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Roger Simon's New House/ Two Thumbs in the Eye

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By Michael Miner

Roger Simon's New House

"I'd like to think my column had a fair amount of reporting in it," Roger Simon was saying, "but it's the first time in a long time that I've been a beat reporter. It's an exciting challenge--as we say."

Not only that, it's a steady job. Simon, whose father drove a laundry truck in Chicago, knows viscerally what a steady job is. Simon was fired two years ago, and his career since has been a patchwork, though he says he hasn't wanted for work or income.

One of the most elegant writers to pass through Chicago journalism, Simon began writing a local column in 1975 as a kid at the Chicago Sun-Times. The column abruptly stopped being fun in 1983, when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. "It was chaotic," Simon remembers. "There was Wingo on page one--newsmakers holding up Wingo cards. A huge outflow of talent. One of the bar games we played was, you could create another newspaper staff, from publisher through copy person, out of the people who left the Sun-Times. It was chaotic and unpleasant. I'm sure it was the worst period I've ever gone through in journalism."

Simon worked for Murdoch seven months, until his contract ran out, then took his column to Baltimore's Sun. "I'd been in Baltimore once in my life, to cover a presidential debate. It was sort of daunting. Switching a local column was rarely done." He got the hang of Baltimore, then of Washington, and his column moved up from the Sun's metro pages to page two. By 1988 he was a pundit writing Road Show: In America Anyone Can Become President, It's One of the Risks We Take.

Two years ago the Sun merged with its sister paper, the Evening Sun. The evening paper brought to the new mix Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, a couple of Washington overseers and presidential-campaign chroniclers a lot better known than Simon. "Nice people," Simon allows, "and institutions." Simon became one columnist more than the new Sun saw reason to carry.

Not exactly out of work, Simon kept writing two syndicated columns a week, and he'd already signed a contract for a book on the '96 campaign and first months of Bill Clinton's second term--Show Time: Seducers, Stumblebums and Sheer Madness on the Way to the White House, written in his Bethesda basement and due out any day now. "Happily, I had an advance big enough to do all the travel I wanted to do. I was doing the syndicated column, and freelancing columns for the New Republic, and doing stories for Capital Style, a new magazine started up by the Economist. I put together a new way of looking at jobs--you didn't have one single paycheck, one single job. Financially the wolf was never at the door. I had a working spouse [Marcia Kramer, a Washington Post news editor], and I'd saved a lot of money. And it's been a rising stock market. So it was, yes, there is life without a steady job. But when a good one comes along one should think about it. And I did."

Lately Simon's been renting office space in the Sun-Times's Washington bureau. On Monday he moves, so to speak, across the street. His new job is as White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His new boss is bureau chief James Warren, who's known him since both were at the Sun-Times. "I had a very tortuous odyssey in filling what was really a congressional vacancy," Warren explained. "That's what I was looking for. I must have talked to 20 or 25 mostly Hill reporters. In fact, I'd offered the Hill job to somebody and was turned down.

"As time went on I decided it might be a good time to make a change in the White House. Bill Neikirk had done a terrific job, and no mere mortal should hang on there more than three or four years. Then somebody suggested the name of Roger. It was a little complicated because we'd known each other a long time. I thought about it. I wasn't totally sure if I'd change the White House, but he was on the congressional short list. We contacted him. I made it clear there was no inside track here because 'you know me.' Then when we decided it might really be time to make a change at the White House, Roger would be most suited to do that."

Warren sent Neikirk to Congress and invited Simon to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "That's what he's been mostly doing for the magazines he's been freelancing for, and he's clearly wanted to get back in the daily game for a long time. He suffered a huge professional disruption and letdown when he was canned from the Sun. I don't know how he identified himself--Roger Simon of Creators Syndicate? It was really ego deflating. A lot of people would have split the business. He was still in the game. That sort of perseverance I admired when I thought of it. You've got a guy who knows Washington really well, who knows the White House pretty well, who's got a terrific eye, and who knows Chicago. It's really serendipitous for us, and he's going to be motivated to work his ass off."

Warren went on, "The personal thing did not make it any easier. Now these many years I'm in a position of offering him a job. That's how the world sometimes turns."

Simon's cutting back his column from two a week to one. He says the reduction doesn't mean much. "The reality of column writing is that no matter how much you write it's really rare for a newspaper to run you more than once a week." In these parts the column won't run at all. Because Simon is now Tribune property, the Daily Herald, which has carried his column, will have to give it up. And the Tribune--which picked up Simon's column as soon as he left the Sun-Times, largely to rub the Sun-Times's nose in it, but dropped the column a few years later--doesn't intend to resume it.

Which isn't to say that Simon's Chicago fans will have to settle for his straight reporting. Straight reporting is about as dead as last year's Christmas tree. "We're going to be pushing him, as we did Neikirk, to do more analytical stuff," Warren told me. And Simon allows that "sometimes a news column and analysis are indistinguishable. Obviously analysis doesn't have the first person and columns sometimes do--but not always. Mine rarely do. In analysis you're duty bound to present both sides in a fair manner. I tend to lean to doing that anyway."

Two Thumbs in the Eye

The most intriguing wars are waged over issues that bystanders find unfathomable. You probably don't know or care which newspaper ran which Christmas movie reviews on which days, but to a handful of people at the papers the matter warranted drawing swords. "It's despicable!" swore a Tribune editor, on learning that Roger Ebert's reviews of three movies opening on Christmas Day would run in the Sun-Times on Christmas Eve. "We're screwed basically."

Screwed why? Because the Tribune, honoring the studios' embargo, had scheduled all seven reviews of movies opening Christmas Day for that day's Tempo. By Tuesday, when the Sun-Times announced that reviews of Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter, and Deconstructing Harry would run on Wednesday, Christmas Eve, it was too late for the Tribune to do the same thing. The Wednesday Tempo was already off the presses.

"My question is, is Roger in on this?" wondered the same mid-level Tribune editor. "I can't believe that. I mean, I can, but it's kind of creepy to say the least. I wonder how high up it goes."

What goes? The plot whose dark outlines Tribune yeomen discerned. Most blatant was the outrageous failure of the studios' local publicist, Sherman H. Wolf Advertising, to notify the Tribune of the Sun-Times's design. Also discernible was a great daily newspaper conniving with the devil. Tempo editor Timothy McNulty immediately called Sherman Wolf to protest and was told that Miramax, which released Jackie Brown, and Fine Line, which released Deconstructing Harry and The Sweet Hereafter, had lifted their embargo in return for assurances that Ebert was giving their films four stars. "I don't have a problem with people trying to run reviews at their convenience," said Tribune entertainment editor Geoff Brown, "but giving up the star rating--that's not done."

He went on, "I don't fault the studios. This happens all the time--somebody tries to get us to say what the review is. Is it positive or negative? It's war, so it's fair to ask. But it's absolutely unethical for a newspaper to give that information out. It's the equivalent of insider trading."

At the Sun-Times there wasn't a wet eye over the Tribune's anguish. Normally the Tribune calls the tune on arts coverage, Sun-Times editors told me. Theater critics attend final previews instead of opening nights of major new shows for one reason: Tempo can't publish overnight reviews. "We have no recourse but to play along," said a Sun-Times editor.

Movie criticism is a rough-and-tumble business. There are screenings for critics, and then there are other screenings for critics like the Tribune's Michael Wilmington, and still other screenings for critics like Ebert and Gene Siskel. Pity the critic who shows up when he's not invited. There are lists of critics to invite to screenings, and critics deemed more trouble than they're worth who are crossed off those lists.

The studios try really hard to accommodate Roger Ebert.

The Sun-Times struck a "win-win" deal with the studios, deputy features editor John Barron told me. "These were movies we wanted to run ahead of time. They said OK if the reviews were positive. The reviews were positive, so that was the end of the story. We were able to tell Wolf the reviews were positive. [The studios] did not see copies of the reviews or excerpts of the reviews. It was a generally vague assurance the reviews were positive."

Ebert's star ratings weren't revealed--he hadn't assigned stars yet, Barron said. But "my upturned thumbs were already public knowledge"--as Ebert put it during a lively exchange of E-mail with an indignant Tribune friend. On Siskel & Ebert Ebert had given a thumbs-up to The Sweet Hereafter on November 22 and to Deconstructing Harry on December 13. The studios already knew he liked them. As for Jackie Brown, Ebert had made it pretty clear he thought it was wonderful in his interview with Quentin Tarantino. The interview didn't appear in print until December 21, after the deal was struck, but Tarantino would have known long before how much Ebert liked the movie.

"Well, that's splitting a hair," says the Tribune's Geoff Brown. "If that's how they defend it, what can I say?"

"The Tribune's stance is based on willingly cooperating with publicists' embargoes, and so is in essence no more or less moral than ours," Ebert E-mailed me from Paris. "They're basically sore because we showed enterprise and they didn't. Is it corrupt to go early with a favorable review but not with an unfavorable one?"

Going early with a favorable review, Ebert argued, serves art by calling attention to it. "I would not go early with a negative review, because that strikes me as kicking a film before it is down."

When the Tribune first came to me in high dudgeon, I was a lot more troubled by the Sun-Times's behavior than I am now. I see no evidence that the Sun-Times shaded its reviews of the three movies to please the studios or even revealed proprietary information to them. By spreading its Christmas movie reviews across two days, the Sun-Times gave three movies Ebert admired advance notice in a paper that's better read than the Christmas paper, and it gave Ebert more space in which to evaluate them.

"My opinion?" Ebert told me. "The Tribune would have eagerly and cheerfully gone early under exactly the same circumstances. They got out-hustled and are doing a good job of being indignant."

But Ebert's wrong. Jackie Brown, Deconstructing Harry, and The Sweet Hereafter all showed up in Michael Wilmington's December 21 roundup of the year's best films. He had plenty he wanted to say about these films and not much room to say it in. That's why he asked if the Tribune could free up space by running some of his reviews on Wednesday.

"I was told no, the films open on Thursday," Wilmington told me. "I had to write shorter and less detailed and less informative and interesting reviews than I otherwise would have. I had to write them a third to almost a half as short as the space I'd normally have given those films."

Even looking back on it, Geoff Brown says he'd have opposed running any of the Tribune reviews on any day but Christmas. Readers, he thinks, would have been confused about when the movies actually opened.

"I wasn't upset by the reviews running on Wednesday," Brown said this week. "I was upset because I was under the impression they were giving away their secrets. Publicists will be rubbing our nose in the fact the Sun-Times does it--why don't you? That's something we have to guard against."

Ebert goes so far as to defend Sherman Wolf for not letting the Tribune know what the Sun-Times was up to. Ebert told me, "Obviously, when one paper shows enterprise and imagination in dealing with a tricky production situation, it is not the job of the publicist to tell the other paper."

Nobody agrees with him. It is the job of the publicist to try to keep everybody happy, and on that score Sherman Wolf messed up big-time. "In the past, both newspapers have asked to run reviews early because of holiday deadlines," says a local industry figure who requested anonymity. "I'm just surprised that when one paper came forward and asked to do this, they [Wolf] didn't call the other paper and offer the same situation." Both big papers expect firms like Sherman Wolf to level the playing field for them.

Stuart Wolf, a partner in the firm, was on the phone damping the fires as soon as they flared, apologizing to Timothy McNulty and assuring Wilmington that his office had misinformed McNulty--the studios hadn't actually demanded four stars from Ebert; they'd only asked for a favorable review. By the local rule of thumb that's three stars or higher. (Ebert gave Deconstructing Harry three and a half stars, the other two movies four.) "If a situation like this was to arise again, yeah we would definitely call the Tribune," Stuart Wolf told me. "We would call the other media outlets that were concerned. We all feel bad this happened. It was not something that in any way was planned."

Two weeks later, the troubles feel strangely like ancient history.

News Bites

So let's see. Each week sportswriters cover the college football games. After the games they vote on the national rankings. Then they write articles reporting the results of their vote. At the end of the season they vote on who should be national champion. Then they write articles hailing the national champion they just chose. And when coaches choose another champion instead, the sportswriters denounce the coaches for irrational, sentimental favoritism. Well, that's fine, so long as the sportswriters don't lose their objectivity.

Was it just me, or did you also want to throw a shoe at your TV during the Ameritech commercial I came to think of as "In the company of women," the one where no matter how many times you'd already seen it you wondered if this time the big lug was going to hit her with the waffle iron? But however misogynistic, it wasn't blasphemous. The Marine Corps kept running some sort of weird sword-and-sorcery, tested-by-fire spot during football games. And when the young marine finally stood before us, straight, strong, and proud, the background music sounded an awful lot like the Christmas carol bars that go, "Oh come let us adore him..." Semper fi.

In her last Reader piece, written in 1989, Mike Tuohy regaled us with a reminiscence of the trips she used to take each summer as a little girl to visit two old aunts in rural Nebraska. The piece was so amusing that a careless reader might lose track of the toll: two cousins killed in World War II, both of Tuohy's own sisters dead before the tale was told, and of course the aunts themselves. At Tuohy's own funeral service just before Christmas her friends were full of stories. Jim Tuohy, her husband, recalled a time when a circle of journalists in town, though not the Tuohys, shared Debbie the cleaning woman. After a night of drinking Jim and Mike wound up back at Roger Ebert's apartment, and Mike fell asleep on the couch. She was there in the morning when Debbie arrived. "It's Mike Tuohy!" she said. "You know her?" asked Ebert. "She sleeps on everyone's couch," Debbie explained.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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