Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Extry! Extry! Media scandal! Sun-Times gives rich owner special treatment

Posted By on 08.22.12 at 04:11 PM

The troubling photo
What Time Out Chicago blogger Robert Feder had to say about Michael Ferro’s family excursion to Wrigley Field was fair comment, but not exactly the last word in media criticism.

“Is this Michael Ferro dude for real?” Feder asked. “By what stretch of the imagination could anyone consider it newsworthy that the owner of the Sun-Times attended a Cubs game with his family? But there on Page 67 of Wednesday’s paper was a quarter-page photo of the Wrapports chairman with his wife and kids hanging out behind the Wrigley Field scoreboard with Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. But wait, there's more: Page 74 of the same edition carried a full-page Game Face photo of Ferro’s son, Trey, identified as a 'lifelong Cubs fan and member of the golf team at Latin School of Chicago,' throwing out the first pitch at Tuesday’s Astros-Cubs game. (Olympic gold medalist Conor Dwyer, who also threw out a ceremonial first pitch at the game, was ignored.) The shameless star treatment says a lot about Ferro and how he views the Sun-Times as his personal PR toy. It says even more about editors who pander to the boss rather than stand up for what’s right.”

My first reaction to this diatribe was to wish Feder had left the editors out of it. Grown-ups pick their spots. Editors who'd go to the mat with Ferro over a petty ego trip wouldn’t deserve their jobs anyway.

But then I heard from the editor in chief, Jim Kirk. He told me, “Michael did not want a photo of him or his family in there and did not get involved to tell me or anyone else what to do or not to do.”

Ferro didn't want a photo yet there were two of them, the one behind the scoreboard provided by the Cubs and the one of Trey Ferro taken by a Sun-Times photographer. If Ferro didn't ask for either one to be published, someone must have been a little too slavishly anticipating the boss's desires, and Feder’s crack about pandering doesn't look so heavy-handed after all. I don't know if Ferro considers the Sun-Times his personal PR toy, but I guess his staff doesn't know either.

Feder and I part company over what I'd call his lack of historical perspective. Back in the 70s, when I worked for the Sun-Times, we had our own MF—Marshall Field—in charge, and when an assignment slip was handed down marked “MF suggests” or “MF asks” or “MF must” what that meant was, drop everything else and make him happy. Our Marshall Field was the third-generation Marshall Field to run the paper, and he’d acquired fairly grown-up ideas about how far it was seemly to go in taking personal advantage of it. For instance, he'd have known—and yes, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here—that the best way to guarantee no pictures show up of your son throwing out the first pitch is to not wangle an invitation for your son to throw out the first pitch.

Michael Ferro may have a few things to learn about how to say "no special treatment" as though you mean it, and an overeager staff may have a few things to learn about Ferro. This much is safe to say: if new-money capitalists snatching up dying newspapers for a song as vanity projects are the industry’s only hope, the new owners' self-indulgences are a price the papers will have to be willing to pay to survive. What goes around comes around. The recent ruinous era of corporate ownership was all about minimizing expenses and maximizing stock yields. But before the bean counters took over, the newspaper barons of old did what they pleased and answered to no one. Feder should try to think more fondly of Ferro as a return to the good old days.

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