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Fields of Honor/Rue, Britannica

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By Michael Miner

Fields of Honor

Before World War II Bill Gleason wanted to be a sportswriter. After the war he wanted to be a sportswriter. The war failed to lift Gleason's horizons, but it did give him some perspective.

"From time to time," he says, "I've listened to guys say, 'Holy Christ, you writers don't know anything about pressure.' And I'm thinking, 'You asshole! Pressure is knowing any second of any hour of any day you can get your fool head blown off. That's pressure.'"

Gleason is reminiscing at my invitation because he just called it quits after 40 years as a Chicago sports columnist, the last 15 of them at the Daily Southtown. For 12 years he was also a TV celebrity, one of the garrulous sages of The Sportswriters. Asked to remember the war, he doesn't brood. Instead, he digs up his Silver Star citation.

"Private William Gleason and three comrades were in an open field pinned down by machine-gun and mortar fire," he reads. "In an attempt to dash for a house, two of the men were immediately hit by enemy fire, one seriously. Private Gleason remained in the field, while the other injured man crawled to a position where he could call for an aid man. Meanwhile, Private Gleason crawled through 50 yards of murderous machine-gun fire to the more seriously wounded man to administer first aid. The fire was directed so low that the soldier was unable to rise from the prone position to apply the first aid pack. When the aid man arrived, Gleason carried the Browning automatic rifle of the wounded man and his own rifle to the house and helped cover the advance of the platoon."

This account seems to amuse him. "See, we were a new division," he says, "and they were always looking for new decorations early to send to the papers. So I got into the Economist and the Chicago Sun. An interesting and very bitter sidelight to this--when I went over to help the other runner, the guy who got hit in the buttocks, I went into his ammunition belt and I got his sulfa packet, and the damn thing was empty." Sulfa was the penicillin of the day. "And I cursed the people back in the States, the profiteers. So I used my sulfa pack to pour into his wound, and on the way to the house I said, 'You asshole! What if you get hit?'"

It was November 16, 1944, Gleason's 22nd birthday and first day of combat. "I was lying there under a sapling with little buds on it, and this German I could not see was sniping off the buds. And I thought, 'This is going on everywhere! On this day people are shooting at each other all over Europe and in the South Pacific.' I thought, 'Holy Christ!'"

He lay there expecting never to see 23. Not that war troubled him. "It's so damn exhilarating," he says. "There really is nothing like it. I didn't realize it at first, but as we went along it came to me that I was a war lover. You hear so much about fear, but a lot of these guys--and I was one of them--had no fear at all."

Before the war he'd been a copyboy at the old Chicago Sun and done some freelance writing on the side for the Southtown Economist (today the Daily Southtown), and when the war took away the Economist's sports department, the paper's editor hired Gleason to run it. After the war, Gleason tried and failed to launch a weekly sports newspaper, went back to the Economist, moved to the Chicago American as a picture-caption writer, shifted to sports, and began writing a column in 1961. He wrote that column at the American, at the Sun-Times, and finally at the Southtown.

I've never understood how writers can devote their adult lives to the games of youth, so I ask Gleason if his life knew those wrenching passages when sports seem paltry by comparison.

"Everything after the big war is anticlimax," he says.

Aside from that, he thinks being a kid from the south side who grows up to cover the hometown teams is to be as lucky as anyone on earth. "Anybody can be a street reporter," he says. "Anybody can write op-ed editorials or columns. But to become a sports columnist is almost beyond the comprehension of most people. My next campaign is to talk Ebert into becoming a sports columnist. He'd be a marvelous sports columnist."

Now Gleason is writing a memoir. He won't tell me the title, because titles get stolen, but here's how the book begins: "It's about my father and me and our great cockroach hunts."

The Gleasons lived in a six-flat at 71st and Eggleston. Gleason's father was a blacksmith. "He'd come home from his VFW meeting, and we'd get down on the floor in the kitchen and kill cockroaches. The reason we didn't use powder, as other people did, is that we had a dog. It was a wonderful thing, being together with my father, kneeling side by side. He'd say, 'Get that one, Bill. She's pregnant.' My job was the light switch--turning the light switch on and off. When the lights were off, that's when they were scurrying. And when the lights were on, we could go to battle.

"My mother and two sisters up at the front of the apartment would pay no attention to this, but she would say, 'They aren't our cockroaches. They come from upstairs.' Or 'They come from downstairs.' Downstairs was the basement. The other thing was 'They came from the grocery store in the boxes.'

"The windup of this was, I was over in Hamilton Park and there was a group of four girls--all lovely girls. I must have been 13. They were talking about various things in their lives, so I thought, geez, I've got to tell them about the cockroach hunts. One of these girls, who was especially attractive, wrinkled up her nose and said, 'We've never had cockroaches.' And another girl, almost as attractive, said, 'I've never seen a cockroach.' And my reaction to that was, 'I feel sorry for you. Neither you nor your brothers have ever been involved in a cockroach hunt.'"

Rue, Britannica

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, an encyclopedia might be the last. Lately, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has tried to work both ends of this spectrum, and the other day they became irreconcilable.

This month the young Britannica.com side of the business intended to try something new--an on-line chat with someone in the news. That someone was author Christopher Hitchens, who, to quote from Britannica.com publicity, "claims that charges of war crimes should be brought against Henry Kissinger...who helped shape U.S. foreign policy from 1969 to 1976.... Hitchens claims that Kissinger allowed U.S. bombing in Laos to continue for political purposes rather than war-relative objectives. Hitchens also implicates Kissinger for his involvement in the 1973 military coup in Chile."

The publicity made it sound as if Hitchens would simply be holding court. Actually, Britannica.com's idea was to confront him with an academic or two who held different ideas. But however clumsily described, the March 8 chat was to be an event--Britannica.com's first chat ever, the kind of public moment on which the company's future might hinge. That's because the two-centuries-old business model of selling sets of books to customers who pay once and handsomely is obsolete. Since 1999 Britannica.com has offered the encyclopedia's content free on-line, gambling that it can find ways to make cyberspace pay. It's still looking for them, and it knows it's in the business of enticement.

The Hitchens chat was publicized for a month beforehand--on Britannica.com, on Yahoo, in PR releases to the media, and in an E-mail newsletter sent to 50,000 Britannica.com users. But the chat never took place. It was canceled the day before, on what were understood to be the orders of the company's owner, Swiss financier Jacob Safra. Safra's late uncle, Edmond Safra, had been such a close friend of Kissinger's that when he died in 1999 the former secretary of state spoke at the funeral. (I E-mailed Jacob Safra for comment, but he didn't respond.)

The strategic purpose of the chat had been to make the staid Britannica "brand" stand for something a little more provocative. That's the assignment of Britannica.com, which was created two years ago to push the envelope and move the brand. Its management warned Safra that canceling the chat would embarrass the brand, but the order stuck. In a statement posted on its Web site Britannica.com explained: "Our original purpose in sponsoring the event was to promote discussion of all points of view about the issues raised in Mr. Hitchens' recent articles in Harper's Magazine. On reflection, however, we believe that our involvement with the event has created the mistaken impression that Britannica.com endorses Mr. Hitchens' allegations. In truth, we neither endorse nor dispute the content of his articles. Under the circumstances, we felt it was best for us to withdraw from the event."

The "mistaken impression" was Britannica.com's own doing, and there must have been ways short of cancellation to correct it. That said, it's one thing to perpetuate an interpretation of the Battle of Hastings, another to provide a forum where yesterday's history is argued and sorted out. At Britannica.

com's old-line sister company, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., the highest value remains impregnable authoritativeness. "We have to be very focused on who we are, what we do, and what we've always done," says Dale Hoiberg, the top editor of the encyclopedia. As for the Hitchens chat, "It's just not Britannica style, if you ask me."

Members of the dot-com staff will say that was the point. And if some respectfully disagree with Safra's narrower idea of what the Britannica brand should be up to, they add that the chat wasn't the only plug pulled. Two weeks earlier, Britannica.com had posted "Henry Kissinger on Trial: A Guide to the Controversy Surrounding the Diplomat." This was a Web article that combined a very brief summation of Hitchens's views on Kissinger with a long series of links to primary and secondary sources. Hoiberg argues that there was no point in keeping the article on-line after the chat was canceled, but the prevailing view within Britannica.com is that the Kissinger feature was doing exactly what the on-line Britannica needs to be doing--imaginatively leading people to knowledge. When the feature came down they felt editorially compromised.

They would soon feel worse. The next week Britannica.com laid off 68 employees, a third of its workforce. Most of the people involved in setting up the Hitchens chat, however, kept their jobs.

News Bites

George W. Bush has been president all of nine weeks, which by the clock on the newsroom wall appears to constitute something close to an era. Frank Rich said in his latest New York Times column that we're in a time when the Democratic Party "stands for little and has no evident leaders." A flattering profile of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle by Michael Crowley in this week's New Republic said it's "a season dominated by the new president." The frantic cover headline: "The Only Person Who Can Stop Bush." Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine offered a piece by Andrew Sullivan explaining why Bush "has been enjoying such an extended honeymoon."

About a week ago we were reading that the way Bill Clinton was dominating the headlines, Bush couldn't even get noticed. Today he rules all he surveys. Journalism used to wait 100 days to make these judgments. Now it's 100 minutes.

I reported a month ago that with this week's introduction of a revamped Tribune, Inc. would disappear from page two and show up in Tempo. Since then, Tribune editors have had second thoughts. Inc.'s new home is Metro, which as a place to look for hot urban gossip is only marginally less inappropriate than Sports or Business. The problem with Tempo was that it's printed a day ahead of time. Inc. staffers would have been asked to produce morsels that still tasted good when they were stone cold.

I happened to get an advance look at the documentary The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India, which Chicagoans will be able to see on Cinemax this coming Monday evening. Its thesis is that there are more slaves on earth today than ever before in human history, among them 300,000 children kidnapped in India to make goods sold in the West. The story it tells is appalling, except possibly to consumers grateful that the prices of fine handwoven rugs have stayed within reason.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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