Fingering Ollie, Festering Sneed; The Library's New Neighborhood | Media | Chicago Reader

Fingering Ollie, Festering Sneed; The Library's New Neighborhood 

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Fingering Ollie, Festering Sneed

True story: about a Filipino journalist's biggest scoop. Word came down from the mountains that a famous guerrilla leader had made camp up there. The liberator, the deliverer of this squalid nation from its oppressors, was at hand! The journalist would have killed to interview him.

He made the appropriate inquiries, and presently there was a knock on the door. Follow us, whispered the visitors, and the trek began, into the night, into the jungle, along trails he had never dreamed existed.

Soon he stood at the great man's tent. A tattered freedom fighter motioned him inside. There sat the father of revolution, gaunt of visage, his eyes glowering. He squinted at his visitor, and began to speak.

"What a horse's ass!" the journalist soon decided.

On the way down the mountain, the fearless reporter pondered his experience. As soon as he got back into town, he made his way to the army garrison and told the captain exactly where the guerrillas were hiding. "He's nuttier than a fruitcake," the newsman mentioned. Soldiers went up the mountain and blew the camp away.

So it happens. Reporters screw their sources. Was it an equal transgression the other day when Newsweek magazine turned on Ollie North?

We learned of this outrage because we faithfully read Mike Sneed. Whichever canons of journalism Sneed holds dear, protecting one's sources certainly heads the list. "Ya gotta be kidding!" Sneed exclaimed, to begin her item. "Newsweek mag divulges a reporter's source!" Here's how she concluded: "Upshot: The Newsweek mag. Gag."

Sneed was back for more of this lively criticism a day later. "Memo to Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek writer who fingered Oliver North as a confidential Newsweek source in an effort to discredit him: Eat your pencil."

What Alter wrote last week, if you missed it, was a short sidebar in Newsweek's Iran-contra package noting Oliver North's disingenuousness. North had testified that he lied to Congress because Congress couldn't keep secrets. He gave two examples, both of which Alter questioned. The one that concerned Sneed dealt with the 1985 capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers. North testified that afterward some congressmen said things "that very seriously compromised our intelligence activities." And Alter wrote, "But the colonel did not mention that details of the interception, first published in a Newsweek cover story, were leaked by none other than North himself."

Alter told us it was "widely known" within Newsweek that North had been a source, and he confirmed the rumor by asking an editor who worked on the 1985 story. Alter felt this fact no longer had to be hidden: when North took advantage of Newsweek's protection "to bear false witness" against Congress, he committed a sort of "breach of verbal contract."

Other Newsweek reporters objected on two grounds: "They think that in the practical world of Washington politics it'll hurt them--and that I'm sympathetic to," Alter said. "And they object on principle. And that I'm not sympathetic to."

Can a guarantee by a single reporter to a source tie up an entire news organization in perpetuity, even though the source provided nothing that failed to make himself and his bosses look good, and even though the source's activity was common knowledge? There is a certain tolerance in journalism to situations in which everybody knows something juicy but the public. So we are grateful to Alter. He had made no promises to Ollie North; he was an outsider in pursuit of a good story. He got it and wrote it.

Yes, but he worked for Newsweek. It's true, no one should have to worry about finks at the next desk. And yet . . . corporate solidarity is not the last word in morality. Reporters remember their higher duty when the publisher's vested interests intervene--why not when it's a fellow reporter who wants something hushed up? Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires observed that if Alter worked for Time, there would be no controversy.

Like Sneed, Squires is not just a casual observer of this episode. Two years ago, when Sneed was coauthoring "Inc.," she came to Squires with a tape that had secretly--and therefore illegally--recorded Mayor Washington and two political associates conversing over breakfast in Washington's home. As Squires remembers it, to Sneed the angle was the one suggested by her source--reform mayor revealed as political boss bad-mouthing then aldermanic candidate Dorothy Tillman. But Squires told us he said, "Mike, you can't do this. The real story is that someone taped the mayor and leaked the tape."

The eventual Tribune story was an oddly schizophrenic one that tried to look both ways at once. It told Chicago that the tape came from the camp of Eddie Vrdolyak--which to most of us meant Joe Novak. Sneed was furious.

Squires told us two other reporters on the Tribune had been offered the same tape and turned it down. Sneed took it. "She was being used, as usual, by someone," Squires said. Sneed did not make herself available to us for this article, so we could not ask her if whoever gave her that tape stopped being her source. Our hunch is he didn't.

Reporters aren't priests. No one tells a reporter anything just to be telling a reporter--they're conduits; they're people who want to be used. Reporters--especially political reporters--talk about "protecting sources" when what worries them is protecting their own access to sources. What, exactly, had Newsweek been protecting Oliver North from? From a situation in which, next time, he'd leak to Time. We welcome Newsweek's attentiveness to North's inconsistency, but we doubt the magazine would have remarked on it if North were still in the NSC and still a player in national affairs.

Mike Sneed, of course, lives and dies on the affections of her confidants. Monday, she trashed Jonathan Alter. Tuesday, she trashed Jonathan Alter. Wednesday, she wished Joe Novak happy birthday.

The Library's New Neighborhood

We drove over to the near west side to see what the proposed new central library will be in the center of. We were particularly curious about the view.

You may have heard about "the commanding view of the Eisenhower Expressway" that the empty Regensteiner printing plant at 1224 W. Van Buren enjoys. It is a good view--with an orange Jewel supermarket sign adding a dash of color beyond the expressway--but not a great one. If you really want to be struck dumb by the vigor and scope of the Eisenhower, we suggest a window in the central post office instead.

The Racine rapid transit platform between the east- and west-bound lanes is also a superior place to experience the Eisenhower. When a train is rattling by and a big semi is shifting gears and changing lanes and blowing soot your way and a million drivers are speeding toward their humble destinies, it would take a fool not to achieve the kind of sentiments and insights you can't find in books.

But the view from the Regensteiner plant should be good enough. And it is not the only thing to say for the only site the Library Board's Facilities Committee has come up with as a new temporary home for the main library next year when the lease on the present Mandel warehouse expires.

Many people combine a trip to the library with their day's errands. We inspected nearby streets for likely synergies. We noticed a Sherwin-Williams paint store a block away on Jackson, and also the Anderson Exterminating Company and Alliance Hose & Rubber. The Bays English Muffin Corporation of Illinois is part of the neighborhood, along with the Fannie May plant and Boggs Tool & Manufacturing Company.

Whitney Young Magnet High School and the Chicago Police Training Center bulwark the area's claim as a hub of scholarship.

Restaurants? Di Meo's Snack Shop at Throop and Jackson is for sale, but there's still Restaurant Raffael on Racine between Van Buren and Harrison, and Fat Moe's Food Emporium over at Racine and Adams. Parking will be no problem--once the weeds are cut back, the empty lot right behind Regensteiner will be more than adequate.

But the best thing about Regensteiner is ease of access. Getting there is a snap. Scholars will be able to fly into O'Hare and proceed directly by CTA train to the Racine stop a few steps from the new library's front door. Union Station is a short cab ride away. Still, it's the American motorist who is luckiest of all: imagine being able to set out for a major municipal library from anywhere in the nation and knowing it will be interstates all the way.

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

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