Trib Picks Its Fights
Great newspapers don't content themselves with describing the news as it sails by. They champion causes; they speak truth to power and try to shove it down power's throat.
When the Tribune, for example, makes up its mind what Chicago needs, the paper strains every sinew persuading Chicago to go get it. Opponents can be astonished and appalled by the Tribune's single-mindedness. And when they object, sometimes they're right.
Last year the Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles explaining how O'Hare International Airport's inadequacies bottle up air traffic across the nation. O'Hare became a Tribune cause, and it's now insisting that the health of the entire region requires a bigger, more efficient airport. The Tribune makes a strong argument, though it wasn't advanced two Sundays ago when the Tribune topped its front page with the headline "O'Hare plan starts to fly in suburbs."
The Tribune had taken a poll, and the poll revealed less public opposition to expansion than meets the eye. But there wasn't much to the poll either. The Suburban O'Hare Commission, which exists to keep O'Hare no bigger than it already is, spotted an opportunity and promptly issued a public statement labeled "Tribune Spins Poll to Suit Editorial Bias."
The Tribune article began: "Despite the busloads of protesters chanting anti-airport slogans at recent hearings, a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows that more suburbanites favor Mayor Richard Daley's plan to expand O'Hare International Airport than oppose it."
Polls become interesting when the results are revelatory. Despite the "despite" that the Tribune planted in its lead for shock value, these results were anything but. The Tribune told us that 51 percent of the 1,196 heads of suburban households polled favored the mayor's plan, and that when they were "reminded" of various perks that are on the table, such as el service to Schaumburg and a western entrance to the airport, that support rose to 59 percent.
But these households were scattered across six counties. Residents of places like Waukegan, Woodstock, and Harvey were being asked if they could live with a bigger O'Hare. Within the 17 communities nearest O'Hare, in which some 400,000 people live, 64 percent of the people the Tribune polled replied that they opposed Mayor Daley's expansion plan. And among the 11 percent of the pollees "who say noise is a problem where they live," 75 percent opposed expansion. Reminded of the perks, that opposition dropped to 60 percent.
What these numbers seem to be telling us is that if you live five miles from O'Hare you probably think of it as a convenience, and if you live a mile away you probably think of it as a nuisance. Some of us thought we knew that already. And what should we make of the narrow overall majority for expansion? O'Hare's neighbors might oppose expansion because the noise is bad enough already, and people who live near the proposed Peotone airport might oppose it because they want their own airport built. But nobody else has any obvious reason to object. That 51 percent support across six counties sounds surprisingly low.
In addition to a bigger O'Hare, the Tribune supports a new airport in Peotone. According to its poll, 44 percent of the public favors Peotone too, and public support for expanding O'Hare drops when that's presented as an alternative to Peotone. By how much it drops, the paper didn't say. But it told us, "Outside southern Cook County and Will County, most respondents said they think Peotone is too far from most people to succeed as the Chicago area's third major commercial airport." The startling news here is that most people who live too far from a Peotone airport to use it don't think it's a good idea and most who live near enough to use it do.
The day after reporting its poll, the Tribune cited it in an editorial that claimed "a majority of suburbanites support expansion of O'Hare." This editorial condemned the "virulent" opposition of the Suburban O'Hare Commission, which isn't going to be silenced by half-baked research.
The Tribune's concern for O'Hare dwindles to near indifference when compared to its other recent passion: sparing Soldier Field. The mayor and the Bears intend to build some sort of half-billion-dollar banana-split dish that sticks up over the sides of the old stadium. Then our monument to the brave servicemen who've fought our nation's battles will be rechristened in honor of whichever corporation digs deepest into its pockets. It's a concept easy to loathe, and the Tribune has loathed early and often. By one count, as of last week there'd been ten editorials, two editorial cartoons, eleven staff columns, and four guest columns in the Tribune, compared to only two editorials, one editorial cartoon, and one staff column in the Sun-Times. The Times also carried two guest columns, both by Mayor Daley. If you ask me, the Sun-Times has something to answer for.
At any rate, in mid-August the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois came up with a counterproposal: leave Soldier Field alone and build the Bears a new stadium just north of Comiskey Park. The morning of the day the LPCI unveiled this idea, the Tribune ran a preemptive lead editorial hailing it as "a much better choice." Daley ridiculed the idea, the Bears rejected it, and the Tribune promptly responded with an editorial telling the mayor and the Bears to "stop, look and listen to people who don't agree with them. Chicago can undo this fiasco and build a real winner."
Then Dennis Byrne wrote a column telling Daley to build a stadium where the LPCI wants it built and tear down Soldier Field so a genuine veterans' memorial can go up in its place. After Byrne, David Greising of the business pages weighed in. "Daley's plan wrecks Soldier Field, does nothing for neighborhoods, undermines the lakefront, and leaves Chicago with an unsuitable stadium," he wrote. "The Landmarks plan brings development to South Side neighborhoods around Comiskey, fits the city's transportation infrastructure, and could become a world-class arena fitting Chicago's heritage. It also keeps an eyesore off the lakefront."
Even if you wouldn't argue with a word of this you might wonder if getting your rocks off in print is the best way of changing this mayor's mind. To Tom Hardy of Burson-Marsteller, the PR firm that represents the Bears, hyperventilating is pretty much what the Tribune's been doing. "I don't recall ever seeing, in the 20 years I was there and nearly five years since I left, what appears to be a coordinated campaign with this kind of volume and ferocity," says Hardy, who was the Tribune's political editor for ten years. "They're really going overboard and becoming a kind of Johnny-one-note on the thing."
Hardy says the LPCI plan was considered by the Bears and rejected, and the Tribune won't accept that. "They're obsessive about it in a way I haven't seen," he says.
A Tribune writer tells me that nothing's being coordinated; the abhorrence for Daley's Soldier Field plan simply runs so wide and deep that everyone wants-- in Hardy's word--"to take a whack at the stadium pinata." But Hardy says that for focused, relentless advocacy, he's seen nothing like the Soldier Field campaign, short of the annual Chicago Tribune Holiday Fund drive--where all hands write something nice or else.
A couple of weeks ago a pharmacist in Kansas City, Missouri, was accused by the federal government of adulterating chemo-therapy drugs used by cancer patients. Who was this man, this Robert R. Courtney? The Kansas City Star dutifully scraped together a profile:
"His supporters used words like 'compassionate,' 'loyal,' and 'honorable' to describe Courtney, 48. They described a family man, a University of Nebraska football fan, a father of five children ages 7 to 22."
A perfunctory description of someone suddenly in the public eye is one of the chores of journalism. Any idiosyncrasy that surfaces, no matter how meaningless, is gratefully tossed into the mix. But the Star article promptly made its way to a Nebraska on-line message board. There it was carefully considered.
Blitzkrieg: "I find it odd they would expose his football allegiance in this story. Is it that Nebraska Football fans are regarded as honest, upstanding people? Odd."
Fjbfour: "Great, now NU bashers will be able to label not all players as criminals but all fans, too."
Blitzkrieg: "Dude I'm not bashing, just pointing out that I find it odd [they] would put 'husker fan' right in the middle of the story. Maybe they should always disclose your favorite team anytime they put you in the paper."
L Buff: "I think the reporter is just trying to give a clear profile of how this (allegedly) poor excuse for a human being is regarded by his friends and neighbors. You know, typical mid-American guy next door type, evidenced by his loyalty to a typical mid-American football team."
Blitzkrieg: "I was implying that the Husker fan part wasn't a slam on Huskers but rather an endorsement of the typical Husker fan being an honest, straightforward type of guy. When was the last time you saw an out of state paper profiling someone and saying Colorado Buffalo fan?"
L Buff: "I still think the writer was expressing the friends and neighbors' opinions of this guy, not his own opinion that Husker fans are honest and forthright in general."
Grabbit: "I agree with Blitz. There IS something very ODD here....The journalists in this conspiracy knew they could defend against any criticism, because most people would take it, like L Buff explained--'he's being described as just a regular, football-lovin' guy,' while the underlying message is quite clear, and devastatingly defamatory. It is this: 'Your seemingly all-American type Husker fans are actually so sneaky, greedy and mean--they would cheat a dying cancer patient out of his chemotherapy!' You think I'm kidding?"
Blkshirt: "What this dude did is sick, wrong, against everything that's good, and for pretty much everything that's evil....I truly don't care that he was/is a Husker fan, it is irrelevant. Like I said, he could be a die hard Pope fan, and it still doesn't change my view."
Grabbit: "I'm with you blkshirt. It's not that I take it 'personally,' it's just that bashers should see what it's like to be on the receiving end, and sometimes I just get in the mood. The kids going to school in Lincoln this fall don't deserve a smear like the KC Star has done, ya know?"
JC in AZ: "I saw the report here locally and there was no mention of the 'Husker Fan' part. It still looks to me like a shot by the KC Star to label Nebraska fans as 'criminals.' It has nothing to do with the story so why even mention it unless you have some sort of agenda."
L Buff: "Now maybe I'm missing something here, JC, but how in heck is that an attempt by the KC Star to label Husker fans as criminals?"
JC in AZ: "The point is he possibly committed a heinous crime and they make it a point to say that he is a Nebraska fan. Maybe I am overly sensitive about it but that is understandable considering all that has happened in the past. I still have people today get on me about '95 and continue to label the Huskers as a bunch of 'criminals.'"
Grabbit: "L Buff, think about it for a second. The reporters, writers and editors don't print EVERYTHING verbatim that the neighbors and friends say about this guy. The Husker fan comment is such an UNLIKELY reference, even in the context you suggest--'he's just a regular guy.' Would they have included it in the story if neighbors had said, 'He's a big Dallas Mavericks fan.'??? Doubt it.... Remember, this wasn't way down at the bottom of the neighbor's description. It was the second sentence! If the Star truly thought this greedy murderer's love of the Huskers was significant, it's a lead-pipe certainty that the message they want to convey was just how phony and treacherous Husker fans can be."
Blitzkrieg: "If he were a Mavs fan, that would be suspicious indeed! I'd start probing for satanic cult type issues if he were a mav fan living in KC."
BudBarryBob: "The idea that the guy was a Husker fan was used for shock value by the writer. You expect class and high values from a Husker fan, as a general rule....In a morbid way, it's a compliment to the Huskers that the writer brought up that he was a fan."
Husker Axe: "And I should really care what anyone else thinks of me because I'm a Neb. fan. Why? EVERYONE IN THIS COUNTRY OUTSIDE OF NEB. has a preconceived notion about us and our program since 95."
Opk: "The reporter was given the job of finding any information that could create a picture of the man's, I use the word loosely, persona. Any information was used....Y'all are understandably uncomfortable with being in the same fan base as the accused. I know I would be too. But the shame is his, not yours."
Grabbit: "To say 'Any information available was used' is presumptuous on your part, and highly improbable. I say this from personal experience as a reporter. I don't think any of this will have a significant impact on the team or its fans, but it's still NOT RIGHT!"
The discussion raged for four days.
Cate Plys wrote her insolent Council Follies column for the Reader until the Sun-Times lured her away two years ago. There she freelanced a weekly column on the council and other subjects, but this week she changed papers again. Plys took the initiative this time, approaching the Tribune's editorial page editor, Bruce Dold, who's assigned her to cover the council in a column running every two weeks. "It's not like I had any problems at the Sun-Times," Plys says, but she expects the Tribune "to be better for me in the long run."
Last week I managed to misspell Bill Ayers's name throughout my column, despite having his book at hand as I wrote. I was certain, and I was wrong. Embarrassment doesn't begin to describe how I feel. I apologize to Ayers and to my readers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): collage/Elizabeth Tamny.