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Still in the Dark/The New Contrarians/News Bites

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Still in the Dark

Let me make a prediction. In about two weeks newspapers across America will observe the second anniversary of September 11 by offering localized answers to the great national question: are we safer?

I expect these stories because the subject's so obvious and so important, and taking it up is so manifestly what serious newspapers are supposed to do. Next year we'll have a presidential election that probably will hinge on what the nation concludes, but the question can't wait until then. In 2004 American newspapers will be too compromised by their politics for us to trust their judgments; next month we can hope they're not.

Two years after 9/11 we have a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, a prison in Cuba, armies in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've lost the goodwill of tens of millions of Europeans, and our neighbors in Mexico and Canada aren't as fond of us as they used to be. Does it matter? Laws have changed, ground has shifted under our civil liberties, tax cuts may have compromised our ability to pay for the protections we say we want. Or do we lack will, not money?

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert was reading a report called "Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared" when the lights went out last week, and now he's writing that Americans simply refuse to pay attention to warnings. There are always plenty of warnings, but should we let them alarm us? We've read that our harbors can be easily penetrated, that the safety of air travel is an illusion. The New Republic reported that the secretary of energy asked for almost $380 million to protect nuclear-weapons storage sites and the White House gave him $26.4 million. The Chicago Tribune editorial page just complained that Republicans in Congress are dithering over a plan to install missile protection systems in passenger airplanes.

Is Herbert right? If he is, what, if anything, needs to be done? Given that America is a large, complex, and more than minimally neurotic nation, is it doing as much to protect itself as anyone can reasonably expect? Pulitzers await the newspapers that publish the wisest answers. I assume the stories now in the pipeline were being rewritten this week to take into account one clear new fact: America's electricity delivery system is old and underbuilt and vulnerable to massive collapse.

Nobody woke up worrying about Arab terrorists on 9/11, but everyone knew what to think when the unthinkable happened. On August 14 everyone immediately needed to know that it hadn't happened again. I turned on the TV last Thursday afternoon, and assurances that terrorists weren't responsible came at me so fast I understood I shouldn't blame them almost before I understood what I shouldn't blame them for. By the time I began to write this column five days later, the U.S. had blamed Canada, Canada had blamed the U.S., and everybody had blamed Cleveland, even though nobody could be sure yet what had caused the blackout. And everyone was still stressing that terrorists weren't responsible.

Network TV the evening of August 14 was like 9/11 redux--the nonstop drama of New Yorkers up against it. Manhattan is infinitely fascinating to the TV journalists who work there, and it's right outside their door. Though anchormen frequently noted that some 40 or 50 million other people as far west as Michigan and hundreds of miles north into Canada didn't have electricity either, TV showed little curiosity about them. The significance of the vast number was that it added gravitas to New York City's third blackout in 39 years.

And maybe TV was right. In Toronto elevators jolted to a halt in high-rises, subways sat paralyzed in their tunnels, gallant civilians dashed into intersections to direct traffic. A famous anchor on vacation drove straight to the studio and went on the air in his shorts. All of which could be summarized in a sentence: "And then there's Toronto, where conditions are much like those in New York--only less significant." I'm not sure the American networks even found time for this.

Ted Koppel impressed me when he got a police official in Sudbury, Ontario, on the phone and asked about some miners stranded as much as 4,000 feet belowground. But the miners turned out to be in no danger, leaving Koppel with a look of troubled concern and nothing much to be troubled about. Meanwhile Ottawa, the nation's capital, went dark too--suggesting a line of inquiry that might have been more edifying than a 13th look at pedestrians streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge.

The New Contrarians

Let me make a second predicttion. We'll soon be reading critiques that take the same general tack as Robert Markunas's essay this month in the Chicago Sports Review.

The Review is an intriguing new monthly newspaper that proposes to meditate on the sports the dailies wallow in. "Our goal is to produce longer, inspired pieces that take the daily sports news and run with it," says publisher Tom Alexander. Alexander is 25, a University of Chicago graduate with a degree in political science. A while back he decided to launch a Web site for "particularly aggressive fans who gamble on sports, play fantasy sports, never get tired of sports."

But the Web site, www.scoresdaily.com, wasn't enough to satisfy Alexander, who came to the old-fashioned conclusion that "people like something they can touch, take on the train, read in the bathroom." So he resurrected the Chicago Sports Review, which had made a brief appearance last year under a different owner, and he's now published six issues. "We want to spend less time worrying about if the Cubs won yesterday and more exploring the bigger-picture issues," he says. "You lose something when you obsess about what's happening from Monday to Tuesday."

Alexander has rounded up some pretty good writers, a couple of them old college buddies. The article that caught my eye in the August issue was Markunas's. A Bears season ticket holder, he's one of Alexander's regulars, and to my knowledge his "Just Get Over It" is the first brief in favor of the new Soldier Field. Markunas calls the old Soldier Field a "dump" and wonders, "What's not to like about wider seats, better sight lines, two mammoth Jumbotrons...and more toilets and concessions?"

He's right, of course. Old Soldier Field was a dump, and as he says, if it was also a tribute to our fighting men, how come they never showed up there on Memorial Day?

But Markunas writes from the narrow perspective of the Bears fan who knows the stadium from sitting in it watching a game. That's not how 99 percent of the public will ever relate to Soldier Field. The critics Markunas quotes so disdainfully were speaking for everyone else--the Tribune's Blair Kamin when he called the new Soldier Field a "monumental eyesore," and the Washington Post's Bob Levey when he reported, "I have just seen the most horrible piece of architecture in all the land."

Markusas's essay is just the beginning. The new Soldier Field is a major piece of civic architecture, and with the Bears' first game in it only a month away, our nation's aesthetes will soon descend on Chicago to pass judgment. I have a nodding acquaintance with critical vanity, which is why I'm certain these arbiters will have no wish to parrot judgments already rendered. If Kamin and Levey despise Soldier Field, critics whose real target is always the conventional wisdom have no choice but to proclaim that they do not.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of case they come up with. Admiring Soldier Field won't be easy. I've worked on the problem myself, making some headway without solving it. Approaching Soldier Field from the south, I've groped for language adequate to the sight. There the thing stands, like nothing else ever built, and words fail me as they failed the bygone generation that gaped at the Daley Plaza Picasso.

In a sign of progress, the inadequate words that used to come to mind--"incredible," "ridiculous"--have been superseded by "terrifying." The swank sheets of glass and steel burst out of the stately old colonnade to form the soaring western grandstand--precipitous tiers braced by a couple of toothpicks that look ready to snap at the first loud cheer. You couldn't pay me to sit in those seats.

But thanks to cunning design work, the same visual cues that tell us the stadium's about to fall down offer an assurance that the thousands of screaming Bears stalwarts will survive the plunge. For below the gleaming, perilously upswept new grandstand is the loyal colonnade waiting patiently to break the fall.

And thus, as architecture critics like to say, do insanely incongruous design elements manage to relate. It could be that a new philosophy of architectural juxtaposition has just been asserted and that Soldier Field will soon be hailed as its dashing avatar.

Maybe some critic gazing at Soldier Field will wax poetic about the 21st century bursting from the loins of the 19th, or from Cicero's Rome, or Pericles' Greece, or whatever. Someone might hail the vitality of the new stadium; someone else the insouciance. An easterner will explain for the benefit of other easterners that Chicagoans lack the sophistication to appreciate visual drollery.

Markunas, sticking to basics, quotes a fan who says, "I like the fact that I will be able to pee in a toilet and the fact that I won't have to miss an entire quarter to get a beer."

News Bites

Adam Katz is Sammy Sosa's agent.

Paul Sullivan in the Tribune, August 11: "'There's no reason for him not to look,' Katz said. 'We bargained awfully hard for [the escape clause]. There were some things we really wanted and didn't get, and there's some things [Cubs President] Andy [MacPhail] wanted, and this was a natural compromise.'"

Jay Mariotti in the Sun-Times, August 15: "Last weekend in Los Angeles, Katz said Sosa intends to shop the marketplace. . . . 'There's no reason for him not to look,' Katz said of Sosa. 'We bargained awfully hard for [the escape clause]. There were some things we really wanted and didn't get, and there's some things Andy wanted--and this was a natural compromise.'"

The brackets aren't mine, they're the papers'.

According to Sullivan and Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald, Katz was talking to them at the time. Mariotti, who wasn't even in LA., set me straight. Such quotes are public property. Katz "talked to all of the beat writers in Los Angeles. He talked to Mike Kiley of my newspaper. When he's doing a press conference in front of a lot of reporters it's open game."

But a conversation with two reporters isn't exactly a press conference. Kiley tells me he hasn't talked to Katz in two years.

"I would like the Chicago Tribune to give the Sun-Times credit for my Jordan piece on September 11, 2001," Mariotti counterattacks. He'd stayed in touch with Michael Jordan all that summer, covered his workouts, and on September 11 reported that he was returning to the NBA. Mariotti told me the Tribune immediately picked up the story but didn't give him credit for having it first. "That entire frickin' summer I'm out there, and they're blowing it off," he says grumpily. "I think you're barking up the wrong tree here. I'm doing hard work."

One step forward, one step back... On August 10 the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Company paper, broke new ground by publishing the paid announcement of a lesbian couple's lifetime commitment ceremony. But the announcement didn't appear on the page where wedding notices run--the back page of the Arts & Society section--or anywhere near it. "The way in which the notice was published on Sunday--amid classified ads for lost pets, used furniture and old cars for sale," the Sun observed in its own long, detailed account of the matter, "would seem to conflict with the consensus that had emerged among The Sun's news editors last year."

Sun officials refused to comment to Sun reporters. "We're just not ready to talk about that right now," said the paper's general manager.

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