RupertWatch: Writer Gets Affront-Page Bye-Line
At the moment, we are not too concerned about what you may or may not think of the Chicago Sun-Times under its new management. (There are probably as many opinions regarding the journalistic abilities of Rupert Murdoch and his handpicked functionaries as there are, say, pandas in Washington.) The important thing is that whatever they do, these Murdoch-men do it with style. take, for example, the way they fired Patrick Oster.
Until last weekend, Oster was the highly regarded chief of the Sun-Times's Washington bureau; his reports from the capital, not to mention his occasional forays into overseas trouble spots, provided some of the clearest and liveliest writing in the paper. (That's been especially true in recent weeks, as the paper has found more and more frivolous news and turned page three into Contest Central.) Oster proved able to see the big picture or find the odd angle, and often with a wry, understated humor that we admired. Such a fine sense of the ridiculous probably helped him appreciate his sudden demise.
Last weekend's social calendar in Washington sported the Gridiron Dinner, the annual white-tie pressman's ball and political roast put on by the venerable Gridiron Club. On Friday night, Oster was at a pre-Gridiron-Dinner party at the Georgetown Club (hosted by syndicated columnist Robert Novak). There he found himself seated at a table of four with the fiancee of Sun-Times publisher Robert Page; Murdoch-man Roger Wood's escort; and Donald Kummerfeld, who is the chief executive officer for Murdoch's News America Publishing company. (Page and Wood were seated elsewhere.) Toward the end of dinner, Oster told us, Kumerfeld asked him what he though of the new Sun-Times.
"I gave him a list of pros and cons," Oster explained, "and the cons were longer. It was nothing I hadn't said directly to Page before." What's more, since the table was made up of Sun-Times "family," as it were, Oster felt he "wasn't talking out of school." Actually, he seemed to have talked himself out of a job; as the dinner ended, Page's fiancee returned to Page's side, and moments later, Page took Oster to the side and fired him, telling him to clean out his desk on Monday. (Actually, Oster will be kept on the payroll until August 31, or until he finds a new position. He also received a comfortable severance.)
"Patrick is a fine journalist," Page said when we called him, going on to explain that "differences in concept and style" were behind the dismissal. When we mentioned that this seemed to come out of nowhere, page assured us that he decision to let Oster go had been in the works for some time; when we suggested this was an odd time and place to implement a decision so carefully arrived at, Page said, "It's better to do these things in person, and I'm rarely in Washington." We didn't bother to point out that offices and business hours are considerably better suited to such events; we didn't bother because the rest of Oster's story makes it clear that something he'd said had ruffled Page but good.
"Page said he wanted to talk to me," Oster explained. "He said I'd insulted him and his fiancee, and that I should do the honorable thing and quit. I asked him how I'd insulted him, and he didn't say anything. I still don't know what he's talking about. I wouldn't quit, and I told him he'd have to make a move. So he fired me." Just for good measure, Page also pulled Oster's column—which was already laid out—from Sunday's paper, which hit the streets about 12 hours after his firing.
Oster's not worried about his career; he expects that one of several new positions he's looking at will be locked up within a month or so. There's also no word yet on who'll replace Oster, but we have a cautionary word for the newcomer, whoever he (or she) may be: Watch what you say to the future Mrs. Page.
Return of SiskelWatch
We don't get to watch the ten o'clock news as often as we'd like these days, and that's a shame, because it always provides us with so much pleasure.
For instance, this past Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to catch yet another of Gene Siskel's timeless movie reviews on Channel Two. Siskel was reviewing Tank, the new film in which James Garner makes use of the title character to bust his son out of jail. Couldn't help noticing the little smirk that graced Gene's face as he pointed out that Garner's gun was "even bigger than Dirty Harry's." Also couldn't miss the smirks when he told us—twice more, in case anyone missed the point—that movies featuring "big men with big guns" were back.
In addition to his subtlety, we were also glad to see that Siskel's penchant for accuracy remains unchanged. Gene likened Garner to "other television stars who haven't made many movies." It took only a glance at Halliwell's The Filmgoer's Companion to learn that, in fact, Tank is the 34th film in which James Garner has appeared.
We don't write that much about Siskel anymore. But we wanted you to know, that doesn't mean he's stopped making mistakes.
Having taken a week off, we returned to what we laughingly call our office and found that the schedules for Chicago's baseball clubs had arrived. Immediately, our vacation-rested, sun-soaked mind noticed an unusual wrinkle: for the first time in history, neither the Cubs nor the Sox open the 1984 season at home (the Pale Hose are set to win in Baltimore on April 2, while the Cubbies will battle the first pitch in San Francisco the following day). Thinking that not even professional baseball could manage an oversight this large, we went straight to the top and called the baseball commissioner's office for an answer.
There we spoke with the assistant director of information, Rick Cerone. ("Not the same Rick Cerone who catches for the Yankees?" we asked. "Obviously not," he sniffed. "Well," we thought, "you didn't have such a good year, who knows?") Cerone explained that the schedules had been restructured this year to avoid so many of the early-season cold-weather games that have plagued the sport in recent years. He also told us that Chicago was not the only city newly bereft of a hometown game on opening day: the Yankees won't play their first game in New York until April 10, and the Mets don't personally delight the locals until April 17 (the latest home opener on the calendar).
This all makes pretty good sense. Now all they have to do is figure a way to avoid cold-weather games at the other end of the season, at World Series time. You know how cold it gets around here in October.
Having shored up the Tribune's local coverage in his brief (six-month) stint as metro editor, John Crewdson is leaving to become the paper's Los Angeles correspondent. Credson asked for the change, so that he and his wife could return to California (their long-ago home). It's a loss for the city desk: Credson, according to one coworker, spends "23 hours a day" at his job, and another pointed out that "everyplace that guy's gone in the Tribune has turned solid gold." The current LA correspondent, Rogers Worthington, will move to the paper's Dallas bureau … When Albert von Entress was dumped as vice-president and circulation director of the Sun-Times, it came as something of a surprise to many at the paper—including acting editor Charles Wilson, who learned about von Entress when he read it in Inc. (The word is that readership has been steadily declining since the paper was sold in January). … Speaking of Wilson, he's decided not to stay on at the helm of the Sun-Times. That leaves the paper effectively leaderless until a replacement is named. … Wasn't that Ann Landers that newly named N.Y. Daily News publisher Jim Hoge escorted to the Gridiron Dinner in Washington last Saturday? Their appearance fueled rumors that Hoge may be trying to lure the funny-talking advice columnist from the Field Syndicate to the Tribune Company (which owns the Daily News). … And birthday greetings to Warren Beatty, Jerry Lucas, former Cub Ripper Collins, and Vincent van Gogh.