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Mad Clipper Comes Back

Good news. The horseradish is back on the deli counter of media criticism.

Bill Nigut Sr. of Skokie pounds out the Chicago Media Critic, a monthly newsletter that declares itself to be "the conscience of the American media." We can't think of any other serious claimants for this fancy position, so possibly Nigut's it. If not the conscience, at the very least he's a hyperactive gland.

Nigut was obliged to suspend publication a year ago to care for ailing relatives. Happily, a new issue of the Media Critic finally arrived the other day, and it finds Nigut fulminating as zestfully as ever.

"The S&L scandal, which George Will calls 'the costliest debacle in the history of America,' and the media's shameful reporting of it, have reinforced our negative opinions about the Democrats, Republicans, Reagan and the media, all of whom have betrayed the America of our Founding Fathers. Damn the traitors!"

It is not Nigut's way with words alone that makes the Media Critic unique. Nobody approaches press analysis quite the way he does. Nobody clips every article from every newspaper he reads and stacks them in boxes, then does research by rooting through the boxes. The effect of Nigut's primitive data-retrieval system is a formidably long memory standing watch over a trade that considers any memory at all an affectation.

Nigut quotes Carl Rowan: "I don't know how the most arrogant, omnipotent, omnipresent and competitive press corps in the world has slept through the worst financial disaster in American history." He quotes the New York Times's Ellen Hume: "Why did the well-educated and constitutionally protected press corps miss the savings and loan scandal?"

We imagine Nigut rifling a stack of yellowed clippings with a triumphant cackle. Has he got news for them! Once again, he holds in his hands irrefutable proof that the conventional wisdom is preposterous.

"The press didn't miss the story," he writes, "and we have boxes full of S&L stories, from 1980 on, to prove it."

A 1981 headline: "70% of nation's S&Ls lost money"

A 1985 headline: "Regulator assails S&L risk-taking"

A 1986 headline: "Regulator says crooks sink FSLIC"

And for good measure, Nigut shows us 22 headlines more. "Clearly," he writes, "the print media reported the S&L story throughout the Eighties."

Why, then, did journalists like Rowan and Hume, not to mention the average newspaper reader, miss it? "Very simply," Nigut explains, "because editors wanted them to miss it. Why else would they have played the scandal as a business story and buried their reports on it in their papers' business section? We found all of our 25 stories hidden on remote business news pages like 54 . . . D10 . . . 6 Section 3 . . . 57 . . . 8 Section 4 . . . 2 Section E . . . and 81 . . .

"Those stories should have appeared on the front page but the editors, obviously, do not want their readers to be reminded of "the biggest white-collar swindle in the history of our nation.' The editors don't care about the people who have been screwed by the crooked banker friends of the White House and the Congress."

And Nigut knows why. "We believe the conservative-biased editors are engaged in damage control. They are trying to protect the men and the party responsible for 'the largest political scandal in the nation's history'--Ronald Reagan, George Bush and the GOP."

The sins of the media, in other words, are sins of commission, not omission. The editors of the New York Times, declares Nigut, must have realized that Ellen Hume's article last May, "Why the Press Blew the S&L Scandal," "was woven out of whole cloth." But the press can't afford to stop playing dumb; otherwise, "it must assume some of the responsibility for the scandal."

This is an exciting theory that we don't particularly agree with. We frequently part company with Nigut over the general proposition of duplicity. He sees a world that's full of it. We see a world full of nervous decision makers who aren't looking for trouble. We see a press that tacked right merely to catch the prevailing winds. In the name of editorial balance, how many conservative columnists were added to the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers in the past decade? And how many liberals?

We don't know but here's a clue: Leafing through the 1990 Editor & Publisher directory of syndicated services, we counted the number of columnists explicitly described by their syndicates as "conservative." Eleven. And also those described as "liberal." Four--one of whom was further described as "a rare breed." We were struck, when capital punishment returned to Illinois, by the press's unwillingness, or inability, to debate it. Joan Beck of the Tribune presumed to begin a column, "It's not easy to speak up for the death penalty," when obviously it is not hard at all. Beck managed to, the Tribune got up the gumption to do the same thing in an editorial, and the Sun-Times's Richard Roeper reached deep inside himself for the courage to insist that Walker "long ago forfeited the right to live in this world." The Sun-Times's Dennis Byrne did make an argument against the death penalty, largely, it seemed, to bolster his much more passionate case against abortion.

So anyway, Bill Nigut Sr. passes harsher judgment than we do and God bless him for that. While he was on the subject of the S&Ls, Nigut wanted to know why the media aren't telling the whole truth about S&L wheeler-dealer Charles Keating Jr. Everybody's heard of the Keating Five, the five senators blessed by Keating who did their best to bless him in return. But what about the sixth lucky public servant that Keating smiled on?

George Bush.

Keating gave the '88 Bush campaign $190,000, writes Nigut, more than he gave the campaigns of three of the five senators. "Why aren't the papers' readers being told about the Keating BIG One? Why the silence? Why are the editors protecting Bush? Isn't that un-American?"

We called Nigut and said welcome back. He told us he'd just been looking through a stack of old editorials the papers had run about the Iran-Iraq war.

"It makes them look like fools," he said happily.

Poll Stir

"We've been at this for 16 years. This is a hell of a time to write about me," said Nick Panagakis unhappily.

But what's a press critic to do? Pollster Panagakis screwed up. The Chicago Tribune screwed up. And their goof showed up on page one.

"Partee getting stiff challenge; O'Grady trailing," said the Tribune headline on September 10. But was James O'Grady really trailing in his race for sheriff, now that the Harold Washington Party had been added to the ballot? Tribune political writer Thomas Hardy, whose story it was, suspected O'Grady wasn't.

But Hardy went with what he had. What he had was a poll taken by Panagakis's firm, Market Shares Corporation, that measured O'Grady, the Republican incumbent, in a two-man race against Michael Sheahan, the Democratic challenger. Sheahan had turned out to be leading, 40 percent to 35 percent, the rest undecided.

But Market Shares was also supposed to find out who voters liked in a three-man race, which is what the election, at least for the time being, happens to be. Market Shares blew it.

"Did you call Hardy or did Hardy call you?" said Nick Panagakis.

We called Hardy, we told him.

"Who asked you to call Hardy? To me, this seems trivial. What does it seem to you?" said Panagakis.

Late last month, just as Market Shares was about to launch a telephone poll for the Tribune on all the major county races, the electoral board added the Harold Washington Party to the November 6 ballot. Market Shares scrambled to revise its questionnaire and in its haste got one new question wrong:

Panagakis's pollsters were supposed to offer the voters they called a choice among O'Grady, Sheahan, and the Harold Washington Party's Tom Brewer. But Market Shares transposed some names from another part of the questionnaire, and asked about a nonexistent race for sheriff involving Brewer and two candidates who are actually running for state's attorney.

"A stupid mistake," said Thomas Hardy.

"It was a typo," said Nick Panagakis. "Do you think it was done intentionally? It's something I caught. Nobody else caught it."

Panagakis's survey did find Harold Washington Party candidates cutting significantly into the Democrats' strength in other races. "I think with the Harold Washington Party factored in, [O'Grady] would have been neck and neck with Sheahan or slightly ahead," Hardy told us.

He thinks that but he doesn't know, so he couldn't say so in print. Hardy had wanted to lead his September 10 article with the sheriff's race. He'd wanted to report that according to a Tribune poll the incumbent trailed in a two-man contest, which is what the election might still end up being (the Harold Washington Party is being challenged in court), but stood a better chance of staying in office if the Harold Washington Party stayed on the ballot.

Instead, "I kind of understated the sheriff's race, made it the last thing I wrote about," Hardy told us. And at the end of his article was a paragraph explaining that there was no three-way analysis of the sheriff's race because of a polling error.

To Hardy's dismay, that paragraph was trimmed for space. To his further dismay, the race he'd tried to bury in the story was highlighted in the headline. To make matters worse, he was roused at 7:15 AM by O'Grady's angry press secretary, and as he drove to work a couple hours later had to listen to the same flack on WBBM railing against Panagakis and the Tribune for their sins.

"It wasn't the best day of the week for me. Or for Panagakis," Hardy told us.

"Do you know anything about my track record? What's your fax number?" said Nick Panagakis.

Within minutes he'd shipped us 11 pages of company history that range all the way back to the mayoral election of 1975. Next day he called to see what we'd done with the story. Wrote it, we told him.

"How many inches?" said Nick Panagakis.

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

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