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Kissing Off the Sun-Times/Queer Fate/A Journalist on Death Row

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Kissing Off the Sun-Times

No one speaks these days of mean and fat, though Hollywood knew in its cradle that ruthless greed could be told at a glance by corpulence. But the day of Sydney Greenstreet, even in the corporate demimonde, is over. Now the bean counters' buzzwords are lean and mean, their motto's Less Is More, and the sign over the door, where no employee can possibly miss it, says Thanks For Leaving.

That sign's not just a metaphor. Those very words hang at the Billy Goat, where generations of newspaper folk kissing off the business have been toasted farewell by old comrades in arms. Lately a lot of them have been kissing off the Sun-Times. When age gives way to youth the way of the world is being followed, however painfully. But the world's ways are often shortsighted, and old hands at the Sun-Times worry that the steady flow away from that paper will leave an inferior product behind. Nevertheless, management keeps encouraging its people to go.

The paper's owners have been entirely open about their desire to trim the payroll and cut costs. As an emblem of the current atmosphere, consider Sunday's TV magazine. Surveys have identified it as one of the primary reasons people buy the failing Sunday paper; yet the guide was devalued this spring, its glossy cover discarded in favor of pulp. Any newsroom is a breeding ground for ambivalence, which takes root easily in soil whose cash crop is ephemera. In a climate where nothing and no one seems valued good-bye becomes even easier to say.

Last Friday was TV critic Ginny Holbert's final day. She left with nothing in sight but the opportunity to spend more time with her kids. A week earlier former day city editor Dick Mitchell, who'd been laying out the Sunday news pages, AutoTimes, and Medlife, took a buyout and called it quits. He'd wanted to add his black, male voice to the editorial board; management wasn't interested. The staff cheered in support as Mitchell walked out of the newsroom for the last time, bound for his valediction at the Billy Goat. Mitchell had no new job to go to.

So many editorial employees have disappeared in the last couple of years that in June some of the present staff threw an "empty chair" party at Nick & Tony's. More than 40 alumni showed up for this informal reunion. "A lot of people left the Sun-Times with barely a mention, because there were so many going so quickly," says education writer Maribeth Vander Weele, who organized the party. "It was a morale booster, and a chance to say good-bye to people we really didn't get to say good-bye to."

Some of the good-byes were Vander Weele's own. She'd been meeting with Paul Vallas, Mayor Daley's budget director, who was anticipating taking over the public school system. Daley formally appointed Vallas CEO of the public schools on June 29, and Vander Weele started working for him four days later.

She's gone over to the other side, joining the bureaucracy she excoriated so often on Chicago Week in Review and in her 1994 book, Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform. "I'm in the bowels of the beast," she admits happily. "It sounds corny, but Paul Vallas is committed to changing the bureaucracy.

"A district superintendent came to me and said, "I have five people on my payroll I've never seen.' So we're going to be working. By the end of the week we're going to find out where they're working and where they belong and either get them out of her budget or get the actual bodies to her."

Vander Weele holds a job that didn't exist before--director of school and community relations. She's responsible for media relations, local-school-council training, community outreach, internal communications, and a new ombudsman's office. She proudly told me of two swift decrees. One was insisting that all Freedom of Information requests be promptly answered. "It's a state law," she says. "There's no way around it." The other was dropping doughnuts from the morning meetings.

When Vallas began talking to Vander Weele her Sun-Times beat was educational trends. These trends took her out to suburbs she believed "didn't need me" to prepare surveys she felt poorly suited to write. "I'm not a feature reporter. I wasn't fitting the slot I was in very well."

She was restless. But she insists she wasn't driven away by dense or pound-foolish bosses. She'd come to the divide many reporters stare across at some point in their careers, the one that separates watching from acting.

"I was more interested in the schools than I was in journalism," she says. "The schools had become my passion. For five years I've taken calls and complaints and felt the keen frustration of not being able to do anything about most of the complaints I've received. It galls you day after day to hear about people who butted up against the bureaucracy and lost. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I'm an idea person. There are a thousand things that can be done, once you have the will.

"The alternative is to do nothing. The alternative is to sit back and criticize. Of course it's my first day. In two months I'll probably be in tears."

Queer Fate

A.E. Eyre barged into the office waving a page from the Sun-Times. "An incendiary column by Dennis Byrne," he cried. "He really lets Jesse Helms have it."

How so? I wondered.

"Well, Helms told the New York Times he didn't see the point in spending so much federal money on AIDS victims, since it was their own "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct' that got them sick."

And Byrne set Helms straight, did he?

"You betcha! "Of course Helms is wrong,' Byrne wrote. "Deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct explains why only some people get AIDS.' Those are Byrne's own italics."

A sensitive distinction.

"So sensitive," said Eyre, "that I was moved to take up pen and paper and compose a few lines in Byrne's honor."

I was wary. Eyre is all too frequently moved to take up pen and paper. His lifelong dream and indefatigable quest is to gain a listing in Bartlett's.

"Make due allowance for irony," advised Eyre. He cleared his throat.

Ruddy, rabid, manly pricks

Who sprang from the old sod

Shoved their wives their dirty dicks,

Their duty did to God.

A lovely word is carnal, but

As they put on some age

The fact is all it is is smut,

And all they feel is rage.

"So piss on those who call it joy

It's just a fucking lie.

And those who do it boy to boy,

They all deserve to die."

Well, I said dubiously, those may not be the lines that crack open the portals of Bartlett's.

"Doesn't matter," Eyre grunted. "Actually, the reason I wrote this one is that I just got so angry."

A Journalist on Death Row

The death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a national story trying to become a local story. The Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers held a news conference two Thursdays ago to press Abu-Jamal's case, and nobody showed up.

"The press does that sometimes," said Standish Willis, chairman of the CCBL, more rueful than angry. "Even the black press didn't show up. Chicago is a pretty provincial kind of town on some issues. If it's all the way to Philadelphia you can't worry about it."

Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther and National Public Radio reporter--he was once head of Philadelphia's chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists--who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the 1981 slaying of a Philadelphia policeman. Abu-Jamal was unquestionably at the scene--he was shot in the chest by the fatally wounded officer--but his supporters insist that police and prosecutors who detested him for his political activism falsified some evidence and concealed other evidence to convict him.

On the left he's been a cause celebre for years.

On July 3 members of the ad hoc Chicago Area Network to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal (CAN FREE) leafletted Taste of Chicago. Reporters were invited, but few came, and the papers didn't run anything (though there had been a Defender piece on Abu-Jamal that morning).

"We want something bigger and more dramatic," says Kent Steiner, speaking for CAN FREE.

So does Willis. He said the CCBL toyed with picketing the Fraternal Order of Police offices last Monday because "we think the FOP, at least in the Philadelphia area, has pushed for execution more vigorously than other groups. They've acted as shock troops around the country."

But Willis decided his forces weren't ready for that. "Our major focus now is August 1," he said, speaking of a coalition of black groups the CCBL is trying to bring together. He hopes to bring off a noon march either starting or ending at the State of Illinois Building, with a rally in Grant Park.

The National Association of Black Journalists, oddly enough, hasn't thrown its weight behind Abu-Jamal. A statement from the board of directors two weeks ago said the NABJ "does not see this unfortunate circumstance as an issue of journalism upon which it feels compelled to take a stand at this time."

"It was pretty cowardly," says Willis. "They can take a position that the execution should be stayed and the evidence reviewed. At least that's a position."

But the NABJ hasn't completely turned its back. "A workshop with panel to explore all sides of this controversial issue is scheduled for the NABJ annual convention in Philadelphia, August 16-20," the directors reported.

Abu-Jamal is scheduled to be executed on August 17.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark PoKemper.

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