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Yesterday's News Today/Dissenting Opinions/Reading Between the Lines

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Yesterday's News Today

One of Chicago's best gossip columns is about to get better. Here's why. Big things will begin happening at the Tribune Monday, March 19. The news pages will shrink an inch in width, and news stories will necessarily get smaller but a new design will disguise this retreat as progress.

John Kass's column will disappear from page three. Where will he go? To page two. Where will Inc., which now occupies page two, go? To Tempo. Will Tempo continue to be preprinted most days? Yes.

Here's how it will work. Inc.'s Terry Armour hears a juicy tidbit Sunday night. He writes it up Monday morning. It hits the presses Tuesday morning, when the next day's Tempo is run off. Chicago savors the juicy tidbit Wednesday.

The trouble with most juicy tidbits is they go stale faster than doughnuts. But Armour and cocolumnist Ellen Warren will now have to come up with tidbits so succulent they'll still taste good after three days on the shelf. These will be prime tidbits indeed. "You'd almost have to predict the future and hope nobody predicts the future before you do," says Armour, pondering what's to come. "You'd probably have to put a different spin on things."

Dissenting Opinions

Memo to editors: The news story where you tell us what happened should always be longer than the editorial where you tell us what to think about it. Informing is your job; preaching is one of the perks.

Newspapers that get the proportions wrong look like propaganda mills. On Monday of last week, senators John McCain and Russ Feingold held a town hall meeting at Northwestern University. They'd come to town to tout their campaign-finance-reform bill, and the next morning the Sun-Times blew off their appearance in a one-paragraph "metro brief." It appeared on page 65, an obituary page. One more death of a worthy citizen and the paper might have found no space to mention the meeting at all.

McCain and Feingold hope to put limits on soft money, money contributed not directly to political campaigns but to political parties that support the candidates the donors favor. Soft money buys political influence, something a media company wants as much as anybody. The way newspapers that oppose the McCain-Feingold bill skirt the risk of being seen as the dissembling shills of their owners is by reporting responsibly on the legislation they oppose.

The day after the Sun-Times news desk dismissed the McCain-Feingold meeting in a paragraph, the editorial page weighed in with a three-paragraph editorial headlined "A muzzled electorate." There was much more reporting in the editorial than there'd been in the news brief, all of it in the service of an argument. The editorial told us that an audience of 500 people had attended the meeting, that only "softball questions" had been posed until a political science instructor challenged the senators by citing the Federalist Papers, and that in response McCain invoked the U.S. Supreme Court. (The court has maintained that money is property, not speech, even when it's spent to advance political viewpoints, and just last year reasserted the constitutionality of contribu-tion limits imposed against "the broader threat from politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.")

McCain's reply didn't impress the Sun-Times. "While the court is the highest arbiter of our laws, McCain might recall that it is not endowed with papal infallibility," the paper lectured. "We continue to believe that one day a high court review of all the issues involved in campaign finance controls will come down on the side of protecting speech."

There you have it. In the Sun-Times's view, soft money is speech, and if the Supreme Court doesn't think so the Supreme Court is wrong. McCain should be less concerned with what the court has said in the past and more concerned with what it ought to say in the future. The last time the Sun-Times felt so strongly about a Supreme Court dictate was last December, when the court guaranteed George W. Bush the White House. "Democracy wins," said the headline to that giddy editorial. "Our differences were settled in a court of law according to the time-honored institutions, often-tested rules and governing traditions of our nation."

The Supreme Court is only as wise as it is useful.

Reading Between the Lies

As a rule, newspapers diffidently acknowledge their mistakes, but the other day I came across an act of repudiation almost unseemly in its ardor.

It ran last November 17, in the pages of the Times of northwest Indiana. "The Times and its readers were the victims of a hoax this week," began this "note to readers," and the rest of the statement held to that pitch. "Two false news stories....No facts exist to support these stories....The bogus stories were distributed by the Medill News Service....These false stories are at total odds with our newsroom's primary mission....These stories also threaten our primary asset, the bond of credibility....The false stories were submitted Tuesday by a student to his editors....To discover...that two stories were fabricated is a source of anger, frustration and deep disappointment....We promise renewed vigilance."

Journalists wrote that retraction, not lawyers. Compare the Times's bluntness to the far more delicate language of the two other local dailies that had published the same Medill News Service stories in mid-November. Neither paper said on its own authority that the two stories were false. The Daily Herald, which ran one of them, told readers that "questions were raised about the veracity of the incident" and the news service "was unable to verify the information." The Daily Southtown, which carried both, said that according to the service the stories "apparently were fabricated." The Daily Herald apologized to its readers, while the Daily Southtown did no more than pass along the apology of the Medill News Service.

These retractions echoed the fastidious language with which the news service had alerted its clients that the articles were not to be trusted. "We have been unable to verify the information contained in those stories and believe they should not have been published," said the announcement, apologizing to readers "for the mistakes."

Some mistakes. The Medill News Service is a graduate program based in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that serves a smattering of print and electronic clients around the country. Both stories in question had been written by Eric Drudis, a fourth-year Medill student assigned to cover Cook County's juvenile court. One story had a nine-year-old boy who'd been arrested more than 70 times sentenced to a month of detention. In the other, a 15-year-old Niles North sophomore pleaded guilty to beating up her prom date because he'd refused to kiss her. The stories were full of detail: the name of the judge who presided over both cases, and the name of the assistant state's attorney in the first story and the defense attorney in the second. Skeptical readers promptly tore both stories apart. There was no such ASA, according to the office of the Cook County state's attorney; there was no such defense attorney.

A couple of weeks later Medill's dean, Ken Bode, addressed the situation--after a fashion--in a letter E-mailed to his faculty. "Questions have been raised about the veracity of some stories that were written by a student," he said. "We are aware of this situation and embarrassed by it." Never saying the stories were false, and never identifying the student who wrote them, Bode called the matter an "academic integrity case" and explained that the university was powerless to disclose the results of its investigation. "Let us make lemonade out of this situation by redoubling our commitments to ethical, truthful and fair journalism," he concluded.

Why the tap dance around the facts, a dance so unseemly at a journalism school? The only source of actual news was the Daily Northwestern, which in several early-January stories named and profiled Drudis, reported that three newspapers where he'd worked while a student--the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the San Francisco Examiner--had gone back through their files and couldn't "find evidence that more than 30 sources in 17 of Drudis' stories exist." The paper also told us that Drudis had been dropped from the graduate program but remained eligible for a bachelor's in journalism.

Medill itself had been silenced by the federal Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, or FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment. This act guarantees students access to their own student records while denying access to anyone else. For example, grades can't be posted outside a classroom if the student receiving a grade is identifiable--which in practice rules out even the use of Social Security numbers.

Schools are normally free to disseminate "directory" information--names, hometowns, phone numbers--but at a student's request even this data must be suppressed. Schools that violate the Buckley Amendment risk losing federal funding.

Drudis obviously has requested that his "directory" information be suppressed, but under the Buckley Amendment the university can't say so. "There's not any wiggle room," says Al Cubbage, vice president for university relations. "We cannot confirm that the person whose name is on those stories is a student at Northwestern University."

Unable to talk about the matter, Cubbage remembers an old incident. "I've been through this at another institution," he says. "There was unhappiness at the basketball team over things that were being written. So the coach advised all the members of the team to file FERPAs. And then it turned out that by listing their heights and weights in the game programs we were violating FERPA."

Where was this?

"Drake University in Des Moines, eight or nine years ago."

Are you safe talking about it now?

"I hope I am," says Cubbage.

Not even the Times of northwest Indiana named the author of the two stories it was retracting; nonetheless, that retraction gleams with an anger no one at Medill is allowed to express. I asked executive editor Bill Nangle last week what the "renewed vigilance" the Times had promised consists of. He said that from now on the Times will be less trusting of its own interns--"In some instances we'll do random checks of their sources." And he said he understood that other safeguards were being put in place by Medill.

But they're not. What could such safeguards be? "The students are out there reporting the stories, going to courthouses and press conferences, following the mayor around," says Mindy Trossman, Medill News Service's courts editor. "When they come back in they sit down with their editors, and their editors ask questions and try to verify information and try to make sure the facts are right."

But, she continues, "We assume the reporters are going out there and covering events. There is a presumption they're entering here in good faith."

What's doubly exasperating about the Buckley Amendment is that it not only conceals what happened last November but also the way the school's dealt with it. I ask Trossman, purely hypothetically, if she believes a student with a repeated history of fabrication deserves a Medill degree anyway.

"I can't go there," she says.

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