By Michael Miner
For sale so briefly that if you wake up late you'll miss it, the Saturday paper's like dawn on Sunday television. It's a painless time for journalism to do what's righteous.
When Nigel Wade took over this year as editor of the Sun-Times, the op-ed page of the Saturday edition was held down by "Latino Spectrum," the worthy views of Roberto Rodriguez and Patrisia Gonzales of El Paso, Texas. Wade yanked this syndicated feature. "I found it a little too west coast in orientation," he told me. "I thought, let's cover a slightly broader spectrum of minority communities in that slot." Wade didn't cast a wide net for new contributors. He offered the Saturday space to three writers he found in his own newsroom.
A sample of their minority sensibilities:
Lee Bey: "In real life, black people fall in love--though you'd never know that from watching movies. All black folks don't kill each other with assault rifles, either."
Jorge Oclander: "All of a sudden these little boxes began to appear on forms asking if I was a Spanish-speaking American. Then, that changed to Hispanic, U.S. Latino and now Latino. That's when I began to discover that no one wanted me to be an American."
Olivia Wu: "I would have been a Red Guard. But by random laws and history's flowage, I was carried out of China, a newborn."
With no fanfare and no promises, Oclander, Bey, and Wu are getting a chance to show what they can do. They're not the only ones: Wade also gave Mary Mitchell, Neil Steinberg, and Leslie Baldacci space in the Sunday paper, as he created a mix of new columnists out of which one star might emerge. The Sun-Times could use that star; it's missing a flagship columnist--someone on page two or three who's both the reader's voice and the paper's conscience. Mike Royko rose from the ranks to embody the bond between newspaper and reader at the old Daily News (his role is altogether different at the Tribune). No one at the Sun-Times quite does the same.
"It would be an honor," Oclander told me. "I don't think there's a higher position in journalism, in the entire United States or in the world, than to have that role."
Oclander not only understands the role, he's meditated on it. When he was 13 he moved with his family from Argentina to New York. When he was a high school student in Indiana he read Harry Golden Sr.'s Only in America--a collection of columns from Golden's monthly Carolina Israelite--and got so excited about journalism that he headed straight to the local paper and nailed a job as a copyboy. Golden (father of the Sun-Times's late City Hall reporter) and I.F. Stone became two of his heroes. "What I learned from Stone was to read every damn document completely."
The third hero was Royko, for his common touch. "Journalism is forgetting that people do things," says Oclander, "that events don't happen by themselves."
Now 54, Oclander has lived in Chicago the last eight years. Two years ago he left La Raza to join the Sun-Times, and in March he wrote the sort of column that makes a reputation--in appreciation, the paper ran it on a Thursday. He wrote mournfully that the day he took the Sun-Times job he walked along the river thinking "about all the great writers who have etched into memory the stories of the Grabowskis who put on three T-shirts, two flannel shirts, a sweater and a parka, gritted their teeth, bit out an obscenity and slid sideways down the Dan Ryan in the dead of February to work in the old stockyards. None did it better than Mike Royko....More than anything, I loved his sensitivity for people--especially Chicagoans and especially immigrants."
But Royko had just mocked the Mexican people, Oclander went on, and that was wrong.
"For me," says Oclander, "it was like telling my favorite high school teacher he was wrong in something. You have to do what he taught you to do--to criticize. But at the same time he's your teacher, so you do it with the deference a Royko deserves. The respect."
Wu had her own experience with Royko. Last May he teased her for letting a letter signed by "Olga Fokyercelf" slip into Swap Shop. The column was merciless but funny--Royko in his day has gone after bigger fish. The Wall Street Journal then tore into Royko with a piece headlined "Has a Curmudgeon Turned Into a Bully? Some Now Think So...Picking on a Food Writer." The Journal piece had Wu "flabbergasted" by Royko's column.
"I'm rarely flabbergasted, I want you to know," says Wu. "I'm not that kind of woman." But if food writer is code for helpless piece of fluff, she intends to be taken seriously now. Wu, who's 47, was hired away from the Daily Herald 16 months ago to run the food section. That's not where she wanted to wind up, and last year she suggested a column. "I got no response. I was just hitting my head against the wall. There was no feel for ethnicity by the people who were in control."
But Wade decided freelancers could write the food pages. He moved Wu to general assignment, then invited her to rotate on Saturdays with Bey and Oclander. Wu brings to those pieces the perspective of the unrooted. "I used to call myself a Pacific Rim kid," says Wu, who was born in mainland China and was three months old when her family moved. "I'm a professional expatriate. If you're Chinese it's similar to being Jewish. If you're Chinese and not living on the mainland and not wanting to, you're always wondering where the next place is to establish residency and get a passport."
Wu grew up in Thailand, Taiwan, briefly in Australia. She came to the States to go to college; her parents moved on to Singapore and her father, a widower, now lives in Canada.
"We were in a way without a country, and it's a gift to me," says Wu. "It's in my blood. You can feel paranoid, or you can feel totally free. You belong everywhere, and you belong nowhere. When I reached the point that I realized I didn't want to be nationalistic about any place, American was the best to be. Canadian would be good. Swedish would be OK. But being an overseas Chinese with no place to call home is pretty good too."
Lee Bey, who's 30, has lived in Chicago all his life. He went to high school at Chicago Vocational and then to Columbia College, joined the Sun-Times in '92, and shifted from police reporter to a now-defunct outfit called the "impact team." He recalls that "we were supposed to get hard-hitting stories in the Sunday paper." The Sunday paper has had more than its share of problems, and the impact team didn't cure any of them.
Bey writes his columns at home. In the office he's the architecture reporter. He says the best way to describe his status at the paper "is that it's like cross-dressing. It gives me a chance to be a columnist for a day, and then I go back and do my normal job." He writes his columns on subjects that are already news--which "blunts the fact that, hey, here's this black guy writing about black people doing black stuff. For example, I wrote a column about Larry Hoover and street gangs and the Urban League, and it appeared right in the thick of things, and it was my spin on it." Because Hoover was riding high in the media, Bey's spin was sure to get a warmer welcome than a thumb sucker on racial themes "giving you something this week I thought of when I was 16 and a half years old.
"Part of me wouldn't mind being a three-day or four-day columnist. But then there's the other part of me that likes being out in the thick of things as a news reporter. Part of me wants to hold on to that. But you do have an impact as a columnist. I've had more impact from the seven columns I've written than I'll get in a year's time from the news stories I write."
All three believe in testing the limits. "I do think the time will come shortly in which I won't be writing just about things that have to do with black people," says Bey. Wu says, "I feel the invitation from Nigel is to pretty much do what I want. What I'd spoken to him about originally was the immigrant experience, which essentially is the experience of all Americans. The name for the area where Jorge and I and maybe Lee are is the ethnic column, but calling it an ethnic column diminishes what it should be. We are Americans. That's something Jorge stresses over and over. 'I'm an American. I came here to be an American.' I'm a woman and a mom first and foremost. And in this particular society right now I'm an ethnic--whatever that means."
Trib's Trashy Move
Does a newspaper have to answer for every last claim made in its pages? The news it asserts to be fact it must stand behind, admitting mistakes as it makes them. But what about the advertising?
The organizational wall that shields the church from the state also shields the state from the church. So Tribune reader David Peterson shouldn't have been surprised that his letter to the editor complaining about a March 5 ad was merely passed along to the advertiser. The advertiser wrote Peterson and actually gave ground, which you might think was all the satisfaction Peterson had a right to expect.
But Peterson wasn't satisfied. The issue here wasn't run-of-the-mill mendacity--say, an ad for a bookcase that took twice as long as promised to assemble. The ad that offended Peterson played a part in a major public debate that the Tribune was covering and had spoken on editorially. As Peterson saw it, the Tribune had sold ad space to the side it favored for that side to lie to the public in. Then it had refused to publish Peterson's rebuttal.
The debate was over Illinois' Retail Rate Law, which the General Assembly voted in January to repeal. Now the repeal was on Governor Edgar's desk, waiting for his signature. The stakes were high. The 1987 law had attempted to head off a projected landfill crisis by committing Illinois to subsidize incinerators that would be built to burn trash and generate electricity. Thanks to this no-lose invitation, by 1996 an incinerator was running in Ford Heights, another was being built in Robbins, and about two dozen more had been proposed. Meanwhile the projected landfill crisis had stopped being taken seriously, and the Sierra Club was estimating that the subsidies could cost Illinois taxpayers more than $10 billion over the next 20 years.
Sign the repeal bill, said the Sun-Times. Not so fast, said the Tribune. "Three of the incinerators, including two in the south suburbs, have already borrowed construction money--some $500 million in all--in the municipal bond market.... The bond market...has a nasty method for dealing with jurisdictions that leave their patrons holding the bag. It's called higher interest rates." The Tribune advised Edgar to protect the state's good name by grandfathering continued subsidies for those three incinerators into the repeal law.
It was in this atmosphere that the Robbins Resource Recovery Company began running newspaper ads. The one in the Tribune that infuriated David Peterson sported the headline "Keeping promises is good for the environment" and took the form of an open letter from "Kay Howard Jones, Ph.D.," former "senior advisor on air quality to two United States Presidents Councils on Environmental Quality." Hailing the Robbins plant as the "complete answer" to the "useless garbage" question, Jones expressed his befuddlement that "some legislators want to break that promise [of subsidies] and take these incentives away. That would cause the third largest bond default in U.S. history."
On March 14 Governor Edgar ignored the pleas of Jones and the Tribune and signed the repeal into law. The same day Peterson wrote the Tribune's publisher and various senior editors complaining about the ad, and the next day he sent the Tribune a 500-word letter for publication. "Dr. Jones's warning was grossly untrue," Peterson's letter declared. "According to Moody's, 1995 alone saw no less than five corporate bond defaults by U.S. companies that exceeded the maximum default possible by the Robbins group." The largest default, $1.075 billion, was almost three times as large.
"The Chicago Tribune owes its readers an apology. The public's interest in learning about a piece of legislation should not be compromised simply because someone has the money to buy a forum for the dissemination of falsehoods."
Peterson sent me a copy of this letter, along with a note that said, "Am trying to shame the Trib into publishing a letter of mine.... I think I've raised a strong ethical argument against the role that money plays in distorting the 'free marketplace of ideas' (so called)."
The Tribune was not so easily shamed. Peterson's letter didn't run. Instead he received a letter from James DiBiasi, senior vice president of the Reading Energy Company, the parent of Robbins Resource Recovery. "You are absolutely correct that several corporate bond defaults larger than the maximum possible as a result of repeal of the Retail Rate law did occur in 1995," DiBiasi conceded. Making a distinction that the ad had not, he went on, "A Robbins bond default would, in fact, be the third largest municipal bond default in U.S. history."
"What's so interesting about my receipt of DiBiasi's letter," said Peterson in his next letter to me, "is that I never wrote a letter to Reading Energy Co." He went on, "I'd like to use this incident to rip open the Tribune's public front as an 'independent' newspaper.... For example...the Tribune's unspoken but well-understood policy against publishing criticisms of its paying advertisers, however well-founded the criticisms may be, shows the crucial role that money plays in determining the ultimate product, both that hits the streets and that informs the reading public."
Tone down the rhetoric and Peterson has a point. I called the Tribune Monday and discovered that Don Wycliff, editor of the editorial page, thought so too. "Frankly, I was unaware of Mr. Peterson's existence before last week," Wycliff admitted. But now that he'd read the letter lower-ranking editors hadn't published, he thought Peterson was on to something. "I need to find out why his letter hasn't run and see if it shouldn't run. He raises an interesting philosophical point."
It's a little late to print it now, I said.
"Yeah," Wycliff said, "but if something wasn't done that should have been done I have to find out why."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.