazine hip deep in trouble in the federal courts.

We just read the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, that reinstates Jeffrey Masson's famous libel suit against the New Yorker. This is the suit in which Masson, the former projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, accused reporter Janet Malcolm of inventing quotes for a 1983 New Yorker profile. Sure enough, the language Masson disowned--which among other things had him calling himself "an intellectual gigolo" and "after Freud, the greatest analyst who's ever lived"--wasn't to be found in the transcripts of Malcolm's interviews or in her notes. She explained that she was either paraphrasing responsibly or quoting from an interview that wasn't taped.

We have little sympathy for Malcolm, who (1) took pretty egregious liberties and (2) began a later New Yorker article with the shameless line, "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."

Journalists hate to see barriers go down that protect their right to screw up occasionally without owing somebody a million dollars. But when a federal judge threw out Masson's suit, and when the Ninth Circuit originally upheld this decision, we worried that the press was being handed a license to distort it could do without. But now, at the direction of the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit has thought twice and remanded the case to the district court for trial. In so doing, the court of appeals explained how the New Yorker's reputation had worked against it.

The Ninth Circuit noted that Masson had warned a New Yorker fact checker that Malcolm was inventing quotes. The magazine had "no duty" to assign a fact checker in the first place, the Ninth Circuit reasoned. But since it did, it must answer for its response to whatever doubts this fact checking raised.

"We are aware," says the opinion, "that this puts publishers like The New Yorker--whose practice it is to investigate the accuracy of its stories--at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to other publishers such as newspapers and supermarket tabloids that cannot or will not engage in thorough fact-checking." But the Ninth Circuit applauds the double standard. "Readers of reputable magazines such as The New Yorker are far more likely to trust the verbatim accuracy of the stories they read than are the readers of supermarket tabloids or even daily newspapers. . . . The harm inflicted by a misstatement in a publication known for scrupulously investigating the accuracy of its stories can be far more serious than a similar misstatement in a publication known not to do so."

Is that so? Is that why a supermarket tabloid can run something really sensational--on a presidential candidate's sex life, for example--and nobody pays any attention to it?

At any rate, the Ninth Circuit opinion not only informs the reputable that their good name is no shield in hard times. It also assures the disreputable that no one can sink too low to be libeled.

As an example, the court offered Jeffrey Dahmer. Your view of Dahmer might be that anything you wanted to call him he'd deserve. Not so, says the Ninth Circuit. Every man has his saving graces. The court cited one psychiatrist's assessment of Dahmer's character:

He's "an organized, nonsocial, lust murderer" yet "not such a bad person." So there you are.

If Dahmer sued you for defamation, you'd cling intuitively to the legal theory known as the "incremental harm doctrine." This commonsensical notion holds that if somone, say, describes a treasonous blackmailing pimp as a treasonous blackmailing flatulent pimp, said pimp can't collect on grounds that his sphincter was traduced. The harm done by the falsity is dwarfed by the harm done by the truth.

But the Ninth Circuit rejected this doctrine. It applauded something Justice Antonin Scalia wrote back in 1984, when Scalia was a federal judge.

"The theory must be rejected because it rests upon the assumption that one's reputation is a monolith, which stands or falls in its entirety," said Scalia. "The law, however, proceeds upon the optimistic premise that there is a little bit of good in all of us--or perhaps upon the pessimistic assumption that no matter how bad someone is, he can always be worse."

The Ninth Circuit did, however, affirm the dismissal of Masson's suit against Alfred A. Knopf Inc., which published Malcolm's manuscript as a book. Knopf had no reason to doubt Malcolm's text because it could presume the New Yorker had already scrutinized it. "The magazine's sterling reputation for accuracy and the existence of its fabled fact-checking department" (the court's tribute) wound up protecting Knopf but not the magazine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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