Cheap sentiment appalls Neil Steinberg, and he offered none when on March 14 John Stroger was felled by a stroke. The Sun-Times columnist wrote the next morning, Wednesday, that his first assumption on hearing that the "wily, 76-year-old Cook County Board president and Democratic Party dinosaur" had checked into the hospital was that Stroger was faking to win votes.
"But--surprise, surprise--the man seems to be actually sick," Steinberg went on. "Now we have grim reporters standing in front of hospitals talking about the 'sympathy vote.' What about sympathy for the long-suffering residents of Cook County?" He made a pitch for Stroger's opponent, Forrest Claypool, then shrugged: "If you vote your race, for any clown, no matter how ignored and betrayed you are year-in, year-out, then go for Stroger."
WVON staff tracked Steinberg down in New York that morning and invited him on the air. He was interviewed by Roland Martin, the executive editor of the Chicago Defender, who doubles as the station's midday host. Martin's goal at the Defender is to retrieve whatever he can of its long-lost readership, much of which now reads the Sun-Times. So he had every incentive to tear Steinberg apart.
"Mr. Steinberg, you are a complete ass," said Martin by way of introduction. "When you have a white columnist working for a white newspaper who has the audacity to suggest that a black politician checked in to the hospital for campaign purposes when in fact he is actually sick . . . this to me shows the kind of ignorance that is pervasive. And when you purchase the Sun-Times this is the kind of individual whose salary you are supporting." He read the part where Steinberg mocked the idea of a sympathy vote, then went on to wonder about the people who depend on the "garbage-filled parks, [the] overcrowded, understaffed jail, [the] overwhelmed hospital? Who pities them?"
"You know who I pity?" Martin said. "I pity Neil Steinberg's wife. I pity his wife for having to live with a fool who's willing to slap her around. Oh yeah, I went there. Because if you're going to sit here and make light of the board presi-dent's actual illness, then I'm going to speak to why did you slap your wife, Neil Steinberg? . . . If you want to get personal, let's get personal."
Steinberg couldn't hear any of this, and Martin went on for six minutes before patching him in. "Seems to be actually sick?" Martin raged. "He's actually sick."
Steinberg: "I understand that. Yes, he seems to be sick."
Martin: "No, not seems to be sick. He is sick."
Steinberg: "OK. He is sick."
Martin: "What the hell's a mild stroke?"
Steinberg: "It seems a fine point, but OK."
Martin asked, "Did you write your column before the news conference [that announced Stroger had had a stroke]?"
Steinberg said he had.
"That sounds like a ridiculous thing for a journalist to do," said Martin. "Why didn't you go back and change the column?"
"John Stroger's a terrible politician who shouldn't win the election," Steinberg replied. "That's the basic truth. Whether he's sick or not isn't really important."
He asked Martin if he read the column.
"I read the column!" Martin snorted.
"No, I mean the column in general," said Steinberg. "It's always like that."
I was reminded of Tessio in The Godfather trying to get off the hook by explaining to Tom Hagen that he always liked Michael Corleone and betraying him was only business. It didn't work for Tessio either.
John Barron, editor of the Sun-Times, says his paper heard from "half the city, it seemed like," after the WVON interview. Later that Wednesday a group of black minis-ters held a news conference in front of Rush University Medical Center, where Stroger was being treated, and threatened a boycott. When Barron heard about this on Thursday he called the office of Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church, leader of the minis-ters. A conference call was set up for Thursday afternoon between about eight ministers and Barron and managing editor Don Hayner. Barron had no defense. "We were insensitive at a particularly sensitive moment," he says. "We had crossed a line." Barron and Hayner told the ministers to look for an apology in Friday's paper.
Some of the ministers, particularly the Reverend Al Sampson, pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church, were unhappy not just with Steinberg but with Washington correspondent Lynn Sweet, who'd published a column Thursday morning urging the Stroger camp to release his medical records. "We saw that as diversionary," says Sampson. "You and I both know the hospital cannot release medical records."
But of course the family can. As if to assert herself immediately as the un-Steinberg, Sweet began her column by wishing Stroger a full recovery. She stressed that she was asking nothing she wouldn't ask of any other candidate in his shoes and pointed out that if Stroger had to drop out of the race after being renominated, party bosses would pick his successor.
That possibility didn't trouble Sampson, a political minister who was touting a list of candidates headed by Stroger that he called his "soul slate 2006." When the conference call ended he faxed over to the Sun-Times a leaflet he'd printed up. It said, "The Chicago Sun-Times / Too Much!!!!! / Too Many Times!!!!! / Disrespecting the Black Community!! / No Apology, No Money!! / NO READING THE SUN-TIMES!!!" Sampson meant business.
The Friday Sun-Times carried an apology on its editorial page and another at the top of a column Steinberg wrote even though it was his day off. Steinberg's regrets showed him at his best. "It was a mistake to focus purely on the political, and ignore the personal, the reality of a sick man going to the hospital. I'm sorry for that," he wrote. "I was bragging the other day that one of the benefits of being called awful names a dozen times a day is that it has made me less sen-sitive to hurt. I thought that was a good thing, but it's not." This felt genuine enough, or at least true to the persona Steinberg's created for himself as a columnist--more clever than warm. Later in the column he commented on this persona. Questioning the sincerity of President Bush as a man of prayer, Steinberg called himself a "cynical sort" and wryly added, "Myself, I never like mouthing the expected pieties. Though they do have protective value."
The editorial said, "We regret the unseemliness of [Steinberg's] column and we apologize to Stroger, his family and legion of friends and admirers." Publisher John Cruickshank went on the air with WVON's Cliff Kelley Friday morning, and he also apologized.
The ministers weren't satisfied. Sampson says they were irritated by the editorial's reminder that despite its "deep well of respect and admiration for Stroger's long career in politics and government" the Sun-Times was supporting Claypool. "They ended up giving a double endorsement to Claypool, which was totally irrelevant," Sampson told me. "They gave with one hand and took with the other."
What's more, Sweet's column hadn't been addressed. "She never called for President Bush's medical records or Cheney's medical records," said Sampson. "And nobody's called for the Catholic priests' medical records when they violated young children as sexual predators."
So the boycott threat would stay on the table. Sampson told me Sunday night that after the primary the ministers intend to meet with editors at both the Sun-Times and the Tribune "because there are a lot of cutting issues." Apparently the Tribune's hands aren't clean either: like Sweet, its editorial page had called for more information on Stroger's condition. "We find that distasteful," said Sampson.
It didn't matter that by then much more had been learned about Stroger's condition and the news was dire. "I don't think he's going to be able to come back from this to a baseline, normal state," said Dr. Michael Kelly, a stroke specialist treating Stroger.
Stroger's champions didn't miss a beat. On Saturday they held a "Soldiers for Stroger" rally at the Bethel AME Church on South Michigan. WVON's Cliff Kelley presided. "We're going to win one for the Gipper," Sampson promised. Congressman Bobby Rush thundered, "I would rather have John Stroger with a stroke than that joke of an opponent. There is nothing about having a stroke that God can't heal."
Steinberg had attempted a forlorn counterattack on WVON by reminding Roland Martin that Stroger wasn't taken to the county hospital that bears his name. This paltry irony got some chuckles on the north side of town. But on the south side, lots of people are grateful to have any hospital at all to go to. Kelley reminded the audience at Bethel that it was Stroger who built the new county hospital, and Congressman Danny Davis said that it was Stroger who saved Provident Hospital from being closed.
The crowd was noisy but sparse--about 200 people in all. I asked a woman in the lobby about the Sun-Times boycott. She said, "The Sun-Times'll be all right until the Defender decides to become a real paper."
The Lost Art of Knowing Your Enemy
On March 10 the Reader published a cover story on the Illinois Minuteman Project, whose founder, Rosanna Pulido, wants Illinoisans to "take back their state" from illegal immigrants. The Reader received several letters from readers offended by the space we gave Pulido and printed one of them. Raul Dorantes and Febronio Zatarain, editorial board members of Contratiempo magazine, complained last week that "the article reads as if everything Ms. Pulido says against immigrants is true."
Reporter Zak Mucha replied simply that "reporting on an organization and its assertions is not the same as endorsing those views." Now Zatarain has responded to Mucha in an essay for the daily newspaper Hoy. "His was a chronicle report," Zatarain declared, "and in this journalistic genre, whether you wish it or not, the author's vision is present." He went on to say that "it looks like the Chicago Reader does not consider undocumented people as sociopolitical beings."
Journalism is commonly written in one spirit and read in another. A partisan who considers the views of someone such as Pulido loathsome and dangerous isn't going to be grateful to the reporter who believes the public should know what she's saying, regardless of what it is. This has always been true. But some of us at the Reader now sense a change in the public's ability to even recognize as journalism reporting that doesn't advertise the reporter's allegiances. Is this an effect of the Internet--where it's all too easy for a reader to sail only in friendly seas?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Joe Bluhm.