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Honored in Absentia

Cartoonist Scott Nychay is still winning awards for the paper that canned him.


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There's nothing unusual about journalists winning awards for work done at places they've since left. But Scott Nychay is a special case.

An editorial cartoonist, Nychay's an annual contender in the statewide competitions run by the Associated Press and the Illinois Press Association. Four weeks ago, a buddy from the Northwest Herald called with congratulations. The August 4 Herald was running a big story headlined "Northwest Herald claims 24 awards in IPA contest," and Nychay was a finalist in three categories: editorial cartoon, illustration, and informational graphic. The Herald as a paper was a finalist for "general excellence." The story quoted top editor Chris Krug insisting modestly that "we aren't in this for the glory of awards, but rather for a commitment to providing our readers the best local content that we can pull together."

Nychay tells me that when he read the article, "I was devastated." He went online and the news got even worse: the AP had posted the results of its own 2007 competition, and in the Herald's circulation class (40,000 and under) he'd won for the third year in a row for "informational graphic."

In deep distress, Nychay called IPA and the AP to explore the possibility of renouncing his awards. Not to sound ungrateful, but he didn't much like the idea of the Herald entering him without his permission and basking in his triumphs. Last October the Herald had laid him off.

The idea that the Herald would take away his job as editorial cartoonist, say nothing about it to readers, and continue to use him to promote itself stuck in Nychay's craw. Earlier this year a cousin had told him about an ad the Herald was running early mornings on Channel Two that touted his work, though he'd been fired months before. Instead of complaining to the Herald, Nychay wrote various journalists who focus on the trade's ethics and asked them to weigh in. They gave Nychay all the sympathy he could have hoped for. "I personally think it's a slimy thing to do," one replied.

The ad didn't disappear from the airwaves until I called the Herald and asked about it. Krug, who's group editor of the Herald and other regional papers in the Shaw Newspapers chain, told me, "This was clearly an oversight on our part, and not an attempt to gain ground through the work of a former employee."

Nychay read that line in my column about him, which ran July 13, and remembered it. A couple of weeks later he saw the Herald's having entered him in the IPA and AP contests--the IPA in particular--as "an attempt to gain ground through the work of a former employee." The TV ad had touted his John Fischetti Award, a national award sponsored by Columbia College, but that was a huge personal achievement that just happened to reflect well on the Herald. The IPA nominations, on the other hand, served the Herald in a much more specific way. The Mabel S. Shaw Memorial Trophy, named for one of the founders of the company that owns the Herald, is given each year to the "outstanding daily newspaper" in the Herald's circulation class. The winner is determined by points the finalists earn in the individual categories, and the points Nychay racks up this year as a triple finalist could easily decide whether the Herald wins the trophy for the fourth year in a row. Kim Filson, who's director of IPA's educational programs and who runs its competition, already knows who all the 2007 winners are. She wouldn't tell me which paper will get the Shaw trophy, but she said it's "close."

By Nychay's count, he'd already won 18 awards in his eight years at the Herald, and journalists who have never won any may have trouble feeling sorry for him. What's so terrible, after all, about credit where it's due? Even if the Herald decided to save a few bucks by sending Nychay packing (as other papers have been doing to their editorial cartoonists across the land), it didn't mean they weren't proud of the work he did. I asked if he wished the Herald hadn't nominated him and he agonized over the answer. "Um, that's a good question," he began. And after a long, long pause, "No. Yeah. I mean, yes, I wish I would not have been submitted. It doesn't do me any--I've got to think about that more."

On August 7, a few days after its story on the IPA awards ran, the Herald more modestly announced the final results of the AP competition. The big news was that the Herald finished first in its circulation class for "general excellence." But as the AP bases this award entirely on the judges' review of two randomly chosen consecutive issues, Nychay's cartoons had little or nothing to do with it. The Herald's coverage mentioned other individual winners but not Nychay. Perhaps by then the Herald knew Nychay had issues.

Krug would have heard about them from IPA's Kim Filson. George Garties, the AP bureau chief in Chicago, didn't want to discuss the AP's conversation with Nychay, but Filson was more open. She said that when Nychay told her he was thinking about dropping out "he was a day late and a dollar short. I told him I couldn't figure out how or even why it should be done." It was the Herald's business if it wanted to enter him for work he'd done as their employee. She called Krug to ask what he made of the situation and they traded voice mail, but they never spoke directly.

I didn't talk to Krug either, but I don't think it was because I missed his calls. My previous column on Nychay had infuriated him. In a long e-mail to the Reader's publisher--which he copied to everyone he could think of--Krug accused me of acting "maliciously and without regard for the truth" and asked for a retraction. He said Nychay and I had manipulated "unsuspecting industry experts who were asked to comment on scenarios and circumstances that did not remotely approximate the facts." Furthest from the facts, in Krug's view, was the idea that the Herald had fashioned the TV spot after Nychay was fired. Neither Nychay in his letter to the industry experts nor I in my column had said anything of the sort, but Krug made it crystal clear that the ad was created while Nychay still worked at the Herald and the paper had simply forgotten it was still on the air.

I doubt the Herald forgot that Nychay was no longer working there when it entered him for the IPA and AP awards. Nychay told me his many awards were the newspaper's property, but after his firing he was allowed to take them home. What if the Herald were to mail him his last IPA award? "I would probably return it," he said.

Just Because a Meaning's Hidden Doesn't Make It True

Here's to editing. You work on this story and that story, and sometimes they start cohabiting in your head.

Leo Strauss wasn't a Straussian, according to the Reader's August 24 cover story by Julie Englander (which I edited). Not if we're defining a Straussian by the meaning du jour--as someone who believes in gutting the New Deal, starting a war if it seems like a good idea at the time, and befogging the public with whatever cock-and-bull story it's most likely to believe.

But if the neoconservatives George W. Bush brought into his government found something they liked in Strauss, does it matter if he had no idea he was putting it there? According to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, quoted by Englander, "the Straussian movement has many adherents in and around the Bush Administration." There's a point at which many a movement asks nothing of its inspiration but to get out of the way, and Strauss, who died in 1973, was most obliging.

Englander e-mailed me that she thought of Strauss as "one of those incredibly apolitical ivory tower types" who know less about the real world than your meter reader. He once said that "when he was 16, all he wanted to do was read Plato, breed rabbits, and live as a rural postmaster." In other words, the news that ambitious men with agendas had actually acted on something he wrote--went to war, in fact--would have astonished him.

Just as Englander's story was a pleasure to edit for its intelligence, so is Harold Henderson's blog. One recent item hailed an essay in the New York Times Magazine by Columbia professor Mark Lilla (formerly of the U. of C.) on religion and fanaticism. In his essay, Lilla compares us to them and says this: "On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference."

The reference, of course, is to "The Road Not Taken," possibly the most misread poem in the English language. Readers find in Frost--as they do in Strauss--what they want to find, and if in Strauss's case we're talking about dozens of readers, in Frost's there are millions.

Frost wrote the poem in midlife. His narrator looks back and looks ahead. He remembers no significant difference between the road he took as a youth and the one he didn't. But he had to choose, so he did, and in midlife--when a common response to the follies of either youth or old age is amusement--he knows that someday he'll turn that choice into a big deal: "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." At this point the narrator doesn't seem to know what that "difference" will be: he might end up gloating about his daring choice of road or he might blame it for everything. But when he affixes responsibility for his lived-up life, he'll make it matter.

Like so many Paul Wolfowitzes, Americans invoke "The Road Not Taken" for the permission we find in it to strike out boldly. At the very least we do what Lilla did and suppose that when Frost wrote "all the difference" he had real differences in mind. Everyone accepts that it's as virtuous to choose the road less traveled by as it is "to thine own self be true," though Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of the biggest phony in Hamlet.

I think Shakespeare realized life's a lot more complicated than Polonius was making it out to be. Likewise, we can't be sure Frost fully agreed with his narrator, whose views on the foolishness of old age might be a little simpler than the poet's. The ultimate subtext of the poem might even be this: the young are silly and so are the old, but nothing compares to the fatuous equanimity of enlightened middle age.

Leo Strauss, Englander tells us, went on about the difference between the "exoteric" and "esoteric" messages in the writings of the ancients, the exoteric for the rabble and the esoteric, in Englander's words, discernible only to "the clever few who read closely and knew where to look." As Wolfowitz might say, "Sounds like yours truly." But sometimes the esoteric is merely a seductive booby trap.

The Post-Tribune Wrote It First

Unless I missed a spasm of braggadocio, the Tribune's been admirably modest about its role in persuading BP not to increase pollution at its Whiting refinery. On August 24, however, a Tribune report on the situation observed that "following a Tribune story about the project in mid-July, opponents gathered more than 100,000 petition signatures, and a bipartisan group of politicians and celebrities urged BP to back off."

I'm sure that's literally correct, and that the suggestion of cause and effect is warranted. A page-one Tribune story gets noticed. But as that July 15 story by Michael Hawthorne reported, environmental groups and the refinery's neighbors were already trying to get BP to modify its plans. And their objections, as well as the plan itself--a $3.8 billion expansion requiring greater discharges of ammonia and sludge into Lake Michigan--had been reported by Gitte Laasby in northwest Indiana's Post-Tribune back on June 29.

Don't ask where the Chicago Tribune was for the next two weeks. Where was the Sun-Times? The Post-Tribune is a sister paper.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Nycay photo by A. Jackson.

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