Exclusively in the Tribune
Publicists call us now and then to tout an author who's coming to town. When we're interested, we ask who else the author's talking to here--we don't want to give somebody space in our column a day after they show up in the dailies.
If we're still interested, we ask if we could do an interview by phone before the author even hits Chicago. It's easier to take notes that way, and we get the jump on everybody.
We're competitive, when you come down to it. Writing a story faster and better than the next guy is delicious. Writing a story the next guy didn't get at all (but wishes he did after reading ours) tastes even better.
We don't demand exclusivity. We don't throw our weight around. Would we throw it if we had it? Interesting question, the way it goes straight to first principles of human nature.
Maybe not. Somehow it doesn't seem sporting. But take the Tribune . . .
Ernie Tucker, a Sun-Times feature writer, called us a while back because he was steaming at the Tribune. The Tribune had just muscled him out of an interview with Rita Rudner. Tucker knew Rudner, he'd previously interviewed Rudner, he kept her home phone number in a book of home phone numbers of bigger stars than she. He had a history with Rita Rudner. Now Rudner was coming to town to tout her new work of literature, Naked Beneath My Clothes. And Tucker, naturally enough, was his paper's choice to interview her at the Mayfair Regent. It was all set up.
A week or so before Rudner got here, Tucker heard from a Viking publicist named Patti Kelly. "She said, 'I have terrible news. The Tribune is going to interview Rita for Womanews. They demand exclusivity. So we're canceling the interview.'"
Tucker called Rudner's home. She was out on tour of course, and her husband didn't want to get in the middle of anything. He told Tucker to call his wife's personal agent, Michelle Marx, in LA. No, said Tucker. "I want to talk to Rita."
Minutes later Michelle Marx was on the phone asking Tucker what the problem was. The Tribune wants exclusivity, he protested. It's ridiculous. She's giving TV and radio interviews all over Chicago. We're in possession of a wire story on her we could run tomorrow. But we'd rather run one we write ourselves. Viking promised me an interview. Please tell Rita I want to talk to her.
Marx called back a couple days later. Sorry, she said. Viking's handling this. She asked Tucker if he'd like an exclusive when Rudner's movie comes out in the fall.
"It's one thing to outhustle the competition," Tucker reflects. "But to say we'll squash you by dint of our circulation is shortsighted for the print media and ethically pretty stinky. I'm all for competition, beating someone with ability--that's all part of the game. But for Rita, Michelle Marx, Viking to fall in line with the Tribune's threat is a little bit sickening to me."
Tucker talked one more time with Patti Kelly, who was now trying to convince him it had all been an innocent mix-up and, honestly, the Tribune was offered the interview first. Tucker didn't buy it. He called Michelle Marx back. "I told a receptionist or somebody that in the future she can forward all of her mail about her clients to the Tribune, because I'm not going to be dealing with them. A staffer called back and said, 'This is unfair. How can you do this?' I said, 'You've blown the trust in this case. I don't see how the work I've done can be discarded so rapidly. I realize Viking made the initial deal, but as her publicist you owe it to her and the reporters who work with her to make something right. If I can't trust you to do this, why should I deal with you in the future?'"
We made the usual calls and concluded that Tucker misunderstood the nature of the Tribune's conduct. The Tribune doesn't have to bluster to get its way. It merely has to yawn.
"We had interviews set up in both places. We couldn't do both," explained Patti Kelly.
Did the Tribune demand exclusivity? we asked. Or did they say that without it they wouldn't be interested?
"Basically that they wouldn't be interested. They weren't demanding it at all. I was pitching an interview to them."
A publicist's job is to spread joy and access--not to alienate reporters who can do her good. Having alienated Ernie Tucker, Kelly had little to say, and Michelle Marx refused to return our calls. But the choice that faced them is clear. On the one hand was the Sun-Times--a major urban daily with a circulation well over 500,000. On the other hand was the Tribune's Womanews, Sunday circulation above a million, plus syndication to 50 other newspapers.
Marjorie David edits Womanews. Do you know how angry the Sun-Times is? we asked. Yes, she said, just the day before someone from Michelle Marx's office had called to sort things out. "They were asking what our policy was."
What did you tell her? we asked.
"We have to have exclusivity because we're offering our stories to our clients."
We pondered this. Rita Rudner was on tour, peddling her chatter to papers around the country. What did it matter to Womanews's far-flung clients if in Chicago she'd talked only to the Tribune?
"It matters in the sense we're running the story here first," David said. "We want to have it exclusive in this market first." But then she abandoned this dubious argument. "I don't really want to belabor that point," she said. "As long as I've worked at the Tribune--that's 16 years--we have asked for exclusivity in this market. And generally we get it."
Tucker isn't the first Sun-Times reporter to bear the brunt of the Tribune's hegemony. But other reporters don't want to speak out. They treasure the goodwill of the publicists who treasure theirs. "It's in many people's craws over here," said a feature writer who asked not to be identified. "I'll try to initiate things. They'll be squirrelly. My alarm goes off. Why would a flack be squirrelly? Generally it will come out they're concerned this might jeopardize something at the Tribune. So something I always ask is, what is the Tribune doing?"
Nearly two months have gone by since Rita Rudner stopped in Chicago. Womanews finally published its exclusive last Sunday.
"I definitely think it violates the whole spirit of getting the information out there," said the nameless Sun-Times feature writer. "They can hold it. They can bury it. They can never run it. The 500-pound gorilla can be as lazy as a 500-pound gorilla wants to be."
Ernie Tucker was tempted, when the hour of his annulled rendezvous with Rita Rudner came nigh, to pound on her hotel door and force a confrontation. But he refused to stoop to anything so pathetic. "It would put me in the peculiar bind of fighting to give free publicity to her book."
When we were young we lived in Canada, a nation that has never learned how to appreciate itself. What Canada is most is something it isn't; it isn't the United States. This is a virtue best admired by Americans.
The town we lived in teemed with refugees from China and Eastern Europe, yet Orthodox Anticommunism as Americans practiced it seemed odd and foreign when we moved south. Coming too late to that religion, we never quite got the hang of the cold war. What continues to baffle us, perhaps because those early crucial years were passed on alien soil, is the American need for a civil faith that all but the condemnable embrace. Anticommunism is dead, but its god isn't, and now can be worshiped at the altar of Family Values.
Canada had families. Canada even mailed each family a modest allowance for every child. But that bit of government intrusion should not be confused with Family Values. Family Values is mother in the kitchen and father in the den and children wanted and unwanted underfoot; it's a household free to thrive or starve as it sees fit.
Both parties genuflect to Family Values. But the high priests are Republicans. The first pontiff was Ronald Reagan, and skeptics jeered this man, who was divorced and blessed with issue he barely seemed to know. But this incongruity meant nothing to the multitudes. Family Values, in the American faith, means silently bearing the burdens of family, be they absurd marriages or children who are either nincompoops or sinister.
We just completed the cover story of the new Mother Jones. It's called "Family Value$--the inside story of how three of the Bush boys built private fortunes by trading on their father's name, running with con men, lining their own pockets, and leaving financial ruin in their wake."
As investigative reporting, this isn't a bad exercise. It paints Jeb, Neil, and George Jr. as feckless incompetents who couldn't open a root beer stand without their cronies. Where the magazine goes wrong--as the left has been going wrong for years--is to think it's illuminating a contradiction.
"Since George Bush has raised "family values' as a campaign issue repeatedly, it seems only fair to take a look at his own family." Reporter Stephen Pizzo finds each son "riding comfortably through life in the slipstream of his father's growing power and influence."
Well, what more can a father wish? If America wanted to worship Merit it would worship Merit. Instead it worships Family Values. A cornerstone of the faith is the conviction that no government program ought to do more for somebody else's kid than you can do for yours. George Bush is the father Murphy Brown's child will never have.