Shots in the Dark/Protess Picks a Tough One/BAT to the Head | Media | Chicago Reader

Shots in the Dark/Protess Picks a Tough One/BAT to the Head 

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By Michael Miner

Shots in the Dark

Sadly, no good way is known to preserve for the distant future the bounty we're sure it'll be tickled pink to receive: hundreds of thousands, no, make that millions of pictures of us today.

New York Times reporter Sarah Boxer recently visited the massive Bettmann Archive in Manhattan. She wrote that it "smells like vinegar. That is the scent of photographs decomposing."

Which is why the 17 million photographs and negatives that make up the Bettmann Archive will be buried this fall in a former limestone mine in western Pennsylvania--a cool, dry, dark place where the pictures will survive for centuries, though possibly at the expense of the here and now.

The Bettmann Archive was purchased in 1995 by the Corbis Corporation, which is the private creation of Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft. Corbis describes its wares as "the world's most significant photography and fine arts from more than 3,000 creative sources." That's 65 million images in all, images that Gates can digitize and retail on-line.

But digitization is neither quick nor cheap--it's $20 to scan an image. And last week Corbis announced that after scanning a mere 250,000 of the Bettmann photographs it's decided to store them all 220 feet under the earth at Iron Mountain/National Under-ground Storage. The pictures that have been scanned are on-line and easy to get to; retrieving any of the others might take some doing. Corbis promises the same access as before once an underground "film digitization lab" is built, but plenty of interested people don't believe it.

A big piece of the Bettmann collection is the former ten-million-photo archive of United Press International, once a major worldwide news service. Last week Downhold-Digest, the message wire of former UNIpressers, churned with debate. "What this means to me personally," wrote a photographer, "is that I now have only a few months left if I ever want to get copies of the pictures that I took for UPI. I am planning to do a book starting next year, and I was always confident that these files, few of which were ever scanned by Corbis, were safe and accessible. Now, all my photographs from the first two decades of my professional life are about to be condemned to an afterlife in a cave, where there will be virtually no access for me.

"I am only one photographer. What about the hundreds who have worked for UPI, and before that UP, INP, and Acme? Is this work now going to be lost?...One person [Gates] now stands to be able to lock up for thousands of years our visual inheritance, and throw away the key."

The argument raged. A second filer called Gates a "predator" and surmised that he's burying the archive "to drive up the leasing/usage price of his making them scarce." A third said the storage problems are indisputable and, "rightly or wrongly, Corbis believes it has a solution." Yet another filer said Gates "has the vision to realize the value, as we do, of all those photos and is willing and able to step up to the plate and do something about it."

Only by comparison with the Bettmann Archive do the half million negatives of the Chicago in the Year 2000 project seem like a small number. But the quandary is the same. Lands' End founder Gary Comer bankrolled CITY 2000 to create a visual record of our city that will survive to the year 3000, thereby posing the question of how to reconcile preservation with accessibility.

"Do you preserve it in pristine condition and nobody can use it but you have it?" asks Sharon Hogan, head librarian of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Or do you format it so somebody could use it?"

The CITY 2000 collection is being deeded to UIC, making Hogan the one who worries today about how to keep the collection intact for a millennium. She approves of what Corbis is doing. "If you want to have conditions that will not be bombed or threatened by rising floodwaters or fire--all the things that destroy libraries and records--then a very safe place is deep inside a mountain."

But because universities believe in accommodating research, not frustrating it, the half million CITY 2000 negatives will be stored in an air-conditioned vault in the UIC library. "We have a separate humidity system for that area," she says, "and it has special fireproofing around it."

What about bombs?

"Bombs are a problem," she concedes.

About 10,000--or 2 percent--of the CITY 2000 pictures are being digitized. Hogan says she might advise Comer to store these pictures underground on discs as a precaution. But preserving the discs--despite the cutting-edge technology they seem to represent--ranks a distant second best to preserving the negatives.

A digitized photo inevitably suffers a subtle degradation of quality. And no matter how carefully they're stored, today's digitized discs could be worthless in five years and certainly will be in a thousand. Once the technology the discs represent becomes obsolete, their content has to "migrate" to the next technology or it'll be lost. "As you migrate an image across media you lose stuff," says Hogan, who can only wonder how many migrations the next ten centuries will require.

Whenever the library makes a copy of a negative, it'll make three. "A copy that people can handle," Hogan says, "a copy that you put away to make other copies from, and a copy you just put away in our refrigerated unit. That's so you don't have to handle that negative again unless you just absolutely have to. They are the primary source, and anytime you handle any of these objects you can damage them."

Yet I imagine a legislator holding forth in Springfield two centuries from now, demanding to know why the taxpayers' money is being spent to preserve a heap of ancient negatives and prints known only to a handful of scholars.

To begin with, Hogan responds, the CITY 2000 negatives will fill only a couple of file cabinets. "I have two million books that take up a lot more space," she says. "A more interesting way of posing that question is to look at the cost of digitizing images and migrating over software over time. We don't have a clue what it'll cost. We don't have a clue how to do it. The computer images NASA generated in the 1960s you can't read anymore--you can't get them out. And we're only talking about 25 years."

Protess Picks a Tough One

When the crime is heinous, jurors fear nothing more than acquitting the person who committed it. Evidence is never as decisive as you'd wish, but jurors know--they watch TV--that for one reason or another a lot of the good stuff doesn't come out in court. What they want is reassurance--which prosecutors provide by their bearing and by their office--that the state knows the defendant is guilty, even if it's not free to say how.

The recent Girl X trial, as reviewed by Tribune reporter Janan Hanna in last Sunday's Perspective, stood this dynamic on its head. This time the unexamined good stuff favored Patrick Sykes, the defendant. And where it did get an airing was in the media just before the trial. "For nearly four years, the media helped portray Patrick Sykes as an utter monster," an Eric Zorn column began on March 5. But the prosecution's version of Girl X's 1997 abduction and rape finally came into question, he continued, when journalism professor David Protess and his student investigators and Channel Five's Dave Savini began asking "hard questions." At that point the state's attorney's office asked for and got a gag order silencing both sides' attorneys.

Ten days later Zorn wrote that Protess's students were "picking apart the prosecution's case in public even before a jury has heard it." For instance, they'd videotaped an interview with a neighbor of Sykes's who said that if Sykes had come and gone that January morning, he would have heard the door slamming.

But during the trial, the hard questions were barely alluded to. The neighbor didn't testify at all--and after the trial defense attorney Robert Byman told Zorn it was because he was "an admitted drug addict and drug dealer" who'd have made a terrible witness. Zorn tells me that if Byman had been free to talk to the media before the trial and had told him he wasn't going to use Sykes's neighbor, "I wouldn't have written even the limited amount that I did" about him.

Zorn and I exchanged notes after we got the same letter--unsigned but likely from a prosecutor--accusing the Tribune of "an ingrained bias against criminal prosecutions" and Zorn of airing "non-evidentiary nonsense."

A second unsigned letter I received excoriated Zorn, Savini, Fox News's Walter Jacobson, and Byman, and ridiculed "Protess's 19-year-old, hardhitting investigative sophomores." What's clear is that for some people, Sykes's conviction was a victory a long time coming. These were people who seethed for years while Zorn questioned and Protess upended one prosecution after another. Now they're getting back.

A whiff of this satisfaction billowed from Hanna's postmortem, which asserted, without proof, that Sykes's lawyers "orchestrated a pretrial publicity blitz." Protess, who's not one to be orchestrated, denied to Hanna that what he does is "advocacy." Yet he told her that the verdict's "not the last event in the case....I believe that the truth will exonerate Patrick Sykes." Protess has been right so often about so many wrongly convicted men that he's banked a lot of credibility. Now he's drawing on that account.

"If Team Protess unearths some blockbuster new information," Zorn tells me, he'll look at it. But he was careful before the trial never to write that Sykes wasn't guilty, and after sitting through the trial he has no reason to think that now. He declares, "I don't share David Protess's view that Patrick Sykes is innocent."

BAT to the Head

A reader has challenged the logic displayed in this space three weeks ago when the annual BAT award was announced. "I'm afraid your bullshit detector was on the blink when you bought into the canard that major-league baseball has less competitive balance now than in the good ol' days of yore," writes Paul Botts. "In fact, precisely the opposite is true: the past quarter-century has seen the greatest competitive balance in the sport's 'major league' history."

Unfortunately, Botts bulwarks his argument with facts and figures. "In the decades before 1970," he writes, "the Pirates finished first once in 43 years. The old Senators never managed it from 1933 to 1965. The Braves got there once in 49 years. The Browns existed for 52 years and did it once, then it took them another 14 in Baltimore to make it. The White Sox finished first once in 66 years! The Phillies did it once in 64. The A's went from 1931 to 1971 without winning, across three cities. The Reds won once between 1940 and 1970. The Cubs went from 1945 to 1984 without finishing first. This sort of stretch was the norm.

"Since the mid-70s it's been different--we've had more different winners than ever before. Yes the Yankees are on a little streak now, but the overall reality is clear. Even franchises as sad as the Cubs and Sox have been able to get into the game now and then. What changed? What was the single major change in the game's structure that coincided with drastically increased competitive balance? A hint: Andy Messersmith. Another hint: arbiter. Another hint: 'option year.'

"Of course that doesn't fit the mediot worldview, the one that blames those greedy free agents and their big contracts for everything wrong with the game. Even what they say is 'wrong' is actually more 'right' than ever before. A safe approach to baseball is: if Jay Mariotti says something is green, it's likely actually yellow."

How to respond to Botts's thinly veiled bolshevism? One way is to scratch for some facts and figures of my own. But why bother? This is the year the hallowed BAT was renamed the Dimpled Chad BAT and given to the candidate who finished second. In the spirit of the Dimpled Chad let me say this to Botts: Fuzzy math!

News Bites

The obvious next step in the CITY 2000 project would be a handsome coffee-table book of photographs published in time for the Christmas buying season. Don't expect one. "It would be a miracle," says Rich Cahan, director of the project. "I've been approached by many hundreds if not thousands of people anxious for a book," he says, but a book "has never been a priority" with Gary Comer. "He always told me, 'Keep your eye on the archive.'"

Maybe next year. "I think there will still be a market," says Cahan. "Give the people credit. They'll remember."

The last time Hot Type looked in on StreetWise, it was to report that editor Jalyne Strong--fired after accusing her boss of harassment--had been rehired, the Chicago Newspaper Guild had organized the editorial staff, and a "little more equilibrium" reigned at the paper.

That was early March. In recent days Strong's boss, executive director Anthony Oliver, slashed the budget and cut hours, blaming bad publicity and a loss of expected grants for a $125 thousand deficit; Oliver fired John Sanbonmatsu, director of the newspaper's job-training program; the guild threatened to strike if the paper didn't recognize its jurisdiction; and columnist Doug Dobmeyer resigned because Strong wouldn't run this week's column. The column began: "Today in mid-April, a wound at this paper should have been healed. But it's not. Instead a festering wound continues, which threatens the survival of the newspaper, livelihood of several hundred vendors and the reputations of the editorial staff."

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

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