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Lionizing Tiger

Sun Times's Conservative Creep

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By Michael Miner

The meaning of the Masters was a gimme. It was all about Tiger Woods's race and genteel southern bigotry, though Rick Telander bravely disagreed. "But even today--the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's integration of major-league baseball--Woods strikes me first and foremost not as a minority breaking down barriers, but as an athlete gifted beyond the pale," he wrote, possibly punning.

But even Telander acknowledged the "racial precedents" that Woods was setting. He characterized these as "immense accomplishments, better analyzed perhaps by sociologists and historians than sportswriters."

Telander could turn out to be wrong. The sociologists and historians of racism might decide a footnote is ample tribute to pay the phenom who inspired some African-Americans to consider taking up golf. But whether or not Woods accomplished anything lasting and profound, it certainly was pretty to think so. Journalists leaped with rare ardor on his triumph.

Greg Couch, Sun-Times: "Two ducks flew by, and Woods made the putt that changed the world. The crowd went crazy. Fifty years to the week after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Woods became the first black man to win a major golf championship. He did it at a club with just two black members."

Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times: "On a windy Sunday in the Georgia hills that seemed to blow away sports and society forevermore, the clenched fist of Tiger Woods was a vision of triumph and, let's hope, a bridge to a colorblind world."

(Mariotti, to his credit, observed the beginning of that bridge with some specificity. He observed Augusta's "older gallery members who watched in befuddlement and, perhaps, resentment," and overheard a "washroom chat about Tiger that was filled with N-words.")

Lacy Banks, Sun-Times: "By becoming the first black man to win the Masters on Sunday, and by winning it in record fashion, 21-year-old Tiger Woods inspired all African Americans in our fight against racism and hate crimes."

Larry Dorman, New York Times: "It has been 50 years, almost to the day, that Jackie Robinson broke down the racial barriers in baseball. Now, a last vestige has fallen in golf, brought down in record fashion here in the middle of the Old South, by a young man of color."

(This was a deft way of closing the circle. In Jackie Robinson's day Woods would have been a colored man at Augusta. In these more enlightened times he's a man of color.)

But Tiger Woods was far too big a story to be contained by the sports pages.

Ed Sherman, front page of the Tribune: "Woods transcends sports. This was like Jesse Owens' incredible performance at the 1936 Olympics, Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling just before World War II, Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player in the major leagues, Arthur Ashe winning at Wimbledon."

Editorial, New York Times: "Woods--whose triumph came 50 years, almost to the day, after Jackie Robinson broke down the racial barriers in baseball--hopes that he too can open up what has been a largely lily-white game to a wider and younger constituency, including minorities. If he is right, and we hope he is, history will rank him alongside not only Robinson but also Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, who broke the color line in tennis, another country-club sport."

Mary Mitchell, op-ed columnist, Sun-Times: "I'm just wild about Tiger Woods. Of course, we are all in awe. Some of us are practically worshipping him because he possesses a talent so formidable it has humbled die-hard segregationists as well as some pretty snooty bluebloods."

Given good news to celebrate and a moral to draw, journalism practically writes itself. And there was nothing cynical about it. The coverage of Tiger Woods was extraordinarily heartfelt. Though the first black golfer played in the Masters 22 years ago, writers of goodwill convinced themselves they were covering a major new breach in that quaint old 50s battlement, the color line.

The irresistible coincidence of Jackie Robinson's 50th anniversary pointed journalists toward this dubious deeper meaning. The media turned Woods into the new harbinger of a color-blind society--which of course required belaboring his color. This is the paradox of racial progress, a flower whose growth we monitor by constantly pulling it up by the roots.

There were, I'm certain, millions of Americans who had a perfectly clear idea of what they were watching: an attractive young black man marching triumphantly through Georgia. They were pleasantly aware that Woods's race didn't trouble them in the slightest--that to the contrary it made the tournament more entertaining. And some of them, old enough to recall feeling very differently about Jackie Robinson's entry into baseball, no doubt liked themselves for being so unruffled.

A Tribune editorial, "Here's to you, Jackie Robinson," spoke to this audience. "Those cheering him--an overwhelmingly white assemblage--made history as well," it stated, "by so enthusiastically expressing their respect and admiration for this prodigiously talented young black man. If that seems no big deal, think back 50 years to one of the men on whose shoulders Tiger Woods stood."

It may have been no big deal, but the press insisted on making it one. Journalism can let nothing be. So it drummed into our heads the good news that the Masters was a sociological milestone. America, as always, required healing, and now Tiger Woods had come along to be our healer. A little of this goes a long way, and I'm willing to bet some Tiger Woods fans gradually stopped feeling so pleasant. Somewhere in all of the hoopla, weren't they being patronized and insulted?

Sun-Times Conservative Creep

Perhaps because he's black, the Sun-Times made it clear from the get-go where their newest op-ed columnist stands in the ideological spectrum. Thomas Sowell, said the paper's introduction this month, is a "prominent conservative scholar" who offers "unique insight" while often "challenging the conventional wisdom." The conventional wisdom, for some reason, is code talk for liberal herdthink.

In case you missed the small print, the headline to Sowell's first column couldn't have been clearer: "Liberalism: wrong tools for the job." The column itself was boilerplate: "Most of the things the welfare state tries to do not only can be done privately but were in fact being done privately, long before politicians got into the act and ruined it. There were private colleges and universities for more than a century before the first state university was founded....Public libraries often began by being donated by private individuals....It was 1916 before there were as many black youngsters going to public high schools as were going to private high schools." I'm not sure Circle campus and the Sulzer Library are such execrable examples of the welfare state, but I can't dispute Sowell's facts. Not a single black youngster went to my public high school near Saint Louis until about 1954.

Before Sowell, the new kid on the op-ed page was Arianna Huffington, the Picasso biographer who in '94 helped the Republican empty suit she's married to spend $30 million trying to buy a Senate seat in California. Huffington has since made amends by lampooning herself on Politically Incorrect, and she's fondly profiled in the new issue of Esquire as a "quondam cult queen and right-wing Svengali."

An intellectual tide is suggested by these additions. A couple of Sundays ago Sowell and Huffington shared op-ed space with Dennis Byrne, Robert Novak, and George Will. The reader's cup overflowed--so long as the reader wished to quaff undiluted conservatism. Will was up to his usual, touting an obscure "social conservative" for president. But the day before, he'd written one for the ages. Easing into his own senescence, Will lamented 1955 as the year "Howl" and "Rock Around the Clock" were unleashed on a pristine nation. (It's been all downhill since.) Then he interred Allen Ginsberg as the "symptom of a dysfunctional society" who died "full of honors" despite talent "that rarely rose to mediocrity" and threw in a bewildering reference to "adolescent scold" Holden Caulfield.

Huffington happened to come up as I was interviewing David Radler, the Sun-Times's publisher. "No one's going to believe me," he said, "but she was not hired because she's right-wing. She was hired because we thought she'd be interesting. We carry what's-his-name, who's as left as they come--Carl Rowan. We run Rowan. Is that left-wing? He's pretty left-wing--at least I think he's pretty left-wing."

Even if Rowan holds down the left wing, the paper's wheeling to the right. Editor Nigel Wade didn't return my call, but reporters say he's made it plain to his editorial board that the Sun-Times is declaring itself politically. "By the next presidential election they want us firmly committed to the Republicans. And they don't mean just the editorial pages--they mean the paper," said one writer. "He's moving us toward this British form of journalism." If you want balance in Britain, you read two newspapers. The way it would work in Chicago is you'd read the Sun-Times and then you'd read...uh...

Lumpen maybe. Chicago Ink.

I asked Radler about this. Is Hollinger Inc., which owns the Sun-Times, taking it to the right? Is it true that Bill Clinton was the last Democrat a Hollinger-owned Sun-Times will ever endorse for president? (I'm told Wade said this to his editorial board.)

"Why would Bill Clinton be the last one?" Radler said. "I can foresee other Democrats being endorsed."

He went on, "By the way, this paper endorsed Richard Nixon three times. It endorsed Reagan. It did not endorse Stevenson, as far as I know. I think it endorsed Eisenhower twice. How many Democrats has this paper endorsed in any case? I think it endorsed Clinton last time, and it endorsed Bush prior to that. Most ownership of most papers tends to be conservative. But it's interesting that notwithstanding the fact that most newspaper ownership is conservative and probably to the right of Bob Dole, more newspapers endorsed Clinton than Bob Dole."

The publishers all must have slept in the Lincoln bedroom, I said.

"That's what really pees me off," said Radler. "I never even got in the gate."

Radler had a point. If the Sun-Times is remembered as the voice of liberalism, it gained that station mostly by not being the Tribune, which for religious reasons is forbidden to endorse a Democrat for high office. Helping matters was a period in the 60s when the Sun-Times was being written by 20- and 30-year-olds, while the Tribune rang of their grandfathers.

"One of the things I've never understood about the owners of the Sun-Times since the Fields," reporter Dan Lehmann, who chairs the paper's Newspaper Guild unit, was telling me, "is that the Sun-Times was a liberal, independent-slash-Democratic newspaper under the Fields.

The Tribune was a conservative, Republican-oriented paper. There were two clearly defined areas. But starting with Murdoch [in 1983] the paper began a drift to the right editorially. Which is the owners' prerogative. However, building a newspaper circulation base starts with constituencies. It would seem to me one way to do that is to make yourself different from your competition. And that would be to appeal to the working-class households of this area. Why not appeal to that constituency as you appeal to other constituencies?"

But Hollinger may be willing to let the working class dangle while it forages for circulation in the more conservative suburbs. And perhaps focus groups have told it that those working-class readers don't care who the Sun-Times endorses for president and don't read any of those op-ed columnists, since they're all just passing gas.

Sowell won't be the end of it. The Sun-Times has been talking to Chris Ruddy, a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who's worked the Vincent Foster mysterious-death beat as assiduously as any reporter in America. You can buy his 217-page book Vincent Foster: The Ruddy Investigation on-line through the Western Journalism Center (www.e-truth.com).

The Sun-Times may have found a nice way of moving itself to the right without anybody noticing: Make sure everyone you hire makes all your other writers look like leftists by comparison.

News Bites

Project Censored, based at California's Sonoma State University, has announced last year's top 25 "censored"--which is to say, underreported--big stories in America. Chicago Life magazine was cited for "Milking the Public," an October 1995 inquiry by intern Hilary Varner into the possible health risks run when cows are injected with a growth hormone to increase their milk supply.

Department of "whatever works." An economist writing in Fund Focus, a newsletter for GT Global Mutual Fund shareholders, predicts Hong Kong's "commercial strength and dynamism" won't slacken after the British leave.

"In terms of civil liberties, however, there will undoubtedly be some turning back of the clock. Overall, however, the new executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, is more interested in maintaining social order and stability than risking any provocation of the mainland."

One too many "however"s makes the passage nearly incoherent. But if my guess is right, it's meant as good news for humanitarian investors. Tung Chee-Hwa means to tighten the screws, but not so tight that there's rioting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Kurt Mitchell.

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