By Michael Miner
There's reporting that's true and reporting that's false and reporting that's preposterous. The Tribune made a claim last week that was so far off it was funny, but nobody laughed.
The Tribune has been playing catch-up with the Illinois driver's license scandal since--well, since George Ryan was elected governor with the Tribune's blessing. Last Wednesday it got front-page mileage out of a sketchy telephone conversation between reporter Gary Marx and whistle-blower Tammy Raynor. It wasn't only an "exclusive interview," Marx asserted in his story--it was Raynor's "first public interview." A photo of Raynor rounded out the package.
As her "first public interview," the story was big news, even though not much news was in it. Taking the Tribune at its word, the Associated Press announced Marx's scoop in a story of its own that splashed "her first public interview" all over the state.
But like Rick Blaine explaining why he came to Casablanca for the waters, Marx says he was misinformed--by his own rudimentary research. "I think I was wrong. I did a clip search. I found she'd never been quoted. I was on deadline. I believed that was the case," he says. "If I made a mistake I made a mistake. Somebody called me after the fact and mentioned she'd been on 20/20."
Not just 20/20. She was on Dateline too. Oh, and Sun-Times reporter Mark Skertic had stopped by her house and talked to her for a story that ran on October 11, 1998. And on April 7 of that year, when Raynor's identity was still being kept secret, Channel Seven put her on camera in silhouette for a nine-and-a-half-minute report culled from three hours of taped interviews.
"Maybe it was her first public interview this week," muses Chuck Goudie, who reported the story in 1998 for Channel Seven.
Or maybe her first public interview since having her hair done, I venture.
"Actually," says Goudie, with the Tribune photo in mind, "her hair looked just like that a couple of years ago."
Six days after Marx's story appeared, the Tribune ran a correction.
The Raynor saga can be traced to Joseph Power Jr., the attorney representing the Reverend Duane and Janet Willis in their suit against the state of Illinois. The Willises' six children had died on a Wisconsin highway in 1994 when the family minivan burst into flames after running over a bracket that had fallen off a trailer being hauled by Ricardo Guzman. He'd been operating with an Illinois commercial license issued by the McCook facility.
Raynor worked at McCook, and when nothing came of the information she was feeding the secretary of state's investigators about rampant corruption there--nothing, aside from her being transferred--she called Power. He recognized a big news story and began shopping it around town. Channel Seven producer Mark LaMet took the first bite. "When we began working with Joe Power the story led straight to Tammy Raynor," says Goudie. "Mark and I spent a considerable period of time trying to convince her to go public. This was just within a few weeks of her mother trying to deliver a letter to George Ryan's wife. She was pretty whipped up about not getting a response to that."
Goudie recalls that he and Andy Shaw did a few follow-ups to the station's original report, and then the story disappeared. "For six months it went nowhere." He can only guess why. "There's a certain degree of jealousy [in journalism]," he says, "and when it's another news organization's story you leave it alone. And this story we had on the air was so expansive nobody wanted to follow it. That was our feeling. The only people who sat up and took notice was the U.S. attorney's office."
Meanwhile Secretary of State Ryan was running for governor, and the Tribune was running interference. The same day the Sun-Times ran its interview with Tammy Raynor, the Tribune carried a front-page story that wondered if there was a "partisan agenda" behind Joseph Power's "relentless legal pursuit" of Ryan. The article reported that Power had contributed more than $300,000 to Democrats running for office that year and had obtained the Willises' permission for the Democrats to use a picture of their charred minivan in an ad accusing Ryan of complicity in the children's deaths.
Power, who keeps score, remembers that story. He remembers it also reported that he'd billed the Willises for a Freedom of Information request for documents concerning Ryan's organ-donor program, which had no obvious connection to the Willises' suit. And he even remembers that the wife of one of the Tribune reporters on the story, Rick Pearson, used to work under Ryan's jurisdiction in Springfield (she was with the state library).
"Obviously the deck was fixed for Mr. Ryan to become our next governor, and that's why they ignored much of what there was in the story and they were criticizing me for a $50 request for an FOI," says Power. "I was trying to look into another potentially corrupt scheme of Mr. Ryan. As far as I knew from people who know Ryan well, everything he touches usually means money for him or his campaign fund."
The Tribune in '98 denounced Ryan's opponent, Glenn Poshard, for permitting the charred-minivan ad to run despite a lack of proof that Guzman had obtained his license fraudulently or even that his driving had caused the accident. "George Ryan hardly deserves a pass over allegations of license-selling in his office," said the Tribune. "But blame him for those deaths? This is about as cruel as politics can get." And however "deeply troubling" it was to the Tribune that Ryan's own investigators hadn't uncovered the scandal in his motor-license division, the Tribune gave him an enthusiastic endorsement for governor.
Eventually some of those investigators were incriminated too. Asked under oath about the accident, Guzman took the Fifth Amendment 24 times. The Willises settled for $100 million in their suit against Guzman, the company he drove for, the owners of the trailer, and other defendants. It was deeply inconsiderate of Ryan to have been running for governor when the story broke, because his race blunted the Tribune's usually acute powers of curiosity and indignation. However hard the Tribune tried to be evenhanded, it couldn't quite pull it off. In the Tribune's eyes there are worse things than electing a compromised Republican, and one of them is electing a goofy Democrat. The Tribune always endorses the Republican. It endorsed Nixon over McGovern in 1972 as Watergate was rising up around Nixon's ears, then helped run him out of office two years later. Now history is repeating itself. Putting first things first, the Tribune couldn't hector Ryan to come clean about the sins of his old office until it had him safely in his new one.
Lately the editorial page has whaled at Ryan with a stout shillelagh. (Not that Power's impressed. "They have no choice," he says. "The ship's sinking--the truth is finally coming out.") But the newsroom still chases the Sun-Times--which long ago took the initiative from Channel Seven--and has been seen trying to minimize the Sun-Times's big stories. As I noted two weeks ago, the Tribune followed the Sun-Times's page-one banner about Raynor's mom slipping a note to Ryan's wife (the Sun-Times story can't be called an exclusive; I'm told Channel Seven reported it two years ago) with two Metro stories headlined "Ryan's wife says she doesn't recall whistleblower kin's note" and "Governor's wife says she can't recall letter."
This undistinguished history is what made Marx's claim so infuriating. It was nonsense contradicted not only by the facts of the Tribune's coverage but by the spirit. Nevertheless, readers were sure to believe it. Marx himself believed it. The AP believed it. You'd never get away with saying you broke a big story when you trailed by a day or a week. But when you trail by two years--who's going to remember?
As for Tammy Raynor, she says Marx called her about ten times at work one day, and they talked about five minutes each time. It was all pretty sketchy, and she won't call it an interview: "I think if I'd thought it was an interview I'd have used much better grammar." But he did ask some questions that she answered. "I try not to treat media people like they're not human," she explains.
The U.S. attorney's office had instructed Raynor to tell the media nothing about the investigation. "When the article came out," she says, "I got scolded."
Is there anything finer than a gallant warrior saluting a fallen enemy? When the managing editor of the Copley chain's Elgin Courier News left the paper after 28 years, the competing Daily Herald paid homage to a great newsman. The Herald hailed Mike Bailey as "the Elgin area's most persuasive newspaper voice of the last two decades," pointing out that while running the paper's daily operations he also wrote "an award-winning weekly column." An Elgin councilman probably put it best: "I think Mike was the heart and soul of the paper," he told the Herald. "I don't think it will ever be the same."
And that's the message the Herald clearly wanted to get out. Through its tears, the Herald was proclaiming victory over the Courier News in the Elgin-South Elgin market. "Courier lets Bailey go in Copley downsizing," announced the headline to the Herald's tribute, which noted that he was one of a half dozen top Copley managers laid off to cut costs. Seizing the day, the Herald promptly blanketed Elgin with a mailing that boasted, "Elgin is growing. Shouldn't your local paper be growing, too? Well, we are. So why is the Elgin Courier-News cutting editorial staff...? Perhaps it's because of their dramatic circulation drop."
"Over the years," Bailey told me, "the Herald has been very good at exploiting certain missteps in all of their competitors."
Which in this case was firing you?
"Well, obviously I think it was a great tragedy. One of the things you can say about the Daily Herald is they're very keenly aware of the business of marketing. Marketing both what they can offer and the deficiencies their competitors have. I think they viewed this as a capitulation."
Wisely, in Bailey's view, the Herald has given its bureaus increasing autonomy and emphasized local news in each of its zoned editions. "We were going in the opposite direction," Bailey said, "giving up more and more control to a central site. We were becoming very superficial, in my opinion, and the Herald was exploiting that as well."
The Courier News is one of four papers in northern Illinois owned by the Copley chain, and they've become spitting images of each other. "Our last distinguishing characteristic," said Bailey, was a locally written editorial page overseen by his wife, Chris. When that was discontinued and she was reassigned, "I thought we'd lost whatever edge we had."
Offered another job, Chris Bailey quit. Her husband was sent packing five days later.
Has the Daily Herald snatched you up yet? I asked.
He hadn't heard from them.