Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Sun-Times: Where it Succeeds and Where it Fails

Where it succeeds, nobly, is in its straight news reporting. Earlier I mentioned Fran Spielman who writes the most important City Hall news all by herself. Nothing more than a one-line identification but over the years it has been identified with sterling quality. Then there’s Frank Main and Annie Sweeney, Steve Patterson plus Chris Fusco and Dave McKinney.

More listed another time.

Another department where it’s not only superb but the one of the best in the nation, it’s top-flight cartoonist Jack Higgins who regularly hits pay-dirt with his droll commentaries which occasionally varies from the paper’s editorial policy. The Business pages: outstanding, edited by a real pro who’s as articulate on radio and TV as when he writes business news, the former chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, Dan Miller.

Once I used to criticize the paper because of its political non-objectivity—but that was before I recognized the importance of newspapers returning to old-style partisanship in political reporting. When I was young, I read the Tribune to get the Republican slant from the ferociously conservative Col. Robert R. McCormick and then walked around the corner to the out-of-town newsstand at State and Washington to pick up a copy of the New York Post, owned by a ferociously liberal Dorothy Schiff. The politics of both newspapers were covered superbly from right and left slants. Reflecting on it, I am sorry I once criticized Lynn Sweet for being biased. How stupid I was. Of course she is! But she is reporting political news on the slant in line with traditional, hallowed advocacy journalism which dates back to Greeley’s (Horace not Andy) New York Tribune. I later realized that she is excellent on the basis of the political partisanship she and the paper so passionately share. .

Where the paper fails –and lamentably—is in its columnists. The style there is to present hip journalism but it is often stale and sophomoric. You may think I’m picking on them but remember, these columnists make their living skewing; so it’s surprising that when someone skews them they’re so thin skinned. Cathleen Falsani, the Religion Editor who loves to quote her lefty buddies assaulting George W. Bush because he’s a bad guy. She’s girlishly gushing and popping her bubble gum because she just discovered the Song of Solomon on DVD. Just in time for Valentine’s Day. We get comic book religion but no depth, no feeling for religious news. She reports it with the same wafer-thin lack of perspective as she would a traffic accident.

Now, I confess: to one I’m been unjust to because I didn’t fully appreciate the need for a return to old-time partisan political analysis. Now that I have a better understanding of what she does (a reincarnation of Dorothy Schiff journalism) I find that whatever she writes, analysis of straight news, Sweet is excellent because she gives us the straight applejack 90 proof Democratic flavor, undiluted. Of course she takes Obama’s side in the controversy with McCain. May she prosper forever.

I must say Roger Ebert’s views of films leaves much to be desired because as a political-writer wannabe he is viscerally liberal but doesn’t know the territory as he does film. His critique of “Goodnight and Good Luck” about Murrow should have mentioned that the historical context of the times was not portrayed. But Ebert may not know the historical context; besides, he was so enthused about the liberal politics. Now that’s o.k. for a liberal Democratic writer like Sweet, but Ebert could have written that sadly the film didn’t portray the proper background of McCarthyism. He didn’t.

For a hip newspaper, Roeper is supposed to be au currant, sucking up to the kids. But he’s now a 40sh kid who never grew up, who writes like one and one of these days will not be able to keep up because the fads will catch him between the switches. The cleverest columnist hands down is QT. Sneed is the first thing I read. Even Debra Pickett is starting to pick up with an outstanding column on the genius she lunched with. I give Mitchell a B-, basis her willingness to criticize the amen corner for politicizing the Coretta King funeral.

Carol Marin, ostensibly hired to write a local political column, doesn’t. She writes as an outraged moralist. As one with few conventional religious absolutes, she makes up for it by adopting secular ones. The crusade to keep Jerry Springer off Channel 5 is old but made her the reputation she savors; now the Iraq War stinks, Bush is rewarding the rich with tax cuts, go to Brokeback Mountain: you know, the gripping intellectual issues of our time. In parsing her secular absolutes, she becomes everyone’s high rectitude Mother Superior. Everyone who’s been caught napping or derelict in some fashion, gets a severe rebuke from Carol., All except Joe Cari, the Democratic pol who’s a longtime friend. Then, strange for her, you could read the restricted sobs of remorse for poor Joe in her stuff.

Rather than write politics, she gives advice. Months ago she urged George Ryan to throw in the towel because of the suffering he’s bringing to his family. That’s more than being a naïf; it was wretchedly bad advice. Ryan at 71 has the free services of Winston & Strawn and the best criminal defense lawyer in the country so why the hell would he not make a run for freedom? Incidentally, why is Jim Thompson spending so much of the firm’s assets to get his pal George to beat the rap? Is Thompson another Mother Teresa? Is his feeling for stodgy, grumpy old George altruistic? I think not.

Now Marin began one column asking Rod Blagojevich why he hasn’t announced for reelection yet but before the piece is over she figures it out: “In truth, if I were running the Blagojevich (non) campaign I’d probably do the same thing.” Superb reasoning, Carol, you’re learning as your earning which might pay off as you do gigs on Channel 11, too along with the paper’s sex therapist. Now suppose you go to Lew Manilow, the multi-multi millionaire step-father of Edwin Eisendrath and ask why he hasn’t seen fit to contribute a sizable bankroll to help his step-son. Here was Manilow at the City Club the other day, nudging his partners at the table proudly: that’s my kid. Well why don’t you have enough faith in your kid to give him a few bucks, Lew?

All things being equal, the paper is good, deserves a Pulitzer for uncovering Daley scandals and Hired Trucks. But it can be better. Much better. To those columnists criticized, don’t sulk, now. Every day you rip someone a new aperture. Take it and come up smiling. That’s good.


  1. A hungry fox noticed a juicy bunch of grapes growing high on a grapevine. He leaped. He snapped. Drooling, he jumped to reach them, but try as he might, he could not obtain the tasty prize.

    Disappointed by the fruitless efforts he'd made to get the grapes that day, he said, with a shrug, to comfort himself, "Oh, they were probably sour anyway!"

  2. http// 12, 2006 at 11:12 AM

    Aesop--Thanks for your comments repeated word-for-word earlier, but I really don't think that someone who has suggested the Sun-Times for a Pulitzer, praises Fran Spielman and the news staff, salutes Lynn Sweet and cartoonist Jack Higgins is guilty of sour grapes. Unless I'm supposed to swallow Carol Marin and all her works. Nevertheless, thanks for your comments and for reading this blog. Tom Roeser