Ad Nausea at the Sun-Times 

By Michael Miner

Ad Nausea at the Sun-Times

The horror of it! A page-one article with a reference to a retailer that didn't advertise in the Sun-Times.

An alert Sun-Times editor spotted the blunder between editions. The article was moved inside to page three, and the paragraph containing the offending sentence--"Crate & Barrel called its weekend sales 'excellent'"--was excised. And when the paper's department chiefs sat down for their daily meeting, executive editor Larry Green made sure everyone understood the Sun-Times wasn't in the business of giving away its ink.

Green wanted his staff to stay on their toes. When retailers were being quoted and photographed for roundup articles the paper should favor its advertisers. A Crate & Barrel didn't deserve the attention paid to a Marshall Field's.

Listening to Green, financial editor Steve Duke began to bristle. One of his reporters, Mary Ellen Podmolik, the retail beat writer, had done "Christmas sales are ringing," the December 3 article that set Green off. So, is this policy? Duke asked.

No, said Green, but it's something to keep in mind. Duke, not normally confrontational, questioned whether the editorial side of the newspaper should pay any attention at all to the advertising side. Green, who loses his temper easily, got hotter. Everybody, he said, should pay attention to our advertisers.

But major retailers are major retailers, whether they advertise in the Sun-Times or not, Duke told Green, arguing for journalism's textbook division of church and state. And Green said ominously, We've had this discussion before. If you don't like it...

At last editor-in-chief Nigel Wade broke in and asked everyone to calm down. There's no new policy, he said. We're simply talking about a situation where people have choices. Tempers cooled, and a day later Green and Duke were joking together.

Everyone had a point. In journalism, events normally drive coverage. But survey articles such as Podmolik's do present choices, and it's hard to blame the bosses of a paper at a competitive disadvantage for wanting to choose stores that have chosen the Sun-Times. Even so, the Green-Duke exchange left journalists at that paper troubled. My account of it comes from various sources who heard about the confrontation and placed it in a larger context. It doesn't come from Duke, who refused to answer my questions, or from Green, who wouldn't return my phone calls or respond to my E-mail, or from Wade, who didn't call me back.

The context is ownership. Hollinger International hasn't shown the newsroom that it values journalism as anything beyond a way to make a buck. Wade is perceived by reporters as a serious newsman who's complained out loud about what his budgets won't let him do. Yet he's remembered for a meeting earlier in his reign during which, in a manner much less direct than Green's, he wondered whether the Sun-Times should be running an article on the new Sam's Liquors store, given that Sam's wasn't an advertiser. More recently the text of the remarks he made at an advertising-department retreat showed up on a management bulletin board. I'm told his message to the advertising folks was: Don't be shy about coming into the newsroom.

The Sun-Times just hired a new editor to run the Friday and Sunday Homelife sections. He's Eric Benderoff, 32, who's spent most of his career at Professional Builder magazine. But before he signed on, Wade and Green talked to Don DeBat, who had the job until he took a buyout in 1994. Wade asked DeBat if he'd be interested in coming back to the paper. DeBat runs his own consulting business now, and he said he wouldn't.

DeBat is remembered as more of a schmoozer than a watchdog, though he's won awards for investigative journalism. "When you're in the Avis position..." he told me. He said that in 1978, when he joined the Sun-Times, "They didn't have millions and millions of dollars of real estate display advertising. It took 15 years to build that up. My approach was to do consumer-oriented articles, and also I was a housing advocate, writing positive, upbeat stories wherever possible. If a developer's houses were falling apart, that would wind up in news, not real estate."

DeBat knows Benderoff and put in a good word for him with Wade and Green. He said, "I think he's the type who'd be a good outside-type guy. He can host a luncheon, give a speech, win friends for the paper."

An appointment, a blowup, a speech--they'd mean little if there were countervailing evidence of Hollinger's commitment to the editorial product. Hiring a few reporters to fill out the newsroom is a gesture that would impress the skeptics. The skeptics aren't holding their breath.

Instead of blowing over, this tempest in a teapot has lasted for weeks. There was a little more to it than I've mentioned so far. Green also lit into Fred LeBolt, the Connected pages on-line editor, for a Thanksgiving Day article he'd produced, "Holiday shopping online."

Reporter Lynn Voedisch had observed that "Friday, many turkey-stuffed souls will sigh heavily before heading out to the shopping malls for a day of crowds, inflated price tags, parking-lot wars and sore feet." Fortunately, "There is an easier way for those who cruise the Infobahn." Voedisch then listed several Web sites that displayed gifts for children. And she promised, "Another roundup, of adult gift sites, will appear in Connected on Dec. 12."

How in the world, said Green at the same meeting, can we print a story kicking off the Christmas season that tells people not to go out and shop? LeBolt got the message. The December 12 article never ran.

When I asked why, LeBolt said awkwardly, "There was some discussion on the subject. It was decided there was enough." He suggested that I talk to Green.

Making Sense of the Senseless

Here's a revisionist approach to local television's "if it bleeds it leads" philosophy of evening news. People do bleed, many of them common people, and were it not for a prying camera they might do their suffering ignored.

"If you view enough local news you sense that there really are thousands of people out there waging battles against their own demons, against fate, even against God," reflects documentarian Ross McElwee, narrating his new film. "And for better or worse, it's only the six o'clock news that really acknowledges them, tells their stories."

That news can scare us silly. When his son Adrian was born a few years ago, McElwee watched the news and wondered what kind of a country he'd be raising him in. So he hit the road. The result of his inquiry is Six O'Clock News, a wry meditation on chance, faith, and appearances. (In California he comes across a crew shooting a scene from Baywatch. He's kept back by a policeman who turns out to be an actor playing a policeman.) Frontline will carry it next Tuesday on public-television stations, including WTTW.

TV news might be described as our daily diet of disorder, but perhaps chaos that's become regularly scheduled programming isn't chaos at all. At any rate, McElwee wondered if its victims find some coherence in it.

"When I was 20, I thought there were laws that you could follow, that there was cause and effect for everything," says a friend examining her battered house after a hurricane. (Her house was located on an island sitting like a bull's-eye off the South Carolina coast. Perhaps climatic cause and effect were what she had to ignore in order to live there.) "I don't experience life to be that way anymore." A few years earlier her husband had died in a fire.

Salvador Pena was a sweeping-machine operator trapped nine hours in the rubble of a parking garage that collapsed in an earthquake. Despite a mangled arm and two mangled legs that meant he could no longer support his family back in El Salvador, he kept his faith. "I think it is like a test that God puts to a person to see how he acts after such an experience," says Pena. A woman who moved out of a trailer a few days before a tornado demolished it says she's "grateful to the Lord, because he directs our lives for us." But Stephen Im, whose wife was murdered in a robbery, now says bitterly of God, "He cannot control the world."

It's the superficiality of the local news, not some essential error of

misrepresentation, that McElwee observes. The local news trowels it on, but never pauses to acknowledge the implicit question--does God exist?

Back home in Boston, McElwee comes up for air. A few years go by, and little Adrian draws a picture of God. What bothers Adrian's dad is that to him (if not necessarily to us) "God sort of looks like a movie camera here." He puts down his camera to play with his son.

"But every time I start to relax into not worrying about life, something bizarre happens," McElwee says. A gunman has just opened fire at two nearby abortion clinics. "Chaos on Beacon Street!" exclaims the evening news. McElwee arrives with his camera and films the most intriguing moment of his documentary. He observes the TV reporters who were sent to the scene, each standing alone in the gloom of a winter's night, meditating. Solemnity in TV talent is supposed to be a pose. But here they are, off the air, silently weighing the words they will shortly speak, weighing the tragedy.

News Bite

Last November Halina Radziuk, a 59-year-old assembly-line worker, was strong-armed as she waited for a bus at Devon and Milwaukee. Thrown to the ground by a young man who snatched her purse, Radziuk suffered a fractured wrist and dislocated shoulder that doctors said would require half a year of therapy. The incident put her in a precarious financial situation: she'd been supporting her disabled husband, and their son is an out-of-work mechanic.

Sheri Ziemann, a family friend in the public relations business, stepped in to help. "The family was told by the emergency-room staff that another woman had been attacked in the same area a couple of months before, so we thought it would be helpful to get some coverage to help us catch the man who did it. I sent out a press release, and Channel Five and Channel Seven called almost immediately."

The effects of this intervention intrigued Ziemann. First of all, she said, it transformed the behavior of the police. "They told us--I guess it was the first day--that when she's better have her come down [to the station] and look at some mug shots." Clearly it would be weeks before Radziuk was well enough to make the trip, and the family felt the police were blowing them off. After the media stepped in, a policeman came over to show Radziuk mug shots as soon as the doctors permitted visitors.

Reporters, however, aren't paid to do good. They're paid to get the story. Ziemann said she asked the reporters to mention a trust fund being set up at the La Salle Bank in Skokie to aid the family. The stations didn't do that. "We don't want to be seen as a fund-raising arm of the cause du jour," I was told by a TV newsman. So just a few offers of help trickled in to the hospital--the wrong place for them--and the fund was a bust.

How much money did you raise? I asked Ziemann.

"None, in terms of cash," she said. "They got a couple of different caterers who donated food." p

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.

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