Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Do newspapers think we can't see who's missing?

Posted By on 02.08.12 at 09:01 AM

Conscientious editor dreams of the days raw copy
  • Conscientious editor dreams of the day's raw copy
I gave the Monday Trib a stare
And met the man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish, he’d go away.

His absence haunts the Tribune, and a lot of other papers too. He (or, very definitely, she) is remembered as an editor. Not the lofty editor who designs and leads the great campaigns that win the coveted prizes. And not the obsessive who can lecture an hour about the comma. I'm speaking of the minions who once formed the protective layer of surly common sense that insulated a newspaper's daily report from the reporters' illogic, muddled language, and failure to think through what they were trying to write about.

Monday I ran into this missing editor in a profile of local science fiction writer Gene Wolfe, who’s receiving an award from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. I read:

His first attempt at selling a book, an offer for $2,000, went nowhere.

“I figured that would be enough to buy furniture,” he said. “Well, the book never sold, but we did eventually save enough money to buy furniture…”

As any able desk man or desk woman would testily inquire, what does this mean? Who offered whom $2,000? If someone offered it to Wolfe, why didn’t he take it? It sounds as if Wolfe did the offering, but that makes no sense at all. Maybe it was the price Wolfe demanded for his manuscript, a price no publisher met. In which case there was no offer. Did the book never sell to a publisher? Or did a publisher—perhaps promising Wolfe the first $2,000 in sales revenues—bring it out, but nobody bought it?

I read the passage two or three times and still had no idea. The editor who wasn’t there had really done it this time.

A day later, he showed up on page one.

It's a story about a lawsuit. An Oak Park man, James Bogard, is suing the village because its fire fighters smashed “gaping holes” in a small house he owned during a training exercise back in 2008, and then Oak Park demanded he fix up the place on his own dime and began fining him $600 a day when he did not.

If we read carefully—the story only suggests this, and in passing—we gather that the village picked Bogard’s house for its exercise because it thought the house was about to be torn down. But why did Oak Park think that? We’re not told. We read that the village received a signed agreement from a developer with some connection to Bogard, but what that connection amounted to legally is never made clear.

We gather that Bogard never lived in the house, which is in the 800 block of Forest Avenue in Oak Park. He bought it in 2007 intending to flip it, but then the market crashed. “The developer he lined up to buy the house walked away from the deal, records show.”

Lined up? What does that mean—a contract, a handshake, or something else? The story goes on, “Before bailing, the developer signed a ‘hold harmless agreement,’ allowing the Fire Department to use the house for training exercises, court records indicate. The developer is listed on the agreement as the ‘owner or authorized agent.’” Apparently he wasn’t the owner—Bogard still was. But what was he—a lying con man, someone who believed he owned the place, or someone so close to owning it he thought he could make a decision for the owner?

As we're scratching our heads, the Tribune tells us:

Bogard filed a federal lawsuit in June 2009 against Oak Park, three Fire Department employees and the builder, alleging they violated his rights under the Constitution, court records show.

An editor on his toes would never have let that go by. “Who the hell is this builder?” he’d have shouted. “If you mean the developer, say so. [The Tribune did mean the developer.] This story’s hard enough to follow as it is without sprinkling cinnamon all over it.”

(Cinnamon was the editor’s little joke. Terrified reporters knew he meant synonyms.”)

The suit was promptly dismissed “without prejudice.” Why? The Tribune doesn’t say. If you’re curious, Judge Milton Shadur concluded that there was no federal issue for his court to address—as you can read here in his memorandum tossing the suit. Bogard then refiled his suit in the Cook County Courts, making one intriguing change the Tribune mentions but doesn’t explain—he dropped the developer as a defendant.

Again, why? And why does the Tribune never identify this developer, who seems to be at the center of the story? Perhaps this information will be helpful:

The developer was a Barney O’Reilly, who ran a company called Cherryfield Construction, got into all sorts of financial trouble when the housing market collapsed, and disappeared. It’s believed he went back to Ireland.

I know this because I found online a vastly more coherent report on the Bogard versus Oak Park dispute that was posted two and a half years ago on the website of Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal. It doesn’t nail down the relationship between Bogard and O’Reilly, but it’s jammed with interesting detail. For example, it tells us Reilly gave the fire department permission to smash up two houses—the one it turned out Bogard still owned and a house owned by O’Reilly a couple doors away. The fire department got interested in Bogard’s place when it showed up to turn off the water—a neighbor whose bad luck it was to live between the two houses had called to report that the pipes must have burst in Bogard’s empty house because she could hear water gushing. The neighbor mentioned to the fire crew that O’Reilly’s Cherryfield Construction owned the house and she believed it was about to be torn down.

One other thing. The Tribune tells its story almost entirely from Bogard's point of view, explaining that an Oak Park spokesman “said the village does not comment on pending litigation.” But this litigation has been pending in circuit court for 27 months. Has Oak Park never filed a response to the Bogard's charges? If it hasn’t, it’s doing such an astonishing job of dragging its heels in court that the Tribune needs to salute it. If it has, the Tribune ought to read the response and tell us what's in it.

I have my reasons for not mentioning the reporter of either of these stories. I don’t like the idea that their names would then be linked online with this critique forever. Besides, for all my good words for editors, they've been known to manhandle copy that has left the writers' hands. My big reason, though, is that I've turned in plenty of stories that were no better than these. Fortunately, a persnickety editor would usually save the day. But, a few scattered outposts of artisanal journalism notwithstanding, those finicky editors have been run out of the business as an unaffordable luxury. Actually, I wish, I wish they'd come back.

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