By Michael Miner
The story of a lifetime--the one Ron Grossman was born, or at least educated, to write--was taken away from him last week. To the dismay and outrage of the faculty, students, and alumni who have risen up against their school's president, Grossman will no longer be covering the struggle for the soul of the University of Chicago.
U. of C. officials had never been happy with the way Grossman wrote about President Hugo Sonnenschein's proposals to expand the undergraduate population, add student-friendly appurtenances such as a new athletic center, and reduce the famous core curriculum.
"From now on, the venerable Hyde Park campus is also to be known as home to fun," said a story cowritten by Grossman for page one of the January 31 Tribune. Sporting the headline "At U. of C., C stands for chuckles," this piece prompted a rare visit to the Tower by a university publicist and a letter from Sonnenschein, who insisted that "modest changes" would "fully preserve the fundamental characteristics" of the core curriculum and observed that "the ancient Greeks respected a sound mind in a healthy body."
It wasn't the Greeks who said that, it was the Roman poet Juvenal--a point swiftly made by Sonnenschein's adversaries as the Hyde Park debate raged on. A U. of C. alumnus and a former college professor, Grossman covered the conflict with an in-house grasp of its issues and passions. But on March 14 he went too far. Writing for the Perspective section, he contemplated the effect of the University of Chicago on those "whose minds were permanently etched there" and offered himself as exhibit A.
"It was higher education stripped down to the bare essentials: good books, inquiring young minds and profs who didn't have to worry about what flunking a fullback might do to their chances for tenure. That made it the most un-American of universities. But for us privileged few it was a pimply-faced Camelot. Should the administration push through its proposal to change the game at this late date--if it waters down that classic curriculum, in the name of fun or whatever--we who went to the University of Chicago should consider a class-action lawsuit. After all, the experience they provided us there ruined us for any other take on life."
It was lovely writing. And up to a point it asserted Grossman's bona fides. But when a writer publicly describes one of two alternatives in conflict as Camelot, suggests even in jest that "we" go to court to prevent the other one, and admits that this "take" is the only one he's capable of, he has stamped himself as a partisan. Too much of a partisan for top metro editor Paul Weingarten.
Sonnenschein's critics in Hyde Park quickly learned what had happened to Grossman--who apparently had to call and beg off a meeting he'd said he'd attend. They smelled conspiracy and capitulation. "There's overlap between the boards of the University of Chicago and the Tribune," says attorney Robert Stone, an alumnus who last month organized Concerned Friends of the University of Chicago (the address of its elaborate Web site is www.realuofc.org). "The university trustees were pressuring the editors of the Tribune to take Ron Grossman off the case. The editors had been standing firm. Last week the trustees prevailed and the editors lost. It's not a surprise that a big institution can control the Tribune, but it's interesting."
Stone and his allies--prestigious scholars who recognize when they're pushing their data and perhaps for that reason prefer not to speak accusatorily for attribution--point to five pieces of evidence of that control. First there was the Tribune editorial of February 22 that noted on Sonnenschein's behalf that "modernity has its virtues" and described students as "consumers, shoppers in an educational marketplace. And they have choices." Second was the Tribune's failure to publish any of the angry letters that cascaded down protesting the editorial. One that later came my way was written by sociology professor Donald Levine. "Please! Who fed you the absurdity that our students object to better facilities and services?" he asked. "What galls them about the Sonnenschein regime is its unprecedented intrusion into curricular deliberations, its scheme for unwarranted levels of undergraduate expansion, and its abusive marketing strategies. Control these, and you'll find a happy campground."
Third was the op-ed piece by law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaum denouncing the core, which ran in the Tribune on March 11. "I love rigor," she wrote, "but I don't love being told by some committee of 50 years ago what ideas of rigor I should follow." More letters were not published. "An absurd critique of liberal education," said one by alumnus Andrew Patner that was passed to me.
Fourth was Grossman being taken off the case. And fifth was that "overlap" Stone talked about. Jack Fuller, president of the Tribune Company newspapers, sits on the University of Chicago board.
I couldn't reach Fuller, and Grossman wouldn't talk to me. But Weingarten says Fuller had nothing to do with removing Grossman. "It was my decision, instigated by me and nobody else," he told me. "There was a little communications snafu. I didn't know [the Perspective piece] was going in. I felt he had expressed intense feelings about a debate he was covering at the time, and it was inappropriate to keep him on the story for obvious reasons."
"The stuff about Fuller is nonsense," editor Howard Tyner E-mailed me. "He and I have had only one brief conversation about the U. of C. business (started by me as I was walking my dog one Saturday morning while he was standing in his front yard) and that was 3-4 weeks after the story broke. He offered no comment or criticism of any kind then or subsequently. Taking Ron off the story was solely Paul's decision because he felt the whole affair had become so emotional it was better to have a reporter on the case who didn't have such close personal ties to the university."
Tyner and managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski both say they didn't even know Grossman had been removed until I asked them why.
And Dodie Hofstetter, who edits the Tribune's letters space, points out that she'd run several letters on the U. of C. turmoil before the editorial. The role of the editorial, it seems, was not to stir up argument but to resolve it.
I respect Weingarten's reasons. Unfortunately, the battle over first principles at the University of Chicago won't seem half as riveting described by someone with no stake in them. Readers get lucky when stories about values are told by reporters dead certain of their importance.
The People's News
No matter how much actually goes wrong when the world's computers no longer know what century it is, the turmoil is likely to fall short of the buildup. The other day I went on-line looking for Y2K literature and printed out 21 pages of books and cassettes. Some sound pretty sober, but many don't--the ones with titles like How to Survive Y2K Chaos in the City, Y2K Survival Handbook for the Urban Family, The Year 2000 Killers: Terrorism by Computer, Y2K: What Every Christian Should Know, and Millennium Bomb: The Y2K New World Order Conspiracy. And I was just up to page three.
"Have you had your fill of Y2K yet?" asked a recent press release that cannily played off the hysteria. "Or is it just the doom and gloom that's getting old? What if, instead of one more peep from Chicken Little, you could hear about some clever brainstorms now hatching in communities from coast to coast?"
If you're like me, you picture an elite guild of code busters grimly tapping computer keys while a red digital readout clicks down to zero and the masses cringe and pray. What can a community do except stockpile canned goods and guns?
But millions of Americans who aren't survivalists don't wish to sit idly by. A telephone poll conducted in January by the Media Studies Center found that only 22 percent of the thousand people responding were thinking seriously of "stockpiling food and water." But 56 percent of them disagreed with the statement "The year 2000 computer problem is basically a technical issue that doesn't require my attention." People want to get involved, even if they don't know how--a sentiment that begs for creative journalism.
The press release quoted above ballyhooed the new Y2K "bureau" of the American News Service. "The issue is getting a lot of press at the technical level," says ANS's managing editor, Peter Seares, a former Reuters senior editor. "And then there are a lot of stories of the hysterical kind appearing. But if there are going to be challenges, if there are going to be service breakdowns, then how communities are preparing for these--if they can prepare for these--was being ignored. We saw a real need we were almost uniquely qualified to fill of covering the community-solutions aspect to it."
Seares added, "We're a relatively new agency looking for attention. This would achieve that too."
Kept afloat primarily by foundations, ANS is based in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was founded in 1995 by Frances Moore Lappe, author of the 70s best-seller Diet for a Small Planet. ANS provides clients with stories of a "think globally, act locally" stripe--what it likes to call "solutions news," posting ten new articles a week. Since December, three a week have examined Y2K initiatives.
"Some very practical activity is under way," says Lappe. For example, "a number of communities are pursuing a community-wide Y2K audit." She referred me to an ANS story about a grassroots-business task force established in Santa Cruz. "Santa Cruz showed how to do a community audit to see which systems are most vulnerable."
She invited me to root around in the ANS on-line archives (www.americannews.com), which are normally accessible only to subscribers--some 60 newspapers that pay up to $100 a week and individual auditors who pay $39.95 a year. The stories tend to be short and sweet, and if the news isn't always especially useful, it's resolutely antihysteria. Last week brought a nuts-and-bolts survey of government officials who are telling the public to prepare for January 1 "as they would for a storm that threatens to knock out power or create long lines at the supermarket"--though the officials don't agree on how long the storm will last. An earlier piece introduced the Joseph Project, an Atlanta-based initiative that encourages suburban churches to adopt less-prepared inner-city churches. The Joseph Project is headed by a former Federal Reserve analyst who's quoted as saying, "Ninety-nine percent of the churches are getting ready to help, if they're preparing at all for Y2K. One percent is being unbiblical and heading for the hills."
There was a piece proposing "holistic law" to settle Y2K disputes, and another suggesting that women are more adept than men at coping with Y2K because it demands leaders "who are skilled at relationship building and unafraid to admit they don't know everything."
"We're certainly not setting ourselves up as experts in any way," says Seares, "but we do see ourselves as an antidote to the alarmist or complacent extremes. There's a broad middle range of people who seem to have sanely sat down and said, 'This does seem to pose a challenge to the social order and to services as we know them. How should we be preparing?'"
"This is not anything other than our attempting to perform our mission as a news service," says Lappe. "Our founding purpose was to widen the news lens, to cover this vast universe of innovation in localities that have not typically been seen as sources of news. Our sense is that the news lens has narrowed. There's very much a vertical theory of news going up to Washington and down to a paper's own locality, without the breadth of what's going on in the country."
That's not entirely true. One current in contemporary journalism runs so companionably in ANS's direction that Lappe says, "We're sort of sisters." This is public journalism, which holds that the purpose of newspapering is not to report on the few above to the many below but to arm the many with the tools of active citizenship. "The highly complex, highly interrelated social problems we face today," Lappe said in a 1994 speech, "can't be solved from the top down, because they require such enormous creativity, such extensive changes in our behavior....They require the commitment to solutions that are only there when we know we've been part of designing those solutions."
ANS practices journalism in the spirit of The Neighborhood Works, the journal that Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology used to publish and hopes to again. ANS used to plunder it for ideas. "One of the features of our service," Lappe says, "is that we have a database of close to 15,000 contacts that help us make links between what's happening in one locality and another. And let me add that we're the only service that includes the telephone numbers of our sources with their Web sites. You get much more than a story--you get a tool to do your own reporting."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jim Flynn.