Black and White and Red All Over: The Jarrett Affair | Media | Chicago Reader

Black and White and Red All Over: The Jarrett Affair 

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If old age, as de Gaulle said, is a shipwreck, the shoal it often founders on is youth. Vernon Jarrett is 71, Mark Hornung 33, and Hornung decided this year it was time to do things differently on the editorial board of the Sun-Times.

Not altogether accurately, Jarrett's allies have proclaimed last week's peace agreement with his newspaper a famous victory over Hornung. Riding high, Jarrett keeps his column, salary, and dignity. And the clock winds back to a golden age. As a hyperbolic headline in the Chicago Defender proclaimed early this week: "Jarrett victory ignites Harold Washington coalition."

In 1984 Vernon Jarrett came over to the Sun-Times from the Tribune to write three op-ed columns a week. Four years later, publisher Robert Page asked a favor. Would Jarrett join the editorial board? Jarrett, with his fine eye for tokenism, didn't jump at the invitation. "I said I have no time and I don't want to write your editorials," Jarrett remembers. "He laughed and said, 'I don't want your editorials.'"

The editorial board convened daily at 10 AM, an hour Jarrett thinks is much better suited to interviewing, writing, enjoying breakfast, or sleeping in. But hey, no problem. "He said, 'You don't have to attend any meetings'--that's a quote," says Jarrett.

So Jarrett said yes.

Then, he says, he began looking for someone who'd actually want the job. "I started turning in names of blacks for the board. I was out recruiting myself. I wasn't going to knock some brother out of a job. That's a violation of everything I ever stood for."

The board wasn't a bad deal. Jarrett came to meetings when he chose and never wrote a single editorial. But no brother ever came along to join Jarrett or supplant him. He was still there by his lonesome when Hornung joined the paper as editor of the editorial pages last January. Hornung wanted a bigger board, a more diverse board, and--he would conclude--a board with no double standard.

Hornung brought black reporter Michelle Stevens onto the board and recently named her his deputy. It's understood she'll soon start writing a column. He began interviewing black candidates in other cities--big names like Ellis Cose, who wrote a column for the Sun-Times back in the 70s and until recently ran the editorial page of the New York Daily News. And Brent Staples, another former Sun-Times writer who's now an editorial writer for the New York Times. Cose and Staples both turned Hornung down, but Jarrett knew the search was on. And it threatened him. Because his relations with Hornung were swiftly deteriorating, because one black columnist seems the quota at virtually every large paper in the country, and because editor Dennis Britton had told Hot Type two years ago that the Sun-Times needed "another kind of voice," a younger black voice, Jarrett assumed Hornung wanted to replace him not just on the board but in the paper.

Jarrett was open to the idea of doing less. He is his age, after all, and the Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics he founded in 1977--his monument--has expanded from 14 to 841 cities. Yet when Hornung in March offered to cut him back to two columns a week and drop him from the board, but cut his $130,000 salary by a third (with a little expense allowance bringing it to $90,000), Jarrett spotted insult. He wasn't a simple tradesman doing piecework. His value to the Sun-Times lay beyond his productivity. It was its identification with Vernon Jarrett--the voice and conscience of progressive black Chicago. Jarrett asked for $101,000 and a five-year contract. Hornung countered that he was already drawing a $10,000 pension--so there was the $100,000. This made Jarrett furious. Jarrett remembers, "He said, 'You're not doing too badly.' The thing that first hits my mind when someone talks like that is, 'You're doing pretty good for a black guy.' Maybe that's not what he meant."

By the time Jarrett's friends passed along word to us last week that his job was dangling by a thread and a massive protest was being organized to save it, the relationship between Jarrett and Hornung had fallen apart, Jarrett had hired former federal judge George Leighton as his lawyer, and the Chicago Newspaper Guild was now involved.

There was a famous confrontation in May, overheard by the entire editorial board, in which Hornung accused Jarrett of jerking him around and asked him how he'd like to write one column a week. Hornung ordered Jarrett to call in and ask him for permission before missing any more editorial board meetings, a demand Jarrett found humiliating. When Jarrett disappeared in late July to attend the Houston convention of the National Association of Black Journalists (which he helped found in the mid-70s), Hornung was heard complaining that he hadn't been warned Jarrett was leaving, didn't know for sure where he was, and didn't have a number for him--that Jarrett, in effect, had gone AWOL.

When Jarrett came back he discovered that his paychecks were short. Hornung had docked him more than $2,000 for "absenteeism." At this point the guild stepped in. In a series of meetings in late July and early August it argued that (1) Hornung had violated the guild contract by giving Jarrett no warning and (2) there had never been a contractual or even oral understanding that Jarrett would attend board meetings in the first place. Hornung gave Jarrett his money, but he also gave him a letter warning that unless Jarrett changed his ways they'd lead to discipline that could include his dismissal.

On the advice of Leighton, Jarrett submitted a letter of resignation from the editorial board. Britton--Hornung's silent partner in this drama--refused to accept it. At this point Jarrett could not leave the board without leaving the paper.

On Tuesday, August 17, Jarrett's column didn't run--for no clear reason besides showing him who was boss. Word on the street had it that Jarrett wouldn't survive the week. But a fire storm was kindling. That day political activist Buzz Palmer--husband of state senator Alice Palmer--had gone to see Britton and warn him that the paper would face massive trouble if Jarrett left. That evening two groups of allies met. One was the Chicago Association of Black Journalists--founded by Jarrett--which in a letter to Britton lauded Jarrett as "a highly respected pillar of our community, whose sharp, insightful commentary and unrelenting assault on the bastions of racism and bigotry in all areas of our society is valued across all segments of our profession, and more importantly in the community at large."

The other was a large collection of personalities organized by Buzz Palmer, many of them vestiges of the old Washington coalition, who now formed the Vernon Jarrett Support Committee/Fairness in the Media. Many had reached the dubious conclusion that the dispute was really about political control of Chicago. As Palmer explained to us, Jarrett was in trouble because of positions he'd taken in his column. Mayor Daley supported riverboat gambling and so did the Sun-Times, but Jarrett opposed it. The Sun-Times supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and the mayor's brother had just become President Clinton's choice to lobby Congress for it, but Jarrett thinks NAFTA is a bad idea.

"There is linkage between what Daley is doing and what the Sun-Times is doing," Palmer told us. "I don't know if Dennis is trying to do this on orders from Daley, but I think he's trying to ingratiate himself . . .

"This is not an attack on Vernon Jarrett. This is an attack on us. I include in this the black community, progressive whites, and Latinos. What they want to do is remove any type of independent voice from the independent coalition."

Former alderman Leon Despres suspected the Sun-Times was trying to reposition itself as a paper less sympathetic to black issues. "Maybe they'd welcome a mild black protest over Vernon Jarrett," he said to us. "I told one of the important people at our meeting that if there's a protest there has to be a massive one, because if it's a mild one the Sun-Times can retreat to high principles. If they were genuinely threatened with a decrease in circulation and advertising they would agree pretty quick."

The protest wasn't shaping up to be a mild one. On Friday morning Jarrett and Leighton and Britton and the paper's senior vice president for human resources met in Leighton's offices. "It was a chummy group," the contented Leighton told us afterward. He said Jarrett would go on writing three columns a week, would stay on the board, would have to attend no more than two board meetings a week, and would not have his standing at the paper affected by the addition of a new black to the board.

But although this was by no means a Pyrrhic victory for Jarrett, it did leave him with obligations. Having wanted off the editorial board--and been given a chance to leave--he's still a member and now bound to attend some meetings. Having wanted to cut back to two columns, he'll write three. And because for the next nine months he'll be a visiting scholar at the Vanderbilt University Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, he's going to be busier than ever.

But his prickly pride has been stroked the right way. "What still offends me is that someone thought they could bounce me around and nothing would happen," he says. "That's what used to happen down south. A black person wasn't important. Well, a lot of folks have told me I'm important."

He still thinks the Sun-Times wants to replace him as a columnist. And as it happens, a new black columnist is about to join the editorial board. He's Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor at In These Times who calls Jarrett "one of my heroes" and "an icon." Muwakkil told us, "I asked the folks who offered me this if it had anything to do with Vernon's troubles. I was assured no." He watched with some horror as the Jarrett crisis threatened to make the job impossible to accept.

A former AP reporter, a former managing editor of Muhammad Speaks, Muwakkil owns one of the more insightful, independent minds we know; Buzz Palmer appreciates it too, and he didn't want to see Muwakkil vilified as Hornung's cat's-paw. "My position with everyone I've talked to is Salim is progressive," Palmer told us when passions were at flood stage. "See, what he's doing is being put on the cross."

Besides Jarrett and Muwakkil, there was a third person whose interests Palmer wanted to protect--the Cook County clerk. The Washington coalition is not simply history to Palmer; he wants it resurrected, and he wants David Orr to run for mayor in 1995 with all progressives united behind him and with Vernon Jarrett pounding his pulpit. Jarrett helped create the Washington mayorality. Jarrett is a coalitionist.

"I have as much respect for David Orr as I have for any political figure in the city of Chicago," Jarrett told us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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