By Michael Miner
Sun-Times, School Bully
Some journalism doesn't pretend to be evenhanded. It's written to indict. The most notable recent example in a Chicago paper was last week's Sun-Times article that began under the page-one banner "School funds used to push terrorists' release."
As indictments will, the Sun-Times put the worst face on everything. To justify its headline, it reported that some Clemente High School officials "have ties to the National Liberation Movement (MLN), an organization whose goal is to free more than a dozen people imprisoned for killing five people and injuring more than 70 in dozens of bombings and armed attacks since 1974." These prisoners belonged to the moribund Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which did its bombing in the name of an independent Puerto Rico.
What Clemente has done, the Sun-Times reported, is to use state Chapter 1 funds to bring in lecturers and entertainers who appear not just at Clemente but also at MLN fund-raisers. That connection was a little too rickety for the executive director of Chicago's Latino Institute, who last Thursday called a news conference.
Migdalia Rivera presented reporters with a two-page general statement, a page of background on Clemente, and a two-page, point-by-point response to the Sun-Times article--13 points in all. "If indeed the education of Clemente students has been compromised by the misuse of state Chapter 1 poverty funds, corrective action must occur immediately," said Rivera. "However, rather than focusing on this issue, the Chicago Sun-Times has attempted to make tenuous and unsubstantiated connections between the use of these funds and political activities."
The Sun-Times had reported: "Speakers and artists brought in at school expense for Clemente programs frequently show up at rallies pushing for Puerto Rican independence." Rivera responded: "So what! Once a consultant has fulfilled their contractual services, they--as any other citizen--have the right to use their personal time as they see fit, within the law (to our knowledge, 'pushing for Puerto Rican independence' does not constitute a crime)."
The Sun-Times had reported: "Between 1992 and 1995, records show that more than $150,000 in anti-poverty funds were spent to fly in pro-independence speakers, artists, dancers and entertainers from Puerto Rico to lead 'cultural workshops' and assemblies at Clemente. More than a dozen times, those speakers also headline at pro-independence political events and fund-raisers...as part of the agreement with the school, according to state Chapter 1 records and school documents."
Rivera responded: "Schools across the city, with approval of the Chicago Board of Education, have used state Chapter 1 monies to pay for outside speakers, artists, dancers, and entertainers. Citing the pro-independence ideology of these speakers somehow implies that this ideology is inherently illegal."
The Sun-Times had reported that although former acting principal Edward Negron denied belonging to the MLN, let alone the FALN, he's raised the son of "his longtime companion" Carmen Valentin, who's serving a 90-year prison sentence for FALN activities. And the son "worked as a substitute teacher at Clemente."
Rivera asked: "What is the issue here and how is this relevent to the education of students at Clemente? Since when do children living in a democratic country have to pay for their parents' crimes?"
Rivera observed that Clemente has been on financial probation since 1995 (after an earlier Sun-Times expose of Chapter 1 irregularities), and therefore the central office should have noticed any recent abuses. In fact, the Sun-Times didn't report any. But Rivera's defense of Clemente didn't crack the hard kernel of the paper's case against it, which is that political ideologues have held sway there and distorted the educational process. And when Rivera accused the Sun-Times of "yellow journalism" and the xenophobic "portrayal of Puerto Ricans as terrorists," she was playing to the gallery. There probably wouldn't have been a story if a faction favoring statehood controlled Clemente; nevertheless, the Puerto Ricans the paper called terrorists were terrorists.
That said, the Latino Institute isn't to be casually dismissed. Funded by United Way and several major foundations, it's a respected 22-year-old center that conducts public-policy research. And what Rivera might not have stated adroitly at a press conference she could have elaborated on if asked. The Sun-Times gratuitously linked "duly elected representatives of the Puerto Rican community to terrorists," she told me, which "speaks volumes for portraying a community en masse as terrorists." True enough--the Sun-Times worked into its story Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who, said the paper, "publicly supports the Puerto Rican independence movement and the release of the convicted FALN terrorists," and Alderman Billy Ocasio, "whose wife, Isa, is the sister of convicted FALN terrorist Alberto Rodriguez."
The article filled pages one through three of the Sun-Times. The paper's coverage of Rivera's press conference was six paragraphs long and ran at the bottom of page six. She was given six lines to speak for herself; editor Nigel Wade got nine lines to defend his paper's honor.
That wasn't all. A self-pitying, self-congratulatory editorial in the same paper asserted that "it is axiomatic in the news business that whenever it uncovers wrongdoing, a broadside of baseless and strained ad hominem attacks are [sic] launched on the messenger. It was no different after the Sun-Times disclosed the shenanigans at Roberto Clemente High School. The Latino Institute, in response, accused this newspaper of racism, bias, xenophobia, sensationalism, unprofessionalism and a host of other sins."
This is disgraceful bluster. The Latino Institute addressed 13 specific passages in the Sun-Times article, most often by questioning their pertinence or context. The Sun-Times didn't report this criticism, and its editorial didn't confront it. As a result, the Sun-Times made itself look like a clumsy bully that had mucked around in a community it dimly understood.
For a more nuanced survey of education at Clemente see last October's Catalyst. For a more hysterical, try El Pito, an underground rag published anonymously by political enemies of Guitierrez and Ocasio, in which Clemente's a hotbed of sedition and the two of them belong in chains. The Sun-Times piece plainly owed an intellectual debt to El Pito--it even quoted as a source someone Rivera told me is one of El Pito's reputed publishers.
To its credit, the Sun-Times sent a reporter out to Division Street last Sunday to look beneath the surface of the community. His research established that the people--on the subjects of both Clemente High School and Puerto Rican independence--have mixed opinions.
In My Tribe
Phrenology made a roaring comeback last Sunday in the op-ed pages of the Sun-Times. Occasional columnist Barbara Amiel wrote that Madeleine Albright should have known by looking in the mirror what Amiel could tell the first time she saw Albright on television.
"When I say that I had known that Albright was Jewish, I mean that one look at her features told me so," explained Amiel, who assured us all, "I would never as a journalist have thought it seemly to have 'outed' her." Nevertheless, she was certain.
"Not all individuals conform to their national or ethnic types," Amiel lectured. "But national types do exist, and many individuals correspond to their ethnic types in appearance to the extent that it is self-evident the minute you look at them that they belong to that group. There are several types of Jewish looks, just as there are several types of African, Japanese or American looks. These looks are, incidentally, not stereotypical but archetypal--they simply denote the tribal affinity that is the result of many centuries of inner-marriage within the group. Albright happens to be the type of person whose attractive features correspond to that tribal affinity in an almost unmistakable manner."
This was harmless blather to my eyes, though other readers weren't merely astonished but offended. But Amiel's position is unassailable. She's Jewish herself, and her husband, Conrad Black, owns the paper.
¥ Colleagues speak well of Michelle Stevens, the deposed editorial-page editor of the Sun-Times. She was gracious, if reticent, whenever we spoke, and she wrote an often elegant op-ed column. Occasionally I believed her passionately wrongheaded--her generous views on what sort of private life O.J. Simpson was entitled to after his criminal trial were not mine--but the paper was richer for her black, sometimes contrarian perspective.
But now Nigel Wade has moved metro editor Steve Huntley over to run the editorial board and replace Stevens on the paper's masthead. Stevens has become night news editor. Though Mary Mitchell, who's black, was added to the board, today's masthead consists entirely of white males. Women and blacks at the paper are well aware of it.
Perhaps Stevens isn't leaving at such a bad time. I hear Wade's moving the board's offices next to his own so he can oversee it, and moving its politics to the right. And it's said he wants editorials written off the news--that is, viscerally--instead of after a day or two's reflection. (An editorial taunting the Latino Institute in the same paper that covers it is an example.) These steps would threaten the editorial page's independence, quality, and traditions. Otherwise they make sense.
¥ An excellent column by R. Bruce Dold a week ago in the Tribune almost restored my faith in American justice. Dold proposed that both O.J. Simpson trials ended the way they should have: the first time round the stakes were simply higher, the lawyers opposing Simpson dimmer, and much of the evidence against him contaminated. "If members of that first jury believed that the cops tried to frame a probably guilty man, and that put some doubt in their mind as to what really happened," Dold wrote, "then they still made the right decision not to convict him....The process hasn't been pretty but it has worked."
The day before, Dold's colleague Eric Zorn had elaborated on the idea of cops framing a guilty man. "Guilty people are framed every day," Zorn asserted, admonishing us that whatever its utilitarian virtues, evidence enhancement "insults the Constitution and creates a cancerous culture of deceit in the legal system" while occasionally landing the "genuinely innocent" in prison. Zorn's fine essay, like Dold's, seemed premised on the belief that enough justice has finally been dealt Simpson that it's time to review the lessons learned and close the book.
But after reading Dold's column I spotted, in the same day's Sun-Times, a column by Carl Rowan making exactly the same argument: "Both juries made the proper decision." Is the insight I gave Dold credit for turning out to be the conventional wisdom? If so, should we be wary of how much comfort we take in the world's finest system of justice? What it now offers every accused person is the right to be tried twice, once by a jury of his peers and once by a jury of the victim's peers, one of which finds him guilty while the other finds him innocent.
¥ After spotting the scandalous KidNews headline "When hearts and farts are joined..." I interrogated two key Tribune editors.
Features editor Gerould Kern: "You can go too far and this did....Kind of an aberration."
KidNews editor Devin Rose, who wrote the head: "I felt it was pretty consistent with my philosophy of KidNews....I got five calls, and four were from angry grandmothers."
To test the grass roots I held the article up in front of my kids' faces and asked them, what do you think of this? Eventually they said they weren't sure what they were supposed to be looking at.
¥ The Tribune's always paid keen attention to the debate over the McGraw-Hill Building. Last Friday the Tribune fretted that if Nordstrom bails out of the redevelopment deal because preserving the facade drives costs too high, Chicago will pay a terrible price. And not just in lost jobs and sales taxes. "Gone, too, would be the opportunity for a badly needed sheltered walkway from Michigan Avenue to the Grand Avenue subway station." Badly needed, certainly, by Tribune employees in the Tower who ride the subway. p
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Midgalia Rivera photo by Nathan Mandell.