- Illustration by Jonathan Roth
- John Kass
Recently, for more than a month, ex-Chicago Tribune editor Mark Jacob kept a vigil. Like many former, and even current, employees of the newspaper, he'd been among the harshest critics of the daily's Rush Limbaugh-like conservative bloviator John Kass. As I had, they'd frequently called Kass out on Twitter for his cynical right-wing talking points and flat-earth arguments.
But Kass crossed a new line of harmful absurdity on May 11 when he tweeted, "I condemned Trump for Jan 6. I don't believe the election was stolen. Trump's election lawyers made fools of themselves. But I've always entertained the possibility that it may have been rigged."
Consider that logic for a minute. According to the dictionary, a "stolen" election is "won by trickery." "Trickery" is the "practice of deceptive means." And a "rigged" election is "manipulated by deceptive means." So Kass's statement translates to "I don't believe the Democrats won the election by deceptive means, but the Democrats may have manipulated the election by deceptive means and won it."
Jacob, who edited Kass's writing between 2008 and 2018, and others pointed out Kass's statement was not only ludicrous, but also dangerously pandered to the tinfoil-hat crowd. Kass deleted a post in his Twitter thread and got defensive. "Clearly Twitter is not the forum to discuss the 'legitimacy' or 'illegitimacy' of the 2016 or 2020 elections and questions about both. Tribalism makes rational debate impossible. Many on both sides want to twist my words. So I deleted a tweet. But I will write a column about it."
After that, every few days Jacob tweeted at Kass, razzing him for failing to follow through. For example, on June 9 Jacob posted, "John, just a reminder that you’ve written 16 columns over 29 days since you promised to explain why you think the 2020 election may have been 'rigged,' but none of your columns have been about that. Eagerly awaiting."
On the day of Jacob's most recent taunting tweet, last Friday, June 18, it became clear Kass wouldn't keep his promise. Word broke that the columnist, along with about a quarter of the Tribune's newsroom employees, would be taking a buyout from Alden Global Capital. The NYC-based hedge fund, which took over the Trib last month, is famous for strip-mining newspapers across the nation.
In response to the news Jacob tweeted, "I confronted [Kass] on Twitter because I felt he was running cover for fascists . . . I can't say I'm sad to see John leave the Tribune, but I do wish him well."
Obviously, one of Chicago's most storied media outlets being gutted by greedy vulture capitalists is a tragic turn of events. But my immediate reaction to hearing Kass was out was pure joy.
After all, a few days after Donald Trump incited the treasonous Capitol riot, I published an op-ed in the Reader calling on the Tribune to fire Kass. I noted that in the wake of the election he gave oxygen to the president's election-theft fiction. He wrote that Democrats who warned the Big Lie could have devastating consequences for our nation, not Trump, were "playing with fire." So when the columnist later washed his hands of responsibility for the deadly insurrection, writing "Trump owns this," it was beyond the pale.
Granted, there were some personal aspects to my anti-Kass attitude. I mostly get around Chicago on two wheels, and in the early 2010s he wrote a whole series of columns mocking Chicagoans who ride bicycles as "the Little Bike People." He even argued that it's unfair for "the drivers of legitimate vehicles" to be fined for opening car doors on cyclists, despite the fact that multiple Chicagoans have been killed that way. But after Dustin Valenta, who suffered multiple life-threatening injuries in a dooring incident, took Kass to task for his wildly irresponsible rhetoric in a 2013 Streetsblog interview, the columnist pretty much stopped talking about bikes.
I'm also Jewish, and last July Kass was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League and his own coworkers in the Chicago Tribune Guild union for a column that promoted racist and anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and people of color conspiring to undermine public safety. The op-ed blamed violence and civil unrest in cities like Chicago on Jewish billionaire George Soros. Kass wrote that Soros "remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar" and spends "millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors," such as Cook County state's attorney Kim Foxx, who's Black.
In the wake of the backlash, Kass lost his prominent position on the second page of the Tribune. But he was unrepentant, painting himself as a victim of cancel culture in a follow-up piece, writing, "I will not bow to those who’ve wrongly defamed me."
The title of the piece you're now reading is tongue-in-cheek. Even if Kass had been forced out of the paper for reasons of journalistic ethics, rather than dollars and cents, I couldn't really take much credit for his ouster. True, in addition to my January op-ed, last August I launched a dedicated Twitter account for fact-checking and rebutting the columnist called Kass Watch. But when someone puts out as much bunk as John Kass, debunking them is a full-time job, and I fell behind in my Kass-trolling duties several weeks before I heard he was leaving.
But in the course of that project, I learned several factoids about the columnist, mostly thanks to tips from Kass Watch followers, that really hammered home his hypocrisy. Here are a few examples.
Kass constantly pushes so-called "school choice," that is, the defunding of urban public schools that serve low-income kids in order to subsidize private education for wealthier families, and has repeatedly called it "the civil rights issue of our time." But he took full advantage of our inequitable, property tax-based public funding system by raising his family in suburban Western Springs, which is 97 percent white and one of the richest towns in the U.S., and sending his sons to university-like Lyons Township High School. From this privileged position, he moralized to Chicagoans in columns about how our gun violence problems are largely due to poor parenting.
The columnist has also relentlessly attacked teachers unions, especially the CTU. But Chicago Public Schools records reveal that his wife Betty worked for the school system as a substitute teacher in 2016 and 2017, a potential conflict of interest which John never disclosed, and which is omitted from Betty's LinkedIn page.
On several occasions the columnist has mentioned a 2002 incident, corroborated by others, in which "three well-known Chicago toughs" from the politically connected Duff family, about whom Kass had written unflattering columns, walked up to his table during lunch at Gene and Georgetti steakhouse. One of the Duffs mentioned that he knew where Kass lived, and said he was surprised he never saw Kass's kids playing out front. "I thought that was against the rules," Kass wrote in a column at the time. "It could have been a threat."
However, last month I heard from a friend of a friend who was working as a 911 dispatcher in Western Springs at the time. "I showed the column to our [police] chief, who was so concerned himself that he actually called Kass, to ask if he needed anything from us," they told me. "He didn't react well. He basically said, 'Don't send any of your officers around my house,' and hung up." Despite what Kass wrote, it appears he didn't actually see the Duffs as much of a threat.
And I found it highly ironic that Kass's goodbye column was illustrated with a photo of him posing with the 2005 White Sox World Series trophy. That's because a former Kass colleague told me a story about how the columnist was planning to sell off all of his White Sox season tickets that year, but coworkers persuaded him to instead split the tickets with them. However, when it became clear the Sox might go all the way, Kass reneged on the deal by keeping the playoff tickets for himself. He then proceeded to write emotional columns about the importance of tradition and honor and family, and how taking his sons to all the playoff games was the reward for his decades of steadfast dedication to the Sox. The former colleague found this to be the height of chutzpah.
Mark Konkol, who was working at the Sun-Times at the time, partially corroborated the story, telling me he heard about the alleged ticket dispute, and even pitched a story about the incident to that paper, but couldn't get anyone involved to talk about it on the record.
Perhaps the best thing about Kass leaving the Tribune is that Chicago currently has no conservative newspaper columnist. That will help shift our city's political conversation to the left. That is, closer to what's considered mainstream in just about any other wealthy nation.
To celebrate, I'm throwing a John Kass Going Away Party, this Saturday, June 26, from 8-10 PM at the Billy Goat Tavern, downstairs from the Tribune Tower at 430 North Lower Michigan. I expect it will be a small gathering of hardcore Kass critiquers, but you never know.
In the highly unlikely event that Kass shows up, he will be treated cordially. And if any of his more talented, less problematic colleagues who also took a buyout—people like Dahleen Glanton, Steve Johnson, Phil Rosenthal, Heidi Stevens, and Mary Schmich—attend, they will be treated to a free round. v