Unfriendly Competition/An Ethical Education/Missed Connections/Guns and Ammo | Media | Chicago Reader

Unfriendly Competition/An Ethical Education/Missed Connections/Guns and Ammo 

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Unfriendly Competition

A little sympathy, please, for Jay Mariotti. Picture the columnist alone in the press box high above Saint Louis's Busch Stadium the night of Monday, May 13. The Cardinals had just defeated the Cubs 3-0, and the rest of the press corps had stampeded down to the lockers.

"I'm upstairs batting away on an early deadline," says Mariotti. For production reasons, his nightly deadline arrives as early as 7 PM these days, and though his desk cut him a little slack this night because of the late game, he had minutes to send a column back to Chicago. Its theme: the Cubs are dead in the water and skipper Don Baylor deserves to be sacked.

Afterward Mariotti rendezvoused with Sun-Times game reporter Mike Kiley and learned he'd missed one of the rare clubhouse postmortems where something worth repeating was said. Losing pitcher Kerry Wood blew up and proclaimed--as Kiley would report the next morning--"I'm getting real [bleeping] tired of hearing the same [bleep] when the game is over: 'Keep your head up and we'll get 'em tomorrow.' That [bleep] ain't working. It's frustrating."

Wheels spun in Mariotti's head. Wood had assailed the very drift and ennui that were the topic of tomorrow morning's column. The sports final deadline was long gone, but it wasn't too late to add Wood to the late sports final. Mariotti called Chicago. "I'd have been negligent not to do that," he says. "All I did was top it out as I should and put my spin on it."

It's the spin that set off the fireworks. Though his original column doesn't mention Wood at all, the revised version begins, "Kerry Wood is tired of Don Baylor's sleepwalk act. So am I," and goes on to say that "Wood boldly suggested his manager's tolerance of losing is a major part of the Cubs' problem." Kiley's own account doesn't describe Wood's outburst as an attack on Baylor. Neither do the stories filed by Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein and columnist Rick Morrissey. In further defiance of Mariotti's version of the events, on Tuesday Baylor called Wood's comments "positive." And Wood told reporters he hadn't been talking about Baylor at all. Wednesday's Daily Herald had Wood saying, "There are 20 guys here who heard me say it, wrote it the way I said it and you got one guy who's back in his office in Chicago writing it a different way and making it like I was talking about Don." (Greenstein in the Tribune and even Kiley in the Sun-Times also reported Wood's denial.)

Back in his office! Mariotti read this and winced. He hadn't been back in his office. He'd been trapped up in the press box serving that harshest of mistresses, an early deadline.

As Morrissey knew full well. But on Thursday morning Morrissey laced into him. "The jackals are looking for some fresh meat," he wrote. "When Wood ripped into the Cubs...he was ripping his teammates, not Baylor. That was obvious to anyone in the clubhouse. The problem was that Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti wasn't there, but made the world-class leap that Wood was ripping his manager. The implication was that Wood wanted Baylor unemployed. It would have been a nice column if it had been true.

"It helps to be there, to hear a tirade in person and not surf the Internet for secondhand information. It also helps to remember real people and real careers are involved here. But when writers don't face the people they skewer, it makes life so much easier."

Jackals? Surf the Internet? "The Tribune is starting to get dirty now," says Mariotti. "This is really escalating."

Mariotti never retreats. His column Friday derided Wood's "backpedaling mode." He wrote, "I don't believe Wood when he wakes up the next day, sees his harsh comments interpreted in a variety of ways in the national media and decides to cover his rear end corporately." He then demonstrated how Wood's "rant" revealed hidden truths. "Tired of hearing the same (bleep)? Hmmm. Who addresses the club after every game? Who is in a position to make something 'work' or not? Who often uses those words in postgame news conferences?"

These aren't bad questions. They get to implications Wood might not have known he was implying. On Wednesday, sports columnist Phil Arvia had reasoned the same way in the Daily Southtown (a sister paper to the Sun-Times in the Hollinger family). Arvia wrote: "Though the comments were vague enough for Wood to define them a day later in any way he chose, they apply as well to Baylor's stewardship as they do to the team at large. Better, even. When Wood on Monday said he was tired of hearing the same thing after every game, ask yourself, 'From whom?' When he described those words as, 'Keep your head up, we'll get them tomorrow,' then added, 'That [deleted] isn't working,' does it not sound like the mocking of another's motivational efforts?"

But despite his powers of textual analysis, Mariotti found himself at an impossible disadvantage. When you're trying to persuade the public that you're right about what happened and everyone else is wrong, it doesn't help if you're the only one who wasn't there. What galls Mariotti are the cracks suggesting he wasn't there because he couldn't be bothered. "I work real hard," he tells me, as our conversation shifts to E-mail. "I break a lot of stories....They break very few stories in sports, none in their columns that I can remember. Yet, my work ethic and tactics are questioned?"

He's picking up steam. "When Morrissey tries to damage my reputation he should have the facts right. I might even call this a reckless disregard of the truth, because he knew where I was (press box) and what I was doing (writing on deadline) and ignored both facts. He brings up the Internet in his piece. What is he suggesting, that I got the Wood stuff off the Internet? First of all, where would it be on the Internet 30 minutes after the game? Second, doesn't he know I have a beat writer who heard Wood? Of course, he does. It's just a pack of lies. They're very dirty over there."

There's history between Mariotti and Morrissey that might be worth considering. On February 25 Mariotti inaugurated the occasional series "My Sun-Times Day" by describing one of his long days at the Salt Lake City Olympics. He wrote, "3:30 p.m.--Brief down time. Some sports columnists would get a haircut and write about it, or stand in a six-hour line for a beret at a Roots store and write about it. Those columnists should be doing soft features, not covering the Olympics." Mariotti mentioned no names. Yet we can suppose that Morrissey managed to recognize himself as the author of both the columns Mariotti ridiculed. I would assume he neither forgot nor forgave, but Morrissey tells me not to.

"I was referring to many writers, not specifically him," Mariotti pleads. "Honest. It was frustration over the same columns, especially the beret thing, written in about 20 papers in an Olympics with a breaking story every day. It seemed an easy way out. I felt some of these guys--not him specifically--were writing features instead of news. From what I could tell, Rick did a good job at the Olympics."

Whatever. Today Morrissey is unforthcoming. "I don't want to say anything beyond what was in the column," he says. "The issue to me isn't the deadlines or where he was. The issue is being there and listening to what Kerry Wood had to say--and understanding while standing there what he means. Nobody who was standing there thought he was talking about Baylor."

"I'm a big enemy over there," Mariotti says. To Mariotti this is war, and he wages it with the fervor of Geronimo. His two columns last week on the wretched Cubs didn't let you forget for a second who owns them. They were laced with references to "Tribsters," to "Tribune megabucks," to the "Tower empire." But thanks to that deadline, he's fighting with one hand tied behind his back. "For the Tribune to make the widespread claim that this was the result of me not wanting to be down there is absurd," he says. "But I'm hamstrung. There's nothing I can do about it."

An Ethical Education

On Monday I got this steaming piece of E-mail: "[Daily Herald] Managing Editor John Lampinen was all self-righteous in accepting a Peter Lisagor award for ethics a few years back for not naming Richard Jewell as the suspected Olympic bomber....The biggest hypocrisy has surrounded the paper's behavior in handling the Brown's case. The paper's overeagerness to dominate this huge story in its own backyard has caused it to push aside all standards against naming suspects before they are charged. They did it in the Saturday edition, naming the current suspects before they were charged, while the Chicago Tribune showed clear restraint by waiting until charges were filed Saturday to use the names Sunday."

Juan Luna and James Degorski weren't the first suspects in the Brown's Chicken murders to be named by the Daily Herald before charges were filed. Hours after the seven bodies were discovered in 1993, a Brown's Chicken employee who'd been fired was arrested at gunpoint. The Daily Herald promptly published his name. (So did the Tribune.) "There was a sense of fear in the community--who's out there doing this?" Lampinen would tell me later. "And I think we were trying to respond to that." The suspect was held 48 hours and released. He later complained that he felt like a marked man and couldn't find a job or a girlfriend; he sued the Palatine police department for false arrest and left the state.

That fiasco taught the Daily Herald a lesson it applied to Richard Jewell three years later. Though not naming a suspect until he's charged is one of journalism's rules of thumb, the rule was all but universally ignored when the FBI leaked Jewell's name as its top suspect in the Olympics bombing in Atlanta. The Daily Herald kept Jewell's name off its pages for 24 hours, prompting me to call the Daily Herald "possibly the only daily paper in the country where propriety overcame pandemonium." In a memo to his staff, Lampinen was disarmingly honest. "We felt last night that fairness to [Jewell] outweighed the other factors. This morning, I feel rather good about that in principle. But I also feel somewhat embarrassed. The paper looks rather silly this morning. As a practical matter, who are we trying to kid? It would be ludicrous to argue that our refusal to print his name and photo has served any greater good."

Jewell was never arrested, let alone charged, and papers caught up in the pandemonium learned a lesson. Neither the Tribune nor the Sun-Times published the names of Luna and Degorski last Saturday. But the Daily Herald, thanks to its unique self-restraint in 1996, might have learned a different lesson--that self-restraint can make a paper feel ridiculous. "The whole point of journalism is to try to provide information," says Lampinen, now the Daily Herald's editor. "This was a case where we knew they were going to be charged. We knew it as a dead certainty. I think it's great that we're all in the industry more sensitive these days, but I think those who have gone to a doctrinaire policy that we don't identify them until they're charged have gone a tad far."

Sure enough, Luna and Degorski were charged with murder on Saturday, and the Chicago papers carried their names on Sunday. Despite the case Lampinen makes, I praise them for waiting, but once again the Daily Herald has given us a contrarian way of thinking about things. Which brings me to the other piece of angry E-mail I read last Monday. It was written by a retired Tribune reporter of the old school: "The Tribune...had its clock cleaned Saturday by the Daily Herald and to a lesser degree the Sun-Times. The Herald had names, pictures, rap sheets etc. while the Trib came up empty....Somebody better give the Trib a wakeup call pretty soon."

Missed Connections

The Chicago Tribune and New York Times decided last Wednesday that Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba was front-page news. The Sun-Times played the story on page 30. To make doubly clear its contempt for Carter, the Sun-Times published an editorial in the same issue titled "A botched job." The editorial said the visit "makes a mockery of international diplomacy" and explained, "In a galling example of mistimed remarks, he stood alongside and sided with Fidel Castro in attacking the Bush administration, claiming that Cuba is not sharing biological warfare know-how with rogue nations." The editorial didn't say Carter was wrong about that--"Maybe he'll be proved right," it conceded. But Carter had picked the wrong time to be right.

The odd thing about the editorial was its obliviousness to the same issue's news story. According to the Associated Press article on page 30, in a live broadcast to the Cuban people Carter affirmed American civil liberties, told Cubans that the basic freedoms guaranteed them by their constitution were denied by their laws, and notified them of the Varela Project, a petition drive by grassroots Cuban reformers.

Readers were left to wonder what the Sun-Times thought of these remarks. The next day's editorial page offered a Jack Higgins cartoon of Carter grinning like a simian as Fidel explains to him, "See? We do have free speech in Cuba! You can attack President Bush and so can we!"

Guns and Ammo

A possible memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft to his staff: "Though I was not embarrassed by the reference to me in Parade magazine the other day as 'America's Top Cop,' it is important for all hands to understand that I see my job as much more. Imprisoning evildoers is merely one aspect of my service to God and country, and not necessarily the most important. The laws of our land command our respect only to the extent they remain consonant with the will of God and with the U.S. Constitution. In the Parade article I spoke of the Constitution as our 'charter of freedom.' To elaborate, it is the fruit of our Founding Fathers' largely successful attempt to render in civil language the wisdom of Scripture. And where the Founding Fathers fell short I have attempted, as you know, to reconcile the Constitution to Holy Writ by proposing various amendments, such as the ones mentioned in Parade that would outlaw abortion, forbid flag burning, and permit prayer in school. These have been difficult battles, and triumph may be slow in coming; I fortify myself by imagining, when victory is ours, the smile on the face of Jesus.

"We can be sure of one thing: Jesus smiled broadly when our department reversed decades of federal sophistry and placed the government squarely behind a literal interpretation of the Second Amendment. The moral relativism that has so long sapped our nation's fiber was nowhere more explicit than in Washington's tortured insistence that 'shall not be infringed' should be construed to mean, 'shall be infringed at the pleasure of the state.' One might ask in the argot of youth, 'What part of "shall not be" didn't they understand?' But though Truth be often clear, it is seldom easy. It is the very clarity of this amendment that has today placed our department athwart what I do not hesitate to call the 'horns of a dilemma.'

"Osama bin Laden is, as you know, the most evil of men, and al Qaeda the most evil of ruthless international conspiracies. America is fighting this evil with all our might and main, and despite the naysaying of irresolute liberals who confuse transient liberties with enduring Freedoms, America is winning. Indeed, the security measures that Washington has imposed at my direction have left the conspirators with little room to breathe, let alone conspire. And that is why al Qaeda recently filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., against the airline industry and the American government. Al Qaeda is taking the legal position that regulations forbidding its suicide bombers to board civilian aircraft carrying firearms--or for that matter, any semblance of a weapon--violate the Second Amendment.

"Needless to say, I have given this suit long hours of prayerful consideration. Those of you who admired my courageous stand in the dark hours that followed September 11, when I refused to allow the FBI to rummage through the records of gun purchasers simply to chase down 'terrorists,' will surely recognize that the same core values are again at stake. For this reason I have concluded that the Justice Department should intercede on the side of al Qaeda. Airline passengers do not constitute a privileged class in a society where all men are equal, and I cannot construct a principled argument that would forbid firearms from aircraft yet permit them in taxis, buses, and perambulators. Here is a slope so slippery that a single step down its incline is one too many.

"But when I broached my views to the President and his cabinet they were met, I regret to inform you, with consternation. In the heat of battle, their professed fidelity to the clear language of the Republic's fundamental text was exposed as 'lip service.' A strong possibility exists that this department will soon be instructed to act in a manner that offends our consciences. However, rest assured of my ongoing efforts to impress upon this administration in the strongest possible language that if we defeat the enemy only by disarming him, the ultimate victory is his."

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

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