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The Perils of Punditry /I'm With Mariotti

There's always someone in the real world who knows your subject better than you.

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High on the list of reasons to read a newspaper the old-fashioned way is the opportunity to wrap highfalutin editorial comment around soggy coffee grounds and drop the mess in a can. Such is the punishment we readers, who live, of course, in the real world, mete out to pundits (who of course don't). I recall my mother's scorn for the op-eds favoring sanctions against South Africa that she kept spotting in her local liberal rag. It was all empty posturing, she declared, by nattering theoreticians who didn't begin to understand South Africa the way she did. Her relationship was real and personal. It was based on the stories her own mother used to tell about the dashing Boer lieutenant who'd swept her off her feet at the 1904 World's Fair.

The other day I read a column in the Tribune by Dennis Byrne, who'd also been informed by his heart. He was comparing Iraq to Vietnam. They're increasingly similar, he wrote, "at least the part where the United States pulls out and leaves millions of people hanging out to dry. That part where the world comes to a dishonorable, murderous end. Like on the day, April 30, 1975, that America broke its promises to millions of South Vietnamese and jumped ship. The day on which hysterical Vietnamese civilians and officials were crowding a ladder to the top of the U.S. Embassy, pleading for a seat on the last American helicopter out....We abandoned millions of people to be stripped of their freedoms, imprisoned for their beliefs or slaughtered by a monstrous, tyrannical regime. It was one of the most shameful days in American history. It was our own day of infamy."

This isn't an original critique: for the past 31 years some champions of the Vietnam war have regarded the way it ended as a scandal. But I was startled to see Byrne at this late date not only flogging the idea with such passion but doing so in the name of staying the course in our current debacle. Wait a minute--I was there.

The United States made its separate peace with North Vietnam in early 1973, which is when our POWs came home. The bitter end for our Vietnamese friends came two years later. And in those chaotic final days, when I was writing stories from Saigon and watching the country collapse, the Americans ran an airlift day and night from Tan Son Nhut airport. When the airport was bombed, the evacuation continued by helicopter from the embassy grounds, and ultimately from the embassy roof. After the last helicopter left the embassy the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon. Does Byrne think we should still be fighting in Vietnam? Does he think this should have been a very special war in which the winners didn't conquer the losers? Perhaps he believes we should have asked the North Vietnamese to wait at the city gates another couple of years while we evacuated everyone they were fighting against.

Jonah Goldberg is another Tribune columnist who could use a summer camp in the real world. On November 16, Goldberg, who's a National Review editor, took on "diversity" in academia. "It's time to admit that 'diversity' is code for racism," he began. "If it makes you feel better, we can call it 'nice' racism or 'well-intentioned' racism or 'racism that's good for you.'" The best universities have quotas, he argued, and even though they're supposedly in place to make sure minority students can get in, they have the effect of keeping some minority students out--namely Asian students, who, like the Jewish students of another era, would give universities another "feel" if they were admitted solely on their merits.

"Today's diversity doctrine was contrived as a means of making racial preferences permanent," Goldberg wrote, reasoning that as "racial preferences are by definition discriminatory" some sleight of hand was needed. "The brilliance of the diversity doctrine is that it does an end-run around [discrimination] by saying that diversity isn't so much about helping the underprivileged, it's about providing a rich educational experience for everyone." It's a doctrine that turns black students into "props," in Goldberg's view, and "it's difficult to put into words how condescending this is."

This smart, theoretical argument possibly reflects a grudge Goldberg's nursing against his alma mater, Goucher College, whose mission statement asserts an "appreciation for individual and cultural diversity"--not that there's anything unusual about that. If Goldberg, who's 37, doesn't share Goucher's appreciation, plenty of kids I know do. They don't put "diversity" in quotes; they take it for granted as one of the basics of the college experience, and when they don't see it at a school they think the school is weird.

Time is probably on Goldberg's side. The nation's becoming so polyglot that in the end diversity will take care of itself. Time makes peculiar alliances, and one of the lessons history teaches is that if time's on your side it's stupid to go on fighting a war you're losing when you can quit and then win the peace. That's what the Boers found out in South Africa and the Confederates in North America. Time was on Hanoi's side as long as the war lasted, but it's been on ours in Vietnam ever since. At some point in any war that isn't going well a question needs to be asked: "Could peace be any worse?" Or in the case of Iraq, "Could 'peace' be any worse?"

Not that the Boers and the Confederacy got to keep the spoils of peace forever. In the real real world nothing's clear-cut. History's ambiguity was nicely conveyed last Sunday in the lead Tribune editorial, "An American schizophrenia"--the schizophrenia being the split between Americans who want to plant freedom and democracy around the world and those who see that desire as "costly and unnecessary." Fifty years ago, it observed, the people of Hungary rose up against their Moscow overlords and were crushed. American rhetoric inspired them, but rhetoric's all the Hungarians got from us: our army leaned on its rifles while the Soviets crushed the insurgents.

Like Byrne, the Tribune is troubled by the idea of abandonment. But if there's a lesson in Hungary--which today is as free as it wanted to be 50 years ago--that's applicable to Iraq, the Tribune doesn't know what it is. It wants there to be one, and it has the idea that there's probably one somewhere, but it can't put its finger on it. It asks the question, "Should America have backed Hungary's freedom fighters in 1956?" But even though half a century has gone by, at the end of a long editorial it doesn't have an answer.

The real world can't help. Someone who saw Soviet tanks open fire on Hungarian patriots would probably answer, "Hell, yes." Someone who walked through the ruins of Hiroshima would say no.

I'm With Mariotti

This summer I expressed what I considered a minimal amount of support for Jay Mariotti in the Ozzie Guillen matter and was promptly accused, on a Web site dedicated to pillorying him, of being his weasel, his bitch--well, it's hard to remember the exact language. At the same time Mariotti was sending me e-mail that called me a "washed-up fart," an "ass hole," and a "scumbag."

I've never been able to get angry at Mariotti. He is what he is. Sometimes he's even right. In a November 24 column in the Sun-Times he allowed that in the sportswriting game the "possibilities for impropriety are endless" and proposed getting rid of "one glaring problem area." Sportswriters should get out of the business of creating sports news by deciding who wins awards, such as most valuable player, or who gets into a hall of fame. "Just because we cover sports doesn't mean we should be part of their electoral mechanisms," he wrote. "We should be detached from the big machine."

I just read another column by another sportswriter with a different view. Ken Rosenthal, senior baseball writer for FOXSports.com, began, "No, I will not vote for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame. Not this year. And maybe not ever."

Rosenthal was laying out his moral code for readers to admire. "A first-ballot rejection is my way of distinguishing great players of the Steroid Era from great players of the past," he explained. "I'll be the first to admit that my position is not entirely fair. But for now, it's the way I feel, and the way I will vote."

Sanctimony bugs me. Here's a journalist who helps create the news he covers, makes life even easier for himself by tossing off a column on how he intends to create it, and basks in his virtue. Corruption takes many forms, and a syringe is only one of them.

"At its most basic level," Rosenthal writes, "a Hall vote is an intensely personal decision." But he's up to it. Mariotti avoids the White Sox clubhouse because he's afraid a player will shove his head in the toilet. If that happened his own sins wouldn't be the only ones he'd suffer for.

News Bites

aBill Page doesn't understand why the lawyers are being so closemouthed about the settlement offer from Chief Justice Robert Thomas after he won his libel suit against Page and the Kane County Chronicle. On November 14 a jury awarded Thomas $7 million. Page says Thomas was willing to take $6 million plus a retraction if Page and the Chronicle would drop their appeal. The defendants let the November 22 deadline pass.

a"c'mon, todd! They said we were crazy to endorse you in the election but we stood by you...and you're letting us down already?" From the front page of the Sun-Times, Sunday, November 26.

Crazy? Is that what they said? I looked back. The Tribune's Eric Zorn said of the October endorsement that the Sun-Times was "gibbering appeasingly." Steve Rhodes at the Beachwood Reporter said it was "disingenuous." I riffled through Zorn's blog, "Change of Subject," to see if his readers called the endorsement crazy. They called it "pandering," "ludicrous," "intellectual dishonesty at its most breathtaking," "pretty sad," "pathetic." But not one of them called it crazy.

aThe Sun-Times was modest to a fault last Monday when it carried the story the Associated Press finally got around to doing on the November 3 self-immolation of Malachi Ritscher. The AP story--which also ran in the New York Times and sparked a fresh burst of international interest in Ritscher's act--reported that the suicide "went largely unnoticed" at first but that word began to spread after the Reader "pieced the facts together." That's true. But the Sun-Times did have a brief item the day after Ritscher died and later two Richard Roeper columns. It was entitled to edit the AP story in a way that gave itself a little credit. Uncharacter-istically, it didn't. Meanwhile, the Tribune ignored Ritscher's death until a solid story by Tonya Maxwell appeared November 29--a good two weeks after it should have.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dirck Halstead/Laison for Getty Images.

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