Trib Pro Quo/ Rights of the Right | Media | Chicago Reader

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Trib Pro Quo/ Rights of the Right

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By Michael Miner

Trib Pro Quo

In March David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times published a three-part series examining the eroding barrier between the news and business concerns of American newspapers. The first installment dwelled on changing times at the Chicago Tribune, and it told this story:

"Last fall, the Tribune entered into a marketing partnership with Starbucks Coffee that included Starbucks' agreement to sell the paper in 90 of its outlets. The day after the Tribune boasted of this promotional arrangement in its internal employee publication ('The Starbucks agreement is an example of what happens when different departments within the Chicago Tribune work together...'), a flattering story on the CEO of Starbucks was splashed across the top of a feature section of the Tribune (headline: 'The Starbucking of America')."

Shaw said that though Tribune editors called the article a coincidence and though the reporter claimed he'd written it on his own initiative and hadn't even known about the marketing partnership, "skeptical eyebrows were raised." Shaw commented, "Where integrity is concerned, appearances can often be as important as reality, and many reporters worry about their credibility being undermined by just such inter-jurisdictional ventures."

When appearances offend, reporters count on reputation--theirs and their papers'--to protect their credibility. But if the company they work for--the Tribune Company is an excellent example--has been noisily touting its own keen eye for the main chance, they can't expect the benefit of the doubt.

A couple of weeks ago Steve Chapman wrote a Tribune column critical of a Denver group called Rocky Mountain Media Watch, which has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to revoke the licenses of four Denver TV stations. The petition objects to the news presented on these stations, calling it "excessive coverage of violent topics and trivial events and, consequently, inadequate coverage of a wide range of stories and vital social issues."

Chapman's critique was standard-issue libertarianism. He ridiculed the petition as "almost a parody of nanny-knows-best thinking" and went on to say that "punishing stations for dispensing an unwelcome version of the news is not exactly a show of reverence for freedom of speech and the press."

To which the Rocky Mountain Media Watch's Paul Klite replies, "The censorship defense is the knee-jerk reaction of journalists to criticism....But since stations are supposedly using the public airwaves in the public interest, we want the FCC to send them a message saying what they're doing is harmful. Violent news is not just about news--it's about manipulation. Violence is the best way to create what advertising people call arousal in audiences."

Chapman didn't name the four Denver TV stations Klite's organization is threatening, and under normal circumstances there'd have been no reason to. His argument with Klite pits principle against principle. But one of the Denver stations, KWGN TV, belongs to the Tribune Company.

The local watchdog group Chicago Media Watch spotted Chapman's column and fired off a letter to the Tribune. The omission, asserted CMW chair Liane Casten, "is not only misleading on the Tribune's part, it's an abuse of those very First Amendment rights the owners of the station claim so readily and often."

The media columnist of the Octopus, the alternative paper in Champaign-Urbana, asserted in print that Chapman's column, which he chose to call an "editorial," might have been written by the "dead hand" of Colonel McCormick. The "payoff," the Octopus columnist wrote, is that the Tribune Company owns one of the stations but "the editorial failed to tell us that. Government may NOT censor a 'free press.' But it's perfectly okay when the Tribune Company does it."

Now here I am, trying to make something of the fact that it's a Tribune station in Denver. This barrage could have been avoided, and I asked Chapman why he hadn't mentioned the connection.

"It's news to me," Chapman replied. He said he'd talked to Klite twice and read the petitions posted on the Rocky Mountain Media Watch Web site, and Tribune ownership was never mentioned. "You look at the list of call letters and they don't mean anything," he said. Not even KWGN? I wondered. "I guess if I'd been looking carefully the lightbulb would have gone off," he said.

Last Thursday Tribune media writer Tim Jones published a business-section piece on the million-dollar promotional campaign that Britain's Financial Times was launching in Chicago. "We're a small-circulation daily," editor in chief Richard Lambert told Jones, "but our readers are those that advertisers drool over."

What Jones didn't mention was reported the next day in the Financial Times itself. A special section celebrated Chicago as "a city reaping the good times," while page one of section one carried an article announcing that Chicago had become the Financial Times's 12th print center and that "distribution in the Chicago suburbs will be handled by the Chicago Tribune."

I called Jones. "I've always been intrigued by the Financial Times because of their very highbrow demographics and the fact that they concentrate on an awful lot of news [such as foreign] that has declined in importance in mass-market newspapers," he said. When the Financial Times notified him that it was about to start printing in Chicago, he had the hook he needed to write a story. He told me, "I do recall now that Richard Lambert mentioned the circulation aspect of this, that the Tribune would be delivering them. In the context of the story I was putting together...this is something that flew by me."

Jones also asked rhetorically if he should feel obliged whenever he writes about the New York Times to mention that the Tribune also handles the Times's distribution in this area.

Not whenever. But Jones didn't dispute the advisability in this instance of acknowledging the Tribune's business with the Financial Times. Corporate irons in the fire that reporters disregard don't simply burn, they brand.

Rights of the Right

Student government is democracy's drooling stepchild, seldom respected and rarely granted the right to be wrong. Earlier this month an appellate panel of faculty and students upheld a decision by the Associated Student Government of Northwestern University to "derecognize" the university's conservative newspaper, the Chronicle. This had been the wrong thing to do for a couple of reasons. First, it made a mountain of a molehill. Second, it looked an awful lot like censorship masquerading as housekeeping.

The ASG had tried unsuccessfully a couple of years ago to stop the Chronicle from distributing door-to-door in the dorms. This time the ASG deemed the Chronicle a student activity that wasn't meeting ASG guidelines and had forfeited the right to ASG perks.

Chronicle spokesman Ronald Witteles, a former editor who's now studying medicine at the University of Chicago, says those perks are what allow the newspaper to publish. According to him, derecognition will cost the Chronicle its small office in the Norris Center (the student union), access to meeting rooms, the legal protection of the university in the event of a libel suit, and its tax-exempt status. Without that status, it can kiss good-bye the annual grant from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute that keeps the Chronicle alive.

Before the University Hearing Board voted five to two to uphold the action of the ASG executive committee and senate, it considered a letter from Medill professor David Protess. Making it clear that he didn't share the Chronicle's "ideology," Protess protested "a blatant attempt at censorship by the ASG...the repeated effort by ASG to harass or eliminate a unique voice on our campus." He described the writing as "crisp and provocative," even if he usually disagreed with it, and he urged the hearing board not merely to revoke derecognition--"a term borrowed from Orwell?"--but also "to impose appropriate sanctions against ASG."

After the hearing board acted, columnist Eric Zorn reviewed the matter in the Tribune. He reluctantly gave Witteles credit for attaining the status of "legitimate right-wing martyr" and declared what should happen next: "This one calls for a quick resolution in favor of the paper imposed by the university brass."

In short, student democracy has its limits. The ASG should be overruled (Zorn) and punished (Protess) for messing with a newspaper.

But ASG didn't summarily shut down the Chronicle. No ASG storm troopers overran the Chronicle offices, crowbars flailing. The principal harm ASG did to the Chronicle was to change the paper's status in a way that endangered a crucial source of funding. ASG did this knowingly. But do the duties of any legislature extend to guaranteeing the solvency of constituent newspapers by guarding the pipeline from their backers?

Margo Brown, assistant to the vice president for student affairs and the administrator who oversees the campus justice system, has her own version of the tempest. She says this school year ASG decided to review all the student organizations it sponsored--the A groups that get money and recognition from ASG, and the B groups that get only recognition. The Chronicle was merely a B group. "ASG set up a review system and derecognized at least 35 groups, including the Chronicle," Brown says, without commenting on allegations that the ASG criteria were unclearly enunciated and inconsistently applied. She says there's no crisis; the Chronicle's future isn't in danger.

According to Brown, if derecognition goes through, the Chronicle will be taken under the wing of the Norris Center Advisory Board, which has the same authority as ASG to sponsor a university activity. The paper will retain space in the student union, tax-exempt status, and the same legal protections it's always enjoyed. The total price that the Chronicle would pay under this shift of sponsorship, Brown suggests, would be the loss of access to a free ASG fax machine.

Says Witteles, "If somebody wants to recognize us we certainly would be very open to listening. Obviously we would be happy were that to happen, though it wouldn't change how wrong it was what student government did."

But, Witteles continues, the Chronicle hasn't been recognized yet by any new organization. "Believe me, we don't have it. And until we get it we can't publish because of no nonprofit status and no legal protection."

The Chronicle is, to judge from the odd times I've seen it, dull and inconsequential. Yet ASG seems tormented by it, just as Congress has been known to roil with passion over an 89-cent grant to a conceptual artist with an attitude. What primarily distinguishes ASG from Congress is that, in the case of ASG, bystanders feel free to demand that grown-ups step in.

One of the Chronicle's more eloquent friends on campus is law professor Daniel Polsby, who more than once has testified on the paper's behalf when it was under assault. Asked whether ASG should be expected to worry about the Chronicle's funding, he says, "Ordinarily, I'd say the answer to the question is no." But in this case "we're in a somewhat different situation from the usual indifference a legislature is entitled to have and display." In this case there's an "ongoing vendetta."

He goes on, "It's clear our student body is not made up of a bunch of left-wingers. Its inherent political gravity is well to the right of the Reader. These are upper-middle-class kids. But they are denied by the culture of the university the opportunity to pursue their predilections. If they want to participate in gay and lesbian activities, in multicultural activities, if they want to participate in any standard activities that are structured around the fetishes of the left, it's as easy as falling off a log. But if they want to explore their conservative identities they cannot do that anymore."

To the extent any criteria can be discerned, ASG apparently penalized the Chronicle for an erratic publishing schedule. But says Polsby, "They don't have hordes of volunteers surging through the corridors to work for the Chronicle. It's not like the Daily, where people are dripping out of your ears. Part of it is that clearly to be a conservative, self-identified, is something like being openly identified as a gay or lesbian activist in 1965. It's an outre thing to do, a thing that will get you shunned by respectable people who perhaps don't share any abiding animus for your point of view but think there's something weird about you." o

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