By Michael Miner
It's a Dirty Job
Bad news drives out good news, and when there is no good news, bad news spills like sludge into a cellar. By bad news I mean the stuff editors pitch across page one while they hold their noses. Dick Morris-type news, in short.
The New York Times would report that newspapers across the country, itself included, carried the story of Morris's resignation on their front pages, though "generally in less prominent positions than the news of Mr. Clinton's acceptance address." The Times, which has the motto "All the news that's fit to print" to live up to, modestly declined to examine its own performance more closely. When the Morris scandal broke, courtesy of the pimping Star, the national edition of the Times ran 18 articles, analyses, editorials, and columns on the Democrats; 13 of those exercises dwelled on Morris, 4 of them on the front page.
The Morris scandal mesmerized the Times. Whether the nominal subject was Clinton's speech, the politics of Clinton's speech, the delegates' reaction to Clinton's speech, the TV coverage of Clinton's speech, or the 16-minute tribute to Clinton preceding Clinton's speech, Dick Morris is what gripped the correspondents. They filled the paper with yeasty phrases like "a frantic tailspin of damage control," "long day of political anxiety over the sensational news," "sex-scandal charges," "subject of a sex-scandal story," "potential political fallout," "advisers moved today to contain the damage," "frolicked with a Virginia prostitute," and "biggest political bombshell of 1996." Gennifer Flowers's own 1992 Star debut was recalled three times.
No one could write with confidence that the scandal ruined Clinton's hopes for reelection, or even particularly threatened them. But it was a huge, huge story.
The Chicago Tribune provided the most interesting reading. It reported that Richard Gooding, author of the Star exposé, which the weekly Star itself didn't publish until after the convention, had tried to plant it in the Tribune during convention week. The Tribune said Gooding had called Jack Fuller, a former Northwestern classmate who's now the Tribune's publisher, offering him the story (plus Star pictures of Morris with Sherry Rowlands) if the Tribune would promise to run it on page one. Gooding was told no, not unless the Tribune could confirm the story independently, and the story broke instead in the New York Post (where Gooding had once been metro editor).
Overcome by convention week's contagion of self-congratulation, the Tribune didn't let good conduct rest on its self-evident merits. In the spirit of a candidate for reelection reminding the fawning mob, "And so I cut taxes, brought the boys home from war, led the battle against child molesters, and let the chips fall where they may," the Tribune actually wondered out loud whether by refusing Gooding's offer it had done the right thing.
"Did we miss the boat? Did the Tribune serve the public badly?" asked an editorial. "If your journalistic standard is that anything that rides the winds ought to be in the newspaper, then maybe we did." The Tribune didn't come right out and say that if that's your standard you're a slab of slime, but it confessed to holding a "notion" of Tribune readers as serious folk who deserve "something better, more rigorous and exacting."
"An old-fashioned idea, perhaps, but a sound one," asserted the Tribune's testimonial to itself. And cynics presumably be damned.
As for Gooding himself, who is this purveyor of tawdry wares? How could a Medill man sink so low? Fuller tells me they barely knew each other in college, and Gooding approached him last month not on the strength of old school ties but because he mistakenly thought Fuller was still editor of the Tribune. Though both left Medill in 1968, their roads soon parted. Fuller graduated, was drafted, wrote for Stars and Stripes in Vietnam, and on his release entered Yale law school. Gooding dropped out weeks before graduation, worked in Chicago and then New York as a reporter, and on July 28, 1969, received his induction notice. What happened next became the subject of a 1970 Look magazine cover story, "Diary of a Fugitive."
The title was imprecise. Gooding ended his anguished tale the August morning he stood outside a Chicago induction center handing out pieces of paper bearing lines by Kenneth Patchen--"This is a man / he is a poor creature / you are not to kill him"--to the 102 other draftees filing in, then turned away from them to find some breakfast. He was now officially on the run.
"He tells the story of the FBI coming in the front door and he was going out the back," says his friend Mark Mooney. Gooding eventually spent several years of exile in Canada, but by the late 70s he was back in New York and working at the Post. He rose to metro editor there, and a few years ago he and several other key editors and writers were hired away in an attempt by the New York Daily News to drive a stake through the heart of its tabloid rival.
But the Post didn't die. There's something immortal about the tabloids of New York City. Anywhere else the Post and Daily News would be corpses ten times over, but in New York there's always a new vanity owner to roll the dice. Gooding was the Daily News's metro editor for two years that were cursed by ownership changes, drastic staff cuts, and intramural warfare--"a person under seige half the time," says a reporter--and last fall he lost his job. With a family to support, he took what he could find.
"I'm sure the Star was not his first choice of employment, but he was out of work," says Mooney, a Daily News reporter who came over with Gooding from the Post. "There are not many places a metro editor can go."
In "Diary of a Fugitive" Gooding described wandering through Lincoln Park two days before his scheduled induction, reminiscing about convention week '68. "Unable to sustain much of it in my mind," he wrote. "Only scattered cinematic flashes: barricade-building and hot adrenaline one night, the soft mood of We Shall Overcome the next; my first taste of billy clubs and tear gas, the warm necessity of communal living; running for Dear God through frightened North Side streets....
Revolution looked vital then."
But that was then. A year later he recognized himself as too much the nihilist--and too much the observer--to qualify as a revolutionary. He didn't even want a revolution, simply a separate peace. Today what Gooding makes of his youth is unknown to me--he didn't return my phone calls. But this much is certain: of all the protesters shaking their fists impotently at Boss Daley's Democratic Party, no one returned to haunt it the way he did.
Mooney told me, "What Richard did on this story is what you would want a good reporter to do. He went over there [to Morris's luxury suite]. He saw them together. He verified it. He worked it the way a reporter from the Tribune would work it. He nailed it. What Gooding did is he broke a story that became the front page in every paper in the country."
Round three of the Ethical Challenge:
1. In May Harris Meyer wins a Lisagor for articles he wrote for the American Medical News. At the same dinner he receives an even higher honor, an Ethics in Journalism award, for "laying his job on the line by writing stories that were contrary to American Medical Association policy on Medicare and other health issues." Meyer was fired from the News, and he's now writing for Hospitals & Health Networks magazine.
2. American Medical News soon runs an article congratulating itself on the recent honors its writers and designers have received. Noticeably absent from the list of laureates is Harris Meyer, though his work in his final months at the News won--after his depature--not only the Lisagor and ethics award but also a $5,000 prize from the National Institute for Health Care Management. Hot Type makes note of the News's feckless behavior.
3. But this column then learns that even before the News article appeared Hospitals & Health Networks carried a full-page in-house ad that shouted, in letters big enough to read across a waiting room, EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM. The ad congratulated two of the magazine's senior writers, first and foremost Harris Meyer: "Winner of the 1995 Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in the category of Consumer Journalism--Trade Publication and recipient of an Ethics in Journalism Award from the Chicago Headline Club. One of two finalists for the Health Care Reporting Award from the National Institute for Health Care Management in the category of Trade Publications." (When the ad first appeared in early June, Meyer hadn't been announced yet as the winner of the health-care award.)
A tear sheet of this ad arrived in a plain white envelope, in the company of an unsigned note. The note said this:
"Let's see. What publication was Mr. Ethics working for when he won the awards touted in the attached ad? Would that be Hospitals and Health Networks? Would that be what the advertisement implies? Would that be ethical--for Mr. Ethics or his editors and publishers?"
Meyer told me he was aware of the ad before it ran and didn't see a problem with it. For other answers, he passed me along to executive editor Alden Solovy.
"I have a sophisticated readership," Solovy explained to me. "I think they'll read what's there. They'll understand what's there. And what's there is a celebration of the contributions of two longtime journalists to the health-care field. And I'm proud of those contributions."
And when Bill Clinton told the Democratic Convention, "We have also passed political reform--the line-item veto [and] making Congress live under the laws they impose on the private sector," his sophisticated audience naturally understood that both these reforms had been high Republican priorities.
The Tribune of August 20 brought good news to readers everywhere. For city readers there was a report by the Metro Chicago Information Center that Chicago residents have become more satisfied with the city and less interested in leaving it. For suburban readers there was the debut of Metra's new North Central line.
Page one of the city editions was dominated by the headline "Survey finds optimism a growth industry in city." In section two, MetroChicago, the lead headline announced "Train brings world to suburbs." This was a clear attempt to suck up to city readers; the subhead went on, "Chicago seems just around the corner for commuters on the new Antioch-to-Union Station rail line."
What play did these same two stories get out in the suburbs?
A reader furnished me with a Du Page County edition. Tribune zoning had performed its usual magic of creating parallel universes. Yonder in the 'burbs the Metra story led the paper, and its headline now read "Latest Metra route opens new world to suburbs." "Brings world" had suggested "connects to civilization"--a notion that wouldn't play outside the city limits. And there was no talk of Chicago being "just around the corner."
Well, fair enough. There's no harm in indulging different readers with their own special scratches behind the ear, even if all belong to the litter the Tribune once called Chicagoland.
But recall a classic duty of the metropolitan newspaper, however enthusiastically the Tribune is abdicating it. I speak of telling each of an area's parts about the others, so together they form a coherent whole. The front-page story in Du Page County was the lead story in MetroChicago. Where did the front-page story in Chicago play in Du Page County?
I found the account of city dwellers more happily staying put near the bottom of page seven of MetroDuPage. Two-thirds of it had been edited out.
The usually sure-footed conservatism of the Tribune's editorial page recently took a couple of pratfalls. On August 30 the Tribune declared that dwindling government support of the arts is no cause for tears: "On the contrary, 'the arts' continue to flourish in the United States [though] that's not what you'd have expected on the basis of the arguments made in recent years by the so-called arts community." The Tribune noted the turn to corporate sponsorship and went on, "Government funding invites shallow, debased art; there is truth in that old adage about taking 'the king's shilling.'"
A worthy response was written the same day by Mark Richard, artistic director of City Lit Theater. Richard questioned the Tribune's "special rhetorical sneer"--the putting of "the arts" in quotes, as though there were no such thing, and the reference to the "so-called" arts community. Why, he asked, is it "never the 'so-called' medical, legal or business communities?"
He went on, "You assert that 'government funding invites shallow, debased art.' Shallow and debased like the Vietnam War Memorial? The National Theatre of Great Britain? The Vienna Philharmonic? 'Shallow and debased' seems a more apt description of our market-driven entertainment industry." And he wondered, "Do you imagine that Philip Morris' shilling is any less tainted?"
And in an August 9 appeal for "baseball peace," the Tribune told the players and owners to end their two-year spat and agree on a new general contract. "It would seem, after all this time, and a long sorry history of labor disruptions, that grown men would be able to figure out a way to do that," said the Tribune.
If baseball does "figure out a way," it should tell the Tribune, whose own history suggests it has no more idea how to conclude labor negotiations like "grown men" than George M. Pullman did.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Gooding photo.