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Too many Presidents/News Bites

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Too Many Presidents

Vernon Jarrett is 80. When the Chicago Association of Black Journalists was being created 26 years ago, the founders met in his living room. In gratitude for his services, CABJ later made him a member for life. Today he may or may not be performing his greatest service--leading an insurgency that's either returning the organization to its roots or tearing it apart. He's CABJ's newly elected president--but so is someone else.

Jarrett, who's been a columnist for the Sun-Times and the Tribune and now writes for the Defender, is contemptuous of the journalistic pretenders who, when the interest of the founders began to wane, took over CABJ. "We've had some black journalists," he tells me, "who couldn't tell you what the 13th Amendment was, had never read DuBois, who didn't know who Paul Robeson really was, who had never read Frederick Douglass, who knew nothing about the Harlem renaissance period, who had hardly read a black poet of yesterday--they might have read some of the modern stuff--and consequently, they haven't truly added to diversity, other than being a black face in a white place."

Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News and an ally of Jarrett's, says that as one generation gave way to the next, advocacy lost ground and CABJ and other affiliates of the National Association of Black Journalists became "networking organizations, meet-and-greets, if you will." But networking, however valuable, isn't a cause that pulls people out of their homes on a rainy night or keeps them downtown for a two-hour meeting at the end of an exhausting day. The New York Times noted Monday that attendance at last weekend's NABJ convention in Milwaukee had dropped by 25 percent from the year before, that membership was down, and that some of the most popular workshops "focused not on becoming better at journalism, but on leaving it"--for Hollywood or for TV talk shows.

Jarrett and Angela Harkless were CABJ board members together in 1998, she a comer in the organization and he an eminence whose enthusiasm was ebbing. "He came to the first two board meetings and never came back," she recalls. "He's made his opinion known about me as a journalist. I gather he does not approve of me."

Harkless was elected president in 1999 and just stepped down. She's 37, and unlike Jarrett, who faxed me a six-page "bio-sketch" of his accomplishments and honors, she has little in the way of triumphs to point to. After studying journalism at Loyola University she spent a couple of years as an editorial assistant at the Tribune and another as a production assistant for CBS in New York. Then she entered law school to prepare herself for a career in media management and in 1998 created Cachet magazine, a black society journal that published a couple of issues and continues today on-line. To Jarrett, Harkless is a poseur, and when he heard that Cachet's photo editor, Louis Byrd III, was being put up to succeed her in this year's CABJ elections, Jarrett decided the organization needed rescuing and he would have to step in.

"Vernon sounded a clarion call to those of us who still had a spark of interest in making a change," says Smikle. "That call to action coincided with the upcoming elections, and what seemed to be a pretty ordinary, by-the-book means of getting involved turned into a turf battle initiated by those who simply did not want to leave office."

The old warriors suiting up for one more battle--among them Channel Five's Art Norman, who'd been president of CABJ in the mid-90s, Ebony's Lynn Norment, and the Tribune's Brenda Butler--were promptly confronted with bylaws they'd been dimly aware of if they knew of them at all: candidates for office had to have been dues-paying members for a year prior to the election and had to have served on a CABJ committee for two months. This requirement had been put in place to prevent some new group from flooding the rolls and seizing control, but it could be applied just as easily to revanchists.

"Vernon Jarrett and his group were informed by the nominating committee that they were not eligible to run for office," says Byrd. "However, they were eligible to vote. This group was angry at being told they could not run, so they tried to bully and harass and threaten the board and the nominating committee to let them run. They basically called members of the board up and threatened to wreck their careers. They said, 'You know what the bylaws say. Change them. Make it happen.'"

CABJ meets monthly in the Tribune Tower. The April meeting was supposed to be a candidates' forum. Instead, the Jarrett group--Norman and Smikle doing most of the shouting--turned the bylaws against the incumbents. Under them, an "official nomination form" was to have been mailed out to the members in February. The insurgents said it hadn't been; the incumbents said it had and that anyone who didn't get the form wasn't a member in good standing. (A couple of members in good standing claimed they didn't get the form either, but Byrd says they were lying.) The members who were present voted to start the nominating process over again and postpone the election from May to June.

"It was our intention at that point to then address the fundamental eligibility of candidates and put that motion [to suspend the bylaws disqualifying Jarrett and his allies] on the floor," says Smikle. "But Angela Harkless ended the meeting because--she said--according to Tribune security we were too loud and had to leave."

It was a raucous meeting. Byrd videotaped it, and a brief segment made its way onto NABJ TV, the closed-circuit news service at the Milwaukee convention, where the Chicago schism was the biggest story. "You ought to check out the video just to see Art Norman going off," Smikle tells me. "He was crazy, deservedly so. Not deservedly--rightly."

Smikle says his side intended to put the impeding bylaws to a vote at the May meeting, but Harkless canceled the meeting. This was treachery in Smikle's view, a practical decision in Byrd's--since there'd been nothing on the agenda but the election that had now been postponed. The Jarrett wing met anyway, and the 20 or so people who showed up voted to suspend the bylaws and to form a nominating committee chaired by Norment.

In June, Harkless presided over a CABJ meeting at which Byrd and the rest of his slate were elected to office. The same night, the Jarrett faction met and heard from its candidates. This faction gathered in July to vote, and Jarrett was swept unopposed into office. Art Norman was elected a vice president. The page-wide headline in the Defender announced "Jarrett elected CABJ prez." The kicker added "Amid controversy."

Jarrett's group has the big names, but Byrd's controls the money. Since CABJ is both an independent organization and an affiliate of NABJ, the national organization can't tell CABJ what to do, but it can either embrace or disavow it.

Who's the president? I ask Randye Bullock, the Detroit publicist who's director of Region V, which includes Chicago.

"There are two presidents," Bullock replies. "Louis Byrd and Vernon Jarrett."

Is one as legitimate as the other?

"We decertified the CABJ," she says, "so we're not recognizing either party as it stands right now."

Which doesn't mean Bullock is impartial. She says CABJ was decertified in June because Harkless had failed to provide her with information she'd requested for a routine "audit." She says she couldn't get through to Harkless by phone and a letter wasn't answered. "Finally I did get a call from her on my voice mail. I wasn't in and it left no return number. I called again and there was no response--and that was that."

She describes the Jarrett group as "dedicated journalists." As for Byrd, "He has made a lot of allegations, and many of them have proven to be untrue. His credibility with me is less than to be desired." Such as? "He said that I conspired with Art Norman to overthrow his slate. Which is untrue. This started way before I even knew [Norman] was planning on running. This is about business."

Harkless says she has no record of Bullock trying to reach her since they talked by phone last January: "I've kept a phone log and a mail log. If she called she didn't leave a message. I can't return a phone call if I don't know you call."

When she took over as president, she says, CABJ's books were in "complete disarray." She says 20 years of financial records were missing, the paperwork that would have protected the tax-exempt status of the foundation CABJ maintains to provide scholarships had never been completed, and though no one knew it, CABJ had been dissolved as a legal corporation three years earlier because the necessary papers hadn't been filed with the secretary of state. Setting this house in order, and this summer publishing what she says is the first annual report in CABJ's history, is her proudest accomplishment as president. And she says, "I believe the thing about me not being a real journalist was an attempt to discredit me. It was an attempt to keep this information from going forth."

Early in the day that Byrd would be elected president by his wing of CABJ, Bullock announced in a letter to the members that CABJ had been decertified. "On a personal note," she continued, she was "totally dismayed" that Jarrett hadn't been allowed to run. "What a travesty!" An even stronger reason for Byrd to question the disinterestedness of Region V was provided by Bullock's deputy director, Marsha Eaglin, a producer for Network News Service in Chicago. Eaglin repudiated Byrd's election as soon as it happened, writing members a letter that began, "The effort to re-vitalize the Chicago Association of Black Journalists has begun." She wasn't merely watching from the sidelines: a month later she ran on Jarrett's slate and was elected secretary. "I didn't nominate myself," she says. "I'm at liberty to serve in both capacities."

What next? "The solution during the board meeting in Milwaukee," says Bullock, "was that we got both parties to agree that they would merge the membership lists and have another election under our watchful eye. Condace Pressley [president of NABJ] has agreed to come to Chicago and oversee that election."

Not so, says Byrd. "We're not going to hold a third election. NABJ's official ruling was that they were not recognizing either group as an affiliate at this time. What they said was we could each submit an application for chapter-affiliation status. It's a 60-day process."

"The membership will settle this," says Norman. The next CABJ meeting is supposed to be sometime in September, and to Norman it makes no difference who holds the gavel. "You remember Robert's Rules of Order? The meeting is controlled by the majority. Harold Washington held the gavel, but it didn't mean anything. He had the gavel, but he only had 21 votes. Eddie Vrdolyak really ran the show once the meeting got started."

Whoever turns out the most votes will decide what the bylaws are. CABJ will go on, with Council Wars as its parliamentary model. Or--Bullock can imagine this, if barely--Chicago will wind up with two organizations, each an affiliate of NABJ.

News Bites

"Even with no circulation, the Chicago Daily News has maintained some vital signs," observed Paul O'Connor in a news release he sent around town the other day. "It still breathes, it still sighs, and it still defines a community through its well written reporting."

It's a community composed of the alumni of the Daily News, who dispersed when the paper folded in 1978 but refused to lose touch with one another. The chief reason for that was Margaret Whitesides. Once a city-desk assistant, she's been typing up and mailing out a monthly newsletter since 1979, working from the home in Clarendon Hills she shares with her younger brother Bill. He's a former Daily News photoengraver who's helped stuff envelopes.

O'Connor, who was Mike Royko's legman back in the 70s, is today executive director of the not-for-profit World Business Chicago. The news in his news release was that Whitesides, 92 and not in the best of health, had announced that her latest edition would be her last. Not that the newsletter would disappear--she was passing the reins to Bob Herguth, a former Daily News columnist, and his wife Marge, who once edited the weekend magazine. They have no changes in mind.

Whitesides had been at the Daily News nearly half a century when the paper went under. "Margaret's kind of like the spirit of the Daily News," says Bob Herguth. "Everybody then and now likes and loves Margaret."

"Her own incredibly even temper shone through it all," says Jim Bowman, a former religion writer. "The letters were long, short, self-absorbed and expansive, newsy and mildly opinionated." Whitesides's own comments were "short and sweet." Bowman remembers, "At a reunion some years back, Larry Green told how he had once yelled at Margaret in the city room and all had gone quiet. He told it on himself. His point was easily grasped. She was a civilizing influence. And is. The newspaper reflected that."

O'Connor remembers the Daily News in the 70s for its astonishing esprit de corps, which doomed enterprises often enjoy. Since 1978 not much has diminished that spirit but death. In fact, new lines of communication have sprouted: a while back, former business editor Dick Griffin launched an E-mail bulletin board. "The newsletter reflects Margaret and her positive, cheerful, kind attitude," says O'Connor. "The listserv is crabbier, bitchier, periodically kicking Marshall Field in the shins. They're two different things. They'll both go on."

A few weeks ago I described a recent trip to Tanzania that Bill Recktenwald, a former Tribune investigative reporter, took to teach his trade to young journalists there. A Tanzanian student of his who requested anonymity E-mailed me. "It was a cleverly written ad that got me into the papers in 1998," he wrote. "The ad read, 'Do you want to investigate and tell people the truth?'"

It sounded good to him. He's ambitious and wants to run his own paper one day. But he wrote, "Although the government is sometimes tolerant there is nothing like free press in Tanzania. What is given by one hand in the constitution is taken away by the other."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Kathy Richland.

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