By Michael Miner
Ix-nay on the Ate-hay
I'll tell you one thing," said Jay Mariotti. "Bears fans are out there saying 'We hate the Packers,' and Packers fans are saying 'We hate the Bears.' But I hope they realize they don't hate anybody in the strictest sense of the word."
On the sports pages rhetoric runs wild. Years ago an NFL running back who'd fought in Vietnam explained that football isn't like war at all. A clothesline tackle is one thing, an AK-47 round another. Ask your neck.
And "hate," in the strictest sense of the word, isn't the Bears and Packers. "Hate" is Bosnia and Rwanda. In the not-so-strict sense of the word it's the upstairs neighbor who won't turn down his TV or the politician you wish you could vote against twice. But in the time-honored vernacular of the sports pages it's fun and games. It was the back page of the Sun-Times last spring when the NBA finals got under way. "Let the Hate Begin," suggested the headline, which ran above dueling columns by Mariotti and a guest writer from Seattle, each trashing the other's town. The headline didn't trouble me in the slightest. It speaks well of the human race that it troubled others.
"We got our fair share of heat, given that the mayor held it up on television," says sports editor Bill Adee. "On the other hand, hey, how many times do you get the back page on television?"
Adee wrote the headline and spent a day on the phone apologizing for it. "We hit upon a sensibility in our readership. They didn't want the word 'hate' used in the context of sports. Leave it to politics. Leave it to the world report. For sports it wasn't appropriate. Obviously the columns that appeared beneath that headline were exaggerated. But having it appear on the back page, especially at a time when so many nontraditional sports fans were reading us--those were the kind of people who called to complain."
Editor Nigel Wade was among the readers who believed that back page had gone over the top. This fall he made an extraordinary decision. "Hate" should be removed from the everyday lexicon of Sun-Times sports.
"Jay and I obviously talked about it," Adee says. "Jay was very specific. He wanted to know when it was good, when it was bad. It's like pornography. You kind of know it when you see it." Fortunately hack writing can be spotted a mile away. By way of example Adee offered "'The hate between the Heat and Bulls intensified as the Bulls romped by Pat Riley's troops.' That's where we might want to take a look at it."
"I don't think it's a bad policy," Mariotti said. "I can write around that. I just have to find another way to convey the rivalries of sports. A couple of weeks ago I was covering something where there was a fierce sports rivalry, and I went out of my way not to use it. I don't think it lessened the impact of what I was saying because I didn't."
Fellow columnist Rick Telander was less sanguine. Not that Telander trades in sports cliches. "In sportswriting the only time I would use it would be in a direct quote or in a sports idiom," he told me. "Somebody would be a 'Packer hater' or 'Yankee hater.' I don't know that there's any other word that would substitute. 'Yankee disliker' just doesn't work. I think when you're talking about hating and the object is a person or people you have to be very careful, even if that person or those people are representatives of a team. You have to be careful of the words you're slinging around. But I think that's what I bring to the table. I use words very judiciously."
And being judicious, he recognized that "hate" was a strong, specific word that carried water. "The way I describe it is that in our limited way we're artists," he told me. "And we have a paint box, and every word is one of those paints. Nobody wants a paint removed, even if it's just sitting there and they're not using it."
So Telander went into Wade's office to clear the air. He emerged reassured that the ban wasn't absolute. On an instance-by-instance basis, exceptions would be considered. "He was very gracious," Telander said. "I don't think any writer--certainly someone who's writing opinion, heartfelt personal things--wants any word taken away from him. I don't believe it has been. If I believed it were absolute I'd be very upset. But I don't believe it is. Nigel was very responsive to what I was saying."
Telander went on, "You worry about any word. You worry about anything being off-limits." He hadn't thought only in terms of a painter and his paint box when he heard about the "hate" decree. He thought of George Orwell. "A book like 1984 enthralls me," he said. "It's not about power or science fiction or anything like that. It's about language. There are lessons in that book that are unbelievable." One lesson is that ideas wither when the words necessary to express those ideas are abolished.
Telander thinks he last used "hate" during the World Series. It's a word that rarely tempted him before now. "It's like somebody saying to you, 'Don't think about pink elephants.' Now you can't get pink elephants out of your mind. I have to use Zen training and let it flow in one ear and out the other."
AOL Sends Royko AWOL
Bad news badly delivered becomes worse news. Tribune employees just found out officially that they've lost their America Online discount. Because the Tribune was an early stockholder in and partner of AOL, the service gave the paper's staffers a break four years ago, waiving the basic charge of $9.95 for the first five hours each month--enough time for most staffers to go on-line at home at least to attend to their E-mail. The Tribune was encouraging its writers to go on-line to help establish the paper as an interactive medium.
But the Tribune now has a new on-line partner, Digital Cities Inc., and AOL has become merely the carrier. When AOL changed its rate schedule this month to a flat $19.95 a month the old five-hour discount became unwieldy anyway, and AOL decided to start treating Tribune employees like the rest of its subscribers.
Making matters worse was the way the change was announced. John Lux, on-line editor of the Tribune, told me that AOL didn't bother mentioning it to Tribune management. Instead the paper's staffers simply were notified along with all other AOL subscribers that they were being shifted to the $19.95 rate. Did this mean the discount was history? The Tribune had to ask AOL. Last weekend an overly succinct message from the Tribune to its workforce passed along the answer--yes. Three hours after he got this message Mike Royko was posting his response to everyone at the paper who had a modem.
"Wait a minute, bud," he wrote. "You're telling me that whatever discount I get is going to end and I'm going to have to pay to get my mail, etc., on AOL? Here is my deal: my column appears on AOL.... But I don't get paid for it. So I don't see I should pay for a service where my column is handed out for AOL's profit while paying AOL.
"So when I am paid for my small contribution to AOL, I will then pay AOL. Until then, I will cancel my AOL membership and use an internet provider, which doesn't cost any more and is one hell of a lot better than the garbage net browser that AOL provides.
"And I will also forbid the use of my column on AOL. I'm going to instruct the Trib's Media Services, which syndicates my column, to treat AOL or COL or whatever you blips call yourself to view you as they do the newspapers that pay to print my column.
"I think anyone whose work is made available on AOL should be offended at being asked to pay for this stinking, crash-prone, slow-poke, unavailable-most-of-the-time, junkmail-dispensing overrated service, and should thumb their nose at your request.
"What's next? When the paper is distributed in the newsroom, are we going to be asked to pay for that, too?"
The message that agitated Royko had come from Janet Dobbs, editor of Digital City Chicago, the Tribune's local AOL site. "With AOL's new pricing structure, the employee discount will no longer exist," Dobbs had announced. "If you're using AOL for work (monitoring message boards, etc.), and during the month of December your AOL bill is greater than what you would have previously paid for the additional hours, you can submit an expense report to Owen by January 15."
Owen Youngman, the Tribune's director of interactive media, was on vacation when the Royko memo struck. But he launched immediate damage control. AOL was solely responsible for ending the "old deal," Youngman insisted, but the paper's response was more reasonable than the staff understood and simply needed to be explained better. "Obviously, anybody using an AOL account to perform his/her job--as defined by your boss or agreed to by me or my staff--is incurring a business expense that I will cover. It's my fault that this wasn't clear in earlier messages. Mea maxima culpa."
Not actually as guilt-ridden as all that, Youngman suggested that the lost discount might even deliver rough justice to a few freeloaders. Scanning the list of E-mail addresses his letter was about to be sent to, he noted "those on this list who don't even work here any more."
Jay Mariotti asked me to be sure to report the good news: he's just signed a new three-year contract with the Sun-Times. Two Novembers ago Mariotti notified his bosses that he was stressed out and had to take a few weeks off. Mariotti was the paper's only sports columnist at that time, and instead of responding with compassion, editor Dennis Britton treated him like a prima donna who'd pushed his luck once too often and busted him to general assignment. Mariotti took time due and didn't return to the paper for six months.
Changing management plus Mariotti's own inventory of his options brought him back. Bill Adee says the new contract "says a lot about how the paper and Jay have repaired relationships." Says Mariotti, who suspects the old regime buckled under pressure from owners like Jerry Reinsdorf to get rid of him, "These people are terrific."
Thomas Hobbes isn't speaking on a panel, but he'd have understood the message: The bone is small and there are lots of dogs. Little groups of citizens have to fight to be noticed by journalists, which is why the Illinois Association of Non-Profit Organizations is sponsoring the day-long seminar "Competing Successfully for Media Coverage" next Thursday at the University Club (708-386-9385). Sun-Times columnist Leslie Baldacci is the luncheon speaker. The subject of the seminar is also the subject of a new manual that cosponsor Doug Dobmeyer, publisher of the E-mailed newsletter Poverty Issues, will make available at the event.
You may come for the wit, adultery, and revolutionary intrigue in postcolonial Africa, but you'll be pinned to your seat by the most incisive discussion of journalistic practices and principles since--well, you'll realize that Front Page and Scoop never came close to being the last word. I don't make a practice of touting theater, but Tom Stoppard's Night and Day has been extended to December 15 at Victory Gardens Theater. And if journalism interests you enough to read this, you owe it to yourself to see that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Rick Telander (courtesy of Sun-Times).