Trib Arts Cuts: the Masses Respond
Does the fate of Chicago theater turn on that stack of letters you see in the picture above? Tony Sertich wonders. That's Sertich alongside 15,000 protests--15,000's an estimate, he says, made by comparing the stack to 15 reams of paper "adjusted for fluff-out"--which shortly after this picture was taken were boxed, addressed to Tribune editor Howard Tyner, and hauled by yeomen to the Tribune Tower.
Sertich, who's executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, and John Walker, the league's president, hoped to deliver the boxes personally and then meet with two of Tyner's top guns to discuss the situation the letters are protesting--the threatened banishment of Arts Plus from its highly visible, color-splashed position on the back page of section one to a smaller, grayer, less assertive position on page two. But senior editor John Twohey, chairman of the Tribune's redesign team, and Owen Youngman, deputy managing editor for features, said no. They'd all talked once, last December, and there didn't seem to be anything more to say.
The Tribune wants to turn the back page into a handsome, easy-to-find new home for stories that jump from page one. The league wants the Tribune to keep the back page exactly as it is. In this era of glut and scarcity--too many productions and theaters chasing too few patrons and foundation dollars--the league considers the present high-profile arts page a godsend. Which is why as soon as Chicago theaters got wind of the Tribune's intended changes they began distributing letters of protest and offering curtain speeches alerting their audiences to the peril.
"It would be one thing if all the theaters got together and said, we don't like you changing the page," Sertich told us after the letters had been delivered. "But if thousands of readers take the time to send letters saying, we don't like the changes either--we know for a fact we sent 15,000 letters over, and we hear several thousand letters are over there already."
Those would be letters that wrathful theatergoers mailed directly to the Tribune instead of signing and turning them in at the theater. Youngman told us the Tribune had received just "a couple of hundred" of these. Whatever. Sertich concedes that accurate information has been hard to get out of the Tower.
"Everyone I've talked to has been all over the board," he told us. "I've heard everything from they're going to get rid of it entirely to they're going to do exactly what they said they'll do to they're going to keep it intact right where it is."
Youngman said he doesn't know what the Tribune's going to do, but it won't necessarily be what the Tribune originally decided to do, and do in January. "The fact that we continue to talk about this situation is an indication of how seriously we take it. There's no deadline on our doing anything. We can afford to be careful and deliberate," he said. "We're not going to change it twice."
Any chance you won't change it once? we asked.
"I think that's very unlikely," he said. "I don't think the status quo is as attractive an option as doing something, but I don't know what the something will be."
Jay Mariotti's standing with the Sun-Times may not have changed a flyspeck, but an odd thing happened the other day: Mariotti spent an hour in the Four Seasons bar with David Radler, chairman of the American Publishing Company, and Nigel Wade, deputy editor of the Telegraph in London, who's been here studying the way the Sun-Times operates.
What this signifies for Mariotti isn't half as intriguing as what it signifies for the Sun-Times. The meeting was at Mariotti's invitation, and we hear Wade came along with Radler because they had dinner plans afterward. Even so, invitations such as this, from a suspended sports columnist going over the head of his paper's editor, are invitations appropriately ignored. For some reason this one wasn't.
Unfortunately, Wade and Radler wouldn't talk to us. So we're left with what this means to Mariotti. "I'm all confused, and you can quote me," he said. "I don't know what was going on, except we had a pretty cordial chat."
Mariotti hasn't worked since November, but he had so much comp time piled up he's still drawing a weekly paycheck. The terms offered him long before he met with Radler and Wade were to come back as a reporter or not come back at all. Radler didn't bring new terms. But since the meeting Mariotti's heard from deputy managing editor Rick Jaffe. "He proposed this job for me. It's a pretty damn good job. They're calling it special-projects writer or something like that. I think it involves going to major events, doing these long projects they want to win awards with. But the fact is, it's a demotion. It's a real nice job, but it's not a column."
"I think it's a pretty good job," said Jaffe, who told us it had always existed but probably wasn't described fully to Mariotti until after his meeting with Radler and Wade. Now Jaffe was waiting for Mariotti to call him.
"The New Curmudgeon," a monthly column in the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, just posed an odd question. Columnist Thomas Winship wondered why the press isn't more critical of itself for missing last November's big story. "With a handful of exceptions," Winship began, "the press, the polls, and the political wise guys failed to predict the actual takeover of Congress by the Republicans. There is nothing new about pols and writers getting it wrong. What seems strange this time is how little self-analysis there has been so far about why we got it wrong so colossally."
Just how colossal was colossally? "Sure, everyone sensed, and wrote about, the hard swing rightward," Winship went on, "but precious few guessed it was enough to topple the Democratic control of the House and Senate."
Guessed? Winship's holding the press accountable for not having guessed? Back when he was editor of the Boston Globe, how often did he dress down a reporter with words such as these: "We can't run this story. It fails to accurately guess what's going to happen tomorrow."
When Winship says the press he really means its pundits, and fear of humiliation does keep these warriors flying in tight formation close to the ground. But not even pundits are paid to report tomorrow's news. As a wise old editor might have said, "If it's a good enough story it'll keep until it happens."
A strong whiff of autobiography wafted off the pages of "Jumping Off the Fast Track," Bonnie Miller Rubin's look at American careerism in the 90s, which ran a couple Sundays ago in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. "The perks . . . are all but gone, and our ambition has evaporated right along with it," Rubin wrote. "So we'll just take a desk out of the way, even in some suburban outpost, if it means we can have a life in return."
"It certainly reflects my personal life," Rubin tells us. She used to work in the Tower and edit the Home section. Now she's a reporter in the Homewood bureau, six minutes from her house and family. "I didn't care if it was viewed as a step down," she said.
Rubin wrote, "Today's workplace has more temporary workers, part-time workers, even the beginnings of what is called task employment. Several corporations even offer one or two years of employment, and then you're out." Again that's the Tribune, which brings in new "resident" reporters for 12 months of high-energy, low-maintenance performance--and sends them packing when they ought to be getting a raise. "It's by the year," says Rubin. "Everybody pretty much understands that."
Residents aside, the Tribune newsroom, if not the rest of the Tribune Company, veers from the new corporate culture that Rubin's article describes in one crucial regard. Someone in the article observes that there's so little loyalty left in the American workplace that faithful workers are routinely "restructured" out like toothless old Eskimos who used to be banished to sea on icebergs.
But even though vast profits are expected of the Tribune, it hasn't been told to lay people off to get them. Newsroom jobs are still safe there, even the ones held down by the living dead. And that's something.
We're not saying a strong case can't be made for ending federal support of public broadcasting. Relief from John McLaughlin obviously has its virtues.
But recent arguments we've read for grounding Air Taxpayer aren't impressive. The Tribune's Stephen Chapman fears public broadcasting might end up being spared because it services hamlets that don't get much else in the way of programming. "If the real problem is small rural stations," he wrote, "maybe part of the answer is to tell rural residents that one price they pay for clean air, uncrowded roads and bucolic tranquility is doing without some amenities that can be sustained only where there are large agglomerations of people and concrete."
Chapman apparently thinks the boondocks are occupied entirely by migrant Lincoln Parkers who took their laptops with them into semiretirement. In this view, National Public Radio is an amenity that the New Rustics have no more right to than ripe brie. In another view, which apparently gives even Newt Gingrich pause, country life is immensely hard and desolate, and the folks who live it deserve a decent source of information.
George Will dared Washington to ax public broadcasting, along with federal funding of the arts and humanities, to prove its manliness. "Extinction will be their fate if Republicans mean a syllable of what they say about rethinking federal functions."
Are these the federal functions whose crushing weight on national life truly concerns Will most? Any new regime, even one as red-blooded as the new Republican Congress, has only so many chops in it. If Will wants this Congress to fell the big timber, why's he siccing it on shrubs?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.