One Year Later/Why the Tribune Dropped a Hot Story | Media | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Media

One Year Later/Why the Tribune Dropped a Hot Story


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


One Year Later

The Sunday before December 7, 1942, also found Chicago's newspapers looking backward in a big way, but not for the reasons that motivated last Sunday's meditations. On the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, to judge from the journalism then, the nation was too busy fighting an overt war against overt enemies to contemplate that era's new normalcy. Or perhaps journalism then was too immature to force the issue. But on Saturday, December 5, the U.S. Navy finally came clean about the extent of the catastrophe that had sent America to war, and the details dominated the next day's papers. "TRUTH ON PEARL HARBOR!" cried the banner head of the Chicago Herald-American. Chicago's Sunday papers ran page upon page of horrifying pictures the navy had released of burning warships.

We watched the towers go down on television. For a year Americans didn't know that 19 ships had been sunk on December 7, 1941, and that not two but all eight battleships posted there had been put out of action. The Tribune's December 6 editorial page denounced Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox as "one of the boldest but least successful falsifiers in the history of American public life." (In peacetime Knox had been publisher of the Chicago Daily News.) Marshall Field's Chicago Sun was much more generous to Knox, on the grounds that by hiding the dreadful facts from the people the secretary also hid them from the Japanese. The Sun's December 7 editorial took only a brief glance back. "In a sense, the Japanese failed at Pearl Harbor," the Sun reflected. "Accidentally choosing a week when our carriers and cruisers were at sea, they left intact the weapons which since then gave us control of the seas."

On the anniversary, the Tribune published a much longer editorial assessment of the year gone by. So did the Herald-American. "We have recovered from the bad start," the Tribune said straightforwardly. "We are growing stronger. The enemy is not." The Herald-American favored grander language. "We have not changed our American ideals or our American character because of this war. We now know they will never change....We have learned to bear our burdens with resolution, and to face our reverses with fortitude, and to make our sacrifices with courage and faith."

The banner headline on page one of that edition of the Herald-American screamed "JAPS RIOT IN U.S. CAMP." The camp wasn't an Al Qaeda-in-Guantanamo type of situation. It was a relocation camp, and most of the "Japs" held there were American citizens by birth.

The papers noted the many rallies and ceremonies that were going to be held around Chicago on December 6 and 7. They ran histories of the war since America had entered it, with maps tracing its course in both hemispheres. The Herald-American, a Hearst paper, carried a picture page of "Pearl Harbor babies."

And that was about it in a simpler time. This week, no Chicago paper was likely to celebrate infants for being born last September 11. But there wasn't much else they wouldn't publish, not if a topic offered the slightest hope of somehow bringing something cathartic to matters the press has already dwelled on to the point of exhaustion.

The Sun-Times put out a special section last Sunday jammed with solid and wide-ranging stuff: "We can never say 'never again'" by Lynn Sweet, "Why America?" by Neil Steinberg, "Bridgeview's Arabs cling to conspiracy theories" by Mark Brown, "When terrorists kill in the movies, the audience always survives" by Roger Ebert. There was much more.

The Tribune package last Sunday was sparser--it saved its special section for Wednesday--but almost desperately original. Wrapped in the paper was a CD "time capsule" that contained the Tribune's first ten days of 9/11 coverage, numerous pictures, and the narratives of journalists who covered the story. The Tribune was gambling that at this point Chicagoans not only want to remember but want a souvenir of what they're remembering. Surely in 60 years this CD will be a priceless possession--if Americans still have something around the house to play it on.

The topic of the front page's big story was 9/11's gift to all of us--dread. It described what people with jobs in the Sears Tower have gone through emotionally in the last year. Most of the workers the Tribune introduced us to were women. Most had the willies. Some are happy not to work there anymore. This story went on for such length--it concluded Monday--that despite its touchy-feely aptness I began to wonder if the Tribune had lost its mind. Unhappily, it neglected the one question that surely has haunted its subjects: would the Sears Tower, a bound cluster of nine vertical tubes very differently constructed from the Twin Towers, collapse in a similar way?

The Perspective section did not ask "How goes the war on terrorism?" or wonder whether war in Iraq is the logical extension of that war or a dangerous diversion from it. It provided, with minimal discussion, the results of a new survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States on the American public's feelings about foreign policy and their country's place in the world. And at the rear of the Perspective section, an editorial running the length of the page made a call to action straight out of left field: We must seize "this rich, regrettable raise and to educate kids who will be stronger and smarter for the horrific moments they observed."

Well, OK. Though rededicating ourselves to our children won't make anybody less worried about a suitcase A-bomb sailing into Calumet Harbor.

The Tribune in its odd way was demonstrating something important, which is that after a year no one has any real idea of what to say or do. The Tribune editorial began by stipulating that these are not just trying but weird times: "For a year now, Americans have had the luxury of reacting to last September's events primarily with emotions, everything from fright to resolve to bravado. Remarkably, though, we've been compelled to do little else. We are living out a freak of history: a subsequent military struggle that, except for the loss of several lives in small battles, has asked next to no sacrifice of most Americans."

But it's been no luxury. It's been debilitating. It's as if since absolutely nothing is being asked of us the people, we mourn and create ceremonies for ourselves in order to keep busy and stay sane. It would have been nice if Americans had been too focused and engaged this week to spend much time on memory lane. Americans of 1942 might have been kept in the dark about Pearl Harbor; but everyone then--including the press--understood a lot better than we do today what the deal is, what needs to be done about it, and what's the role of the people.

Why the Tribune Dropped a Hot Story

The acts of God that journalists easily understand shake the earth, swell the seas, and split the heavens. But seven years ago hundreds died in Chicago during a natural disaster that killed invisibly and made no mark on the city. Heat waves bring stillness rather than havoc and are easily underestimated; but Bill Recktenwald, then a Tribune investigative reporter, remembers getting a call from a cop he knew who'd just left the city morgue. "We had to wait 35 minutes to unload a body," said the cop. "The ambulances are lined up around the place."

If I'd been sitting in the newsroom of the Tribune that day, it would have taken a call like that to wake me up. Journalists learn to disrespect ritual death toll stories. There's the one that quantifies the highway "carnage" on holiday weekends, never bothering to compare the totals to the number of deaths on ordinary weekends. Another measures the "deadliness" of every stretch of days when the thermometer climbs above 90 by counting each overweight sexagenarian who keels over cutting the grass. Graeme Zielinski, a Tribune reporter in 1995, would recall wondering "whether the coverage was being driven by the event or the event was being driven by the coverage. The heat wave had become a cliche almost as soon as it began. Here in the newsroom people were making fun of it, because people make fun of cliches in newsrooms."

Most of us don't fear extreme heat when it arrives and forget it once it's gone. But as Eric Klinenberg tells us in his book Heat Wave--which is where I found Zielinski quoted--epidemiologists determined that "between 14 and 20 July, 739 more Chicago residents died than in a typical week for that month. In fact, public health scholars have established that the proportional death toll from the heat wave in Chicago has no equal in the record of U.S. heat disasters."

Many of the dead could have been saved if only they'd called out for help or someone had knocked on their door--if, in short, they hadn't been dying out of sight and out of mind. So Klinenberg, a young social scientist, decided to take a close look at why in Chicago so many were. It's a subject, his book argues, that the media's first rough draft of history didn't do justice to. In the autumn of '95 the Tribune began preparing a second draft, but according to Klinenberg, the paper lost faith in its project.

Klinenberg devotes a chapter of Heat Wave to the media, focusing on the Tribune. Something about the language of social scientists rubs journalists the wrong way, and this exercise is no exception. Klinenberg goes on about the media's "symbolic construction of the disaster" and about the "elaborate process of cultural production" that turned the heat wave "into a mediated public event." Even when newspeople can follow what someone who writes this way is telling us, we don't like to admit it.

But most of Heat Wave is clear enough. Klinenberg writes at length about a Tribune story July 18 headlined: "Casualties of Heat Just Like Most of Us: Many Rejected Any Kind of Help." Written by Zielinski and Louise Kiernan, it began: "Some died simply because they didn't like the fans, didn't want to run their air conditioning, or were afraid to open their windows to the threat of crime." There's trouble here from the start: someone who doesn't want to turn on the AC or open the window on one of the most sweltering days of the century is by no means "like most of us." Klinenberg writes that the headline--which dominated that day's front page--"is not only manifestly wrong, it is also plainly contradicted by the substance of the reporting as well as by the accompanying graphic."

Not that Klinenberg likes the reporting either. Zielinski and Kern wrote that the dead "weren't, for the most part, the secondhand victims of loneliness collapsing in their dark, silent, humid homes because no one cared enough to offer the help that would have saved them." How did they know that? "On the basis of a small number of reports," says Klinenberg, who argues that the sketchy reporting consisted of interviews with friends and relatives and overlooked the many victims without any. The author cringes at the paper's methodology. "In a rush to establish a powerful and provocative front-page story [the Tribune] framed the heat disaster in flagrantly misleading terms."

It was just one story, but Klinenberg can't leave it alone. A copy editor tells him the "just like most of us" headline was an attempt to draw readers into the story by forcing a connection between them and the dead. Someone else says it reflected 1990s market research into headlines that grab readers. "Having reinvented marketing principles as journalistic norms, copy editors could compromise accuracy so long as they gained attention," says Klinenberg. "News reporters and editors had no opportunity to check the work." He adds a long endnote examining the "gulf" between reporters and copy editors. Several reporters, he tells us, live in such dread of those editors' predations "that they often refuse to read their stories until long after they are published."

Klinenberg reveals this gulf as if it holds social significance. Maybe it does. But most reporters take it for granted, and if they don't read their last story it's probably because they're on to the next one.

A more intriguing communications gap is the one Klinenberg notices between the reporters out on the street and the writing specialists back in the newsroom who collect the reporters' straw and spin it into gold. The gift for composing narrative on deadline is rightly honored, but Heat Wave suggests there's a price paid: "Many reporters argue that the writers' distance from the subject matter increases the probability that they will trust and follow their preconceived understandings of the situation when they are skeptical of a firsthand report from the field." The writers, who see nothing, tend to believe that they alone see the whole elephant.

Klinenberg dwells on mistakes that a reporter might call the nature of the business: the Tribune exaggerating an early debate between the medical examiner's office and City Hall about the extent of the crisis; focusing on the phenomenology of the disaster at the expense of its social dimensions; devoting too much attention to the assurances of public officials that the city had matters in hand and too little to their critics. Naysayers were often relegated to the ends of stories and paraphrased; Klinenberg observes that "city officials can speak for themselves in the news report: but those who challenge them are often spoken for by the media." An example he gives is a Tribune article that allowed Mayor Daley and other city officials to elaborate in their own words on the city's response. "Only after this, in the twenty-fifth paragraph, did the article state that 'Metro Seniors in Action, a politically active seniors group, said City Hall failed to provide transportation for seniors to cooling centers, that some centers were inadvertently closed and that the administration should have done more to stress the physical dangers of excessive heat.'"

Perhaps the same market research established that readers have dim regard for the opinions of people whose names they can't be expected to recognize.

To reduce a long argument to a sentence (which journalists are more willing to do than social scientists), Klinenberg's saying that the Tribune wasn't rigorous enough in getting to the most important facts of the heat wave or careful enough with such facts as it had. "Covering a breaking news story," responds Gerould Kern, the editor who oversaw the Tribune's heat wave coverage, "is a far different enterprise than doing a sociological study. Every day there's a new explanation. You know something today you didn't know yesterday, and something tomorrow you don't know today." And it's all written on the fly.

Newspapers grope, in other words, and if they overemphasize conflict--which they do--remember that an argument is a better friend to the truth than a handshake. Kern estimates that the Tribune ran well over a hundred stories on the heat wave before the paper was done. "You have to judge the coverage in its totality," he says, though Klinenberg might be the only person who ever sat down and read all of it.

Whatever the merits of the Tribune's daily report, after the weather broke the paper decided to take a measured look backward. Most of the victims--according to Bill Recktenwald's rough study of the casualty list--had lived in the city's poorest areas, and the Tribune sent its reporters out into the field to examine their lives and deaths. Heat Wave says the newsroom geared up "to produce a powerful and provocative set of stories about the disaster, to make explicit the inequalities that the initial coverage had inadequately explored."

That set of stories didn't run. Klinenberg tells us the bygone heat wave--which left no destruction to be remembered by--was reframed as a "summer story" with a short shelf life. The series was reduced to a single 3,100-word story that ran over the Thanksgiving weekend and was much heavier on human-interest material about the victims than on analysis. "In the end," Klinenberg writes, "the major story that the editors had planned proved to be as forgettable as the heat wave victims have been themselves."

Kern objects to the idea that the project was dismissed. "Based on the material we had and what it was revealing, we determined that this was the best expression of it," he says. A 3,100-word story, after all, is still a long story--though less than a third as long as this week's report on angst in the Sears Tower. It's likely that today's Tribune would have published the heat wave series as it was originally conceived. The paper now has a projects editor and a projects team to do big studies and see them into print; it's embraced the form.

It's a form of newspapering that marks a fault line. Plenty of journalists admire these exhaustive reports and the papers that produce them; others dismiss the exercises as Pulitzer-mongering "thumbsuckers."

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →