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Gift Return Policy/The Paper Chase/Revolution for Kids

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By Michael Miner

I hold in my hand a list of names....The names on this list extend into the highest levels of Tribune management--people engaged in a conspiracy of silence so immense...

Joe Leonard was explaining the Tribune gift policy. "Years ago Clayton Kirkpatrick said, 'If it costs more than a key chain, return it.'" Leonard's the Tribune associate editor for operations and planning. Kirkpatrick was the editor back in the 70s who published the Watergate tapes. "One year a radio station got cute and sent in pewter key chains."

Out they went. The Tribune cannot be bought, rented, or blemished. When the Reader attempted to sully the Tribune's honor by sending over complimentary 1998 Reader calendars, the Tribune applied the key-chain yardstick and took firm measures. Leonard did not mince words in his letter to the Reader's special projects coordinator:

"We are in receipt of the calendar you sent our staff member Terry Brown on behalf of the Chicago Reader. All editorial employees are governed by an ethics policy that precludes them from accepting any gifts. Therefore, we have donated the calendar to a charitable organization.

"To support this policy, we are asking everyone not to send product samples or gifts to any Chicago Tribune editorial employee at the office or to the employee's residence.

"I am sure you will understand and agree with this decision."

A copy of Leonard's letter was passed on to Brown.

The 1998 Reader calendar is a handsome product that celebrates the photography of Mary Katherine Semos. But on the scales of scandalous Christmas boodle--whose high end is marked by crates of savories and potables, not to mention the hundreds of dollars' worth of software with which Microsoft has been known to remember its media friends--it barely nudges the needle.

"The intention of the policy is good. The execution is a little silly at times, don't you think?" said Brown, the Tribune's bureau chief for the western suburbs. Brown has given ethics some thought; he discusses it in a journalism writing course he teaches at Northwestern University, and he knows that in another era reporters at Christmas were like pigs at troughs. "It's reasonable to put limits on gifts, particularly at this time of year," he said. "But I know of a case where a guy from the Tribune has gone to DePaul to give a guest lecture, and they gave him a sweatshirt--and Joe confiscated that."

As he talked to me, Brown spotted a bank calendar hanging in the Oakbrook bureau, and he wondered aloud how it had managed to survive. Last year, he said, coming clean, he'd sat on the Tribune editorial board and occupied a private office in the Tower. His Reader calendar hung on his wall.

"I don't go around like a cop on this," said Leonard. "I don't have time. When a courier delivers multiple packs of whatever to the Tribune they're assumed to be gifts and rerouted. Flowers go to Northwestern Hospital, perishables to Little Brothers of the Poor." Calendars? "Probably to Little Brothers of the Poor, where they'd give them as Christmas gifts to the elderly."

Leonard didn't need to persuade me of the corruptive powers of largesse. I think of it this way: Every journalist is the center of a circle composed of family, friends, and vested interests. A journalist's objectivity on matters within that circle can't be trusted. Accepted gifts push the boundaries of that circle. No bottle of scotch is worth it. I admire the Tribune's absolutism even as I tweak it.

"We err on the side of being righteous," said Leonard. "I don't feel foolish, even on the calendar. I really don't."

Detecting an element of amusement in my voice, he turned the tables. "What do you do with the stuff you get?" he asked.

I was swept by shame. I don't get any stuff, I admitted. Aside from books I didn't order, which lie in heaps on the floor of my office, the last gift I can recall was a box of chocolates from Linda Bowles. The staff ate it.

But I checked with the other editors, to see if bags of swag were moving through the Reader offices behind my back. Someone recalled that several bandannas had shown up in the past few months, though no one knew who'd sent them. Last year during the Democratic Convention, when the sewers of Chicago were awash in cognac and caviar, a box of macaroni and cheese was sent our way. And a while ago a package of tea arrived, announcing itself as a miraculous new remedy for PMS.

Leonard said the Tribune ships its booty off by the carload. He told me how it works. Messengers arrive bearing heaps of freebies and lay them before the receptionist. She summons the inquisitors. "It's not mail. We don't open mail," Leonard insisted. Where mail's concerned, the Tribune relies on its employees' honor.

But the Reader mails its calendars--mails them first class, in fact. And Terry Brown's mail was opened. Leonard established how that happened. It seems Brown's calendar was addressed to his old office at the Tribune editorial board, where the secretary broke open the brown box because Brown was now out in Oakbrook. When she saw what it contained and who sent it, she turned it over to the authorities.

Where are the others? I asked Leonard. Terry Brown's calendar was the only one appropriated by Leonard's staff.

"Since it's a calendar, I'm not going to get too upset," Leonard said. "If it was a piece from Tiffany I'd go looking for the others."

Very well, but I could tell him where to look. If you saw who's on my list and lying low you'd be as shocked as I am.

The Paper Chase

Eighteen thousand dollars? Publisher Dan Haley read the figure in Hot Type two weeks ago and found it hard to believe. Eighteen thousand dollars was what the editor of the Austin Voice had said it cost to produce a single issue of a student newspaper at Marshall High School.

"Absolutely exorbitant," admitted Brad Cummings, editor of the Voice, which had helped the Marshall kids create last June's paper. But there'd been all sorts of onetime start-up costs, Cummings said, and no economies of scale. The Voice proposed to extend its assistance to five other west-side high schools, publishing the six papers nine times each during the school year. The Voice submitted a $349,920 budget for the project, but the Board of Education wasn't biting. Even the Marshall paper was dead.

Haley publishes the rival Austin Weekly News. He called to tell me to open my eyes. "I find it incomprehensible that a single edition of a high school paper could cost $18,000," he said. "Knowing what I do about the cost of printing and composing and so on, it strikes me as ludicrous. And I worry and wonder that you and others don't take a more critical eye and ask, 'Where did the money go?' I know it didn't go into printing the newspaper or distributing the newspaper."

Haley praises the Board of Education for cutting off Cummings's funding. "Two years ago, just after we bought this paper, we had a call from a woman on staff at Austin High School who'd been an adviser at the school paper," Haley said. "They had, not surprisingly, budget problems and weren't going to continue to get funded through the discretionary fund. She asked if we could be of help in some way. We published two editions of Eye of the Tiger, their high school paper over the years. We had two staff members--one was our editor at the time and one was the editorial designer--who went to the high school multiple times and met with the kids on the staff of the paper. The kids came over here and watched while it got laid out. It was eight pages long. We took pictures. They wrote the copy and decided where the story was going to get played. We helped them with some copyediting. We composed it on our equipment, printed out about 3,000 copies on our printer, trucked it back to the high school. We never charged anyone anything."

What were you out-of-pocket? I asked.

"I don't think it was more than $500 for the two issues," Haley said. "The woman transferred to another school, and no one else picked it up. But we would do it again for Austin."

So I called Cummings and asked him where the $18,000 went.

"We were on the premises," he said. "And we used substantial amounts of that money for equipment. They needed equipment for their darkroom. They had cameras that didn't work. They needed a computer upgrade." (A school board official told me that when all the money spent on equipment at Marshall was taken into account, the board's investment in the single issue of the Marshall paper actually reached $36,000.)

"There were one, two, three, four of us who spent full time over there," Cummings went on. "In addition, the school board had us running all over the place because they wanted us to do it at a number of schools. But they wanted us to do the legwork. We put together this entire program--I'd ask Dan why his paper hasn't done anything. They have loads of money. We don't have any money--no one takes a salary. That's a cheap shot from Dan. He should have gone over to Austin High and started something like this--but his staff doesn't do that because they're too scared to come over, especially at night, because we're the ghetto. His is the most lily-white operation you will ever see. We have little black kids running all over the place here selling papers."

Cummings and Haley are both white. But while Cummings is based in Chicago, Haley's plant's in Oak Park, where he also publishes the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park, the Forest Park Review, and Chicago Parent. As it happens, Haley had gone over to Austin High to work with students before Cummings went over to Marshall.

Cummings knew this. "I saw the paper he did for Austin High," he conceded when I jogged his memory. "But again, he was choosing people. We're trying to save the kids who would be dropping out. He was working with a teacher who was an honors English teacher. I don't criticize the fact he did something. He did something he was comfortable with. And suburbanites are comfortable dealing with the top students. Well, we're comfortable dealing with the kids on the street. There are far more people out here at risk than there are in honors English."

A few minutes after Cummings hung up the phone, Isaac Jones called. Jones is publisher of the Voice. Forget $18,000, Jones told me, though that had been Cummings's figure. "We got $9,000 from the school board and $6,000 from Marshall High School to put the paper out. This whole thing is so outrageous!" he thundered.

But not cheap. Not at $36,000, not at $18,000, and not even at $15,000. Of course even Dan Haley's program, which cost the school board nothing, has disappeared.

Revolution for Kids

My Swiss-born late great-aunt, Matthilde Matthey de Mesquita, was swept away by a young Portuguese legate she met at the 1904 World's Fair and lived the life of a diplomat's wife before she dumped him. The 1910s found the couple posted in Paris, where Matthilde took on an interesting assignment, tutoring the children of the czar and czarina of Russia during their summer sojourns in France.

Naturally, the Bolshevik revolution is a touchy subject among my relatives, and when the tale is told we demand exactness. Imagine our distress over Anastasia, the cartoon movie starring the voice of Meg Ryan. Though it tells the children of America otherwise, Anastasia Romanov did not survive the revolution and resurface an amnesiac in Paris. The time she spent in Paris was before 1918, not after it.

Some of us were discussing ways that Anastasia could have played straight with history while retaining a happy ending. In our version acknowledging the central place of Matthilde's tutoring in world history, the basic conflict would have been established by an early scene of Lenin brooding in exile. Sucking on a Schokolade mit Schlagsahne, he studies an item in the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung--"Nicholas, Alexandra drop kids in France for instruction in language of Diderot, Voltaire"--and mutters to himself, "Well, la-di-da. I'll show them!"

From there events unfold inexorably. The Parisian tutor would be a Julie Andrews figure who leads her charges romping through the Bois de Boulogne conjugating irregular verbs at the top of their lungs. The apple of her eye is the irrepressible Anastasia, who's smitten by the delivery boy from the boulangerie down the block and can't keep her mind on her lessons. "At least I don't bleed like my brother," she sings wistfully to the adoring squirrels and pigeons. "You'd think that would matter to mother."

A darling child, but a hopeless student, Anastasia is the despair of her doting parents. Will she never speak French? But during their house arrest in Siberia her pluck keeps spirits high. And in the taut climax, as a White army approaches to liberate the Romanovs, a Bolshevik death squad bursts into the dingy cellar where the Romanovs have been herded. The little princess stands straight as can be and to everyone's amazement blurts out, "Pourquoi?" Even the Reds who open fire can't help smiling.

Squeeze history till the pips squeak--that's as happy an ending as it's going to give us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Jim Flynn.

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