Still 35 Cents--and Now Cheaper Than Ever!
The Tribune's Jeff MacNelly drew a wicked cartoon last week. Sinead O'Connor had torn up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, and MacNelly imagined four priests watching the show. "Shame!" cries one. "Tearing up a photo of the Holy Father!!?" "Poor, pathetic little bald girl," sighs the second. "Probably abused as a small child by some trusted authority figure," the third muses. And the fourth thinks, "Wonder what she's doing Friday night."
Cardinal Bernardin immediately demanded an apology. MacNelly's cartoon, he declared, "by innuendo, insults every good priest serving in the Archdiocese of Chicago."
If priests are anything like reporters, many of Chicago's good priests feel less insulted by Jeff MacNelly than they do by Chicago's bad priests, such as the ones accused lately of pedophilia. At any rate, the Tribune ran the cardinal's letter along with an editorial insisting that the "sexual abuse of children" remains a subject of "legitimate journalistic comment," which includes "barbed political satire by cartoonists."
Bernardin dropped the subject.
Meanwhile, at the Sun-Times, columnist Richard Roeper hailed O'Connor's act as "a moment of truly great television. . . . I can't remember the last time something I saw on the small screen reached out and grabbed me with such force." He defended the moment as more than great sensation. "She pushed a red-hot button and not without cause. Sacrilegious as this may sound to some, the pope and his church are not above criticism." Dozens of calls came in, the Sun-Times would later report. Two were from a local Catholic of modest prominence named Eric Bower, who tells us he called Roeper a "bigot" on his voice mail and then asked Ray Coffey, who runs the editorial page, if it was now the paper's formal policy to endorse attacks on the pope.
"I didn't read the thing yet," Bower says Coffey told him, referring to Roeper's column, "but in my opinion anybody who watches Saturday Night Live is part of the moronic culture."
The moronic culture is irrepressible. Roeper's column was less provocative than MacNelly's cartoon, but Roeper's bosses were the ones who set out to undo the damage. Last Friday a dramatic lavender box appeared at the top of page one. In the box was a dramatic picture of Sinead O'Connor head in hand, looking a lot like Joan of Arc on her last night on earth. "THE ISSUE THAT WON'T GO AWAY" screamed the box (quoting some local radio guy). Chicagoans Rip Sinead for Tearing Up Pope's Picture. Page 3.
Page three was devoted to nothing but. Sinead Tops Protest Chart shouted the headline. But the sly article by Bill Braden revealed the protest as a puff of very thin smoke. A WLS official said his call-in station got lots of calls, but half of them were defending O'Connor. A spokesman for the archdiocese said, "Our feeling is that our best course of action is very simple: Don't talk about her." Two Loyola University students shrugged it off. "It's no big deal," said one. Andrew Greeley told Braden, "We [Catholics] don't, at this stage of our development in American culture, feel the need for heavy fussing about and protesting over things." And the manager of a store peddling O'Connor's latest album said, "I haven't heard a single word about it."
The paper's ultimate evidence of seething passions was visual. The same Eric Bower, a onetime executive director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was photographed venting his wrath by tearing up a picture of O'Connor tearing up a picture of the pope.
They looked everywhere for a Catholic with a scrap of public stature willing to do such a damn fool thing. One dignitary who said no now calls the idea "despicable." Tom O'Connell, Bower's successor at the Catholic League, says he told Braden, "I'm not into retribution. I don't believe it's the Christian thing to do. It's not me." There was no way Braden could bring it up to Andrew Greeley without treating the thing as a joke, and Greeley said he'd be happy to tear up a picture of George Bush.
But Bower told Braden, "I'll do it. It's nothing to me." A photographer came around with several copies of the O'Connor picture. Bower was snapped ripping and he was snapped torching. "I burned the damn thing too," he told us. He had a heck of a time getting the picture to ignite. "Finally I soaked it in benzene and then lit it."
So the story that would not die turned out to be the story that was barely alive. Bob Olmstead, a Catholic League board member, brought the matter to our attention. "If I'm offended, it's not as a Catholic," he said, "but as an embarrassed former Sun-Times reporter that they'd stoop to something like this."
We called Braden. "You will at least admit there's progress in journalism," he said. "Thirty-six years ago, when I was a cub reporter, they sent me out on skid row disguised as a bum. The idea was a week-long series on the jungle called skid row, men living close to the rim. And there were these great shots we had of two winos rolling in the gutter. I happened to be there when the photographer found these two old men sitting on the corner peacefully sharing a bottle of wine, and he took a quarter and flipped it right between them."
Braden's point was this: 36 years ago, it would never have occurred to the Sun-Times to concede that a photo was staged. Whereas the photo last week of Eric Bower came with a caption that allowed he was doing his ripping "at the suggestion of a photographer."
Well, it wasn't the photographer's suggestion. And though Braden asked Bower to pose, it wasn't his idea either. The plot was hatched in the glass offices where the senior editors dwell. The photographer was so embarrassed to be a part of it he wouldn't let his name run under his picture.
It's World Series time, so let's recall a dramatic moment from the Fall Classic's storied past.
"The [cab driver's] reference was to the sixth game of the 1986 World Series when the Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner, bent to field a ground ball with two out in the last inning and Boston on the verge of a championship. But the ball rolled through his legs, and the Mets rallied to win the game, and also the seventh and deciding game two nights later." --sports columnist Ira Berkow, writing in the New York Times in 1990
"Even though the Mets are the winningest club in baseball since 1984, they are a Bill Buckner error away from not even having a ring to show for it." --AP story carried in the Chicago Tribune, 1990
"You would think that by now, no team would defy the Ex-Cub Factor. It hasn't been a secret. It was discovered in 1981 by a Ron Berler, a Chicago writer, teacher, and baseball stats nut. He sounded the alarm, but did the experts listen? No, they sneered and said it had no scientific validity, it was just a silly, meaningless coincidence. That's what they said when the Boston Red Sox had certain victory within their grasp. Then Bill Buckner, one of their three ex-Cubs, let that fatal ground ball dribble it all away." --Mike Royko, writing in the Tribune in 1991
"Red Sox Wade Boggs, on the $93,000 paid for the World Series ball that went between the legs of Bill Buckner and kept Boston from winning the championship: "I guess that's the Mona Lisa of memorabilia as far as baseball collectors go. That was a monumental play, something that allowed the Red Sox not to win the World Series, so I can see the high price for it."' --Dave van Dyck, writing this summer in the Sun-Times
These evocative glances back don't merely recall truth. They create it--a new truth suited to the mythological cravings of baseball. We merely want to point out here that this is one of those instances in which truth is inconvenienced by fact. The Red Sox, to be factual about it, were on the verge of nothing when Buckner booted that ground ball. Neither victory nor the bouncing baseball was within their grasp. Earlier in the inning Boston had New York on the ropes--down two runs, with two out and nobody on--but the Mets rallied to tie with no help from Buckner. His error let the winning run score.
Purveyor of Succinct Biographies
Praise to the Sun-Times's Tom Seibel for doing right by Myron Weinstein, the city's voice of death to generations of reporters. The first breath of action on many a newsroom morning was the call from the chairman of the Weinstein Brothers funeral homes, rasping--as Seibel recalled--"I got a good one for you. Are you ready, my friend?"
Weinstein's idea of a "good one" was not necessarily the reporter's, but where is the harm in burying a life in considerably more splendor than it might have been lived? "Used-car salesmen became 'auto brokers,'" Seibel noted, "and a pack peddler buying and selling used clothes had been 'in the apparel business in the vicinity of Madison and Halsted.'"
Weinstein, who died the other day at the age of 91, was a broker of extinguished lives. If so many came in tarnished and threadbare, as he retailed them to the press they glistened. Seibel, in his obituary, recalled: "A former Chicago Sun-Times reporter turned editor and publisher would neither forget nor forgive the time the 'bottle broker' in the obituary he accepted from Mr. Weinstein proved to be a man who scoured alleys for glass bottles he would return for their deposit."
However Jim Hoge actually felt about this legendary flimflam, few reporters minded Weinstein's powers of enchantment. We hoped someone as nimble would use them on us.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.