Sun-Times Picks a Fight/Make the World Go Away/That's a Good One/News Bites | Media | Chicago Reader

Sun-Times Picks a Fight/Make the World Go Away/That's a Good One/News Bites 

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Sun-Times Picks a Fight

In response to a full-page Sun-Times article last December describing racial harassment in Green Bay, the Green Bay police department conducted an investigation that went on for weeks, was closely overseen by the mayor's office, and was monitored by the Northeast Wisconsin African American Association and the Multicultural Center of Greater Green Bay. In the investigation's wake, the city and Multicultural Center have launched a campaign to celebrate diversity and find new ways of fighting prejudice.

None of this means that Green Bay's city hall and police department praise the Sun-Times article or accept it as true. City officials complain that the Sun-Times made serious, unsubstantiated charges and then did next to nothing to help the police look into them--which is why their investigation took so long.

"What's the price of pride? How much is dignity going for these days? What are feelings of self-worth worth?" wrote sports columnist Carol Slezak on December 16, setting the table for her story. It told of a trip that Michele Ranger and Marsha Brawner, twin sisters who live, respectively, in Skokie and Evanston, had taken to Green Bay the previous weekend to cheer on the Bears against the Packers.

They told Slezak that the restaurant where their party of six went for breakfast was slow to seat them, slow to take their order, and slow to serve it--and the eggs arrived cold. Stopping at a mall, Brawner picked up a ski hat and asked what it cost. "You can't afford it," said the saleswoman. "We never thought it was about our color," Ranger told Slezak. The twins are black.

But outside Lambeau Field, Slezak told us, they heard shouts of "Niggers, go back to the projects where you're from." Brawner sat in a skybox, Ranger on the ten-yard line with a male friend, a teddy bear in her arms. "Throughout the game," Slezak wrote, "she and her friend were inundated with derogatory racial comments." When her friend left his seat late in the game "the people around Ranger--mostly men but some women, too--became more bold. 'Give us that bear,' she heard. 'We're going to lynch it just like we used to lynch you.' 'Take your ass home to the projects,' she heard.

"Try as they might," Slezak concluded, Ranger and Brawner "can't forget last weekend, which they refer to as their 'nightmare in Green Bay.'"

Mayor Paul Jadin told his police to find out if the story was true. It ran on a Sunday, and by Thursday police lieutenant Wayne Wians was leaving messages for Slezak at the Sun-Times. Wians was out when she eventually called back, but she left a message that said Ranger wasn't interested in pursuing the matter. Wians would have none of that. The following Monday, which was Christmas Eve, he and Slezak finally spoke directly. She remembers, "He said to me, 'It doesn't matter what she's interested in. There's going to be an investigation.'"

Wians says he asked Slezak, "'Did you verify any of this stuff?' She said no. I said, 'Do you know the name of the store?' She said no. I said, 'Did you contact anyone at the restaurant?' She said no."

Though Slezak tells me Wians didn't ask these questions, it's true that she didn't contact either the store or the restaurant. It's also true that once Wians got the names of these two places from Ranger, neither did he. All that really mattered to anybody was what went on at Lambeau Field.

Wians says he asked Slezak for the sisters' phone numbers and addresses. "She said, 'I can't do that because of confidentiality.' I asked her, 'How do you think I'm going to get in contact with these people? We have some serious allegations here.' And she says, 'Well, let me try to call them and see if they'll want to talk to you.'"

Slezak says, "I spoke to [Ranger] about the detective a second time. I said, 'He said they're just interested in finding out the truth and trying to help, and we should take what he said at face value.' And she said, 'I'll talk to him if you think it's a good idea. I don't know what good it'll do. People don't change. But I'll talk.'"

Eventually she did. Ranger called Wians after Christmas and left a message--though not a phone number--on Wians's voice mail. "So I was at her whim to wait until she recontacted me," he says. "That's what took so long. Nobody ever gave me any phone numbers, and I was always at everybody's whim to wait and wait and wait with my questions."

On January 8, Wians drove to Chicago to interview Ranger. He missed her--she told him the next day when she called to apologize that she'd been tending a sick child. On January 12 he tried again. Accompanied by the police captain he reports to, and by the black leaders of the Multicultural Center and the Northeast Wisconsin African American Association--who made the trip at the mayor's suggestion--Wians interviewed Ranger at the food court of a Lincolnwood mall. Wians says, "While we were meeting with Miss Ranger she was on her cell phone a couple of times with her sister, and her sister was telling us, 'Yeah, I'm on my way over. I'm only 15 minutes away.' We interviewed her for two and a half hours, and [the sister] never did show up." Wians says Ranger also talked by phone with the friend she'd sat with at the game. "I'd asked, 'Would he speak with me?' And he says, 'No, I don't want to speak with the police. The police are bad.' And they both had a good laugh over the phone."

(I asked Slezak to contact Ranger for me for this article, but I didn't hear from her.)

Wians wanted to interview the people around Ranger at the game, but he didn't know where she'd sat and she'd lost her ticket stub and couldn't remember. "There was a picture in the Sun-Times with Miss Ranger holding up two Packer tickets. We could see the seat number and row number, but we couldn't see the section number. She did say she was on the ten-yard line, so we narrowed it down to four to eight sections. So what I wanted to do was get an original [and therefore clearer] print of that photo from the Sun-Times. But I never got a return call. Then a reporter from the [Green Bay] Press-Gazette who evidently had some connections was able to get that copy of the photo, and we did find out what section it was. That was extremely helpful."

Wians interviewed the four people who'd sat directly behind Ranger and her friend, two people directly in front of them, the two who'd sat on either side, a couple of other people two rows back, and several in nearby seats who'd heard what he was doing and called him. "They did not know what game this lady was at, that all these racial taunts and slurs were being thrown at her," he says, "because not one of them heard anything like that at the game." The police did establish that a Packers fan had taken off his belt, made a loop with it, and threatened to lynch Ranger's teddy bear. But was he merely being playful?

Here's how police think. When a newspaper trashes their city--which in the minds of the people of Green Bay is what the Sun-Times did--that paper should be not just eager but honor bound to help the police get to the bottom of its own charges.

And here's how newspapers think. Though they get righteously miffed when they dig up a story that warrants a formal investigation and nobody makes one, their job ends once the story's in print. Cops have plenty of investigative tools; all a newspaper has going for it is the trust of its sources that the paper will protect them.

Naturally Slezak wouldn't give Ranger's unlisted phone number to Wians--not without her permission. "We brought the story to light. That's what we owed the police," says Bill Adee, who's Slezak's editor. He assigned her to the story, and he told her it wasn't her duty to help the police check it out.

After the story ran, Jadin said at a press conference that he wished Slezak had talked to him before she wrote it. Speaking with me weeks later, the mayor faulted the Sun-Times for not doing what the police had done--interview fans with seats near Ranger's. But Slezak had asked the Packers front office to comment (a spokesman said those didn't sound like Packers fans); and as for tracking down the people in nearby seats, before undertaking that level of research I'm sure the Sun-Times would have spiked the story. Slezak separately interviewed Ranger and her sister, decided that their stories hung together and rang true, and then put them in the paper. Green Bay could react any way it wanted to.

"In Chicago this was not a big deal," says Adee. "In Green Bay it was."

"I think she was saving face,"says Wians, when I ask how he read Ranger when he finally met her. "She was getting herself in a corner, and she was sticking by her story. Could some of this stuff have happened? Sure. But we could not prove it."

Late last month Wians's investigation ended. According to the Press-Gazette, Jadin announced that the police had concluded "that there was in fact no racial harassment. There were individuals who exhibited behavior that certainly we would not condone, and that's probably based on alcohol more than anything." Jadin said the city and the Multicultural Center would jointly create a "protocol" to govern any similar incident in the future.

"We're treating this as though it did happen, even though we couldn't substantiate it," says John King, who's president of the Northeast Wisconsin African American Association and one of the men who made the trip with Wians to the Lincolnwood mall.

And even though you suspect it didn't happen?

"Right," says King, "because we were unable to validate her story in any way."

But Jadin gave Ranger a standing invitation to come back, and the Multicultural Center sent her a note of apology. "I think," says Adee, "that when you combine one of American society's oldest issues with the oldest established rivalry in professional football, you get this."

Make the World Go Away

If you sit at an office computer, you may have noticed that half of your E-mail peddles XXX Web sites. Last month Don Wycliff, the Tribune's public editor, wrote to lament this flood of spam into his office, and the particular difficulty newspapers face in doing anything about it.

"There are technological responses to porn spam, of course--filters and blocking devices," he wrote. "But any filter or blocking device involves trading off a measure of openness for a reduction in annoyance and the other costs that spam imposes. Newspapers, which must be as open to the public as possible, ought to be loath to close themselves off in any way that can be avoided."

But a few papers have decided to live with that trade-off. The other day William Dobbs, a gay activist in New York who's a critic of hate-crimes laws, explained his case against them in a phone call to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and followed up by E- mailing her some news stories. One was a column that Alexander Cockburn had written in June 2000 for the New York Press. Cockburn's piece began, "We're just about 31 years away from the great Stonewall riot, which set the tone for years of defiant gay insurgency. Stonewall was about defiance. It was a Fuck You to the forces of repression, to the forces of the state. So where's this spirit of defiance today?"

The Journal Sentinel bounced Dobbs's E-mail right back to him. Dobbs was startled to read an error message that announced: "Banned text appeared in header or body." Dobbs tried again, making it

"F/K You" this time, and Cockburn's column sailed through. Then Dobbs called me.

"We're trying to strike a balance between the functionality of the business and free speech, and trying to protect the working environment," explains Jim Herzfeld, the Journal Sentinel's vice president for information technology. But the technology is "pretty crude," which is why the occasional Alexander Cockburn essay is rejected too.

Here in the bigger city, the Sun-Times and Tribune consider filtering too high a price to pay for intramural decorum. The Tribune won't publicly discuss the subject--"Details of our technical environment" are a company secret, one official told me. But Wycliff had made it pretty clear that anything and everything gets through, and some X-rated E-mail I sent to a columnist and an editor confirmed that it does. I also E-mailed one of the Sun-Times's top writers, "This is only a test. Fuck you." He promptly got back to me.

"I'd sent that Cockburn column all over the place--including sending it to many reporters and editors," Dobbs E-mailed me. "I would be leery of even an individual reporter using filtering software this way. An entire newspaper? Dangerous! Why would editors and reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel allow a machine to make such judgments?"

Herzfeld says the Journal Sentinel started filtering E-mail at the direction of human resources. Advertising might not be the only department whose influence newsrooms should beware of.

That's a Good One

"I'm in the game!" cried A.E. Eyre.

My friend had been moping for months. Now the sparkle was back in his eyes, the bounce in his step.

"They can't name the world's funniest joke without taking me into account," said Eyre.

I wasn't sure that came out the way he meant it. But no matter. I'd been reading about the world's-funniest-joke competition. It had been in all the papers.

"As a running story," Eyre said, "it's neck and neck with the 'axis of evil.'"

My favorite joke was the one about the two hunters out in the woods, the one with the punch line "OK. Now what?" I considered it a joke for our times.

"But the competition's still open!" said Eyre. "That's what I learned when I visited the Web site, www.laughlab.co.uk. It's not too late to participate."

According to a psychologist from Hertfordshire University named in last Sunday's Sun-Times, more than 100,000 people from more than 70 countries had already weighed in. I told Eyre one vote more from Chicago was insignificant.

My friend's eyes narrowed. "I submitted a joke," he spat. "I entered the competition."

Wasn't it a little late for that?

"The voting is based on percentages, and the results so far announced are only preliminary," he said. "A boffo jest could still carry the day."

It went without saying that I was dying to hear what he'd entered.

"A British study," Eyre began, "established that Germans thought more jokes were funny than any other people. An astonished German social scientist interviewed a dairyman from Bavaria who'd participated in the research. 'So you thought these jokes were hilarious?' he said.

"'Ja,' said the dairyman.

"'And this joke was most hilarious of all: "Why is television called a medium? It is neither rare nor well-done"?'

"'Ja,' said the dairyman.

"'But don't you realize,' said the researcher, 'that this is just a silly pun? And translated into German it makes no sense at all?'

"'I can't help it,' said the Bavarian. 'Something about the English makes me laugh.'"

Eyre's stare was relentless.

With effort, I clucked once.

"My joke enters the competition by commenting on it and critiquing its methodology," he said. "It's the ingeniously postmodern self-referentiality that makes it such a hoot. My strongest support should come from academics."

Not to mention the Germans, I said, whom you're shamelessly sucking up to.

"I expect strong support from the Germans," Eyre confided. "The Germans will laugh at anything."

News Bites

On January 22 the Community Development Commission gave the go-ahead to a major redevelopment project in Jefferson Park. Reporter Brian Nadig covered the CDC hearing for Chicago's Northwest Side Press, but not quite thoroughly enough. Nadig agrees that one self-identified "property owner" who testified for the project shouldn't have been left out of his story. The witness was his father, Glenn Nadig, owner and publisher of the Press.

The New York Times, February 3, Sports, page two: "As more foreign-born players take the National Basketball Association by storm, it may be time to rethink the classical February matchup between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Just as the National Hockey League rescued the annual yawns surrounding its midseason event by pitting North America against the World, maybe it is time for the N.B.A. to take a similar approach."

Same paper, same day, same sports section, page nine: "But the World team scored four goals in the final 3 minutes 1 second to win the fifth game played under the current format. N.H.L. officials are discussing a return to the conference-versus-conference approach by next season, when the game will be in Sunrise, Fla. 'I think it's probably time,' the Rangers' Brian Leetch said."

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

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