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Sun-Times Flips Over Meigs

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By Michael Miner

Sun-Times Flips Over Meigs

If an airport didn't exist on Northerly Island, nobody would urge the city to build one. And if Meigs Field's 50-year lease weren't up in September, that airstrip would be the least of Chicago's worries.

But the lease does expire, so Meigs is ipso facto an issue. Mayor Daley made it clear years ago that he wanted the airport replaced by a nature preserve, and once upon a time both dailies hailed his position. "Imagine a small pond surrounded by dune grass, a retreat where migrating geese and heron stop to rest and preen feathers. Now imagine that this idyll is within walking distance of Chicago's Loop," said a Tribune editorial in 1994. "It's an excellent concept, but one that will require some thoughtful planning."

The Sun-Times was already on board. "It should be a park, as Mayor Daley is urging," said a '93 editorial. "That's how it was meant to be when it was conceived as part of Daniel H. Burnham's 1909 great plan for Chicago.

"No doubt, some small number of airport enthusiasts will protest the closing, gripped as they are by an overly glorious notion of Meigs' importance to the city's commerce. Such enthusiasts once even predicted that the airport would be as busy as Midway, or even O'Hare."

Last February 29 the Sun-Times broke the story that Mayor Daley would appoint his wife to head a committee responsible for turning Meigs "into a park complex including wetlands, an education center, gardens and an enhanced beach area."

The next day the paper's editorial page weighed in on the mayor's plans (which Daley had yet to formally announce). "We're already sold on the idea," said the Sun-Times, and urged state and federal officials to cooperate with the city. "It's nice when a politician delivers on a promise; it's even nicer when politics don't get in the way of making the promise a reality."

The Sun-Times went so far as to announce a competition. School-children were asked to submit their own designs for the island. These were judged by three architects from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the winners were announced in a double-page spread in the Sunday paper of May 19.

By journalism's normal lights the contest could mean only one thing: not mere support for the idea of replacing Meigs but the kind of wholehearted identification with it required for civic grandstanding.

All an illusion, says editor Nigel Wade.

"Don't confuse the contest with an editorial position," Wade told me the other day. "It was just something interesting to do."

This is a strange statement. Newspapers don't often do "interesting" things on behalf of causes they disagree with. By sponsoring the competition, the Sun-Times postured as the champion of a transformed Northerly Island.

And today that's what it clearly isn't.

In mid-June one of those "airport enthusiasts" the Sun-Times had made fun of back in 1993 came calling on Wade. Steven Whitney, a pilot and businessman who founded Friends of Meigs Field a year ago, says he read the Sun-Times's March 1 editorial supporting Mayor Daley's plans for Northerly Island and thought, "Oh my God, this is terrible." Whitney's first reaction was to salvage what he could. He called the Tribune and pleaded, "Would you guys please not weigh in until you've heard the other side?"

Whitney led a delegation to the Tower to present that side, and the Tribune, after thinking the matter over for weeks, told Daley not so fast, in language that could not have suited Whitney better. A July 3 editorial called Meigs "a unique civic asset" that "neither the mayor nor his parks management team has made the case for summarily closing." So much for the retreat for "migrating geese and heron" that the Tribune had deemed "an excellent concept" two years earlier.

Whitney's meeting with Wade also went better than he could have hoped. "I was shocked that they jumped the gun," Whitney told me, referring to the March 1 editorial he considered precipitous. "[Wade] didn't really try to defend himself. He said, 'Well, I was new at the time, I wasn't familiar with the issues'--or something. It's really an unusual topic where up until fairly recently, emotions were ruling logic and nobody was trying to marshal the facts."

The conversation took an intriguing turn. "One of the interesting things [Wade] brought up," Whitney recalled, "was that there had been a referendum back in the 20s on whether to have a park on Northerly Island. And he asked us, 'What do you think about this referendum thing?' I said, well, it was interesting, but it was taken before they had a clear idea of the value of a downtown airport. And Wade said, 'What do you think of a referendum today?'"

Wade decided to sponsor one. In late June the Sun-Times and radio station WBEZ commissioned a $5,000 telephone poll in which 502 persons in four counties weighed in on Northerly. The findings: 21 percent "strongly" and as many "mildly" opposed to closing Meigs; 16 percent "strongly" and as many "mildly" in favor of closing it; and 26 percent who "did not know or care." Armed with these numbers, the Sun-Times produced an editorial on July 8 that pronounced the conversion of Northerly "a lovely, creative idea" that lacked a democracy's sine qua non: "public support."

"We have previously endorsed replacing Meigs with a park, but the way the city has gone about it is an affront," the Sun-Times thundered. "The land belongs to taxpayers, who should not have to be subjected to a decision that is handed down, as if from on high, by Mayor Daley."

The editorial made the unusual claim that in this case ignorance was a virtue. "The poll was taken before the Park District's detailed plans for the new park were unveiled last week, so the results probably are more reflective of true feelings, unaffected by showy park plans." The truest feelings tapped by the poll escaped the paper. Despite the considerable attention paid by the press to the Meigs Field issue, 63 percent of the people polled--almost two-thirds--had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

When a serious newspaper believes a "lovely, creative" civic project lacks public support, normally it sets out to create it. Not the Sun-Times. On July 12 it spoke out again on Northerly, its voice ringing with scorn. Daley was deemed "narrow and parochial" for criticizing the exurban scope of the Sun-Times poll. The mayor's "reluctance to consult the public" was now "an affront to democracy." Somehow detecting a groundswell the paper declared, "It is clear that the public--no matter where they live--wants the issue discussed."

On July 23 the editorial page was at it again. "Too bad for residents near Jackson, Humboldt, Garfield and Columbus parks that Mayor Daley doesn't live near them," said the paper. "For they might be the ones lucky enough to see their public recreation areas get a $27 million revamping. Instead, the gates to the 64th Street beach house are chained shut. The bathrooms at Humboldt Park are closed. Garfield Park and Columbus Park have fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, Daley plans to spend $27 million to convert Meigs Field, a rock's throw from his Central Station home, to a park. Never mind that Meigs, by everyone's figures, generates revenue for the city."

This editorial confounded Daley's allies. It wasn't simply that the Sun-Times--meaning Nigel Wade--had turned contrarian. That was its/his right. Daley's supporters complained to me that the paper's facts have been wrong, and that they've been wrong because Wade won't listen to them. Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, told me that she called the paper a couple of weeks ago and left a message for Wade: "I want to come in and talk to you and bring some other people." Wade didn't call back. (He says he didn't get her message.)

Much of the July 23 Sun-Times editorial was a regurgitation of Bobby Rush's complaints on July 21, when he held a press conference at the tumbledown, sealed-off beach house on 64th Street. "This building is symbolic of the condition of the south-side lakefront," said the congressman. Denouncing the $27 million conversion of Meigs Field, he made the point that the mayor's neighborhood was already blessed with open space.

The Sun-Times report added that "Rush was joined by West Side activists who complained about locked bathrooms at Humboldt Park, a decaying gazebo at Garfield Park and potholes and broken water fountains at Columbus Park."

Later that day, Tranter told me, "A reporter called me at home and said, 'Bobby Rush had a press conference. What's your response to it?' I said it's not true. Thirty million dollars has been put into the South Shore Cultural Center. Promontory Point was restored at about three-quarters of a million dollars. Five beach houses are planned for the lakefront, and three of them are on the south side. So it's not fair to say there's no money.

"There wasn't a word of my comments [in the Sun-Times coverage]. I have no idea why."

Nora Moreno, a Park District spokesman, did respond to Rush as part of the paper's coverage, and later she sent me a Park District stat sheet. It said this: at Humboldt Park--$3.5 million being spent to restore the rose garden and rebuild the stables to accommodate a Latin American museum of art; at Garfield Park--$4.4 million to rehabilitate the conservatory; at Columbus Park--$2.5 million to renovate the refectory and restore the lagoon, waterfall, and landscape.

Tranter faxed me a Sun-Times editorial from last November that compared the proposed Park District and Cook County budgets and argued that the county "should take a lesson from the Park District, whose $303.9 million 1996 budget gives taxpayers what they need and want--at a price that's $1.7 million less than last year's....Park District Supt. Forrest Claypool has increased recreation spending by 53 percent in the last three years, without raising taxes."

"They've done a lot of positive spinning on Claypool and his new management system," said Tranter. "I've been a little frustrated by all these glowing things they've said. On and on, these great articles. And now suddenly it's the neighborhood parks that are falling apart, not much money's in the budget. By their own reporting, none of that is true."

It's always splendid, of course, when a great newspaper champions wholesome government; but the result of the Sun-Times's championing has been to make its position on Meigs Field unintelligible. "Our current position is we're in favor of a full and broad debate, a public debate, which until we published our poll hadn't shown any sign of shaping up," said Wade. Yes, fine. But where does the Sun-Times now stand on that debate? Michelle Stevens, who heads the editorial board, answered. "Our official position is still--at least the board's position is--it should be changed into a park, although we think the city should slow down and not ram this thing through."

Then your position remains the position you took on March 1? That's when the Sun-Times declared, "We're already sold on the idea."

"Yes," said Stephens. "We're taking into consideration all the antipark sentiment," she added, "and we would hope the city would do the same."

There's something absurd about the newfound fastidiousness at both papers, the Sun-Times's simply being the more egregious. Daniel Burnham wrote his plan, as the Sun-Times noted in 1993 but seems to have forgotten since, 87 years ago. The Meigs Field lease was signed in 1946. The dailies have had all the time in the world to think about what should happen on Northerly Island when that lease expired, and when they weighed in a few years ago on Daley's side, readers had a right to suppose they meant it.

Of course democratic niceties have not been observed. Daley knows what he wants and he's told a rubber-stamp park board, planning commission, and city council to give it to him. But what did the papers think was going to happen? Nigel Wade has lived here less than a year, but that's long enough to have learned to judge our civic projects on their merits, not by the yardstick of participatory government. If Whitney's convinced him the mayor's plan is lousy, his paper should say so. If he thinks a nature preserve belongs on Northerly Island, he should stop finding procedural reasons for obstructing it. It makes the Sun-Times look prissy.

Years ago newspapers praised the high-minded agreement Great Britain had reached with the People's Republic of China to withdraw in 1997 from Hong Kong. The Sun-Times and Tribune have sounded like fretting editorialists who just found out, on the eve of the withdrawal, that China isn't a democracy.

Exploding an Olympic Myth

During the hour I napped on the couch in front of the TV, a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. When I awoke I wasn't at NBC's Olympics anymore. The fanfares had been silenced; the gauzy biographies of teenagers had disappeared into the same void as the commercials that tugged at our heartstrings. Journalism had shoved show business off the screen.

What I did not think about until later is that reality itself had been restored. When Jim Lampley said that the cause of the blast was still a mystery, he wasn't holding back results posted six hours earlier. When we heard from Atlanta's mayor, the mayor wasn't actually sound asleep. When reporters stood outside emergency rooms passing along what little they knew, they spoke as we listened, not as pieces of a 90-second prefabricated narrative. And when a camera swept across bleeding victims sprawled on the ground seconds after the blast, we were watching a tape and no one pretended otherwise. The tape was played again and again, along with a map of the city and a picture of the crumpled tower, but only because NBC had nothing better to put on the air.

The games, of course, went on. For NBC, getting back to normal meant getting back to myth. The U.S. men's volleyball team will be seeking "revenge" against Brazil, we were told in the morning. Dominique Dawes will be seeking "redemption." America is full of faithful TV watchers who are enraged by news bulletins that interrupt soap operas. Aside from that one night, NBC's Olympics coverage catered to this sort of audience.

News Bites

On TV they always nab him in 60 minutes. "To restore safety and order to a gruesomely chaotic Games, a better idea would have been to suspend all events. Very simply, give everyone a day or two to settle down, find the murderer, let the athletes refocus, let fans decide if they want to go home, then resume the events at their enjoyable best" (Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times).

Weirdest page-one banner headline as minds reeled from a 747 catastrophe and the opening of the Olympic Games: "IMPORTED COWS KILLED" (Sun-Times).

I asked Park District commissioner Michael Scott why he thinks the Sun-Times changed course on Northerly Island. Scott said, "My understanding is the guy who's the editor actually lives in London and he's used the airport quite a bit."

Wade did live in London until recently. But he says he's never landed at or taken off from Meigs Field in his life. There is no Meigs-Heathrow shuttle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration - paper airplane - by Peter Hannan.

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