By Michael Miner
One of the most common beefs in the business is that a newspaper quoted someone out of context. What's odd is to find a paper complaining that it was quoted out of context.
Young crusader Gaylyn Grimm of New Lenox answered the phone the other day and found herself speaking to the city editor of the Joliet Herald-News. Grimm is the spokesman for the Lincoln-Way chapter of South Corridor Against the Tollway (SCAT), the grassroots opposition to a planned extension of the I-355 toll road from I-80 in New Lenox to I-57 near Peotone.
On June 11 Grimm had spoken at a public meeting of the South Suburban Tollway Corridor Planning Council. She'd read a three-page statement that accused the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority of violating democratic principles and federal law by excluding the public from the planning process.
Fine. It's her right. She's an American. But Grimm didn't stop there. She took the dangerous step of burnishing her argument by twice quoting from the pages of the Herald-News.
You shouldn't have, said Karen Sorensen, the city editor.
Sorensen had seen a copy of Grimm's statement and concluded, erroneously, that it was a flyer SCAT intended "to blanket the area with." Sorensen told me she had no objection to Grimm saying what she said, but she didn't want her paper contributing to a flyer. "These were quotes from a news story," she said. "These weren't quotes from an editorial. We haven't taken a stand on the issue, and we don't want it to look like we're on SCAT's side. We don't want to get in the middle of a situation that's very emotional on both sides."
Sorensen is new to her job and well-meaning. But her position is unsustainable. A newspaper can't police what it publishes to ensure that it's read carefully and reasonably and disseminated with the utmost scruples. You might as well tie a string to the wind. I asked Sorensen how the Herald-News thought it might pursue its grievance against SCAT. "You can always pursue the aspect that a paper's copyrighted," she replied--lamely, I thought.
A newspaper article is generally assumed to be truthful not only in its broad sweep but in the particulars, paragraph by paragraph. When a paragraph is lifted from a story and set into a new context new truths may or may not be revealed, but the paragraph is not supposed to become false. The day of the public meeting, the Herald-News had quoted tollway press secretary David Loveday on the subject of possible tollway corridors the tollway authority was designating. "We're not going to tell people they can't put an addition on their house, or they can't put a new roof on," Loveday said. "What the corridor does is protects somebody in the future that may want to build a new house there so we don't have to take it down later."
Grimm didn't misquote the Herald-News quoting Loveday. What she did do was plaster these comments with SCAT's skepticism. "Dave, you didn't tell the whole story," she said at the meeting. "What about protecting the property and home owners in the corridor from the beginning? How are you protecting the home owners now living next to I-355 from the noise, air and soil pollution they now must endure? Who are you protecting, really?"
This is standard-issue political rhetoric. "We'd written a 20-inch article on the issue, and they lifted two quotes beneficial to their position," Sorensen lamented. As if in a perfect world even the partisans tell both sides.
To my mind, Grimm did one thing wrong. She said in her statement, "In the same article the ISTHA is quoted as saying the roadway may never be built and a few quotes later state that they will be revealing the location of likely interchanges for the proposed roadway. Do you want to tell us what your plans really are?"
Careful reading of the Herald-News article, by staff writer Jerry Bonkowski, establishes that ISTHA said nothing of the sort. On its own authority, the Herald-News reported, "Although that roadway might never be built, the toll highway authority will continue to narrow the number of remaining corridors." And it stated, "Also expected to be announced tonight...the location of likely interchanges for the proposed roadway."
If this was double-talk--and it really wasn't--Grimm named the wrong culprit. But what's a poor newspaper that thinks itself opportunistically misread to do? Calling up someone like Grimm and warning of copyright infringement isn't the answer. Better to ignore the insults to the larger truths you so carefully communicated. And if the insults are too gross and public to ignore, challenge them in a news story.
WGN's Mob Action
Ben Masel was one of the Chicago 5 demonstrators arrested at last year's Democratic National Convention and charged with mob action. Allegedly the "mob" pushed through police lines, struck a policeman with a beer bottle, whacked another cop in the back with a fist, and burned a police horse with a cigarette. Allegedly, obscenities were shouted and directions given for marchers to do more and worse.
As prominent protesters, the five defendants were held responsible. But on June 5 all were acquitted.
Masel, who's from Madison, where he runs an annual "weedstock" and last year was a Libertarian candidate for Congress, decided to visit Chicago's Blues Fest before going home. That night he and some friends wandered over to Grant Park.
What he saw there made him think deeply about political martyrs of other eras and the capriciousness of law enforcement. He called me with his reflections.
"It was the first night of the Blues Fest," he said, "and at the very end the cops were doing a sweep, saying, 'Everybody out of the park.' They were going from east to west." But at the western edge of the park, momentarily unnoticed by the police, a Channel Nine truck was parked. And up on the roof of the truck, accompanied by a cameraman and bathed in light, Dina Bair was delivering her wrap.
"The police were oblivious to this," said Masel. "They were sweeping everybody in her direction. And it was 'I want to be on TV' when they see the bright lights go up. They're trying to get her to shake it--somebody's playing the harmonica."
It was apparent to Masel that this crowd had been through a night of serious drinking. "She's at first a little freaked," he went on, speaking of Bair. "Then she gets with it. Then Commander McNulty arrives."
Masel knew Patrick McNulty, commander of the First District, by sight. "He's one of the more responsible and better humored of the command-level people I met over the course of the convention--and I did get to meet an awful lot of Chicago's finest. I was arrested three times."
Masel is, in fact, the only one of the Chicago 5 with charges against him still pending. For disorderly conduct, he said, "for handing out leaflets at the Welcome Al Gore ceremony at Buckingham Fountain."
More precisely, says McNulty, for crashing the event.
McNulty shifted to full command mode when he spotted the surrounded truck. Masel remembers him shouting up at Bair, "You're out of here! Get down now or you're going to jail." Bair didn't argue.
"She complies," said Masel, "but it takes a while--all that equipment up there, and she's wearing heels. And there's a chorus of boos, and McNulty is hit by a beer bottle. He brushes it off. He was hit by more beer than bottle."
"It was a can of beer," McNulty told me. "It missed me."
Bair told much the same story. The other stations had already broadcast and pulled their trucks out of the park. But the Channel Nine newscast had been held up by a baseball game. "It was a group of people who probably had too much to drink. They all moved from where they were to where we were. You know, the camera is a magnet. They surrounded the truck and began to shake it. We were on top of the truck to stay out of the crowd, trying to do a live report."
Bair remembers a bearded guy screaming, "Anarchy, anarchy," at the truck, then McNulty shouting to her, "You're going to listen to me and shut this thing down." As he was helping her off the roof, the beer flew. It came from the general direction of the bearded guy. "It was one of those cups," she said. "It hit me too. I had a white suit on that got trashed."
Witnessing this violence, Masel became pensive. "Now, I'd been on trial that day," he told me, "and had just been acquitted on mob action and battery charges. The theory of the prosecution--they never had claimed that any of the five of us had thrown the bottle or the punch. But the theory under which we had been prosecuted was that we took over Ashland Avenue--and no doubt about it, I walked right down the middle of Ashland Avenue. That's because we had, in a group, as a mob, committed the illegal act of jaywalking, so we as individuals were responsible for any felonies committed by the mob. It was the same theory and statute that they got the Haymarket protesters under in 1886.
"They were executed. They were the speakers at a rally at which a bomb was thrown. So the theory under which we were prosecuted was similar to that. We were responsible for what anyone irresponsible did.
"If we were to apply the same theory," Masel went on, "the broadcaster was participating in a curfew violation roughly analogous to jaywalking. She was in the park after ten o'clock and effectively encouraging other people to remain. By that same theory she should face prosecution for the battery incurred by the officer."
Masel was so impressed by the way he'd worked this out that the next day he called Commander McNulty and told him his theory. "He saw the humor in it," said Masel.
"I'm amused by a lot of things," McNulty told me.
Sun-Times's Social Conscience
The whole town's talking about the fabulous babes of the Sun-Times. I've lost count of how many Hot Types have already been inspired by Arianna Huffington and Barbara Amiel. (Where, come to think of it, has big boss Conrad Black's wife been lately?) Two ladies with money, style, and right-wing pyrexia. Both, I must say, savagely able to write.
But who said talent has to be a requisite? Editor Nigel Wade added to the paper the touching essays of the Duchess of York--"It was only after I married Andrew that my summers regained their sparkle" (June 25). And now publisher David Radler has tumbled to the blandishments of Chicago's leading famous-for-being-famous socialite, Sugar Rautbord.
Rautbord, identified by the paper as a "Chicago writer," contributed a unique maiden effort. Her gaze fell on Hong Kong at its moment of passage. "Somebody, and it isn't Suzy Wong," she wrote, "is stirring it up in the South China Sea." To give you an idea of the tizzy the colony's in--and of the quality of Rautbord's foreign correspondence--she wrote, "One savvy chic lady day-tripped to the Singapore branch of her bank with two bags of diamonds and five kilograms of gold in tow. She evidently will be bare-necked at the big invitation-only dinner hosted by the Chinese and coordinated by party planner Stephen Lam Shui-Lun, director of the Hong Kong hand-over and farewell ceremonies, whose job description combines the talents of Peter Ueberroth, Perle Mesta and Cecil B. DeMille."
There's a downside here. Some women on the staff have asked to contribute editorial columns and been told by Wade that he can't afford to pay for them. Suddenly here's Rautbord.
Still, it's exciting to see the Sun-Times give Skyline a run for its money.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gaylyn Grimm photo by Randy Tunnel.