The Small Screen Beckons/ Raw Power vs. Brain Power 

By Michael Miner

"Here's what it is," says Phil Rosenthal, soon to be a former sportswriter. "You work on these beats and do this stuff and you're surrounded by people clearly more passionate than you are about what they're doing. I see a guy like Mariotti, who's clearly just as passionate as all get-out about what he's doing."

Whatever it is about sports that makes Jay Mariotti rabid, Rosenthal wasn't infected. However droll, the chatty sports notes he's been spinning out for the Sun-Times the last two years are as passionate as a form letter from the guy who thinks he can cut your real estate assessment.

But he remembered what turned his crank--TV. "Maybe that's sick," says Rosenthal. But there it is. He left sports the first time to cover TV back in college and left sports again to cover TV at the Los Angeles Daily News. "The reason I came to Chicago and left that job wasn't that I didn't like what I was doing," he reflects. "I didn't like the people I was doing it for."

Rosenthal, who's 34, noised it around the Sun-Times that TV suited him better than the press box. Not that any opening existed. But last week TV critic Lon Grahnke was called in and asked what he thought about covering education. As soon as the Bulls' season ended, Rosenthal would take over the TV beat.

"I think TV's undercovered here," the new man says. "In New York there's a bunch of critics, all big voices. In Los Angeles there's Howard Rosenberg, in Washington Tom Shales." Chicago has Robert Feder, who covers backstage TV and radio for the Sun-Times. "The great thing about Feder is he brings people to that page," says Rosenthal.

There's also piecemeal criticism of shows and performers, the best of it being the gracefully written pieces by Steve Johnson in the Tribune. What's gone, and largely forgotten, is the analytic heavy lifting known as commentary. A few years ago I asked one of Rosenthal's predecessors about Ron Powers. Back in the early 70s, when think pieces on television weren't mourned as squandered brainpower, Powers's essays had been honored with the first Pulitzer ever received by a TV critic.

The predecessor had no idea who Powers was.

"I loved Ron Powers," says Rosenthal. "He wrote a book called Newscasters in 1977 [Rosenthal would have been 13]. It began with the line, 'The biggest heist of the 70s didn't make it on the five o'clock news. The biggest heist of the 70s was the five o'clock news." (Rosenthal had it almost word for word.)

But Gary Deeb was a bigger influence. Deeb was the enfant terrible hired by the Tribune out of Buffalo to offer Chicago an absolute contrast to Powers. Eventually he moved to the Sun-Times, where he mentored Feder and wore out his welcome. He hung on for years with Channel Seven, where the talent he'd once pilloried made him a pariah, and today is, so far as Rosenthal knows, back in Buffalo.

"We read the Tribune when I was growing up, and he's what really drew me into newspapers," says Rosenthal. "I'm probably the only kid who asked for an autographed picture of Gary Deeb. I got it too. I think he was pretty glad to be asked. When I left for college I got a mail subscription to the Sun-Times because Deeb was a big thing for me. But I come at it a lot differently from Deeb. One of the things I learned--I still appreciate what he did. It was still a good read every day, but it wasn't always fair. And no one who reads my stuff is going to say, 'Ah, Gary Deeb.' I don't write like that."

Here's how he wants to be like Deeb. "I see a TV column as being a destination. It's something you would turn to and look to because at the very least you get a good read out of it. When they're called in the middle of dinner and asked, 'Why do you read the Sun-Times?' I'd like to think this is one of these things. The people who come up to me and say, 'What? Why do you want to do this?' see the job as it now exists. They don't see what I see. I see it as a great platform."

How does it now exist? I wonder.

"I think it's--how would I put it? And I don't mean our paper--I think it's too tight a focus. They're paying attention to specific programs and not looking at the big picture. I don't think people need reviews of every USA movie."

If you've watched Channel Five news after Bulls playoff games, you've probably noticed how eager the producers are to go live to the postgame press conference. The newscast will break in on a response in progress--usually Phil Jackson's or Michael Jordan's--listen a while, then cut away before it's completed, no matter how illuminating someone's being and even when the newscast has nothing better to show next than a bar full of whooping yahoos drinking themselves silly. Whatever Jackson or Jordan might be saying doesn't matter; immediacy is the only content.

"TV will put live stuff on just to put live stuff on," Rosenthal says, then shifts to something a little different. "The example that comes to mind is instant trial analysis. It's a story in progress. You can't draw sweeping conclusions every five minutes. There's some value in reflection on it. One of the most difficult jobs of being a sportswriter is that you're almost always writing about things that aren't done yet. It's like a parlor game. How do I make it sound like I know how it's going to end when I'm filing before it's over?"

When Ron Powers got the job Rosenthal's about to inherit, his editor asked him what he thought television was. Powers responded earnestly and at length. I ask Rosenthal what he thinks.

"You know what it is? It's something that touches all our lives. It affects us in ways we don't even know. There's almost nothing that happens that isn't in some way--maybe big, maybe small--affected by it, touched by it, and changed by it. I've always said that everything's on it, so at some point you're writing about everything."

When Powers was done, his editor told him TV was an advertising medium.

"Image Union did this great piece of performance art, and the message is 'television delivers people,'" says Rosenthal, referring to the late, great Channel 11 series created by his cousin, Tom Weinberg. "The product of television is not programming, not news, not any of that stuff. The product of television is what's bought and sold on TV, which is the people in front of the set. I'm not going to write it every day, but it'll come up. When you sit in front of that set you're giving your sanction to the program you're watching. It may seem a passive act to you, but you're being sold."

Raw Power vs. Brain Power

The Academic Olympics, for the brightest elementary students in Chicago's public schools, were held last week at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The program began about 10 AM. Schools CEO Paul Vallas had the floor when I arrived close to 11; he spoke for several minutes more, and at least three dignitaries followed him. (I wasn't keeping count.) Someone handed someone else flowers. A former Academic Olympian who went on to graduate from UIC was asked to stand and be applauded by the children he presumably inspired. UIC was mentioned several times as an excellent place to consider if the young scholars dared to pursue their wildest dreams. Meanwhile parents with other things to do squirmed in frustration, surmising that though they'd come to watch top scholars strut their stuff, this wasn't a serious occasion.

The heart of the olympics was the Academic Bowl, which brought to UIC teams from 12 schools that had survived regional eliminations. In each of the four first-round matches three teams competed at answering toss-up and bonus questions. The three schools piling up the most points would meet in the finals. (Under this format a strong team competing against weak teams held an obvious advantage over strong teams competing against each other.)

The first-round matches lasted five minutes apiece. The finals lasted six minutes. The entire Academic Bowl competition was over in 26 minutes, far less time than Academic Olympics officials had reserved for themselves to expound on what a great day this was for Chicago education.

The Academic Bowl ended in turmoil. With the championship on the line, the last toss-up question posed by the moderator asked for the word that refers to the dictionary definition of a word. When a contestant from Beaubien elementary pressed her buzzer first and said "meaning," the moderator announced "incorrect," a ruling that would have given the title to Jamieson. Then a Sheridan student correctly said "denotation." But the Beaubien contestant immediately protested. "Meaning" might not have been the moderator's answer, she asserted, but it was a perfectly good answer all the same.

The judges had stepped in once already, ruling that "Normandy invasion" was as acceptable an answer to the question "What happened on June 6, 1944?" as "D day." Now they overruled the moderator again, making Beaubien the champion.

At this point the Sheridan student spoke up. "Denotation" and "meaning" are not interchangeable at all, she insisted. It's like asking, what do you get if you mix two primary colors? The correct answer is "secondary color," not "another color." The audience cheered her lucid argument, but the judges stood fast.

Except for the five minutes when my daughter's school got to compete (unsuccessfully), my mind wandered. I wondered if the event exposed a fault line between classes. Parents from a magnet school in Lincoln Park might think their kids' knowledge deserved a better showcase. But perhaps most parents here were content to let the system's bigwigs preen and send the kids home with a free lunch and an Academic Olympics pin. I decided it was time to worry; the day was a waste of time, and it suggested that for all of Vallas's admirable emphasis on quality education, he and his crew don't know what to make of first-rate young minds when they have them.

The backdrop to this woolgathering was the new magnet-school busing plan Vallas had announced earlier in the week. (It's discussed by Ben Joravsky in this issue on page five.) Opposition to the plan is intense, and it springs from a widely held presumption that no idea coming from the central office is likely to do the magnet schools any good. A siege mentality prevails at the magnets, a sense of "us against the Huns," and many parents believe that because Pershing Road can't take credit for these schools' success, it's more interested in sabotaging than supporting them.

Nothing's harder to leave alone than something that works fine without you. Earlier in the school year Vallas announced that the problem with the magnets is that too few neighborhood children attend them. He set a goal of 30 percent of the student body from within a mile radius of each magnet school, a goal he quickly dropped to 15 percent of the students from within a mile and a half. He released figures showing how badly the magnets fell short. At our school, supposedly only 6.4 percent of the students came from within a mile. I did my own calculations for the school paper, using the school directory and some simple geometry, and found out that the actual figure was 17.6 percent--and 22.4 percent from within a mile and a half. I don't know where Vallas got his numbers, but thin air is a likely suspect.

Now he's promising almost $4.5 million in savings from his new busing plan, another figure that may have dropped by on a breeze. What Vallas might not understand about the middle-class families who supposedly will stay in Chicago if it gives them decent schools is that what they like about the magnets is their autonomy. No one on earth believes that the best way to administer public education is on a huge scale with a powerful central bureaucracy, and every time Vallas reminds everyone who's boss, a few more two-income families start house hunting in Evanston and Oak Park. And when a parade of orotund pedagogues dares a roomful of whiz kids to set their sights as high as UIC, parents of bright eighth-graders thank God they're getting out while the getting is good.

One olympics event I've judged for years at the regional level is the essay contest. Judges are asked to grade each essay (this year's theme was the role of weather in our lives) by 16 criteria, with up to three points allotted for each. Two of the criteria ask the judges to measure content; all the others concern form and appearance. It's no more important that a contestant craft a persuasive argument than that he dutifully recapitulate the thesis in the conclusion or maintain a proper border around each page.

The schools are doing a better job than ever teaching appearances. Substance remains in short supply.

News Bites

The Tribune is paying a heavy price for a typo. The First Amendment was chiseled into a travertine wall of the fourth-floor reception area outside the newly remodeled newsroom. Some minor punctuation mistakes were caught early on, while the letters were merely stenciled on the limestone. But after the wall was engraved someone noticed that an "of" was missing. Now the entire wall has disappeared behind a black tarpaulin to be redone.

What's curious about this grim blunder, which finds staffers who think it's a hoot afraid to say so on the record, is that the Tribune had long ago inscribed the First Amendment in the old first-floor lobby. The punctuation used there was the punctuation deemed inauthentic upstairs after a check of the National Archives. Which means the Tribune will soon display two different versions of the First Amendment.

Of course the first one dates back to the era of Colonel McCormick, when if the Tribune disagreed with the founding fathers it was their mistake.

Too bad that while he's at it the Tribune artisan repairing the fourth floor can't take a whack at last Monday's Tempo headline over the tribute to Phil Hartman, the subtly bungled "In Memorium."

Latest evidence that quoting is more art than science.

"I can't say that the best team won. Even though we pulled away, both teams are deserving of going on to the Finals." Scottie Pippen, quoted last Monday by Jay Mariotti in the Sun-Times.

"I can say the best team won, but they made us work. Even though we came away with a win, both teams deserved to go to the finals." Pippen, quoted by Dave van Dyck in the Sun-Times.

"I have a lot of respect for Indiana. I can say the best team won. But they gave us a lot." Pippen, quoted by Skip Myslenski in the Tribune.

"I can't say that the best team won, but we came out on top." Pippen, quoted by John Jackson in the Sun-Times.

"I can say the best team won, but they gave us a lot. Even though we pulled out the win, I think both teams were deserving to go to the Finals." Pippen, quoted by Jackson again two paragraphs later.

"Both teams gave their best. I can't say the best team won, but I'm glad we came out on top. I have a lot of respect for Indiana." Pippen, quoted Tuesday by Terry Armour and K.C. Johnson in the Tribune.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phil Rosenthal photo by Nathan Mandell.

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