Monday, May 22, 2006

What Is There About the Tribune? Or Rather, What Isn’t?

Chicago’s white-shoe newspaper, written and published as if it were the Hinsdale Tribune…or the Winnetka Tribune…is losing money as a lot of newspapers are: but it is a source of fascination to me how it manages to avoid giving its readership what, in many respects, it deserves: a serious newspaper that is an arbiter of views and cross-current opinions with a budget of conservatively-flavored issues…probably with not the verve that the Sun-Times gives to liberal and Democratically-flavored ones. It is as if the Tribune is deeply ashamed of its venerable past as the flaming journal of Robert R. McCormick and wants to continue doing penance for it.

Colonel McCormick died on April 1, 1955—which is 51 years ago…and trust me (since I was there as a daily reader) there is nothing that the current presiders have to apologize for. The Colonel’s Tribune was not racist; it was vehemently anti-FDR but that was no sin; it was a supporter of the “America First” movement when this nation favored non-involvement in World War II by 62 percent. It sensibly changed after Pearl Harbor but dallied to do some innovative research concerning the nature of that highly unsuspected attack. It supported Joe McCarthy which is no sin since a new generation has grown up familiar with captured Kremlin documents that show highly placed members of FDR’s and Truman’s administrations were, indeed, active in support of the USSR: including Harry Hopkins.

What is the Trib apologizing for: the stupid headline in the first edition that announced Dewey Beats Truman? If so, it should get over it. Good night, the New York Times had a veritable liar and fiction-writer capturing its front pages for many months, Herbert Matthews and Walter Duranty, before it got wise; it also had two members of its foreign bureau who were if not certifiably Communist at least totally supportive of that fascist country and who tailored their reports—killing reports of Soviet purges—accordingly. What is the Tribune ashamed of? I for one, would be ashamed of the old Colonel’s weekly performance at the Medinah Temple where he spoiled good musical productions by reading in his monotone, sounding as if he had a mouthful of mush, but Marion Claire, the brilliant soprano whom he nearly bored to death is dead as is her husband Henry Weber who was forced to curtail the Chicago Theatre of the Air to meet the Colonel’s specifications.

Think of what he did! He engendered bold, non-temporizing editorials that were written with superb rhetorical draftsmanship by George Morganstern. He picked and trained Claudia Cassidy who was the premier music and arts critic for a generation. He pioneered the selection of great comics who began an integral part of the marketing of his newspaper. And he was wise enough to say that the power and influence of his newspaper was due—well this is how it said it: “It ain’t Little Orphan Annie, it’s the hair on our chest!” Meaning his tough, rarely qualified assessments churned out every day got readership, attention and reputation.

Because the Trib has been unaccountably trying to live down its conservative past, it is time it got some spunk and determined that it should become a conservative paper again. There is a great readership waiting for it. The editorials ramble, are inconclusive and meander to a generally conservative, or at least sensible, conclusion. Where in the name of God does the Trib do with its passion, put it in cold storage? An editorial last week on “The feds vs. City Hall” pointing out that the “corruption trial of Gov. George Ryan grabbed the attention of Illinois.” Gee, fellows, that’s rather obvious, isn’t it? Then: “The just-starting federal trial of four former City of Chicago officials? We’ll see.” Don’t go too far out on a limb, guys.

You can parse these editorials and find they are drained of all human juices and read like a legal abstract. “The prosecutors’ opening statement due early this week, should offer what this City Hall case has lacked all along…” And what it that, oh astute ones? “[A] concise narrative of what the U. S. Department of Justice seeks to prove not only about these four defendants but perhaps also about unspecified future defendants.” Aha. The interminable language winds on: “If you want to know, specifically, who the feds think controlled that power structure, grab a chair. That’s the parlor game the cognoscenti will play as the government lays out its case.” Now the wind-up: “In time we’ll see how much of that case, if any, the jurors buy.”

This is the latest sample of bland blather, all politically correct and cautious, fearful of leaning over one side or the other, that is reminiscent of the youngish professionals of Hindale and Wilmette and Kenilworth. If the newspaper is trying to appeal to them—it is not the way to do it. You should give them something to read, even if they disagree. Good God, the terminally worriedly objectivity and saccharine flavor of these evasively misnamed editorials is enough to give anyone with diabetes a temporary jolt. The reason these editorials are that way is not because Tribune people cannot write but because, I suspect this is literally true, they write to please someone in the business office who in turn bases his or her judgments on demographics of what white prosperous, moderately liberal suburbanites must think. Thus it is a white shoe paper, a dismal caricature of what it used to be.

The editorials in their meandering way do generally lead to conservative conclusions—if readers are still awake by the conclusions. But even the predictable endorsements of Republican candidates for office reflect a kind of cynicism: we endorse Republicans but give the liberals a lot of support in the Op Eds and news coverage to produce a truly balanced paper. And that’s what it does. I would rather have the same editorial writers endorse every Democrat there is running and produce a truly conservative Op Ed and Republican newsroom: for no one who is alive can remember what the editorials stand for anyhow.

Now consider for a moment, the product the Tribune produces when it lands on your doorstep—as it does on mine—every morning. It is an immaculately white—that it the name for it—white newspaper reflecting what someone believes the commuter trains heading from Hinsdale—believe. They are pro-choice…somewhat doubtful about the Iraq war and hope for a way to get out…are open-minded about gay rights: and before these things, by God, are for relaxing the regulatory strings on the economy. But even these people don’t get what they want in the editorial offerings. There is simply no social conservative writing except Dennis Byrne, an Op Ed who was fired from the Sun-Times because of his convictions.

In one week they had Jack Fuller, an ex-editor and publisher, also a composer who for some reason intrigued past owners of the paper writing the obvious: 700 words to say that General Hayden should be judged not by the number of stars on his military shoulder-straps but by his ability. Wow: that’s hitting `em hard, isn’t it? Clarence Page from Washington who specializes in black news and who someone once told he was a comedian, usually a snotty view of the Bush administration. Score to date: two white shoe columnists with very little to say. Then there’s Garrison Keillor, the Minnesota supposed sage who takes a liberal view of things who is intended to be a kind of latter day Will Rogers. Keillor works on the radio, friends, not as an opinion-meister on the editorial page. He makes some people in Kenilworth laugh—but not for long.

Charles Madigan who says these are not days for ones who believe in government—and he makes no bones about the fact that he believes in government in Chicago—secure. Nutritional value: 0000.4. Somebody named Gal Luft from what sounds like a libertarian think-tank recommending that President Bush tell the big auto makers that they should encourage innovation and things will get better—no bailouts. White shoe again. Nutritional value: 0000.3. Then there are the stridently Democratic columnists: Molly Ivins the old Texas gal who is a graduate from Smith who hates the Bushes, calls `em shrubs…and Leonard Pitts from California who is outraged at some fancied anti-black action or other. Nutrition value slightly higher: 0000.5. Still there is no nutrition for conservatives except Denny Byrne who writes once a week. You see? They don’t exist.

The letters to the editor show they don’t exist. But conservatives write letters all the time and they aren’t published. A decision by somebody or other—probably the lady who once wrote a cookbook, Marcia Lythcott, who handles those chores—that the letters aren’t worth publishing. When I was an Op Ed writer over there, dealing with her was one of the least fulfilling activities of the day: she has no time, no interest, indeed a hostility to conservative thought. Eric Zorn and Mary Schmich—no they aren’t married to each other—are good but usually eschew ideology, working their views out in pure logistics. No good for a paper that is consciously missing the conservative market. Yes, then we get to the uber-libertarian, Steve Chapman, a former writer for The New Republic who doesn’t want strong anti-drug laws: that’s really red meat for social conservatives. (Yes, I know William F. Buckley doesn’t either but for all he’s done for conservatism, his dereliction might be ignored in deference to the quirks of his advanced age) but Buckley’s conservatism on national issues, even on Iraq where he is now a dove, is much more robust than Chapman’s). I’ve gone down the list of frequent writers sufficiently to say that the Tribune doesn’t come close to satisfying even a balanced presentation much less become the shadow of its old self.

In short, Denny Byrne is the only social conservative writing and he isn’t working for the place but is a free-lance. I’ll get to the news reportage in the future but I would sum it up to say that what’s wrong with the Trib is that it has turned its soul over to economics and therefore produces a dull, abstract, irrelevant, somewhat ambiguous, meaningless paper that avoids difficult issues just like they do in nice suburban cocktail parties in Hinsdale, which is what it intends to do. On that basis, the Sun-Times which is at least a newspaper that knows what it believes and has the confidence to say so, is unrivaled because it faces an uncertain giant who is groping for certainty. God help us.

1 comment:

  1. The paper is written for soccer moms. They think this is what will sell the most papers and they don't want to offend soccer moms.

    The Tribune's newspaper holdings continue to lose readers (now that they are being correctly audited), their television network (WB) is a disaster they are trying to clean up and their stock is down over 40% in the last two years.

    The last thing they are worried about is social conservatives or McCormick's legacy.

    Conservatives in Chicago turn to the Washington Times. The WSJ has some good economic editorials (though I don't agree with their immigration / foreign policy arguments).

    The Sun Times has one conservative under their banner (Novak) worth reading. Will and Buchanan are two others I read and for local politics Kass and Roeser are the best sources (along with Fran's reporting from City Hall).