As last Thanksgiving dawned, John Birch pondered his life's bounty. It was a day for giving back, and Birch's mind ranged among the many he felt he owed.
Birch is president of Concealed Carry, Inc., of Oak Brook, which champions the right of law-abiding Illinois citizens to pack heat. He'd got up early to do his duty, which was to compose and E-mail his daily missive to Concealed Carry's thousand members. "There are so many people who have made my life better that I have darkly concluded it is impossible to thank them all," he typed. "So it struck me...what if I could help just one person today as tribute to those who have helped me?"
This should be someone he didn't know personally, Birch mused, some-one to whom help should arrive as "a bolt out of the blue," someone the membership of Concealed Carry could be persuaded to rally around.
On an impulse possibly unique in the history of human gratitude, he decided to do something decent for a journalist.
Birch told his members that Michelle Stevens, a Sun-Times editorial writer, was a "special person." She "wrote about life as it 'is' and never indulged in the 'easy out' of blaming 'others' or 'society' when bad things happened to good people. Her philosophy of helping others via our own personal responsibility was never more evident than in her open mind on the issue of concealed carry for Illinois in general and for Chicago in specific."
To be sure, Birch wrote, Stevens "is not a gun rights advocate. I wonder if she has ever shot a gun in her life?" Nevertheless, "on more than one occasion she was open minded enough to consider the merits of concealed carry." And what was her reward? Earlier last year her op-ed column had "suddenly disappeared." When he'd spoken to her by phone she'd been evasive but "did not sound happy." So he'd asked around. "Office gossip, and this is ONLY GOSSIP, is that Ms. Stevens raised the ire of a senior executive's spouse for her views and her column was axed for it. Sounds plausible."
Birch told his members to E-mail Michael Cooke, editor in chief of the Sun-Times, asking him to reinstate Stevens's column. "If you feel, like me, that her voice should never have been silenced, well then feel free to put some passion in your email."
Two months have passed since Birch launched his crusade. There was a flurry of some 50 letters. They didn't win Stevens her column back. "We may even have hurt her," Birch told me the other day. "That's what worries me."
Is John Birch your real name? I said.
"It is," he replied. "First of all, I was born in '53. The society started in '58. I got the name first. Second, John Birch was an army intelligence officer, and he died after the war in Indochina--he was killed by communists there, the first American who could be determined to die at communist hands. I was an army intelligence officer too--what a coincidence that was! I kind of followed in his footsteps, except I didn't get killed. I think he'd be appalled if he was alive today at the use of his name. I think the John Birch Society is full of nutcases."
I wasn't sure the John Birch Society even existed any longer, but Birch set me straight. "Contrary to popular rumor, you don't find gangbangers at gun shows, but you will find a John Birch table every time," he said. "If you want to meet them, that's where they hang out."
And how did Michelle Stevens feel about your making her your cause? I asked.
He hadn't heard from her, had no idea.
I said I'd try to find out.
"If she's mad at me, would you mind giving me a call back?" he asked.
She's cool. "I know he holds strong views," Stevens told me. "He's afraid and concerned this antigun debate going on might get some sticking power." And so is she. "As a Chicago resident I can't have a gun. I don't really need one right now, but I'd like the ability to have one without jumping through hoops. I've heard enough anecdotes of people who have been accosted and protected themselves because they had a gun. Believe me, I've been a victim often enough. In the early 70s it was like I was getting mugged every couple of months."
Would a gun have made a difference?
She didn't seem sure. "Each time they got the drop on me," she said. "After it's all over you can't shoot somebody in the back." Even so, "If you're alone at a lonely el station and you see somebody suspicious, you'll have a weapon in your pocket. Often just showing it is enough to deter."
Despite the people she knows of who tried to pull concealed guns on bandits and were shot dead for their trouble, Stevens thinks Chicago should allow its citizens to carry: predators would no longer be able to assume their prey was unarmed. Not that she's been writing editorials arguing this position. "My view is not in line with the editorial board."
But that isn't why her column disappeared, she told me. She'd been doing it four years, and her bosses wanted fresh voices. (Stevens didn't say so, but Barbara Amiel, who is the wife of London-based proprietor Conrad Black and keeps a distant eye on the editorial pages, undoubtedly had a hand in the changes.) Stevens said she could accept that. She might have been more stirred by the Concealed Carry campaign to restore her column if she'd been more upset about losing it.
By the way, she said, "I would call myself a gun advocate." But Birch was right that she'd never actually fired one.
I passed this information on to Birch, along with the good news that she didn't hold a grudge. He explained that Stevens misunderstood what he'd meant by "gun advocate." A gun advocate isn't someone who's merely on the right side of the concealed-handgun debate. It's someone like himself, for whom no other cause exists.
Today Birch is crusading for Patrick O'Malley for governor because O'Malley is a Second Amendment absolutist. "Can you imagine four years of terror under a gun owner hating Jim Ryan administration?" Birch asked his members in a recent
E-mail. Unfortunately, when the Sun-Times editorial board decides whom to endorse for the Republican nomination for governor, Michelle Stevens won't have the luxury of ignoring education, airports, taxes, the death penalty, social services, and public works. "She's a little more broad-spectrum than I am," said Birch.
Deja vu is a frequent presence in the daily press. For instance, a story is synopsized on page one--the Sun-Times used to do this a lot--then reported at greater length inside the paper. Or a full story appears alongside a summary of it in a paper's index. Or the same story shows up twice in the same paper because--well, because someone screwed up.
I've always been intrigued by the way Tribune editorial writers who double as columnists sometimes get two bites at the apple, sounding off on a subject in the name of the paper today and under their own bylines tomorrow. Whenever I've disagreed with what they wrote I've considered this excessive.
Last Thursday I thought I'd spotted an interesting example of this. The lead editorial began: "For all his success during his first year in office, President Bush has shown an unfortunate obsession with secrets." And on the facing page, public editor Don Wycliff began his op-ed column: "More than any other administration in recent memory, George W. Bush's manifests a fondness for secrecy."
Each tract proceeded to a bill of particulars. At the top of the editorial's: "Vice President Dick Cheney has refused to disclose Enron Corp.'s role in a task force that developed Bush's energy policy." At the top of Wycliff's: "Vice president Dick Cheney, despite mounting political pressure, continues to resist disclosing to Congress and the General Accounting Office what role Enron Corp. played in the development of the administration's energy plan last spring."
My thoughtful questions on the ethical subtleties of self-plagiarism were preempted when Wycliff told me that he didn't write the editorial on secrecy and that he didn't even know there was one in the same paper until I mentioned it. It turned out that editorial-page editor Bruce Dold had assigned the topic to editorial-page temp Andy Martin. Should this ideological redundancy trouble us? The vigorous arguments that Martin and Wycliff independently mustered could lead us to believe there's only one respectable position a serious newspaper can take on government secrecy, which is to condemn it, when in fact if we thought about the subject for a million years we might come up with another.
Free Press: Not Dead Yet
The Chicago Free Press is in play. Recent conversations that could have led to the Reader buying a controlling interest in the paper broke down, but the owners of the Free Press promptly shifted to plan B. In urgent need of a savior, they contacted William Waybourn, president of Window Media, which publishes gay papers in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Houston, and New Orleans. I'm told that those talks ended in failure this week and the Free Press owners promptly began speaking with someone else.
The Free Press was founded in the summer of 1999 by the mutinous staff of Windy City Times. Somehow Windy City Times's owner, Jeff McCourt, kept publishing another year after his employees walked out on him, but eventually he sold rights to the Windy City Times name to Tracy Baim, a former Windy City Times editor who'd split with McCourt years earlier.
She'd been running a third gay-and-lesbian weekly, Outlines, which is now
Launched in an arena where the competition was not only intense but vengeful, the Free Press looked healthier than it apparently was. I began hearing stories of unpaid bills and uncollected receivables piling up, staffers agreeing to work for reduced or deferred salaries to keep the paper afloat.
"It's my professional estimation that they are or easily could be profitable," says Reader publisher Jane Levine. "They have been remarkably successful at establishing themselves in a very short amount of time as a very strong paper in the gay and lesbian community, if not the stronger of the two."
Neither Levine nor Waybourn would comment on their recent negotiations with the Free Press; they wouldn't even confirm that negotiations took place. Levine did acknowledge that "they came to us before they started and at various points in their history looking for investments." Lisa Neff, the Free Press's managing editor, and Jerry Matustik, its president and principal investor, were just as guarded. "We're always entertaining offers," Neff told me. "That's all I can say."
John Birch, who lives in Du Page County, told me that if he came into Chicago to pose for Hot Type he'd be taking his chances. Afterward, he E-mailed me this report: "Photo shoot went off well. 4 men including me packing handguns and displaying in downtown Chicago aka: The Forbidden Zone. I mention this so you know we all took great personal risk to get these photos as each of us faced a class IV felony for our act of defiance against Mayor Daley. Not looking for a prize or reward, but think it's relevant you know we are willing to risk imprisonment for our cause."
I asked if I could quote him.
"Please do," he replied.
"U.S. TRAITOR WON'T FACE DEATH," Sun-Times banner headline, January 16.
Not only that, but according to the story, he wasn't charged with treason either.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.