More Sturm und Drang at WFMT
The call came in at dusk from the Lake Street el. Doctor Boone Brackett was headed downtown for his law-school class, to be followed by a night at the opera.
"If they were trying to ax or emasculate the leadership of WFMT," Brackett drawled into his pocket telephone as the train rumbled and squealed around him, "they couldn't go about it in a better way. It's a situation that to an interested listener is just abysmal."
Brackett is more than an interested listener. He's hard-core. The orthopedic surgeon from Oak Park is the new chairman of the executive committee of the Friends of WFMT. Every so often some fresh turn at the radio station they love to mourn has the Friends fuming and fearing the worst. And two weeks ago general manager Al Antlitz was given his walking papers.
"Mr. Antlitz was one of the last ties to the old WFMT," Brackett explained. "He had his feet in both camps, I think."
Camp one: the hard-core audience, which denounces WFMT as a tawdry shell of its old self. Camp two: the Chicago Educational Television Association, headed by William McCarter, which runs WFMT and Channel 11 and insists that the city's "fine arts" station cannot survive unless it deals with the devil, especially by airing prerecorded commercials.
"He was certainly tied to CETA in that he felt the necessity to more or less toe the line," Brackett said of Antlitz. "But I think within those parameters he had a feeling for what WFMT was and could be again. I think he became more and more in our camp psychologically if not actually."
Antlitz had been at the station 30 years, most of them as chief engineer. In 1989 McCarter moved him upstairs to carry out a bloodletting that cut the staff by 20 percent. Then Antlitz struggled for two years to put the station in the black without making it a travesty of its old self.
"One of the major reasons I stayed in Chicago rather than go back to my native Texas 30 years ago was because of WFMT," Brackett was saying. "It was second to none."
"It's not there anymore," said Brackett over the roar of rapid transit. The Friends, he promised, are ready to organize a fund drive to set the station back on its feet. "But there has to be a quid pro quo. The bottom line we've repeatedly asked for as a sign of good faith is a return to live copy."
Brackett went on: "Mr. McCarter, each time I've talked to him, has given me no indication that's in the offing."
The air is full of speculation. One surmise has it that Antlitz's fall was brought on by a dispute over bookkeeping. Antlitz apparently objected to the way profits due the station from Lyric Opera broadcasts were being credited entirely to WFMT's Fine Arts Network. Why? To make the network seem more successful than it is, the story goes, so that its syndication services can be sold off.
But Dan Schmidt, who's assuming Antlitz's duties, said bookkeeping had nothing to do with it. Last summer McCarter brought in Schmidt, who's 38, from Minnesota Public Radio to become CETA's senior vice president for radio. Schmidt succeeded Tom Voegeli, who'd quit after six months. The Friends, who find the lack of stability in upper management disconcerting, say Schmidt seems open and decent, but they're not sure he's tough.
"Rumors feed on an environment where people perceive that management's holding its cards very close to its vest. That is not my intention at all," Schmidt told us. "There are no hidden agendas. And I can say unequivocally there are no plans to sell off any part of the Fine Arts Network."
Why wasn't CETA's Radio Committee consulted when Antlitz was dismissed? we asked him. The Radio Committee oversees WFMT. And last December a federal-court settlement ending some nasty litigation put representatives of the Friends on the committee.
"The Radio Committee functions as our board of directors," said Schmidt. "They are never involved in personnel matters. Management makes personnel decisions."
This answer isn't going to do. One of the Radio Committee's new members is Susan Lipman, who's president of the Friends, and she is quite unhappy.
"Do I intend to speak up about this and other matters that have me feeling very uncomfortable? Yes," Lipman told us. "That, as I see it, is my role. To be quiet and passive is not why I was put on the committee."
Who Leaked? Who Cares?
Senator Paul Simon disappointed us the other day. When accused by the Washington Times, he swore up and down that no one in his office leaked the Anita Hill story to Newsday and NPR.
We were wishing he'd defend the public's right to know, perhaps even apologize for not being the leaker. But Simon showed little spine. He endorsed the Republican fiction that the leak was a shameful act the FBI must now investigate.
This set us to wondering about the guardians of that treasured right to know: When Senator Arlen Specter convinces the people that the nation must get to the bottom of something, do reporters feel a duty to try?
We called an old friend, Charles Lewis, who's now Washington bureau chief of the Hearst newspapers. "It's not a flaming issue," said Lewis. "People are curious to see if some source is going to get nailed. That guy from Newsday I'm sure will be under a lot of pressure--not from his peers but from regulatory bureaucratic types--to say how he got it. I'm sure he won't, and I'm sure they'll never find out. It's a subject of bemused speculation, but it's not a crusade, certainly."
But why isn't it? When the public thinks it's so important.
"It's my belief," said Lewis carefully, "the public thinks is important whatever it is they're told is important." Congress can impress the public, Lewis explained, and the president can convince it. "If Bush wants to say that cholera in sushi is a crisis of increasing importance, and he talks of it and talks of it and does photo ops and visits fishing fleets and cholera victims, it will be in the eyes of the public a topic of major importance, even though cholera is not here yet.
"Or take killer bees--Africanized bees! When a president says African bees are a new threat to national security, that has to be reported. I think there's also a responsibility by the press to point out that nobody in the States has been seriously harmed by Africanized bees."
So the press feels a responsibility to give Specter his say but no responsibility to accommodate him?
"Oh, shit no!" said Lewis. "I seriously doubt anybody is working this story."
Class Warfare at the Sun-Times?
In 1982 the Chicago Newspaper Guild signed a three-year contract with the Sun-Times that provided 7 percent annual raises. Every contract since has been more niggardly than the one before. And last month the Sun-Times's Guild membership accepted, by a vote of 101 to 62, the most miserly economic package in anyone's memory: no raise the first year (but a $550 signing bonus), a 2 percent raise the second year, and a 2 percent raise to begin the third year, with 2 percent more six months later.
Do you think you were taken advantage of? we asked Daniel Lehmann, the religion-beat writer who served as the union's spokesman during the negotiations.
"That's the nub. We just don't know," Lehmann said. "The economy of the country is not good. The economy of newspapers in particular is not good, and particularly the Sun-Times, being the second newspaper. I think all of that weighed on people's minds to accept the company's word that this is all it had. What keeps eating away at us, though, is that this continues a downward pattern in economic settlements between the Guild and the company. A clear pattern has been established.
"Just as important is a feeling among a fair number of the staff that this management, after having two negotiations with us, continues to use the Guild as the primary whipping boy for the economic problems it confronts. The major economic albatross is a $145 million leveraged buyout. We didn't do that. They did."
The Guild voted 148-3 in late September to authorize a strike, and Sam McKeel, president of the Sun-Times Company, responded with a three-page letter to everyone at the newspaper. McKeel argued that the Guild had been offered a contract "in line with increases" other employees had received. Pointing out that the Guild wage scale at the Sun-Times was the nation's third highest, he wondered "whether Guild members really understand what is going on in our industry and the potential impact of their action on other Sun-Times employees" and warned that "the Guild's threatened actions jeopardize the hard work and future of every Chicago Sun-Times employee."
"We've been set up against the other employees in the building," Lehmann told us soon after this letter arrived. "What we're engaged in here is class warfare."
We asked McKeel the other day if he'd meant to turn the rest of the paper against the newsroom, and he said that of course he hadn't. "The other 1,300 employees have the right to know where management stands. Where I stand personally."
McKeel went on: "The union typically will stir the flames among its members. It's not my intent or in my interests to stir similar flames among other employees."
He said, "Customarily the strong feelings that have been aroused in this [negotiating] period dissipate and everyone goes back to work, and I hope to hell that's what happens here."
Maybe, said Lehmann. "There's a fair amount of pent-up frustration and anger with this company. Speaking personally, it's something management and the Guild must come to grips with--management, to put out a competitive product; the Guild, to deal with the membership without an irrational job action down the road."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.