Springer's in the Air: Trib Fumes
John Milton makes an uncertain guide through the thickets of television virtue. "Read the Areopagitica," a friend insisted, after hailing me on the street and learning my enthusiasm for Jerry Springer's performance the night before did not approach his own.
Milton made a powerful argument for an untrammeled press of many voices. "And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth," he thundered in 1644, "so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
As if Milton were whispering in his ear, Springer defended himself Monday night against the winds of doctrine beating him. "This elitist snobbery that only people who meet an anchor's approval should be permitted to share the set is now being hidden in the self-righteous cries of journalistic integrity," he asserted, delivering his first sermon as a Channel Five commentator. "Please understand. We have no journalism in a free society unless we have commentary from all parts of the community--from the poor, the disenfranchised, the left, the right, the outrageous, and yes--the different. Not just from the endless array of Walter Cronkite wannabes that populate every news program in America so that virtually every news program looks alike."
Too many Walter Cronkite wannabes is broadcast journalism's biggest problem? Springer was a breath of fresh air gusting strong. "Look. I'm sorry the anchor quit," he went on. "I'm sorry she found it necessary this week to use me as her stepping stone to martyrdom. But as much as I detest the editorial snobbery on this issue, I would never ever suggest that she doesn't have a place on our airwaves. She does. But here in America the rest of us do too. I wish she could have met my dad."
If you came in on the middle of his commentary you probably wondered what his dad had to do with anything. You'd missed his heart-wrenching opening, when he explained that he came from a family of Holocaust victims. Which is why back in the late 70s, when he was mayor of Cincinnati, he was reluctant to issue some neo-Nazis a permit to march through town even though he knew what the Constitution said. "But my dad reminded me that this is America," he reminisced. "That this is the freedom we sought when we escaped. So we must never be a party to silencing any person or any point of view, no matter how despicable."
You might have supposed that Springer's astonishing conflation of himself with despicable neo-Nazis would have left his critics speechless. But no. The next morning, flouting the canons of journalism that prescribe a dispassionate recounting of events, the press let Springer have it. If Truth was going to grapple with Falsehood over the state of television, the beat reporters wanted in on the fight.
For what had to be the first time in its history, the Sun-Times honored a TV commentary with a banner headline: "Springer fights back." Robert Feder quickly inserted himself into his story. "Viewers may have been struck by the irony that Springer frequently features neo-Nazis on his entertainment talk show," he wrote. "They also may have noted that with five hours a week of national television exposure, Springer has ample opportunity to air his views."
The Tribune's Steve Johnson was even more partisan. "Springer wrapped himself in the American flag, the Holocaust, and the sackcloth of the little guy standing up to the media elite....Much like his talk show does, he made the issue cheap and ugly."
If he'd been on his toes Springer could have ducked that potshot by quoting the Areopagitica. "If it come to prohibiting," Milton wrote, "there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors."
As we'd say these days, the truth ain't pretty. Springer's problem, the odd time he tries to stand on principle, is that he's romped for years on television never taking principle seriously. "If it's not outrageous it doesn't get on," he once told the Dallas Morning News. "Nobody watches any of us because they think this is enlightenment or the truth."
The day Mike Royko died, the Sun-Times scolded the anchors at Channel Five for standing up for what they believe in. Carol Marin and Ron Magers believed Jerry Springer had no business delivering commentary on the ten o'clock news.
As Springer more or less said in his own defense, where did these two get off, since their news was already so trashy not even he could make it worse. The point was well taken. Broadcast news had been rotting away for years, and they'd lived with it--inveighing intramurally against the relentless corrosion and drawing large paychecks.
But Springer wasn't just another cow pie on the road to perdition. Channel Five was bringing in to speak his conscience somebody who didn't have one (was he expected to rent a conscience for the occasion?). To inquire after truth, somebody who says TV isn't in the business of it. Hiring Springer was a breathtakingly cynical piece of casting. Channel Five was thumbing its nose at the public's discernment and its anchors' principles.
So, at least, it seemed to the anchors. They got precious little sympathy from the Sun-Times. The editorial page gave Marin and Magers a stiff dressing down, pointing out that just because you frolic with fleas it doesn't mean everyone's going to think you're a flea. Some people won't even think you're a dog. "It is unlikely that Springer's views would destroy the professional credibility they have," said the Sun-Times. "These popular on-air personalities, both of whom are rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts, would appear unflatteringly elitist if they bar the door to another commentator because they deem him unsuitable....However well-intended, there is no room in journalism for elitism."
When Springer went on TV Monday night the Sun-Times gave him his basic text.
From another paper, the editorial's views could be dismissed as fatuous idiocy. But the Sun-Times knows more than the rest of us about elitism. Owner Conrad Black has spent a lifetime pursuing the subject. Return to 1995, to that evening when what the Sun-Times dubbed the "global glitterati" descended on our city for a Conrad Black soiree at the Cultural Center. This was the night that drew--let me check the guest list, printed in its entirety in the Sun-Times--among others Margaret Thatcher, "Baroness of Kesteven, O.M., P.C., F.R.S.," the Honorable Walter Annenberg, the Honorable Paul Volcker, General Vernon Walters, and George Will. Not to mention the host and hostess themselves, "the Hon. Conrad M. And Barbara Amiel Black, P.C., O.C."
There was room in journalism for elitism that night, two full pages of it.
What the Sun-Times understands, and wishes to teach the rest of us, is that there is good elitism and bad elitism. Good elitism is never "well intended"--or badly intended, for that matter. Good elitism simply is. It's the way of the world. It's our natural betters treating us like chattel.
Bad elitism is when well-paid minions act uppity. Black, who's a Londoner, and other capable men from the Commonwealth administer the Sun-Times, and I have struggled for a way to describe their sense of duty and entitlement. Perhaps the way to put it is they think of themselves as the Raj. The paper's heartfelt message to Marin and Magers was the one colonizers offer to the natives everywhere: Stay in your place.
When a newspaper takes a preposterous stand on its editorial page it's for one of three reasons. (1) The besotted paper sincerely believes it's correct. (2) The paper thinks that at least it's being true to its traditions. (3) It wants to stir up commotion and ride the wave.
After insulting the Channel Five anchors, the Sun-Times invited Carol Marin to respond. I'm afraid she played into the paper's hands, contributing a lovely essay that dismissed Springer as "the poster child for the worst television has to offer." She wouldn't have compromised an ounce of dignity if she'd told the paper to shove it.
But credit where it's due. There's no party line at the Sun-Times, where columnists Richard Roeper and Neil Steinberg excoriated Springer. Of course, so did Eric Zorn and Mary Schmich at the Tribune and just about everyone else who weighed in. Springer caught it a lot worse than the station carrying him, which is often the fate of pawns.
Though other TV stations jumped on the story when Marin resigned last week, Channel Seven ignored it. The only coverage it provided, oddly enough, came from the ABC network news.
"We chose not to cover the Carol Marin-Ron Magers-Springer thing," said WLS news director Phyllis Schwartz. "It's consistent with our coverage of the local comings and goings of local news people. We didn't cover Bill Kurtis leaving Channel 2, or Walter Jacobson hopping over to Channel 32, or Jim Tilmon leaving Channel 5. I think it's inside baseball."
As it happens, baseball fans are fascinated by inside baseball, and television has a lot more fans than baseball. But there might have been more to WLS TV's disdain than Schwartz let on. It sniffed around the Channel Five morality drama and smelled a media stunt. "A brilliant promotional move," said someone at WLS. It was even better than that. Channel Five ran off the newsroom scold while pulling in Springer's afternoon devotees, who at night are usually surfing the dial for tag-team wrestling.
The advantages to the Channel Five maneuver might exist only in the short run, there being few long-term benefits to making yourself look contemptible. But the day after tomorrow's a long time from now in television.
The following sponsors underwrote the newscast that introduced commentator Jerry Springer to Chicago:
New York Carpet World
Carson Pirie Scott
Follow your conscience.
Possible sign outside the NBC Tower: "Help wanted, news. Walter Cronkite wannabes need not apply."
The day after Carol Marin resigned, Jerry Springer appeared on Tom Snyder's Late Show. Snyder shared his pain and agreed with every word he said. The night Springer debuted on Channel Five, Carol Marin appeared on the Late Show. Snyder shared her pain and agreed with every word she said.
Full disclosure. Carol Marin's husband is the assistant coach of my daughter's soccer team.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Kurt Mitchell.