Spread the Word/What Makes News News? | Media | Chicago Reader

Spread the Word/What Makes News News? 

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By Michael Miner

Spread the Word

This week Hot Type begins with a public announcement. Attorneys in a class-action lawsuit are seeking some 12,000 women they believe were strip-searched illegally at the Cook County Jail between November 6, 1994, and October 17, 1997. These women are entitled to seek damages from the county, but unless they submit a claim by January 1 they will collect nothing.

A lawsuit filed in 1996 challenged the jail's policy of inflicting strip searches on woman inmates who'd been released in court and were merely being out-processed to go home. Federal judge David Coar eventually ruled that the strip searches were unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against the sheriff's department, which runs the jail.

Attorney Thomas Morrissey won't say what damages he intends to seek for the abused women--who will be compensated either in a settlement or by court order. But when a similar suit against the city of Chicago was resolved in the 80s, individual damages as high as $75,000 were awarded. What's holding up compensation this time, Morrissey says, is that most of the women in the class can't be contacted individually because they no longer live at their last known addresses.

Under an agreement between the court, Morrissey, and the office of Sheriff Michael Sheahan, notices will be conspicuously placed in the Cook County Jail and in all the county's criminal courts buildings and lockups. Women will be told to write Morrissey or cocounsel Robert Farley Jr. at 10249 S. Western, Chicago 60643, or call them at 773-233-9944. In addition, ads will appear twice weekly at county expense in the Sun-Times, and in the Defender, La Raza, and StreetWise during the month of September.

The strip-search suit was the subject of a 1998 Reader article by Tori Marlan. A year ago the Reader brought suit against Sheahan in federal court alleging that he retaliated against Marlan for that article by denying her access to the jail to work on other stories. The suit is pending.

By agreement, the ads asking strip-searched women to come forward cannot mention Sheahan by name, though he ran the jail.

What Makes News News?

Strongly held views frankly expressed have just been exchanged by striking actors and by the Chicago Tribune. Chicago actor Richard Henzel launched the dialogue by E-mailing the Tribune's new public editor, Don Wycliff.

"As the AFTRA/SAG Commercials Strike enters its fourteenth week, I feel like I'm wasting my time writing to the Chicago Tribune," asserted Henzel's preamble. "Today I opened my last Tribune. The anger, frustration, and disappointment that accompanies the daily reinforcement of the notion that Tribune Editors are willfully complying with a gag order on published articles about our strike has become too much for me. I am cancelling my subscription after fifteen years."

It is in the nature of all striking workers to be certain their cause deserves more attention than a careless world is paying it. And members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, who together are striking against the nation's advertising agencies, may not be the American workers least given to vivid self-dramatization.

Henzel went on to complain to Wycliff that the Tribune was not only failing to get off its duff and cover the SAG/AFTRA strike the way it should, it was also avoiding any reference to it in stories where a passing mention could easily be made, such as in articles on the vogue of "reality"-based TV programming and employee-focused TV commercials--both to Henzel expressions of a medium making do without actors.

When Wycliff received this note, he was just a few days into his new job as public editor--the editor immediately answerable to readers. After running the Tribune's editorial page for the past several years, he doesn't mince words. His reply to Henzel was blunt:

"For quite understandable reasons, the AFTRA/SAG Commercials Strike is extremely important to you and the members of those unions. Your letter clearly reflects that. It is not, however, so important to everyone else. Particularly since it has no palpable effect in the lives of most readers of the Tribune or viewers of TV. There has been, to my knowledge, no reduction in the numbers of commercials shown on television during the strike.

"The dearth of coverage of your strike in the Tribune has nothing to do with any 'gag order.' It has to do with the fact that, in the large scheme of things, it isn't a very important news story. And the longer it lasts without having any palpable effect in the lives of most readers, the less important it will be. That, as unsatisfying as it may be, is the plain fact of the matter."

I admire this retort for its clarity, but it appalled the strikers to whom it was promptly disseminated. Some waded in with their own letters. Lisa Lewis of Chicago told Wycliff, "A more honest reply from you might have been, 'Listen, we can write about it all day, but the brass will redline it because they hate unions and because they're afraid of alienating our advertisers.'" She asked him to explain how the Finance Committee of the Chicago City Council could have discussed a resolution supporting the striking unions for two consecutive weeks, taking testimony from Studs Terkel and others, and passed the resolution after Alderman Bernard Stone "turned to the press at one point and challenged them to report it"--all without a word of coverage in the Tribune.

The most effective retort to Wycliff was Henzel's own. He said he might have taken what Wycliff wrote at face value "except for the fact that I happen to have a copy of your paper in front of me, and I see numerous articles that, 'in the large scheme of things' aren't very important news stories. Indeed, I see story after story covering things that aren't very important in any scheme of things. Right here on the front page: 'In Roswell, those flying objects likely are tourists.' In Tempo: '48 hours in a haunted castle sounds like a good time to these families,' and 'Helping "Survivor" reach its full potential' (great--two more shows that 'don't need' professional actors). How are these items more important than corporate giant Quaker Oats having their loading dock shut down for an entire week--ask the building manager whether we had any effect there. He told me 'I've seen several unions try to shut down our building--none of them succeeded half as well as you have. It's amazing--and they're going crazy in there.'

"Forgive me, sir, but just because you don't find it interesting enough for your readers doesn't mean it's not newsworthy. It is newsworthy because it is news, it is happening in Chicago and it is the true story of David against Goliath. If you can't find a reporter who can make an 'interesting story' out of all of these events, you just ain't trying!"

Wycliff actually did a little more with Henzel's letter than just blow it off. He sent it along to the deputy financial editor with a note that he tells me suggested "if you have somebody sitting around and it's a slow day, you may want to do something with this."

"There's an infinite number of potential stories," Wycliff acknowledges. But "in a world of finite resources you make certain decisions. I suspect most of our readers do not notice there is a strike because there's no shortage of commercials on TV. If I were the business editor and I had to make a decision, I'd put a lot of people on United Airlines and not be troubling myself a whole lot about the actors. I did a search on our database and we ran three long ones back when it started. The longer it goes on--it's not news anymore. If something happens, if people start noticing a shortage of commercials or there's a break in negotiations, it's going to be news again."

Truly, the City Council did pass a resolution favoring the strikers. (It also considered legislation to deny city property to production crews flouting picket lines to shoot commercials but dropped the idea because City Hall can't legally take sides.) But a toothless resolution is arguably not hard news. Truly, Alderman Stone does call coverage of the SAG/AFTRA strike "a conspiracy of silence," and he did, at a Finance Committee hearing, lecture the press on its servitude to advertisers: "I said back in the 30s the weapon that was used against strikers was a blackjack and now the weapon is even tougher than a blackjack--it's silence. I pointed to the box in which the press was sitting and the TV cameras were and I said that not one word will be printed or shown on TV when we adopt this resolution. And that's what happened." But as a reporter in constant attendance at City Council meetings tells me, "That's pretty typical." The easiest thing in the world for an alderman with a sense of theater to do is turn and wag a finger at the press gallery.

Since, as Wycliff says, there are always an infinite number of possible stories, it follows that there must be second-rate stories galore that the Tribune could tell about the SAG/AFTRA strike if it had a mind to. To test these waters, I called the Chicago Film Office. Director Rich Moskal told me that the number of commercial shoots his office has issued permits for "has dropped significantly" since May 1, when the strike began. He's aware of 14 since then, whereas in normal times Chicago sees from 10 to 15 a month.

Hear from many reporters? I asked him. "It's been a while," Moskal said. "I think the Sun-Times did a piece. I wouldn't say I've been talking to a lot of people about it."

Even untold stories critical of the strikers can be unearthed. The Association of Independent Commercial Producers represents the shops that actually shoot the commercials, and Alan Sadler, who runs the AICP's midwest chapter, is furious at the striking unions. In his view the producers are innocent middlemen losing work, while the advertisers and their agencies simply film in right-to-work states and outside the country and don't miss a beat.

"What we hear is that Toronto and Vancouver now rival Los Angeles in terms of the production going on," Sadler told me. "Canada could be double its production of last year. Hollywood may never recover from this. Clients who never have shot out of this country are shooting jobs there now and having terrific experiences. The crews are very good in Toronto, very good in Vancouver, and they're happy with the casting they're getting. When the strike is over [clients] may continue to go up there--that's our fear."

Sadler guessed that the strike might be costing Chicago production houses $15 million in lost business, which isn't enough to impress even Sadler much, and obviously not the Tribune. "It's not a big national story," he said. "It's hurting LA and it is in the papers in LA. It's an OK story in New York. It's a minimal story in Chicago. SAG, because they believe in what they're doing and have large mouths and believe they're the center of the world, they believe it should be a huge story."

So Sadler echoes what Wycliff told Henzel.

There is a separate species of newspaper story that deserves mention here, and that is the think piece, composed to assuage the yearning of a scrivener to ascend a peak and look to a far horizon. But even though the Tribune takes great pride in its essays, Wycliff can't be expected to answer for the presence or absence of a particular thumbsucker.

Is there a think piece to be written about the strike? No journalist in Chicago has focused more thought on it than Carrie Kaufman, editor and publisher of the trade paper PerformInk, and she shared her insights with me. She began by reminding me what this strike is about. It's about whether performers now paid residuals every time commercials they're in are broadcast on network television will get that payment system extended to cover cable TV and the Internet, simply hold the line, or permit residuals to vanish altogether in favor of a flat fee for services. And because the writers' and directors' guilds and SAG actors who perform in movies and in TV programs will soon be renegotiating contracts of their own, the resolution of the present strike, Kaufman believes, could determine what happens down the road.

"This is a harbinger of a fight that's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger," she told me. "We're going to be at war very soon between the people who create information and entertainment and the people who purvey information and entertainment over how consumers get that information and entertainment."

Kaufman drew a connection between the SAG/AFTRA strike and a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the court fight a couple of freelance photographers have waged to decide who has proprietary rights to pictures they took on assignment for Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. "For much of the 90s, business types have been saying that the nature of the employee-employer relationship is going to change," Kaufman went on. "They've pointed to the actors' union as a model of the change--people won't be employees, they'll be independent contractors. My argument has always been, yes, but most actors are unemployed and when they're employed they don't make that much money. If among other things they're now going to gut how much employees make and how their images are going to be used, what does that say for the rest of the country that's supposed to be following the actors' model?"

She predicted, "The fight between people who work for corporations and people who run corporations is going to define the next century."

Her analysis puts the behavior of the Tribune in a different light. The paper is a small piece of the Tribune Company, an exemplary blue-chip corporation. David Halberstam writes in the latest Brill's Content, "Today's Chicago Tribune is a good newspaper, and it has some fine reporters. But nonetheless, the paper gives off the feeling of an ownership whose passion is for its stock, not its readership nor the news it is reporting."

The Tribune pioneered a system of one-year hires, allowing it to bring in young talent, squeeze it for a year at little cost, and send it packing. When the Internet came along the Tribune browbeat its freelancers into giving up any claim on their stories that would prevent the Tribune from posting them on-line in perpetuity. In short, the way to begin an indictment of today's Tribune is to note that the actors are striking over the sort of creative rights that the Tribune has attempted to dismantle.

So there's the big picture if you want it. In the smaller scheme of things the strike does seem to be small potatoes in Chicago, and Wycliff is only being honest when he says so.

News Bites

TRIBUNE WALKS INTO CUNNING SUN-TIMES TRAP.

Sun-Times announcement Sunday, July 30: "Kup is taking the day off. He'll be celebrating his 87th birthday on Monday."

Tribune's "INC." column Monday, July 31: "Monday's birthdays: tennis' Evonne Goolagong, 49; TV's Curt Gowdy, 81; columnist Irv Kupcinet, 87."

Tribune correction, Tuesday, August 1: "Columnist Irv Kupcinet's age was given incorrectly in Monday's INC. Column. He is 88."

The relationship between the Sun-Times and the Tribune continues to resemble a feeder system. Last week the Sun-Times lost three of its best: reporters John Carpenter and Cam Simpson and business writer Robert Manor. Carpenter's moving to Detroit, but Simpson and Manor have crossed the street. One of the left behinds locates Sun-Times morale "in the basement."

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

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