Dumbstruck; The Price of Silence; The Tabloid Trade; News Bite | Media | Chicago Reader

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Dumbstruck; The Price of Silence; The Tabloid Trade; News Bite

Words fail the columnists in the face of Mother Nature's latest tantrum.

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Dumbstruck

The tsunami washed over the world's front pages like no other disaster I can remember. The second-day story was another first-day story, and so was the third, as every new day revealed a catastrophe more immense than the one reported the day before. "Tidal Waves Kill 13,000," said the headline across Monday's Sun-Times. "More than 22,000 dead," said Tuesday's front page, "58,000-Plus Dead," said Wednesday's, and on Thursday it was "Tsunami Death Toll Passes 77,000."

Before long it became clear that the numbers meant next to nothing. Asians had died by the tens of thousands in villages whose populations could only be estimated. Unnamed Westerners had died by the hundreds. On New Year's Eve, Canada reported 5 of its citizens dead but another 150 missing. From Sweden this week came the figures 52 dead and 2,322 missing. "Danes must prepare for the worst," warned their prime minister.

Thanks to digital cameras and satellite transmissions, there was almost immediate coverage, but shaping it was an immense task. "We're all just trying to survive," the Tribune's Beijing correspondent, Michael Lev, e-mailed me from Indonesia. "This story is way too big for one reporter like me, and likely, for any one news organization. Just for Indonesia, you'd need something like five reporters and three photographers, I think, to get your hands on it. And behind each of those journalists, you'd need a first-class local journo (fixer), a really good sat phone, a huge wad of money, some serious talent and experience and a whole lot of luck."

Columnists were unusually mute--for lack of anything adequate to say, I suppose, as aside from God, there was no one to wag a finger at. (According to Eric Zorn in the Tribune, European and Australian columnists went ahead and wagged that finger.) Four days went by, and then the Tribune's Steve Chapman wrote a column that left God out of it. "Moments like these mock the notion that human beings should live in harmony with nature," he said. "When did nature ever live in harmony with us? The natural world can be wondrous in its beauty and mystery, but it is not our friend. It is a pervasive, relentless threat to our mere existence, and often, that threat is carried out."

At a proper time for blunt, categorical overstatement, this felt to me like not only the right but the only thing to say. A couple of days later David Brooks sidled up to the abyss himself in the New York Times. But Brooks blinked. "Nature doesn't seem much like a friend or nurse this week," he told us lamely, and concluded on an odd note of grandiose self-pity: "This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation." Few of his readers who felt "deeply bad" for the dead were likely to be as moved by a columnist who'd lost nothing but his usual certainty.

The premise of Manya Brachear's New Year's Eve story in the Tribune was that the major faiths of the devastated region--Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity--have a lot of explaining to do. Brachear didn't quite say this herself, but her survey of religious "scholars" invited the conclusion that faith survives catastrophes of this scale simply because there's no alternative to it. "I tell them only God can give some consolation," a Sri Lankan clergyman told her. "I pray. Sometimes they react badly. They find that very difficult to accept."

The Price of Silence

If brief public embarrassment is the price of a comfy retirement, most of us would probably be willing to pay it. Jack Fuller's a scrupulous guy who's sensitive to appearances, but I don't know if he's embarrassed. I asked him by e-mail, but he ignored the question.

Fuller retired at the end of the year as president of Tribune Publishing Company, a Tribune Company subsidiary. But it's a lingering good-bye. For the next year he'll be kept on retainer as a consultant and receive more than $600,000--about what his salary had been, minus the bonuses and benefits. He'll presumably earn all that money in various ways, but one of the things he's being paid to do is keep his mouth shut.

The agreement between Fuller and the Tribune Company was described in a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission: "Fuller will provide consulting services to Tribune with respect to publishing operations, strategy matters and other mutually agreeable projects on an as-needed basis. The agreement provides for a monthly retainer of $51,500 and reimbursement of reasonable travel and other business expenses. The agreement also entitles Fuller to computer access and office space during the term. As an independent contractor, Fuller will be responsible for his own insurance and applicable federal and state taxes. The agreement restricts Fuller from competing with the Company during the term and using or disclosing confidential information concerning the Company during and after the term. The agreement also contains mutual indemnification and non-disparagement provisions."

When Fuller's deal became public a few days before Christmas I heard from a former Tribune reporter who marveled, "Can you imagine what the ol' boys' club would have given him if he wasn't a friggin' failure? It looks like a move to keep his mouth shut about the carnage at the Trib papers."

"Carnage" overstates the turmoil within Tribune Publishing since the Tribune Company bought the eight-paper Times Mirror chain in 2000. A cover story in the most recent American Journalism Review on the Tribune papers praises Fuller for restoring order and quality to the Los Angeles Times, which won five Pulitzer Prizes last year.

But against that triumph AJR reporter Rachel Smolkin places diminishing profit margins, dramatic staff cuts, shrinking news holes, and wrenching attempts to combine resources--not to mention major circulation scandals at Newsday and Hoy. She sprinkles her story with language like "heightened fears," "draconian," and "kneecapped," then concludes with the observation that Fuller, a career journalist who's a former editor of the Tribune, is being succeeded by Scott Smith, who rose through the business side of the company. Which is a way of suggesting that any newspaper people who were grousing under Fuller will now find out how good they had it.

A Tribune writer e-mailed me, "We think or thought highly of Fuller, who was one of us, really, a writer, a newsman not a bean counter who has a pretty great journalistic ethical compass, all in all." But the note went on, "This seems like unseemly $$ taking at a time when those of us in the ranks are having tight belts."

I e-mailed Fuller the comments from the ranks and asked about his new duties and whether he felt any self-consciousness?

Fuller replied, "I have been, for the first time in more years than I can remember, willfully incommunicado. But your e-mail reached me, despite all my best efforts to be unconnected.

"The consulting agreement is what the company decided would best make for a smooth transition, which is what I have been focusing on since deciding it was time for me to return to writing.

"As to whether it inhibits what I say, I realize that something of a tradition has developed in newspapering in which a person, after spending years building an institution, feels compelled to denigrate it on the way out. Consulting agreement or no, I want no part of that tradition, not least because I am so proud of the journalism Tribune Company produces. The company is in good hands. Dennis FitzSimons chose the right successor for me in Scott Smith, and Scott has his priorities right.

"With that I go back to a blissful and more perfect disconnection. Over and out."

I assume Fuller had in mind his predecessor as Tribune editor, Jim Squires, who was forced out in 1993 and then wrote a stinging insider's book about the company, Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers. Wherever in the world Fuller happened to be, by taking a nap instead of setting off to write a memoir of his own he was earning his keep.

The Tabloid Trade

The Sun-Times may or may not be searching for a new editor soon, but it's unlikely to keep the current one much longer. Rumors that the New York Daily News was courting Michael Cooke first bubbled up a year ago. Now the word around the Daily News is that Cooke will arrive in February.

"He hasn't quit yet," John Cruickshank, publisher of the Sun-Times, told me. But it was likely enough Cooke would that Cruickshank talked to me this week about a successor. He didn't feel "a great rush" to name one. "I'm close by. I'm not unengaged," he said. "And we have two very strong managing editors." They're John Barron, the executive managing editor, and Don Hayner, managing editor for news.

The Daily News, engaged in a fierce fight with the Murdoch-owned New York Post for the title of that city's top tabloid, has been without an editor since October 2003. But Cooke wouldn't exactly be filling a vacuum. He'd be working for publisher Mort Zuckerman, described to me by a Daily News reporter as someone "who meddles and is tight with the coin," and for the editor in chief of Zuckerman's properties (U.S. News & World Report is the other one), Martin Dunn, an English veteran of Murdoch journalism whom the same Daily News reporter called a "control freak."

Cooke's three and a half years under former Sun-Times publisher David Radler schooled him in the art of surviving cheap and intrusive bosses. The Sun-Times taught him more than that. A year ago the Columbia Journalism Review wondered if the Daily News would try to hold off the Post by playing to its strength--formidable metropolitan coverage--or by going down-market to try to beat the Post at the Post's own game. "Can the News find a strategy to remain the more sober and substantial of the two while still showing a little leg?" CJR wondered. The Sun-Times gave Cooke a graduate education in that balancing act. The paper kept doing important exposes while Cooke ran it, but there was always plenty of room for randy gossip and beautiful babes. And let's not overlook the six pages of 2005 astrological forecasts the Sun-Times published as a public service.

"Under his guidance," said Crain's Chicago Business in a brief online item this week about Cooke and the Daily News, "the Sun-Times leaned increasingly on traditional tabloid newspaper staples: aggressive city reporting, heavy doses of sports and celebrities, and lots of pictures of scantily clad women."

I asked Cruickshank if "Scurrilous" and "Susanna's Night Out"--to name a couple of features close to Cooke's heart--would survive his departure.

"It's always true that editors have their favorites and their hobbyhorses," Cruickshank replied obliquely. But he didn't see a "huge problem" with what the paper was putting out. "It's a very strong newsroom," he said. "They really found their feet and their voice last year. They've done extraordinary, groundbreaking work."

Sounding pretty pleased about everything, Cruickshank predicted that Hollinger International will hang on to the Sun-Times and the rest of the Chicago Group--which is pretty much all that Hollinger owns after selling off the Telegraph and Jerusalem Post--because they're too healthy to give up. "We did incredibly well in 2004 given the circumstances," he said, meaning civil war in the boardroom and the Sun-Times circulation scandal. "And 2005 looks solid. With all the corporate uncertainty, we're solidly profitable."

News Bite

Just before Christmas the Sun-Times's Jack Higgins, whom I rip from time to time for taking inane jabs at politicians he's fixated on, drew two editorial cartoons about the Iraq war that reminded me why he once won a Pulitzer. On December 22 he had Donald Rumsfeld's autopen writing him a message: "Dear Rummy, Maybe you should resign." "Who asked you?" replies the secretary of defense.

The next day Higgins drew American troops filing past a wall marked IRAQ and telling themselves, "We'll be back in . . ." But when they turn a corner IRAQ turns into QUAGMIRE, and the wall tapers away into a war memorial as the soldiers turn ghostly and vanish. "No time," says one of the dead.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paula Bronstein/Getty Images, AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch, Jim Frist.

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