News & Politics » Essay

The Liberal Progressive One

The Sun-Times wants to build more of an identity than "not the Tribune."

by

comment

In 1948, Marshall Field III merged his Sun, the paper he'd launched seven years earlier with FDR's blessing to oppose the isolationist Tribune, and the Times, Chicago's first tabloid, which he'd bought the year before. Field was a Democrat, and his new paper backed Harry Truman for president. But in 1950 Field turned the paper over to his more conservative son, Marshall IV, and the Sun-Times wouldn't endorse another Democrat for president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And after LBJ, no Democrat until Jimmy Carter in 1976.

So when Cheryl Reed, the new editorial page editor of the Sun-Times, announced in a letter to readers on July 10 "we are returning to our liberal, working-class roots," she was speaking of a brief era nearly 60 years past. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin carried the liberal, working-class torch in the 60s and 70s, Mike Royko in the late 70s and early 80s. And the paper's reporters have always liked to think of themselves as a liberal, muckraking bunch. But under Fields IV and V, the Sun-Times endorsed Richard Nixon twice for vice president and three times for president.

Of course, so did the Tribune. But the Tribune stood for the Republican Party, which is what made its repudiation of Nixon over Watergate so compelling. Editorially, the Sun-Times stood for nothing. And then in the 80s Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and in the 90s Conrad Black, and liberalism vanished from the Sun-Times even as an empty reputation.

Roger Ebert recently sent Reed an e-mail telling her about a dinner conversation he had with Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, after Black bought the paper in 1994. If you owned the Sun-Times, they asked him, what would you do? Ebert said he'd take the paper back to its roots: he couldn't understand why readers in a staunchly working-class town like Chicago had to choose between two Republican papers. The Sun-Times can't go further right than the Tribune, so why try? But Ebert saw Black and Amiel glance at each other and raise their eyebrows, as if to say, "We'll see about that."

Publisher John Cruickshank and editor in chief Michael Cooke came to Chicago during the Black-David Radler era, but they aren't ideologues. Mainly, they want to keep the paper alive. They liked the job Reed did with the books section in the year she ran it, giving it new energy at a time when books sections are dying out. (The Tribune has saved a few bucks by shifting its own to the low-circulation Saturday paper.) A few months ago, Reed says, they told her they wanted to do with the editorial pages what Ebert had told Black to do, with her in charge of the transformation. She gave them her terms: "I want to blow up the section." And they said fine.

"I read editorials but I wasn't moved by them," she told me. "I thought the writing was generally pretty poor. A lot of people say joining the editorial board is going out to pasture." Does anyone actually read editorials? When I asked Ralph Otwell, a 37-year veteran of the Sun-Times who retired as editor when Murdoch took over, for his thoughts on the paper's return to roots, he snorted, "Editorial pages have no influence anymore. Nobody votes their endorsements. Nobody pays any attention to their positions. I think a newspaper that defines itself as liberal or conservative doesn't mean anything. All you have to do is look at editorials railing against judicial can-didates up for retention. How often do they succeed? Never. That's the plight of newspapers--and also the plight of democracy. But that's the way it is."

Reed wants to change that. The Sun-Times recently overhauled itself to look livelier from the first page to the last. Its new motto is "Let's get into it." When you call up the offices and get put on hold, a voice rumbles, "A newspaper needs to stir the pot, not just serve it up." Now Reed's turn-ing her three editorial pages into the paper's bristling command center. The editorial page is labeled "We Think," the letters page "You Think," and the op-ed page "Further Thoughts." Reed says she's looking for black voices, Latino voices, feminist voices. She's got conservatives: her predecessor, Steve Huntley, now a columnist, and editorial cartoonist Jack Higgins. On Iraq, Higgins was way out ahead of the paper, but on matters like abortion and Hillary Clinton he's a truculent naysayer. "I look on him as a columnist," says Reed. He'll run with the columnists, not the editorials.

But a newspaper can't simply turn into whatever a shrewd publisher--perhaps in consultation with the mar-keting department--says it now is. One strength of the Tribune--which Reed just called out in print as "that Republican, George Bush-touting paper over on moneyed Michigan Avenue" that the Sun-Times now stands "squarely opposite"--is that it knows itself. It can make big decisions by studying itself in the mirror. The ethos of the Sun-Times is grit, its abil-ity to survive its owners. But grit didn't save it from last year's humiliating endorsement of Todd Stroger. A prior pronouncement that "OK, we're liberal now" wouldn't have saved it either.

"I am going to write a column for Sunday that sort of further explains our positions," Reed told me last week. "We're not going to be reactionary. We're going to be independent. I mean, the first day we took on the gov-ernor. Certainly we'll be democratic."

With a capital D? I asked.

She paused. "Yeah," she said. "But we also may take some stands that aren't Democratic."

The Sunday column began, "The word liberal carries a lot of baggage, so I'm discovering." Reed said readers had pleaded with her not to let the editorial board "become a collection of knee-jerk ideologues who push 'tax-and-spend' solutions." And they'd "pointed out that many 'liberals' don't agree with 'working-class' folks and wondered how I'd be conjoining these points of view." (Good question.)

"I'm writing to alleviate your concerns," Reed went on. "I have no intention of directing this paper down some partisan path."

She told me the next time we talked that "liberal" was out and "progressive" was in.

Progressive but nonpartisan?

"When I said 'Democratic' with a capital D--I think that's not right. We'll be making the decisions on a situational basis. I want to make that clear."

The search for authenticity is never an easy one. The problem Reed will run into is that a newspaper that decides what it stands for on a situational basis soon looks irresolute and silly. No matter how flamboyantly it declares its stands, it needs to stand on bedrock. I asked Reed who the conscience of the Sun-Times is. I'm not sure she knew what I was driving at, but she said she'll go to Cruickshank with questions on what positions to take, and that when it comes to news stories, Don Hayner, the managing editor, "has always been called Mr. Chicago."

I have an answer for her. Ebert tells me that when he read Reed's piece about going back to roots he was "stunned with joy." There will be times when the question of what position to take comes down to the question "Who are we?" She should ask Roger. He knows.

Jim Thompson Vindicated? Hardly.

After the verdicts came in on Friday, convicting Conrad Black and three of his executives of fraud, Jim Thompson showed up on WBBM radio and was asked if he felt vindicated. "I wasn't on trial so I don't have to feel vindicated," he replied. It was a smart reply to a sloppy question. Even though Thompson testified three days for the prosecution at the Black trial, acquittals all around might have been better for him: Thompson couldn't be blamed for not seeing criminal behavior going on around him if there was none. But the jury said something criminal did happen--and Thompson hadn't noticed.

Thompson explained, "You can't go on a corporate board with the assumption management is going to be dishonest. . . . Unless you went on there believing that Conrad Black and David Radler and Mark Kipnis and Boultbee and Atkinson were all out to deceive shareholders from the beginning, you wouldn't have found it until we did our own investigation after the clues piled up." He has a point. But Thompson was chairman of the audit committee. That's the outsider who is supposed to guarantee on behalf of the shareholders that everything management does is on the up-and-up.

Let me make a comparison with the business I know: the audit committee chairman does roughly what a good editor does. Let's say the editor oversees a group of writers she considers professional and upright. In a word, she admires them. Does this mean she takes it easy? No, because everyone makes mistakes, and her duty is to catch those mistakes and keep them out of the paper. In Thompson's case, he was paid $60,000 of the shareholders' money every year to be the board's worrywart: his job was to save his good friends Conrad Black and David Radler from some silly error in judgment that could eventually bring down the company--like, oh, selling off newspapers and making millions in noncompete payments they had no business getting.

Black and Radler are now felons facing prison and Hollinger International is the Sun-Times Media Group, a wisp of its former self. Thompson said on WBBM that Black and Radler deceived him. He joined their board in 1994, and they deceived him until 2003, when some minority shareholders made a stink. For almost a decade Black and Radler deceived a guy who back in the day had such a sharp nose for malefactors that he was U.S. attorney. Black knows how to charm and impress, but as audit committee chairman Thompson dealt mostly with Radler, whose personal style is generally described as toxic. Yet he deceived Thompson; it never occurred to him that Radler might not be totally on the up-and-up.

Thompson said on the radio that the jury had found Black and the others guilty on counts "where it was clear the noncompete transactions were hidden from the audit committee," and acquitted them on "some other counts based on transactions that went to the audit committee but with a false explanation." In other words, where Black and Radler hid their scheming in plain sight in documents Thompson "skimmed," they got off. Vindication?

Thompson told WBBM those documents were filed a year or two after the fact and it didn't matter if he only skimmed them because in the end it all came out the same: "We later sued and got the money back, so we were in the same position." Does he think that notwithstanding the collapse of the company, and notwithstanding the millions of dollars Hollinger has paid out in legal fees, it's all the same to the Hollinger shareholders whether they got the millions of dollars Black and Radler siphoned off when the deals were made or years later? And what about the $50 million settlement two years ago after shareholders sued Hollinger on grounds that its board of directors had been asleep at the switch? Should Thompson take credit for that windfall?

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cheryl Reed photo by Carlos J. Ortiz.

Add a comment