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The New Rules

While the Trib steadfastly ignored it, news of Malachi Ritscher's self-immolation spread virally anyway.

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A Google search for Malachi Ritscher came up with more than 120,000 hits this week, but the only mention of him in the Tribune remained the brief paid death notice published November 12. It described Ritscher, 52, as someone "active in Chicago's avant-garde/experimental jazz scene as a recording engineer, fan and sometime-musician" and as someone who "loved his country; hated this war; and was not afraid to act on his convictions."

On Friday, November 3, shortly before 7 AM, in sight of rush hour traffic and a video camera set on a tripod a few feet from the Flame of the Millennium sculpture near the Kennedy Expressway's Ohio Street off-ramp, Ritscher doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. A sign found by his body said thou shalt not kill.

The Tribune ignored the death. The Sun-Times published a brief news story the next morning, and on November 7, with the body still not identified, Richard Roeper cited the death in a column on suicide and the media. "The unwritten [media] policy--which has been backed by research studies--" he wrote, "says that if we make a big deal out of suicide stories, there's an increased likelihood of copycat episodes." He questioned this policy. "Some suicide-prevention groups say a hush-hush policy only reinforces the stigma surrounding suicide. I tend to agree....It makes no sense to pretend suicide is a rare and scandalous thing." In this country, he went on, there's a suicide somewhere every 18 minutes.

Yes, but without the stigma how many more suicides might there be? A stigma isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the unwritten media policy isn't stupid. But the online reaction to Ritscher's death made it seem quaint, even perverse.

By November 7 people who knew Ritscher were pretty certain who'd died. Peter Margasak posted their conclusion on his Reader blog that day, and the body was definitively identified a day later. Roeper then wrote a second column in which he said there were two schools of thought--that Ritscher was a martyr and that he was mentally ill--and they might not be mutually exclusive. But "if he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone's mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and his most futile."

And from the Tribune, nothing. An editor who might have explained the paper's silence didn't get back to me.

This isn't the first time I've watched the mainstream media ignore a matter that's galvanized the Internet. I doubt it'll be the last. Two years ago, when Alan Keyes was running for the U.S. Senate as the champion of old-fashioned biblical morality, the topic the MSM didn't know what to do with was the lesbianism of his daughter, who wrote candidly of her private life in a flimsily camouflaged online diary. This month's elections brought a more modest example of decorum-induced paralysis: as I observed last week in Hot Type, the blogosphere chewed over the Democrats' conquest of the Senate while the home pages of leading papers kept saying Virginia was too close to call.

I don't suggest that the MSM throw out their values, but they're not just shunning cheap gossip and stuff that's nobody's business. A new way of conducting the public conversation is thriving without them. Fortunately for the MSM, it's early. When they ignore a story, people still notice and care.

"Why is this not making national news?" wondered "jazzlover" on Margasak's blog on November 8. "He immolated himself, iraq being one of the causes given? That is not something to be buried in a small local indie paper. I'm going to post this article around on the web."

A few minutes later "Kirsten Major" said in a blog post that a friend had forwarded Margasak's story to her in New York City and she was going to forward it to others--"but this really deserves national pickup." Other voices chimed in.

"JASONGS": "The fact that the mainstream media hasn't made mention of the action(s) of this obviously sensitive and intelligent man, merely lends 'support' to the frustration that he, and many like him, feel with regard to the circumstances of our world today."

"Biltmore": "I do think that his message needs to be heard on National News....Let's not let his message get buried under bullshit stories about celebrities and fashion designers, or other bullshit fluf."

Ritscher left behind on his Web site a long obituary he'd written himself and an even longer "mission statement." The Indymedia collective posted the statement along with its own comment that when Buddhist monks immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam war, "the whole world watched as these martyrs for peace went up in flames." When Ritscher died the same way, "the local media just wrote this off as another unfortunate case of mental illness."

Ritscher said in his statement that he'd lived "a wonderful life, both full and full of wonder. I have experienced love and the joy and heartache of raising a child." (In the obituary he described himself and his son as estranged.) He told the world he was leaving behind, "Since in our self-obsessed culture words seldom match the deed, writing a mission statement would seem questionable. So judge me by my actions."

He went on, "If God watches the sparrow fall, you notice that it continues to drop, even to its death. Face the truth folks, God doesn't care, that's not what God is or does....It is time to let go of primitive and magical beliefs, and enter the age of personal responsibility....My position is that I only get one death, I want it to be a good one....I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade--my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade. There might be some who say 'it's a coward's way out'--that opinion is so idiotic that it requires no response. From my point of view, I am opening a new door."

The discussion of Ritscher's death spread to other blogs, to the e-zine Pitchfork, to France's staid old Le Monde. But even someone who read only Margasak's blog was swept up in a torrent of argument over life and death, war and peace, sacrifice and self-indulgence. Inevitably some posters weren't impressed, such as "tim," who called the suicide a "very stupid act" and wondered where Ritscher was when Saddam Hussein was leading a reign of terror in Iraq. Not so inevitably, Ritscher's family weighed in. First, a brother and a sister mourned him; then someone identifying herself as "Ritscher Woman" called him "mentally ill and selfish" and advised taking the death for what it was--a "cry of anger and a painful look at depression and unmedicated mental illness. It was not beautiful. It was not peaceful. He has left lives in ruin....Any further memorialization of this cruel act is nonsense."

"Anon," who would later identify himself as a former stepson, wrote in to say that Malachi Ritscher had been born Mark Ritscher, but after his wife divorced him "due to his constant physical and mental abuse," he'd appropriated the name of their son. Wrote Anon, "The man was no saint. And I will not let him become one." Ritscher's brother Paul then returned to say that after the divorce Ritscher was denied contact with his son, and that as an adult the son turned his back on him. "My brother was deeply hurt, a pain that he carried the rest of his all too short life."

At that point the estranged son, the original Malachi Ritscher, was heard from. "Paul," he began, "of all the people on this world: I know my father. How dare you presume to know anything about our relationship! Where were you during the intervening time? Did you live with and love a schizophrenic for 35 years? Did you EVER come by for dinner? Did you ever even contact me on purpose? NO!"

If Ritscher's violent death wasn't leading the world any closer to peace, it was inspiring an incrementally and collectively assembled saga with the complexity and fury of a novel--neither private nor evanescent, a new kind of new journalism. And old journalism needs to figure out what to make of it.

I got an e-mail from Joe Germuska, a DJ at Northwestern University's WNUR. He knew Ritscher a little and was puzzled by the lack of coverage. "There are a lot of people who are feeling that it is strange that it hasn't been covered more," he wrote, "but maybe they are all delusional and it really doesn't qualify as news." Was Ritscher's cause the reason? "It doesn't seem like the anti-war movement gets much press coverage in any way," Germuska reflected. Or was it the way he died? "If no one notices, then is it possible that he gave his life for naught? People do not believe that all suicides are newsworthy, but this one was designed to evoke a response."

And it did.

Bob Thomas $7 Million, Bill Page 0

The Bob Thomas versus Bill Page libel suit needs to go away. Thomas, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, sued Page, a former columnist for the Kane County Chronicle, over three columns published in 2003 that accused Thomas of favoring leniency in exchange for a political favor in a disciplinary case before the court that involved Kane County's state's attorney at the time, Meg Gorecki. Thomas asked for $17.7 million in damages from Page and the Chronicle, and on November 14 a Kane County jury awarded him $7 million. Thomas's witnesses included other supreme court justices who said he'd handled the case appropriately. Page said that because his sources demanded confidentiality, he had no witnesses to present who could say Thomas hadn't.

It's not uncommon for a libel verdict to be overturned or for damages to be sharply reduced on appeal, but this would be no ordinary appeal. As Abdon Pallasch wondered in the Sun-Times, "How could the justices of the state Supreme Court hear an appeal of their chief judge's case--in which most of them testified?" Aside from the First Amendment issues any libel suit poses, the sheer ungainliness of a suit brought in state courts by the highest judge of those courts is why I'm not alone in wishing Thomas had satisfied himself with a stiff letter to the editor.

If Thomas was fighting for his reputation, he's got it back. He can now show that he takes the dignity of the Illinois judiciary as seriously as he takes his own by offering Page and the Chronicle terms, and his attorney, Joseph Power, says that's what he's done. Power told me the specifics of the posttrial settlement he and Thomas have offered are confidential but a retraction is among them, a retraction being what Power says Thomas would have settled for in the first place.

Power calls Page a "renegade journalist" who had no sources for what he wrote. Steven Baron, an attorney for the defendants, says Page did have sources, and they "impressed me sufficiently that if they'd testified there wouldn't have been a finding of actual malice." This means that after hearing from them the jury wouldn't have concluded that Page wrote without regard for the truth. It doesn't mean the sources would have persuaded the jury that the columns were accurate.

Under these circumstances, is a retraction possible?

"It's up to them," says Power. "They've got the money. I've got the verdict." He said the offer wouldn't stay on the table long.

"I think it's likely," says Baron, "that we'll wind up in the appellate process."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis (protest).

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