A Rebuttal | Letters | Chicago Reader

A Rebuttal 

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Dear Ms. True,

My name is Timothy Barnard. I'm writing to register my objection to the deliberate misrepresentation of my position by your Neighborhood News reporter Ben Joravsky for a story in which I am featured in the [October 1] issue of your newspaper. This story concerns the attempts of a bar in Hyde Park known as the Woodlawn Tap to acquire a liquor license.

When I approached Mr. Joravsky about doing a story and summarized the information I had for him, he expressed amazement at the information I had uncovered about city law and how the bar's application seemed not to conform to that law. (This involves city ordinance regarding the proximity of bars to schools and churches.) When I expressed some reluctance to be the center of the story, saying that this wasn't a human-interest piece but a story about possible municipal corruption (the apparent readiness of the city to overlook its own laws), Mr. Joravsky exclaimed that no, I had to be the center of the story, because of all the "incredible information" I had uncovered about city law and the bar's status in regards to it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, and this only by telephoning Mr. Joravsky to clarify a couple of points on the day of his deadline, that this central thrust of the story, one we had agreed on from the start, was entirely absent from it! I was able to insist that he reinsert the issue in a single paragraph, but this resulted in a somewhat schizophrenic aspect to the story, with no one else but me in the story addressing the issue and me identified in the story's subheading as opposed to a loophole that would allow the bar to open. This is not a loophole but a contravention of city law. It is a contravention that is apparently endorsed by my local alderman, Ms. Toni Preckwinkle: as I related to Mr. Joravsky, Alderman Preckwinkle's assistant Rebecca Janowitz told me on the telephone that she "doesn't care how far the bar is from the school." Mr. Joravsky was incredulous when I told him this and promised to question Ms. Janowitz about it, with whom he is apparently on a first-name basis, but of course it was completely absent from the story.

A loophole was discussed in the article, however, and that is the bar's insistence that it is not in proximity to a school playground across the street because the playground is owned by a parent parish and not the school.

I made three very clear arguments against this ploy in my interview with Mr. Joravsky. One, that in order to argue that the playground is not school property, it would have to be established that the school on this parish complex had its own deeded property--that is, that such a thing as "school property" exists. Two, that the people who wrote this law clearly intended, by stipulating that the distance to schools be measured property line to property line and not building to building as it is for churches, to include all outdoor school-related activities in its purview, such as those that take place on playgrounds. In this way the bar's argument violates at least the spirit if not the letter of the law. And three, that perhaps the parish was creating problems for itself by claiming that the school playground was not school property--would their insurance company be happy with such a situation? And if their insurance company decided that it didn't matter because school property and parish property were basically the same thing, then perhaps this is a conclusion the city's liquor license commission should come to as well.

Well, if you were a journalist or editor working on this story, Ms. True, which of these three points would you consider most effective if you were able to include only one because of space considerations? Mr. Joravsky, inexplicably, chose the third argument and omitted the other two. This is not a case of "failing to please all sides of the story," as Mr. Joravsky argued after he heard my objections after he read the story to me on the telephone; it is a case of deliberately burying the self-evidently most effective parts of my argument.

This is especially perplexing considering some of Mr. Joravsky's comments while he was conducting his interview with me. When I explained the bar's argument, Mr. Joravsky became extremely indignant, saying that it was a "selective enforcement of city law" and a "done deal." He went into a long explanation of how, by this logic, no school in the city was safe under the ordinance because any Chicago public school playground could be argued to be owned by the Board of Education downtown. When I assured him that he didn't need to convince me--so agitated had he become--and that this was exactly what I was trying to say, perhaps I had not said it clearly enough, Mr. Joravsky assured me that I had said it just fine and that in any event "[he] will say it" himself. In the end, neither of us did.

Those are the major instances of Mr. Joravsky's intentional ethical lapse in writing this article. Let me take a moment and point out a few more.

In the article I am portrayed simply as opposing the bar because of a possible nuisance from live music that it might present. Mr. Joravsky, somewhat sneeringly, asks at one point in his article: If the church doesn't care about the bar using a loophole to get a license, why should he? I think that if such a question is going to be asked in the article then I should be allowed to respond, with statements I made in my interview to Mr. Joravsky that anticipated precisely this argument--although I expected it from my opponents, not the journalist writing up the story.

In my interview I said very succinctly that "this time it's a popular bar but next time it will be something less popular and then we will have all acquiesced in a very irregular process"; that my interest in the matter resided in my desire to "live in a city in which the law is respected by all, including the major players"; and that "this is not a popularity contest--it's a legal process." These are pretty concise, quotable quotes, tailored for inclusion in the article.

None of these statements, incredibly, appeared in Mr. Joravsky's initial version of the article, despite his musings about why on earth I cared. I was able in my final discussion with Mr. Joravsky to persuade him to include the final of these three quotes.

Similarly, Mr. Joravsky--again, the reporter and not my opponents--makes the claim that I have nothing to worry about concerning noise from the bar because the city under Mayor Daley is keeping a close eye on bars and because this bar is "better managed than most." Again, I anticipated this argument and spelled out for Mr. Joravsky how under city law I am offered very little protection from bar noise. The City of Chicago simply does not have--and Mr. Joravsky found this hard to believe and said he would look into it, but it is entirely absent from the story--a noise ordinance. I was informed by a city official that all noise complaints must go to the police, and the officer responding to the call will determine whether the level of noise constitutes a nuisance. This of course is a thoroughly unacceptable state of affairs for someone living next door to a bar with live blues music, having one of Chicago's finest decide on the spot at midnight on a Saturday night whether bar noise constitutes a nuisance. I spelled all this out for Mr. Joravsky, and yet he insisted in going out of his way in his article to claim that I have nothing to fear from the bar's noise.

On the topic of the bar's noise, I made the point early in the article that my fear was that the bar would change from a local watering hole to a club offering live music. Again, either none of the bar's defenders were asked about the bar's plans in this regard or their comments were not printed. This seems to me a basic failing in following through on the issues in the story.

Well, I could go on and on. Mr. Joravsky insisted on quoting a letter of mine in his possession, to Mr. Hugo Sonnenschein, president of the University of Chicago, as if it related to the issue of the bar's proximity to the school, when in fact it was written concerning the bar's repeated and seemingly deliberate violations of the city's construction code in their renovation work beside my home. These violations, which I outlined to Mr. Joravsky, are not mentioned in the article apart from his use of the fact that the bar's owner, Mr. Bill Callahan, telephoned me to apologize for them. This is offered as proof of Mr. Callahan's good will and ability to control the bar, but in fact, as Mr. Joravsky knows, the opposite is the case: the day after Mr. Callahan's call, the bar again violated the city's construction ordinance, which prompted the letter to Mr. Sonnenschein.

I hope you will agree with me that all this amounts to evidence of a serious lapse on Mr. Joravsky's part and a quite unfair mis- or nonrepresentation of my position to your readers. I will not indulge in speculation as to why this may be the case, but I will point out that during our interview Mr. Joravsky repeatedly indicated that it was his belief that all this skulduggery regarding the law could be avoided by seeking an exemption from it, the way one seeks minor exemptions from the zoning law or building code. In the course of his discussions with city officials he discovered that this is not the case, that the law allows for no exemptions and does not provide for the city liquor commission to overlook infractions. During my follow-up conversation with Mr. Joravsky, in which he related this to me, he went so far as to say that he now believed that the city was being too inflexible. Perhaps Mr. Joravsky was willing to write this story as long as it seemed like a minor neighborhood squabble that would come out all right in the end but changed his attitude when he discovered what was at stake.

Given all the issues I have raised in this letter, I suggest that the best way to resolve your newspaper's failings in the handling of this story would be to print this letter in its entirety by way of clarification. Failing this, I will pursue other redress.

Thank you for your time and interest in this matter.

Timothy Barnard

South Woodlawn

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