Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Murderers' Row



     It is good to have many news sources, and many voices commenting within those sources. Because while news is infinite, the attention span of readers is not. Someone needs to frame the most relevant parts of everything that's going on, trimming the fat and serving the meat. Deciding what to keep in, what to leave out.
     For instance. On Monday my esteemed former colleague and current friend Robert Feder wrote one of his typically thoughtful and comprehensive items about the Tribune cashiering a columnist in the wake of his latest aping of Fox News fever fantasy. He'll now be kept isolated, for his own good and ours, in some sort of opinion pen that the Tribune is erecting for its columnists at the back of the paper.
     Feder quotes Tribune editor-in-chief Colin McMahon, saying, in essence, that Trib readers are too dim-witted to differentiate between news and opinion.
     “The Tribune, like a lot of news media, doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the difference between news coverage and opinion writing" he told Feder. "That is something we’ve been working to address."
     I bet they have. But I don't know how opinion could be any more clearly marked. You'd think the mug shots would be a giveaway. Yes, certain readers can't wrap their heads around the difference between stories, columns and editorials, just as some readers can't differentiate between real life and what they were told last night by Sean Hannity. But gearing your publication for America's Confused Third is a race to the bottom that Fox has already won. They've cornered that market. For a newspaper, that's like deciding to aim your news at readers who can't read, using a felt board and brightly-colored circles, squares and triangles representing the news of the day. Open can, heat soup.
     Feder's emphasis on the supposed big dog having his face held in his mess starts with the headline: "Tribune moving John Kass column ‘to maintain credibility of news coverage’ 

    But in doing so, Feder downplays the really important part. As a Tribune subscriber, the fate of this particular columnist means nothing to me. Years go by without my ever feeling a tickle of an inclination to read a Kass column. I hurry on, grateful for that run-the-guy's-photo warning system whose significance apparently eludes many.
     Though not always. Over the weekend, hearing the cry of agony reverberating from Twitter, I approached the controversial column, haltingly, the way you would reach into a dark space to see if there were snakes. It was ... I can't say for certain; I was squinting and skimming toward the end, as one does with him. He seems to be agitated by the supposed connection of Jewish financier George Soros with Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, as best I could tell before my eyes completely glazed over.
     It was almost peaceful. A kind of drown reflex.  I wasn't distressed. Just the opposite; I admired his restraint. He managed to leave out the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that couldn't have been easy for him—and there was no caricature of a fanged, hook-nosed Jew sprouting octopus tentacles straddling globe that usually goes along with this kind of stuff. Maybe the Tribune graphics desk spiked that. It is a team effort.
     I don't see what the fuss is about. This is what these revanchist loons do, make these crazy juxtapositions. When Rush Limbaugh went after me for suggesting assault rifles are dangerous, I recall that Kim Kardashian was somehow involved in his analysis. That's why this stuff is ultimately so ignorable. It isn't shocking. It can't be, because it's all the same. It's so dumb it's dull.
    No, the part in Feder's report that stood out to me as most significant, though lost in all the hoo-haw over the Trib's waxwork Royko 
manqué melting down, is that the Trib's puppeteer, Alden Capital, is pushing all columnists back in the paper, into some kind of columnist's pasture. It isn't that John Kass was bad now the whole class has to stay after school. This was, as Feder does mention, in the works for months. John Kass channeling Der Stürmer is merely the pretext to set the plan in motion. 
    That's very dire, this separation of columnists, maybe because it resonates with their past efforts at other papers. The Alden thinking goes: why are we paying six figures for these employees to dole out scoops from their wordhoard, when the communication directors of the National Federation  of Community Councils Institute will write weekly columns for free? Are those not also agglutinations of verbiage we can present to the mindless eyeballs we consider our audience? If they're too dumb to distinguish a column from a news story, it won't matter if we give them work of a columnist, or thinly-disguised, self-serving PR pap from some paid-by-somebody-else mouthpiece? To me, the forced removal of opinion writers from their homes throughout the paper, and trucking them to a walled-off neighborhood is the first step toward their elimination. 
     That's a shame, because the only reason to read the Tribune is for their non-Kass columnists: Eric Zorn, easily the best news columnist in Chicago; his Pulitzer-Prize winning musical pal, Mary Schmich; the venerable, all-seeing-eye of Rick Kogan; the sharp and funny Rex Huppke; incisive Steve Chapman; knowledgable and passionate Blair Kamin—I could go on, but I wouldn't want any Alden beancounters to see this, clack their long fingernails together and think, "That's sooooo many mouths to feed!" Alden adheres to what I call the Bean Soup Theory of Journalism. You're handing over the bowls with one hand, collecting the cash with the other, and you look down into a bowl and muse, "My, that's a lot of beans. I could pluck a few out and it would still be bean soup." Eventually, you get down to three beans and nobody wants to pay money for it anymore. Because readers want a hearty soup. They deserve it.
     We had that sort of boss at the Sun-Times a couple decades ago. And now that I think of it, the columnists were all herded toward the back of the bus then too, for a while. But that changed. One of the glories of working at a newspaper and not being A Big Deal is you get to stick around, head down, under the radar, unnoticed in the shadows, and outlive all the folly playing out at the top. Pod systems are rolled out, complex flow charts, trendy fashions indulged, spanking new ideas bruited by gleaming new editors during their brief transits across the sky. Their big plans crash soundlessly somewhere distant, a puff on the horizon, the new programs are forgotten, and we plebes race back to the joyful grind of putting out a newspaper for another day.
     Okay, I've nattered on enough. Time to wind this up. I've delivered my criticism, I should mention, there was a very true note worth highlighting in what Feder wrote:
     "Besides, as insiders pointed out, the days of the 'lead columnist' ended at most major newspapers years ago. Now it’s about a range of voices."
      I could quibble with the "now" in that last sentence. Ever since I joined the paper, 33 years ago, the Sun-Times has always been a range of voices. The lead columnist is whoever is worth the front page, or page two, that day. Sometimes it's me, usually it's not, and that's the way I like it. There's a strain in being up front, and given the kind of look-a-squirrel triviality I revel in—"Where's my Fresca?"—I'm grateful there are usually half a dozen folks coping with the significant stuff. 
    I always view the columnists at the Sun-Times—and God, this is a little embarrassing to admit, but heck, that never stopped me before—as being like the Murderers' Row lineup of the 1927 Yankees, like those old baseball cards with a group of one team's sluggers sighting down their bats, showing off their power. Maybe because writing a column is in fact such a solitary job—your thoughts, your words, your face, your responsibility—I fancy myself as part of a line-up. One person can't win a game or put out a newspaper. You need batter after batter to come up and swing. Everyone on the team has to play their best, because the stars sometimes strike out. And the bench warmer sometimes gets a clutch hit. 
    You have no idea. To be kneeling on deck, and look back at the dugout and see Mark Brown and Mary Mitchell, Rick Telander and Richard Roeper, Lee Bey, Maureen O'Donnell, Rick Morrisey, Dave Roeder, Maudlyne Ihejerika, Stefano Esposito, Laura Washington, Marlen Garcia, Phil Kadner and S.E. Cupp—there's more but you get the idea—to see them laughing and spitting and chugging Gatorade, waiting their turn at the plate. To be on that team in Chicago, that's a wonderful feeling, one that will never show up in Alden Capital's ledger books.  






24 comments:

  1. I always attempt to read Kass's columns, but most of them are incoherent messes. He also has written some outright lies over the years, which probably means that he has some sort of contract where the Trib's editors can't change his columns.
    Then there's his truly asinine moutza column every month. I wonder if he'll have the balls to give himself the moutza for his using that anti-Semitic trope about Soros.

    What was interesting about Feder's column about this were all the comments from people who claimed they didn't know Soros was Jewish. Since Soros's name constantly comes up from right wingers claiming he's behind every protest movement on the planet, I'm guessing that those commenters are lying.

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  2. I never found a "KassWatch" column that would read John Kass for me so I wouldn't have to. Consequently, I'd have to give his columns a passing glance myself. Upon spotting Soros's name in that one, it was like hearing the screech of tires, and I had to look to see the crash. Man. I couldn't tell if he believed what he was writing, or if he was merely trying to do a localized, dressed-up version the standard drivel. Either way, here's hoping this is the beginning of the end for his columns.

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    1. I was just thinking this the other day - the brilliance of Bob Greene watch. Someone (Mr. Steinberg...) needs to seriously consider this.

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    2. People mention this from time to time. But Bob was deeply weird in a strange and compelling way. You would read his 100 columns about Baby Richard in a kind of thrall. Kass is in that slough of badness that isn't good enough to be interesting on its merits, or bad enough to be fascinating as a kind of performance art, the way Bob was.

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    3. Yes, Bob was unique. And thank God for that.

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  3. I hope skipping John Fountain was just a mere oversight. One of my favorites, especially when he writes about K-Town.

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  4. Love the slugger analogy. To take it a notch further, I have to say that Neil carries a big 40 ounce bat himself, swings from both sides of the plate, will bunt when needed, cannily takes the extra base when the opportunity arises, and in an emergency might even pitch an inning or two, mixing medium-speed fast balls with a screwball or high arcing change of pace. A mighty member of a World Series Worthy Sun-Times crew.

    john

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  5. Kass is the kind of guy who thinks you're the racist for not laughing at his Obama Chia Pet Head jokes. It may be obscene what Alden is doing to the Trib's columnists, but at least Kass won't be profaning the spot made sacred by Mike Royko.

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  6. Really enjoyed today's column I love this inside baseball kind of stuff about the newspaper industry. Though it has faded from past glories it is an enormously important part of our Democratic process. Thanks for the insight. at the risk of being tossed behind the filter once again I would just like to ask a question. I've only read Mister kass on the rarest of occasions and not in a long time. Does he have a history of anti-semitism in his writing? And if you could suggest some source to best understand what denotes anti semitic writing . I understand the overarching concept I'm just confused about the particulars. I realize that you are Jewish and I know many people who are. There just seems to be a wide range of what people considered to be anti-semitic behavior on the part of people who criticize and include the ethno religious persuasion of their target. Is it possible to criticize a Jewish person without being anti-Semitic? Escaping stereotypes completely and overcoming inherent bias is incredibly difficult. How do we criticize people in proper and correct ways without casting a net that captures these negative, injurious tropes? as you have mentioned numerous times there is much that I don't understand. Just looking for a little help here.

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  7. "Is it possible to criticize a Jewish person without being anti-Semitic?" kind of tips your hand, FME. Is it a sincere question? The crux of Kass' argument, to the degree he has one, is that Jewish money underwrites the effort in the United States to be more lenient to prisoners. Must I diagram that? Jews are 1 percent of the population, maybe. They do succeed in numbers beyond that 1 percent, but it's still dwarfed by the greater society. So if I say, Jews control Hollywood because Natalie Portman, I'm being anti-Semitic. Does this help?

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    1. Neil,this might be the perfect time to break out the Louis Armstrong quote re: explaining Jazz, though FME may not understand

      Robert Y.

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  8. I cancelled my Tribune subscription long ago, when their editorial page included Ted Nugent’s argument that Jesus loves guns. I know that that idiocy is easy to find on the internet, but hell if I was going to allow it in my front door.
    Kass is less dangerous, I think, because he’s so hard to read. He might be saying something stupid but I can’t make it through a whole column to really tell. I’ve wondered if he gets paid by the word.

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  9. nice takedown of kass, with the shiv sliding in at just the right angle. i do think though, that you're a bit too over enamored of the tribs' columnists-the only ones i find consistently thoughtful are chapman and the drama critic jones. huppke's ok, but recently, i sense that he'd be a bit better if he'd indulge in a little self editing. like your forays into the more obscure subjects btw.

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  10. Yes. A sincere question. Your suspicion is understandable but is part of the basis of my question. How does one suggest or allege impropriety on the part of mr. Soros without his heritage being drawn in and used much like the "race card"? When is it possible to speak of a person as simply a person and not be accused of attacking them because of identity politics?

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    1. By doing just that. What exactly is Mr. Soros' crime? Maybe you can explain it. Focusing on George Soros is like singling out Israel as the one country in the world that shouldn't exist because of its unique crimes, then pretending that your rightly being called out as an anti-Semite means that Israel can't be criticized, which it can. But why am I doing this? There's a terrible passivity to people who won't recognize their own bigotry, FME, that's why I'm always trying to discourage you. It's a time waste, and tiresome. As the great Louis Armstrong did not actually say, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

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    2. Thank you for the relatively civil discourse on a very frought subject. I will be the first to acknowledge that I have ignorance, inherent bias and predjudices. Those who cannot admit to that are the ones to watch out for. Working to become more fair-minded and understand the point of view of others is an effort especially in a public forum. Thank you for your patience.

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  11. In the summer of '98, just after Frank Sinatra died, HBO ran a made-for-cable film about the Rat Pack. Ray Liotta was Frank, Joe Mantegna was Dean, and Don Cheadle played Semmy Davis Jr. Cheadle danced in front of a huge neon sign spelling out just one word...the N-word...in a dream sequence. I think he may have won an award for that scene. It's the only thing I really remember about that production...how could you not?

    And that's how I feel whenever the online haters and wingnuts trot out the billboard with the S-word. When those bastards slap down the Soros card, they're playing the "Jew-hater" card, and I usually wade in, with both feet, and try to stomp them senseless. Once they start yammering about Soros, I know exactly what they're up to, and where they're coming from...the depths of anti-Semitic hell.

    I was still living in Chicago in the Eighties and early Nineties. I read the Trib every day. And I guess I either ignored Kass, or never read him at all. Can't remember a damn thing he wrote during that whole decade. Enough said.

    As for Bob Greene, I've already commented at EGD about his doofusness. It still amazes me that his newspoaper career lasted a third of a century, and that he wrote all those books. Amazing output and longevity, from such a Johnny One-Note. What the hell, I can be charitable--so make it two or three--or even four notes. But certainly no more.

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  12. George Soros isn't even part of "the New York elite."

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  13. The less said about Jack Kass, the better. For one thing, his name is way too similar to my pseudonym...

    While this is a very interesting piece, I'm compelled to comment upon one sentence. "That's a shame, because the only reason to read the Tribune is for their non-Kass columnists..." IMHO, that's pointlessly mean. While praising the columnists, you didn't need to dump on the rest of the journalists at the Trib. I expect that from Joe Blow in Streamwood -- "Both these papers are rags -- the hell with them!" It's not a good look.

    More significantly, it's flatly untrue. We need all the reporting in Chicago we can get these days, and the folks at both papers do good work. I realize that the Tribune has been your competitor for decades -- but you're all in tiny boats in rough seas these days. Denigrating the other team isn't gonna get any more Yahoos to buy a Sun-Times.

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  14. I got suckered into Greene’s Baby Richard saga for a time, until I realized I was reading the exact same phrase — “...was removed from the only home he had ever known...” — in every column.
    My only guess as to his longevity is that his readers got lazy and allowed themselves to check their expectations of any meaningful writing at the page.

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    1. I've long believed that Greene decided when he switched to the Trib that he would drop that whole "voice of a generation" vibe he had at the Sun-Times and pander to the Trib readership that he saw as white, suburban and older. I'm sure that there were some at the Trib who were shocked, but they may've seen it as a way of keeping readers after Murdoch took over the Sun-Times.

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  15. I agree with 95% of what you wrote. Kass has always been a hack. But folks like Peter Nickeas and a few others are why I'm happy to pay for the Trib as well as the Sun Times. Ted Slowik is great in the Southtown. Where my guy Phil Kadner came from. There is good stuff in every decent newspaper. It just isn't Kass.

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