The Tribune owes the Democrats. Solemn, intelligent, its roots reaching back to Lincoln, the paper could easily function as the conscience of the Republican Party. But strangely enough, the only thing that seems to trigger genuine indignation at Republican misbehavior is the sight of Democrats doing the same thing.
Last month, for instance, the Tribune editorial page weighed in on the Social Security debate. "This has been a terribly misleading debate on both sides," it lamented, "and the scare tactics probably guarantee only that Washington will put off something it needs to do: change the Social Security system so it remains financially sound."
The Tribune wrote two long editorials in three days on Social Security, and as you can see from the above passage, it let both parties have it. To be accurate, it let both parties have it for the first 3 paragraphs of the first editorial and spent the remaining 37 paragraphs denouncing the obstructionist Democrats. I suppose 3 paragraphs are better than none at all. If the Democrats had capitulated to the White House, the Tribune might not have bothered to criticize the Republicans at all.
Two years ago when Senate Democrats were blocking the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the federal court of appeals, the Tribune ripped their conduct as a "shameless display of partisanship." There was no way to write this editorial without allowing that Senate Republicans had acted the same way (actually worse) when Bill Clinton was president. GOP senators "have gained a reputation as procrastinators," the Tribune had said back then, wagging a finger and looking stern. "Such stalling is an affront to citizens who expect the federal courts to perform their vital functions in a timely fashion." The kind of heartfelt rage that calls someone shameless would have to wait until the Democrats became stallers too.
Last week the Tribune had an emotional breakthrough. The sight of Rahm Emanuel playing with the idea of redistricting Illinois to elect more Democratic congressmen triggered something deep and horrifying. The paper not only denounced mid-decade redistricting as a "cynical political trend" but in a fit of lucidity recognized that Republican House leader Tom DeLay of Texas is the guy behind it. Emanuel promptly dropped the idea, but the Tribune continued to froth. "Now it's time for House Speaker Dennis Hastert to stop his own party's cynical manipulation of voters," said the Tribune, finally dealing with the fact that DeLay's scheming had added six GOP seats in Texas last year, that a similar Republican move was under way in Georgia, and that the party's machinations in Colorado had been stopped at the last minute by that state's supreme court. The Tribune blistered Hastert's office as "astonishingly hypocritical" and "crassly partisan"--language that was powerful, proper, and precise.
And so it was that four months after the Republicans tightened their grip on Congress, the Tribune got in touch with its anger at the scurrilous way the Republicans had connived to do that. When DeLay's scheme to redraw the Texas congressional map was actually afoot and might have been stopped or punished, the Tribune didn't care. Here's an excerpt from the editorial it published in January 2004, just after DeLay's new map had been approved by a pair of Republican-appointed federal judges: "Gerrymandering has rendered uncompetitive the vast majority of districts. . . . It encourages ideologues from both parties. . . . If the high court fails to place reasonable limits on gerrymandering, expect more partisan warfare that serves the interests only of incumbents."
The technical term for rhetoric this limp is "viewing with concern." The only hints of real emotion were aroused by the Democratic Party. The editorial began, "After the 1980 census, the late U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, a San Francisco Democrat, pioneered the dark craft [my emphasis] of modern, computer-assisted gerrymandering." So it all began with the Democrats! And when Democrats in the GOP-controlled Texas legislature fled the state in 2003 to prevent the quorum needed to ram through redistricting, this maneuver was, in the Tribune's eyes, "a display of absurd political theater."
That language was much more pungent than any the Tribune could muster for the DeLay scheme the fugitive Democrats were hoping to forestall. But back then the Tribune didn't know how mad at the Republicans it really was. Now it does--and the next elections are only 20 months away.
More Concerned Viewing
American troops opened fire March 4 on a car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena to the Baghdad airport, wounding her and killing the Italian intelligence officer who'd just negotiated her release from Iraqi kidnappers. The American press responded to this terrible event by doing what it does: it wrote editorials.
Editorial directors across the land must have barked at their subordinates, "Unless readers see us 'view with concern' they'll think we don't." That was easily done. It doesn't take insight to write an editorial. It doesn't even take facts--which were in short supply right after the Italian car was fired on and still are. All that's needed is a knack for stating the obvious, which in this case was that the incident was regrettable and shouldn't happen again.
"These accidents further harm the United States' already shaky image abroad"--New York Times. "Could there be a better way to handle checkpoints?"--Newsday. "U.S. commanders also should reexamine rules of engagement at checkpoints"--Philadelphia Inquirer. "Checkpoints are tense places"--Detroit Free Press.
The other point many papers wanted to make was that whatever happened, it had to have been an accident. This needed to be stressed because Sgrena, who'd survived a month as the captive of Italy's enemies only to have her head almost blown off by its friends, said afterward she suspected the Americans wanted to kill her. "Rashly charged," answered the Philadelphia Daily News. "Outrageously said"--Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Absurd"--Houston Chronicle. "Absurd"--Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "Absurd"--Washington Times. "Outlandish"--Chicago Tribune.
The only editorial I read that was worth its salt was the one in the Sun-Times. It wasted no ink babbling about the fog of war or admonishing our boys to be more careful next time. It had no actual point to make: "This incident should remind us that there is a corrosive anti-American hate in the world, and that it will serve up a steady stream of the wildest claims imaginable."
The Sun-Times wasn't troubled by the deadly fusillade aimed at Sgrena's car. It was vexed because Sgrena--"an obscure reporter from a fringe publication"--had had the audacity to accuse the Americans of planning it. This "reckless charge," it said, was "nonsensical . . . pure fantasy . . . absurd . . . baseless." I marveled at the paper's ferocious determination to eradicate an idea no one took seriously, but the paper had its reasons. "The danger is that the America-is-always-wrong bias has a way of leaching into the most suggestible elements of society--on college campuses, for instance," the Sun-Times explained. Not on its watch.
In mid-January program director Mary June Rose resigned from WGN radio, and later that month Mark Krieschen, that station's vice president and general manager, disappeared on "indefinite leave." Something was up at Chicago's biggest radio station, and though nobody inside was talking, the Sun-Times's Robert Feder wrote early and often, teasing out what he could. Krieschen was said to be in trouble, Feder reported on February 1, "because of allegations made against him by Mary June Rose."
The Tribune, an elevator ride away from WGN in the Tribune Tower, didn't write a word. Business editor Jim Kirk told me a month ago that his paper wasn't sitting on the story because the Tribune Company deemed it too sensitive to print--Feder had simply gotten such a jump that until the Tribune could do more than play catch-up it preferred to leave the story alone. "It's a story we're going to cover," Kirk promised.
On March 9 the opportunity came, when WGN named Tom Langmyer of Saint Louis to succeed Krieschen. Now the Tribune, under cover of introducing the new guy, could deliver the backstory of how the old one suddenly disappeared after one of the most successful years in WGN's history.
The Tribune published an unsigned two-paragraph brief that said Krieschen had resigned "for what Tribune Co. called personal reasons."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Browarski.