By Michael Miner
One-Stop News Shopping
City News USA is a news service for the next millennium. If the next millennium isn't in God's plans--well, City News USA alertly touts Armageddon as a selling point. "Why subscribe...?" its lavish Web site asks visitors, and answers, "The Web will prevail. The Internet was designed to work even if disaster were to strike. It specifically was designed to work after a nuclear exchange."
City News USA--www.citynews.org--is nothing but Net. The "news resource page," which only subscribers can open, is 16 pages of links to the White House and Congress; think tanks; PR firms; police departments; media outlets; significant offices on the order of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Citizens for a Sound Economy; and quick hits such as the time, the weather, airline bargains, and who played who in 50s sitcoms.
Then there are the essays, the debates, and the conspiracy theories. But all this is gravy--what about the meat and potatoes? Like the stolid premillennial City News Bureau whose name it appropriated, City News USA provides a daybook, but one so sketchy it's now prefaced with an apology: "Please excuse our Daybook. We need a Daybook Editor." The daily report of breaking stories leans too heavily on brightly rewritten press releases, but there's no disputing its idiosyncratic charm. The service pours its resources into stories that barely flicker on other radar screens, such as an abortion controversy at Oak Lawn's Christ Hospital to which City News USA last week devoted "expanded exclusive coverage."
On September 17 the service offered this item: "Yesterday (Thursday) evening WTTW television, a PBS affiliate in Chicago, aired what was billed as an equal time rebuttal to their previous broadcast of a controversial documentary favorably featuring homosexuality.
"But the broadcast did little to appease some traditional family advocates who viewed the so-called counterpoint as 'yet another infomercial pushing the homosexual agenda upon innocent and impressionable elementary school children.'"
Stronger on rhetoric than facts, the City News USA report neglected to say that the documentary, It's Elementary: Addressing Gay Issues in School, had aired at 11:30 at night--not a time when the Channel 11 audience billows with preteens--and that the "rebuttal" was a discussion on Chicago Tonight.
After its stories, City News USA likes to list its past reports on the same topic. In this case they were "Community activist takes aim at homosexual video," July 22; "WTTW on hot seat," August 23; "PBS under fire," August 26; "Channel 11 insists on airing 'It's Elementary' over objections from family groups," August 27; "Chicago principals may opt out of showing controversial film," September 3; and "Tennis star promotes Lesbian education," September 7.
Nobody else working this story would have skewed it so flagrantly. But then nobody else worked it. And did the old stick-in-the-mud City News Bureau ever carry Phyllis Schlafly? City News USA did, as part of its package of essays on Columbine High School: "We are paying a terrible price," she wrote, "for allowing public school curricula to teach students to create 'their own value system' instead of respecting moral laws such as 'Thou shalt not kill.'" And here was Watergate's Saul of Tarsus, Charles Colson: "Media coverage has centered on the killers' hostility toward racial minorities and athletes, but there was another group the pair hated every bit as much, if not more: Christians." And Prospect Heights's Dr. Paul Lindstrom: "The situation in our violence prone public schools is so serious that I believe our children in every public school with children in fourth grade or above there should be metal detectors and at least several armed teachers who are well trained in marksmanship. Had such been true at Columbine High School, perhaps the onslaught could have been minimized."
City News USA may be the first place in years you've sighted Sherman Skolnick, a muckraker who tasted glory 30 years ago but now operates from the desolate reaches of public-access television.
Skolnick shows up in City News USA's "conspiracy corner," a handy resource for media that don't care if a story's true so long as it's juicy. There he exposes a plot to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic, a scheme that involved sending Skolnick to Belgrade with a "peace delegation" for an exclusive face-to-face interview, while unbeknownst to the expendable innocents, a secret signal guided an American missile to its target. "Note to CIA bastards," he writes. "I uncovered your dirty trick just in time. I am not going to be the patsy and pilot fish, to be thrown away, in your bloody scheme."
I spoke with Skolnick about the founder of City News USA, Jerry McGlothlin. "He's exceptionally talented, one of the most talented people in the field I've ever run into," Skolnick said. "He's a brilliant innovator."
McGlothlin doesn't quite return the compliment. "It's kind of like psychics," he says. "I don't believe in psychics. I don't endorse psychics. But one of ten things a psychic says might turn out to be true. Mr. Skolnick's average might be one in ten with the outlandish claims he makes, but I wanted the articles in the archives just in case something he's predicting might in the next millennium be proven."
With or without a disclaimer, the stuffy old City News Bureau would never have put anything in its report that stood a one in ten chance of being true. Nor did its philosophy comport with something McGlothlin said during a recent panel discussion at Columbia College: "We've got to run things we might be wrong on. One out of 100 times we screw up--big deal. The rest of the time we're putting out cutting-edge stuff."
Not as insouciant as that makes him sound, he says he wasn't defending defamation-type screwups, just the tolerable error every journalist in a hurry learns to live with. "Probably our biggest mistake would be the Baby T case. We were uploading a story in the early stage of the Baby T case and erroneously reported Ed Vrdolyak instead of Ed Burke. That's the one-of-a-hundred we're willing to risk to get early news out. Our accuracy is actually quite good--considering we can have five or six variations on a story in five minutes."
A year ago McGlothlin was merely a publicist, a spokesman for Chad Koppie, a candidate for U.S. senator in '92 and governor in '98 whom McGlothlin once described in the Tribune as "prolife, progun, pro-Christian." A pilot and sod farmer, Koppie campaigned last year by driving his tractor around the state--though after just 90 miles of barnstorming he was pulled over for creating a road hazard. Spinning straw into gold, McGlothlin pointed out that Secretary of State George Ryan had a "vested interest in keeping Chad off that tractor."
McGlothlin is a skeptic when it comes to traditional media. "I've heard from people glad we exist," he says, "that the AP tends to be left of center." And he says the allegedly conservative Tribune gave itself away when it advocated bigger budgets for an FBI that needs to be starved into submission. And he knew from being there how wrongheaded the Tribune has been about South Africa. "Basically, the Tribune demonizes [Zulu] Chief Buthelezi and eulogizes Mandela and the African National Congress."
What took the cake was the Tribune's shutdown of the City News Bureau. McGlothlin was there at the farewell party on February 26, when the old wire finally went dumb after 108 glorious years. And he heard the good news proclaimed: that the Tribune--going it alone, without its partner the Sun-Times--had decided to stir the ashes and operate a New City News Service with the same reporters, just not nearly as many of them, from the Tribune Tower. McGlothlin saw through the jubilation. "I was incensed they'd insult the intelligence of 400 reporters [present]," he says. "It was undoubtedly premeditated. In essence they blew off their partner and did some fancy corporate downsizing and became the heroes of their own demise." McGlothlin says he stormed into the night determined that New City News wouldn't be the only new game in town.
City News USA has clients all over Illinois, though McGlothlin won't say how many. He mentions two of them at Columbia College, channels 44 and 66. But 66 says it's "testing" the new service, while 44 has dropped it.
About 25 reporters, most of them freelancers, hit the field on a given day. They're paid competitively, McGlothlin says, and the door is always open to new talent.
Writers who visit the site will discover that City News USA is bursting with opportunities. Take the "Great Debates page," which is being created on the fly. The question "Vaccines for children? Should parents be allowed to choose?" offers two responses, both saying yes, absolutely, and both submitted by the Eagle Forum of Illinois. A contrary view is still awaited.
Likewise, no counterpoint is yet available to the vigorous essay titled "Clinton's Treason."
Crain's Lowers the Boom
For three years Anna Weaver walked into the wind. Her cause is the succulent block of River North on which stand Tree Studios and the Medinah Temple. Her crusade to save the old buildings as they are has pitted her against Steven Fifield, the developer who wants to buy the block and build a high-rise. "For three years," she says, "it's been 'Give up, get a life, get lost.'"
Last fall she nominated the entire block to the World Monuments Fund in New York, which maintains a global watch list of the 100 most endangered man-made structures. On September 14 the prestigious fund added Weaver's block to its list, and the next day Weaver got to read about her triumph in the Sun-Times and Tribune. The Sun-Times even ran her picture.
Now she's out of a job.
Weaver worked part-time as a graphics designer at Crain's Chicago Business. Colleagues hailed her when the papers came out, and until she checked her voice mail that morning she was enjoying a "happy moment." But the voice on the phone was editor David Snyder inviting her into his office.
"I forget his exact words because I was somewhat incredulous," she says. "But he picked up the articles like one would pull a fly out of soup and said, 'It's extremely inappropriate of you to appear in the paper over this.' I said, 'I only work here 15 hours a week. Do you expect me to watch television in my free time?'"
She left Snyder's office "crestfallen" at being "browbeaten." She decided to E-mail Snyder "to measure his sentiment." If you're really uncomfortable, she told him, why don't you take my name off the masthead? (She'd appeared there two inches from the top as "graphics assistant.") Snyder E-mailed back, "Will remove."
Deeply hurt, Weaver concluded that the price she was paying to work at Crain's was the loss of her right to free speech. The following Tuesday she quit. Snyder sent her a note wishing her well. "Though we disagreed on newsroom protocol," he wrote, "I respect the conviction of your beliefs."
"She was not asked or encouraged to leave," says Snyder. Willing to speak to me only in generalities, he continues, "Whether someone is on or off our masthead, if they're a newsroom employee we have to adhere to the highest standards of neutrality. We have a policy in our office here in terms of neutrality. There are sometimes gray areas, but the policy says if there are gray areas to discuss it with an editor."
There are shades of gray that to the untutored eye look almost white. The newspaper articles on Weaver hadn't mentioned Crain's, and in her activism she'd never identified herself with the magazine where she worked without benefits and wasn't a journalist.
But what if Weaver, a freelancer, had been doing work on the side for Fifield? Under the Crain's neutrality policy, that's not supposed to happen either. "I would say our independence is our stock in trade," Snyder tells me. "Whether someone is working for a corporate interest or a valiant good-government effort, their actions can raise questions about our editorial objectivity."
Skeptical of the depth of Crain's devotion to independence, Weaver points to a Fifield ad in this week's Crain's. She broods at home and sends me an E-mail asking, "At a time when work increasingly dominates our lives, resulting in diminished community involvement, will there come a time when the workplace governs what it is we can and cannot be involved with?"
I don't see why every office yeoman needs to behave like Caesar's wife. But though she's tempted to think otherwise, Weaver's constitutional rights weren't infringed. She said what was on her mind and did what she wanted to do. Then she dealt as she chose with the consequences.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.