By Michael Miner
Team Reporting at Its Finest
"Nine all about indulgence," was the Sun-Times's unsparing look at a new West Loop hot spot two Sundays ago. The report consumed three entire pages of the news hole--whatever it takes, the editors obviously decided--and reporter Alice Van Housen let the chips fall where they might. "An all-out, all-ages bacchanalia...a scintillating tableau of cleavage and caviar, midriffs and martinis," she reported, serving blunt notice that middle-aged, bald, fat people might not feel at home at Nine. "A fortysomething North Shore mental health professional admits, 'It was great until around 9:30 or 10. Then, I never felt so old or so out of it.'"
A story this good doesn't just drop from the skies and land in a newspaper's lap. It was carefully placed there by Mary Wagstaff, a Los Angeles-based PR executive. And despite Van Housen's unflinching gaze--"'Nine is all about indulgence,' says manager Victoria Salerno....Some early reports of less-than-perfect food and service have been all but drowned out in the din of the perpetual party"--Wagstaff sounds ecstatic at what the Sun-Times made of it. "Once in a while you hit it big," she tells me.
Some Sun-Times staffers cringed at the Nine spectacle, while the author of an unsigned letter (to me and to the Sun-Times) called it a "big wet kiss" and accused Van Housen of hiding a long history with Nine's owners, Michael Morton and Scott DeGraff. "Even in this age of symbiotic relationships between freelance writers, PR firms and so-called news media," it said, "journalists have a responsibility to identify relationships past or present that could suggest a less than objective point of view."
To be technical, the responsibility journalists have is to avoid compromising relationships in the first place, not to confess them after the fact and leave readers wondering what to believe. But it's an imperfect world. Wagstaff and Van Housen have been friends for years, and several years ago they worked at the same Chicago PR firm, a firm that represented Morton and DeGraff. Wagstaff eventually moved to LA and Van Housen into journalism. But when Wagstaff approached the Sun-Times about various projects, Van Housen was one of the small group of freelance writers she suggested could do a bang-up job.
It's also true that a few years ago Van Housen and Amy Morton, sister of Michael Morton, ran a restaurant consulting business together. (Amy gets a nice mention in the Nine piece.) A message Wagstaff left on my voice mail praising Van Housen went to the nub: "Alice has more integrity than most people I know, and she wrote a very fair article. Of course she knows the Mortons and used to work with Amy, but she would definitely be objective on this article."
The Sun-Times isn't the only place where Van Housen has sung Nine's praises. But then the only way freelancers make enough to eat is by recycling their material. Van Housen closed her consulting business four years ago when she decided to become a freelance writer, and she expects her journalism to be judged on its merits. "I've gone out of my way to turn down assignments whenever I thought my objectivity might be compromised--or perceived to be compromised," she told me by E-mail. "Anyone who has read my [restaurant] reviews can tell you that I call 'em as I see 'em. And the same is true of this Nine article, which was more of a lifestyle feature....I can't help it if Nine is something of a phenomenon for Chicago--and I'm certainly not alone in saying so."
Former Sunday editor Michael Arnold told me he picked Van Housen to tell the Nine story because "she had the right voice and the right energy." Unfortunately, the voices of PR agents and of awestruck A-list lifestyle reporters are often indistinguishable.
Today's Sun-Times has a serious weakness for glittering trivia, and Wagstaff exploited it to a fare-thee-well. But she keenly understands the true importance of the big story she persuaded the paper to go for. "I don't think anyone calls this news," she says. "The only thing that's news is that these places are new places and customers are interested in going to them and checking them out."
So Funny She Forgot to Laugh
N o law says journalism can't be fun. Did a report by Inside, a north-side neighborhood weekly, on a solemn new exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society become any less informative because it was written by "Hugh Mann Wrights"? Publisher Ronald Roenigk says, "We have a staff of two or three writers. We want to look like a little bigger staff."
Yet when Lincoln Square's Mary Edsey read Inside's recent coverage of the local Starbucks debate, her sense of grievance was understandably compounded by the name over the article: Kareem N. Sugar.
Starbucks has already opened for business at Lincoln and Wilson and is considering a couple of other locations in the area. Edsey, who heads the North Center/Lincoln Square Neighborhood Association, declared her organization's opposition in a four-point statement distributed at a September 18 meeting of community leaders in the offices of the 47th Ward's alderman, Gene Schulter. Roenigk, the actual author of the Inside article, wasn't at the meeting, but he reconstructed it. He quoted from Edsey's point one--"A large number of North Center/Lincoln Square residents do not want to live in a trendy, gentrified neighborhood"--and then turned to other participants for their reactions.
"Poor Mary," said Victoria Khamas of UpRave (as in Uptown-Ravenswood). "I'm happy to see Starbucks here, and I don't even drink coffee."
"We tried to explain to [Edsey] that it is not our place to keep businesses out," said Dan Garner of the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. "I just don't think they get it."
In a long letter of response, which Roenigk printed nearly in full, Edsey called Inside's coverage an "obviously one-sided article" that demonstrated "journalism at its worst. Not only did it leave out interviews with the people and organizations it criticized, but it was solely based on a meeting that was obviously biased against those persons in the first place." According to Edsey, she alone of the 16 people invited to the meeting represented the anti-Starbucks position, and in this hostile atmosphere "attempted to present NC/LS's four-point opposition" to Starbucks.
And then there was this: "Furthermore, the writer of the article is listed as Kareem N. Sugar...cream n' sugar. Oh, please, Mr. Roenigk, how stupid do you think the public is?"
"OK, you got us!" Roenigk responded in print. But he insisted that nobody was trying to hide anything and advised her to "lighten up and try some decaf for a change."
Roenigk explained that he'd tried to capture the meeting's flavor by calling the participants afterward. He said he didn't need to call Edsey because he'd got hold of her two-page statement, which he'd edited down "as is also done in real journalism."
And if the way he wrote his article stacked the deck against her, well, hadn't it been just as stacked at Schulter's meeting? "Why would an accurate reporting of that meeting play it out somehow differently?" he reasoned. "Sorry, but that would be bad journalism."
If it's good journalism Roenigk is after, I suggest a couple of rules of thumb: In any article where someone gets to say "Poor Mary," Mary gets to reply. And when someone complains about something you published under a phony byline, you've lost the argument before it began.
Not that Kareem N. Sugar wasn't funny.
Is There an Echo in Here?
Nothing better illuminates certain societal fault lines in today's Chicago than the Starbucks wars, which is why between August 6 and August 18 the Tribune lavished three articles and an editorial on them. And the Tribune wasn't alone. On August 20 the Philadelphia Inquirer's Chicago bureau reporter, Raad Cawthon, weighed in with his own report: "In three city neighborhoods and one suburb--all on the north side, where the green-awninged outposts have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, residents are rising up against the Seattle-based chain."
Reporters in distant outposts routinely monitor the local press for information and inspiration. The Tribune carried a piece July 27 on the trepidation felt in some downstate communities along the right-of-way to the proposed high-speed rail line linking Chicago and Saint Louis. Cawthon's piece on the subject ran August 27. The Tribune reported August 12 that corn-belt farmers were suffering from bumper crops and low prices. On September 3 Cawthon, who'd spoken to several of the same people as the Tribune, told the same story.
His Starbucks story not only quoted the same individuals that the Tribune had rounded up but had them saying very nearly the same things.
From the Tribune of August 6: "'I love this neighborhood for its diversity,' said Angie Mead, 23, of Roscoe Village, who carried a sign that read: Here Comes Starbucks. There Goes the Neighborhood. 'If a Starbucks comes in, it's a sign of worse things to come. More condos, taxes going up and less diversity,' Mead said."
From Cawthon's story: "'This neighborhood is all about diversity, and that's what I love about it,' said Angie Mead, who participated in a march earlier this month against a proposed Starbucks in her Roscoe Village neighborhood. 'When a Starbucks comes in, there goes the diversity. Property values go up, rents go up, taxes go up. A Starbucks is the first sign that much worse things are going to follow.'"
From the Tribune of August 12: "In Lincoln Square, when rumors brewed that a new Starbucks at Wilson and Lincoln Avenues would be joined by two others, residents formed a group to oppose additional shops. And even before the group came together, someone spray-painted anti-Starbucks graffiti--including 'corporate whores'--on the existing Starbucks building. 'I think this goes beyond simple gratuitous vandalism. It clearly has a political tone,' said Ald. Joseph Moore (49th), whose ward includes the Sheridan Road Starbucks."
From Cawthon's story: "And in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, the mere rumor of a third Starbucks joining the two already there sparked a residents' opposition group....Before the group could meet, someone spray-painted anti-corporate graffiti on one of the Starbucks, accusing the company of being a 'corporate whore.' 'I think this goes beyond some kind of gratuitous vandalism,' said Joseph Moore, a Chicago alderman who represents Rogers Park. 'The vandalism there had a tone of political outrage.'"
The Tribune's public editor, Don Wycliff, protested to the Inquirer. Last week the Inquirer announced that Cawthon had resigned.
That's Not What Journalists Mean by "Copy"
Plagiarism is one of the great taboos of journalism, and violators are usually dealt with summarily. In response to a raft of recent incidents, an August issue of Editor & Publisher devoted seven pages to the subject, asking why it happens and why plagiarists are often among a newspaper's most skilled and experienced writers.
They aren't always. This month a weekly columnist for the Daily Northwestern turned in a humorous list of steps students often take to put off writing a term paper. Managing editor Denis Theriault says the October 13 column had been set in type and the page laid out when somewhere past midnight a staffer recognized the list as a widely circulated piece of Internet humor, slightly localized for NU consumption. Theriault says that when the Daily checked, the list showed up on 15 Web sites. (E&P made the point that a lot of Internet pilfering goes on because material there somehow seems to belong to no one and everyone.)
The column was yanked and the columnist immediately fired. "We came to the conclusion we couldn't tolerate that," Theriault told me. "We had to be strong about our code of ethics. She kind of understood."
There's no need to add to the columnist's misfortune by naming her. She'd asked to write a column because she "thought it would be fun," and she'd published only three of them before the one that did her in. An international-relations major, she doesn't expect to write another word of journalism in her life.
"I got a phone call at four o'clock in the morning," she says. "They accused me of plagiarism, and they said they weren't going to run it in the paper. I wasn't asked for my opinion. I wasn't asked for a defense. I was kind of told that was it. I was fired."
She wishes she'd written the column differently. "I could have made my intentions much clearer," she says. And she wishes she'd been called "at a more decent hour rather than four o'clock in the morning." When she hung up she was too "distraught" to go back to bed.
This isn't the first time an NU student found out that writing a column isn't as easy as it looks. Theriault says, "Three of the last four years we've had to fire columnists for similar reasons." One was canned for combining stale ideas with borderline taste. "There's only so much toning down you can do," says Theriault. Another columnist submitted as her own a piece a friend had written, and worse, had already submitted to the Daily as a guest essay. It had been turned down. "We take on people who don't recognize what the commitment is," says Theriault.
"I've never taken a journalism class in my life," the latest casualty admits. "Journalism is probably the most intense school here on campus for undergraduates. They produce journalists--that's their business. There's no fooling around."
On June 5, Newsweek's Chicago bureau chief, John McCormick, published a flattering profile of Jack Fuller, who runs the Tribune Company's newspaper division. The company had just bought Times Mirror, bringing titles such as the Los Angeles Times and Newsday under Fuller's burgeoning authority.
At the end of September McCormick left Newsweek to join the editorial board of the Tribune.
Appearances notwithstanding, I believe there was no connection between these events. "I don't think I've ever spoken to Jack about John McCormick," says R. Bruce Dold, who's known McCormick for ten years or more and offered him a job after taking over the editorial page a few weeks ago. McCormick says, "When I interviewed [Fuller] for that story [last spring], not only was there no discussion, no hint, no wink going either way, but the idea of working for the Tribune was not on my radar." He adds that a story on Fuller wasn't his idea--New York wanted it.
Trying to reach John McCormick, I called the main Tribune number, and one minute and 53 seconds went by before I heard a live voice at the other end of the line. Calling Bruce Dold, I waited a minute and 25 seconds.
This treatment has become routine at the Tribune. The next time you have a hot news tip, call someone who picks up the phone.