Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bob Greene redux, this time as Trib triumph


    

Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel"



     Puh-leeze.
     I suppose it's inevitable, with sexual harassment pinballing around what's left of the media, that the mouldering corpse of disgraced Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene would eventually be dug up. 
     And I suppose it's equally inevitable that former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, now curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, would feel herself the person to do it.  Lipinski takes yet another victory lap for the Trib finally firing the guy in 2002, as if his predatory behavior were not an ... well..."open secret" was the phrase I was going to use, but that doesn't quite capture it. "Well-known, endlessly-discussed fact" is more apt, since you couldn't spit in a newsroom without finding revolted female professionals with tales of staving off Greene's crude advances.
     It was no secret at all. I wrote a column mocking Greene's column in the Chicago Reader and, in 1995, seven, count 'em, seven years before the scales fell from Lipinski's eyes, mentioned in print Bob's proclivity for luring young interns to hotel rooms, or pathetically trying to. 
     Not that it did any good. And to be honest, I had never been accosted by Greene. In fact, I never met him. I was far more offended by Bob's writing and worldview; his deplorable personal conduct was an afterthought, a dig, though at least it was that. For his bosses it wasn't something they'd consider at all, not publicly, not when they could maintain a willful, profitable blindness. 
     It's bad enough to ignore a problem for years and years, but to then present it as some kind of triumph of personal integrity prompted me to grab a shovel myself and do a bit of  disinterring.
     Ecce homo. I found this, a timely year-end review of Bob's work, using primitive America Online archive technology. Which, alas, did not extend to movies, because, I should note, that, upon looking for images now, I mis-remembered the ending of "The Blue Angel"—Emil Jannings is in the classroom all right, but in street clothes, not a chicken suit. 
     A forgivable lapse, I hope. Not my only one, which does make me uncomfortable, occasionally, with this whole grab-a-sin-from-40-years-ago-and-smear-it-on-someone cultural moment. Because people do change. Not Bob Greene, of course, his tragedy, and ours. Nor Ann Marie Lipinski, who dislocated her shoulder patting herself on the back in 2002 and is still at it. 
     But it does happen, and I am concerned that nuance will be lost, that the Al Frankens will be lumped in with the Roy Moores, and we'll end up with a new way to defame people but little actual progress.
     Still, if cracking open the past and hunting down sexual harassers means our society is actually improving, that the often degraded position of women is advancing, it will have been worth it. Though Donald Trump was still president last time I checked, so let's not take our own victory lap quite yet. Bad enough to hear the ululations of self-praise echoing from the ivory towers of Harvard. 

     With New Year's approaching I can't help but think of the classic movie "The Blue Angel," in which hot young Marlene Dietrich lures doddering Emil Jannings away from academe and into burlesque. The last scene shows the old guy back at his deserted schoolroom, still in the chicken suit from their nightclub act. He clutches at his old desk, weeping, emitting pathetic little chicken noises, as the enormity of his squandered life comes crushing down on him.
     Now, I realize it's pointless to hope that Bob Greene will be suffering similar pangs of remorse this December 31. It's too late for that.
     But can't you just see him? Wandering gravely from room to room, lit only by candles, trailing his fingers over the flat surfaces?
     Perhaps Bob too would be wearing a ridiculous costume—the tattered rags from some forgotten Bexley High School play. And he too would weep, as memories from the wasted year just past assailed him. The bells on his costume would jingle derisively as he moved through the dim hallways.
     We need not rely upon such conjecture to delineate the enormity of Bob's failure this year, pleasurable as it may be. There's an engine now available that can outline Bob's offenses against thought and journalism with greater precision than mere subjective adjectives like "repetitive" or "infantile" or "dull" ever could.
     I'm referring to the Chicago Tribune computer archives, which recently became available—at the usurious fee of $1.25 per minute prime time--on America Online.
     A few keystrokes and we see that Bob had written 167 columns in 1995 as we went to press. And that 59 of those columns were about Baby Richard. A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion.
     Another 20 columns—about 12 percent—were spent denouncing major league baseball and embracing the scab players.
     Scanning over his year's output, I find it difficult to pinpoint a nadir, though I would cast my vote for the pair of columns he devoted last month to reprinting old movie lines and old newspaper leads. It was a classic Bob straw-man tactic, in which the untrue premise (that the written word is no longer valued) is followed up by the canard reaction (let's have an "experiment" to see which medium, newspapers of 60 years ago or classic films, is better). Jesus, couldn't he have just used a sick day?
     But why limit ourselves to the past year? The Trib archives also have a 1985-1995 search mode. You can view the full scope and horror of Bob Greene's world, the sad spectacle of his near-autistic fixation, suffocating narrowness, and tedious, head-crushing repetition.
     I've just spent some time there, and boy, I'll tell you, it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass.
     In those 11 years, Bob has written 1,923 columns. More than a third—723—involve children, a reminder that before Richard there were Joseph and Sara and all the other wee ones Bob has used to cynically fill his columns with pages of court transcripts and letters of reader outrage.
     A quarter of the columns—484—mention television. Bob's home state of Ohio pops up in 170 columns. Another 74 feature Elvis Presley in some capacity--often a starring role. Thirty-six columns dredge up Bob's pointless fictional character, Mike Holiday, the supermarket bagger last heard from, mercifully, in 1993.
     Woody Hayes shows up ten times. One hundred and twenty-four columns pass through an airport; 72 mention a hotel room (though, oddly, none of these include a young intern). In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words "hairpiece," "smarmy," or "too many vodka gimlets." Yet there are four references to Barbie, and two columns--nearly identical in content and five years apart—devoted to his old high school principal, C.W. Jones.
     Michael Jordan appears in 67 columns, just three more times than the word "mall" appears. Spend enough hours working the archives, and weird parallels will start to pop out. In his column of June 6, 1994, the word "Elvis" is repeated 23 times; exactly two months later, a column repeats the word "mall" 23 times. Of the 32 columns containing the word "brave," each uses "brave" exactly three times, except for the November 13, 1991, column, "The U.S. Shrinks to the Size of a Mall," which uses it five times.
     The clock moves toward midnight. The year 1996 stretches ahead of us, filled with promise and mystery. Only two things are certain: Bob will continue to boldly explore the bedpan ocean of his soul. And the Tribune is going to make a fortune on-line.
     —Originally published in the Reader, Dec. 21, 1995

27 comments:

  1. I knew there was a reason I avoided reading Greene's column.
    As you calculated all the repetition of Greene's work, it reminded me of Dave Laurila's "Sunday Notes" column on Fangraphs.com. Laurila ends his weekly effort with "Random Facts and Stats" where he uncovers statistical aberrations.
    He's different from most of the Fangraphs contributors because his essays aren't all dry numerical analysis. He actually tries to figure out what baseball players think and feel.
    I know there's no shortage of stuff to read on line, but he's worth checking out.

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  2. I grew up reading Mike Royko and eventually bob green became part of my regular routine along with the various sports writers and Ann Landers. As a kid I worked the back of a daily news truck stuffing papers and shared a paper stand at the Dominick's on North past Harlem . I read all three? four? papers nearly every day. anyway grown women seemed to be fans of bobs. you'd hear them talking about his work. this puzzled me so i'd try him again after a while, I never did understand the appeal. especially the bag boy stuff. I bought the sun times yesterday just to avoid the online disaster the "paper" remains and there just isn't much to it. sadly

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    1. In our defense, Tuesday has always been a thin day.

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    2. I've been a Sun-Times subscriber through thick and thin, for longer than I can remember. I don't read the Trib but I don't wish them ill luck either. It's akin to being a Chicago baseball fan. You either back the Cubs or you back the Sox. The other side of town is tolerated but you stay the hell out their ballpark. So, who's this Bob Greene guy?

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    3. Did Bob Greene also write for Stars and Stripes? If so, it figures: most of that was souped up faux patriotic drivel. And the stuff about Vietnam written in the 60s and 70s saw Vietnamese customs like Captain Cook among the cannibals.

      john

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  3. My mom read Bob's column in the 80s, but if the first line was "An envelope has been delivered to this office" she would skip it.

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  4. Odd. My mother enjoyed reading Greene as well. I recall the forced sentimentality oozing from each line in his columns. As a bald guy, what I found most offensive was the horrible wig. We all lose a little dignity when something that looks like road kill is on someone's head.

    The SunTimes continue to feature fantastic writers and columnists (not that you'd know it from that awful online fiasco). The Tribune has had Greene and now Kass in featured spots in one of the most prominent papers in the country. How does this happen? Kass is an embarrassment, a horror of muddled thinking, ideology, junior high level sentence construction, an inability to communicate a cogent thought from start to finish. Jeez. Arrogance and certainties combined with obliviousness and wrapped up in a bow of incompetence. Kind of like the GOP.

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    1. Them dumb Republicans sure are good at politics and are kicking our asses from pillar to post in every branch and level of public office. Maybe being smart in your own mind ain't all that's required to get hold of the reins and get to choose the course

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    2. At the moment, FME. A couple years ago Last Rites were being delivered. And once America sees just what course they're choosing, that grave might be useful yet. It was a narrow victory, presidentially, and if the nation doesn't snap to attention at this point and push away the GOP agenda with both hands, then we'll deserve whatever we get.

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    3. They figured out how to gain control of the US House of Representatives and the Senate during the reading of those last rites. They kept President Obama from being able to get his nominee for the Supreme Court approved for months. They figured out how to get their nominee elected even though he wasn't the one they would choose even though he lost the popular vote. They've got the gerrymandering thing totally down and it's going to be impossible to rest control of these districts from them anytime in the near future. While these people may be stupid. It seems as though they're probably not. And if the best we have is bashing them without any solutions and saying well they didn't win by much. We're in trouble going forward. Yes they're not the majority but as a relatively small minority they figured out how to gain and hold power. Who on the Progressive side is going to come up with a plan that's going to be successful combating this Bernie? A Hillary redo? It just makes me want to vomit. There was a protest against this tax bill downtown Chicago the last warm night less than 300 people showed up. So not only do they have power and it looks like they're going to keep it they figured out how to make people indifferent or feel as though they have no way of objecting effectively with this fake news BS. And all the double speak.

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    4. I can't recall her name offhand, but there is a fairly well-known commentator on the political scene who appears on the panels I've watched on TV, and something she said stuck with me, since I agree with her. Which is, the Republican party does not seem to care nearly as much about how they come across to the public as do the Democratic party. The Republicans are blatant and unapologetic about their causes, playing dirty and flaunting it. This enables them to get more of what they push for, come hell or high water. It seems to be working IMO.

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  5. I wonder whether the closing certainty actually came to pass? Did the Trib make a fortune online that year? I had just moved to California in 1995, and remember reading the Sun-Times online because it was free and it was actually on the Web, whereas the Tribune was still figuring out whether it was going to be part behind the AOL curtain, part on the Web, all-AOL, etc.

    "A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion." Awesome summary of the madness, and I guess I need to look back with dismay at my younger self choosing sides rather than seeing the bigger picture.

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  6. Oddly, I watched "Mindhunters" on Netflix last night, and one of the characters mentioned a reporter named Bob Greene nabbing an interview with Richard Speck in prison... one and the same?

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  7. As a aficionado of pseudonyms, snark and journalistic accountability, it would be tough to overstate my appreciation of Ed Gold's work on this matter.

    -- MrJM

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    1. You're not just an aficionado, you're a wonderful practitioner, MrJM. I'm not "on" Twitter, myself, but like to check out about ten accounts of favorite folks from time to time. Knowing nothing about you that I didn't read there or on Zorn's old blog, you're the only "regular person" I seek out and I don't understand why you don't have tens of thousands of followers. Just wanted to give you a shout-out, though this is certainly not a very appropriate place to do it...

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  8. Usually, if a writer is objectionable, I tell people (and myself) just to avoid him or her. But that was next to impossible in Greene's case. Every day, there his column would be, eating up what seemed to be half the front page of what was then called the Tempo section, his smirk and ridiculous toupee topping the umpteenth column on "the child we are calling Baby Richard."

    It's perhaps worth noting that Greene got fired, not only for having sex with a high-school girl, but for trying to get her accused as a blackmailer when she contacted him years later to remonstrate with him. A complete lack of character.

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  9. "Bobwatch" was a treasure and this numerical analysis was and is such a satisfying way to get a feel for Bob Greene's shtick without having to actually read his columns. Of course the motto always was "We read him so you don't have to," if I'm not mistaken!

    "In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words 'hairpiece,' 'smarmy,' or 'too many vodka gimlets.'" LOL, as they say...

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  10. Interesting comments about the self-congratulatory mindset of Lipinski, and a gem of a column from 1995, one I hadn't seen before. The behavior of Greene was reprehensible. I confess to have gotten somewhat caught up in the Baby Richard drama, being a sympathetic and somewhat naive reader at the time, but I did shake my head at the constant repetition of these columns.

    I've always preferred the Sun-Times over the Tribune; we subscribe to both papers, but many times the Tribune goes unread, though I find quality in the writing of Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, Steve Chapman and Rex Huppke.
    SandyK

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    1. Oops, I should say "a gem of an article from the Reader in 1995".

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    2. I understand the long-standing animus toward the Colonel's right-wing Tribune, and they *really* shamed themselves by endorsing freaking Gary Johnson last year. tronc, the "pivot to video," and Jack Kass are ridiculous to me. But to pretend that the Trib is simply a conservative rag these days is disingenuous, IMHO. In addition to the folks mentioned by Sandy, there are a number of other fine writers and reviewers, and some good investigative work is being done. In this media landscape, I'm glad that we still have 2 newspapers in this town (a rarity, these days) and I see no benefit to categorically dissing *either* of them. So kudos to you for subscribing to both!

      Prompted by a tweet from Neil on Sunday, I picked up a copy of the Sunday Sun-Times at Walgreens that night. (Illinois 200 edition.) I was afraid they'd be sold out, but there were a half-dozen copies to choose from (at 9:30) -- and they don't stock all that many to begin with. It didn't make me hopeful about the prospects for either paper.

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    3. Sandy, I could have written your comment practically verbatim. At the risk of provoking scorn, I will add that I think Bob Greene could produce some good writing, but he sure did go to the same wells way too often. And, like drench's mother, I automatically skipped the Bagtime (ugh) columns.

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  11. Jakash: Did Walgreen's charge you $3 for the paper? At 6 in the morning, I had only $2 with me and 711 wouldn't sell me the paper for that. Later I went to the gas station where I usually buy the paper and the guy tried to give me the extra dollar back -- he didn't know the price had gone up.

    john

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    1. Yeah, John, it was $3. I actually said to the cashier that I thought they'd be sold out by then, to which he replied: "Not for 3 dollars." I thought maybe it was just because of the special "Illinois 200" insert...

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  12. "...it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass."

    Oh man, what a good line.

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  13. I read a book of his collected columns many, many years ago when I was an impressionable high schooler. Even then, I found his work irritating self-referential. No matter he was writing about, it was all about him. It was when he got so some drivel about earning his HS tennis letter jacket (called something like "the white fluffy") that he TOTALLY lost my respect. I was embarrassed for him, since he apparently lacked the ability to be embarrassed for himself.

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  14. Lol. Bob Greene made a pass at me at a bookstore 30 years ago. It was soooo creepy because 1) I knew who he was and that he was married 2) he touched my hair when he was trying to pick me up. Yuck!

    I told all my friends about it at the time and "Bob Greene" was the answer to a game played at my bridal shower a few years later.

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