Sunday, January 24, 2021

In defense of John Kass



     Back in my Medill days, professors would sometimes pose a trick question: What is the main purpose of a newspaper?
     Apple polishers and future do-gooders would wave their arms, eager to rhapsodize about reporting the news and speaking truth to power, penning the first draft of history, blah blah blah. We worldlier sorts would let them embarrass themselves for a while, then float our hands up.
    "To make money and stay in business," one of us would drawl, with a half smirk, knowing even before we were told that this is the only correct answer. Because a paper that has gone out of business can't do anything good, bad or indifferent. The Chicago Daily News was a fantastic newspaper, the best in the city, right up until March 4, 1978. Then it was nothing but a painful memory.
     One way newspapers try to avoid this fate is by casting a very wide net. A newspaper is a universe, or should be. Like Walt Whitman, they contain multitudes. There isn't a section titled, "Airy nonsense for dupes"—we call it the horoscope, and the Sun-Times ran two last time I checked because apparently one just isn't enough. We run three pages of mostly undistinguished comics. Why? When I once asked why we didn't dial the comics back to make room for actual journalism, the features editor shot me a withering look that said, "Because readers would show up here carrying gas cans and solemnly set themselves on fire in front of the paper, that's why." Half of the people who tell me they read the Sun-Times only for my column add, "...and Sudoku." Which is fine. You can read the Sun-Times for me and the tide tables. Or just for the legal notices. All good, so long as you read.
     That is why John Greenfield's Jan. 11 piece in the Chicago Reader, "John Kass washing his hands of responsibility for last week's riot was a bridge too far" demanding that the Tribune columnist be fired for his supposed role fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks evoked an unfamiliar emotion, one that I have never felt nor could have imagined it possible to feel: a need to defend John Kass.
    Not the material, God knows. I concede that Kass's writing is that of a monotonic right-wing troll, with all the hysterical self-pitying whine that pervaded our nation like stink in a bus station bathroom for the past four years. At least to my recollection. It's been a while since I've actually read him. So maybe he got better. I try to extend the benefit of the doubt, even to those of whom I disapprove, which is one of the many differences between us. (For instance, I've had colleagues tell me that he is a nice guy, in person, and I have no reason to doubt them. Though, if true, that only deepens the mystery of how avuncular right wingers can smile and nod at passersby while neck deep in a sewer of hateful ideology). But when I did read him, or try to, he was reliably repetitive, dull, tone deaf, mean-spirited and shrill. And that most fatal flaw, incurious. Remember that John Kass column where he eagerly explores some unusual topic just because it is fascinating? Yeah, me neither. For a while, I would test myself by reading the first three paragraphs of his column and then stopping, just to see if I had any problem bailing out at that point. I never did. Then I gave up doing even that. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.
     Which is okay, because he isn't for me. Part of the trick of not being John Kass or writers like him is to realize that not everything is supposed to be for you. There are other people in the world who believe other things. They have a right to exist and passionately believe all sorts of ludicrous nonsense. They get to read stuff they like too.  
     From time to time readers would challenge me, since I had written "BobWatch" in the Reader for two years in the mid-1990s, to reprise the column with Kass as my material. I'd patiently explain that doing so would be physically impossible. Bob Greene was deeply weird in a captivating way—you almost had to read his column, excuse me, skein of related columns, celebrating scab baseball players or mourning the passing of soda fountains or keening over Baby Richard, whatever fragile hobbyhorse he had firmly mounted between his monstrous thighs and was now riding into splinters. Bob Greene was like a patient in an Oliver Sacks book, damaged in a creepy, fascinating way. Sure, you might read through latticed fingers, pausing to choke back a half ounce of hot vomit, or turn to an imaginary audience to say "can you believe this shit?" which is actually how BobWatch started.
     But Kass? I'd have great difficulty reading an entire column. Not if you paid me $1 a word. Not if you put a gun to my head and cocked the hammer back and told me I had to get to the end and summarize it or you'd pull the trigger and splatter my brains against a white wall. I mean, I would try, particularly for that buck a word. And maybe, probably, I could do it, but it would take intense concentration, fingers raking my cheeks, eyes whirling to track the pale little moths of thought as they slide off the page and flap silently away, casting strange shadows, circling around me like butterflies around Alice's head. 
     Like Greene, Kass could write at one point. To read his sharp 1996 profile of Richard Daley, with its priceless opening vignette of Daley running home to his mommy with a fever, is to mourn the ruin that can come bundled with a column. I distinctly remember his first one, a riveting. two-parter about a Chicago public school teacher being beaten with a metal bar. Then, as often happens, success and ego and laziness got to him, and soon he was doing a bad parody of Mike Royko, haunting the Billy Goat, sharing recipes for beer can chicken, coining fake insidery lingo and adopting a bully's swagger he passes off as a style. A colleague summed him up far more succinctly than I'm doing here with: "He sees people who aren't there," adding a few lines about how Kass can drive down an empty block and see wise guys in loud plaid jackets picking their teeth under street lamps while grannies in babushkas kneel in front of their bungalows, scrubbing the front stoops with Comet.
     I suppose that's imagination of a sort.
     But after enough years of that passed Kass, like Greene, became a mere parody of himself, as the sentient wandered off, fanning the air. By now he has to be the least consequential columnist on the Tribune's roster, in all of Chicago, if not the world, if not in the history of the world. Nobody I know has ever said, "Did you read John Kass today?" Though, again to be fair, this must be due to my being in a self-selective group. I don't hang out with people who read John Kass. They certainly exist. I'm sure when his column is published on, er, whenever it runs, a cheer goes up in Mount Greenwood. 
     Here's where John Greenfield goes astray. I don't know Greenfield, but I imagine he's not down at Dugans holding up the bar with the guys from Second City Cop, shaking his head about how fuckin' Obama was given every break in the world by the pansy liberal press while poor old Donald Trump never was given a chance. Hated because he was so good and decent and American. Those who see the world as a vast conspiracy of the semitic and the pigmented arrayed against them, and Kass as a brave cry in the wilderness giving voice to their deep existential pain at hearing Spanish spoken by a kid running the fryer at McDonald's.
     In our world, Kass, like Louis Farrakhan, never comes on the radar unless there are hoots of outrage over his occasional lurches into anti-Semitism. But that doesn't make him responsible, just one tiny piping voice in the great Right Wing chorus harmonizing fear of globalism and religions not their own. He's in the back, warbling, he isn't conducting the choir. It's not his fault. Heck, I wouldn't blame Kass for a fist-fight between neighbors over chairs set out in dibs in Gage Park, never mind large-scale mob action in Washington. There isn't a justification for Greenfield's claim that "it's time for Tribune leadership to get rid of Kass's column for good." 
     First, the request is naive. I don't have many rules for myself as a columnist, but one is: never advocate the impossible. One thing Bob Greene taught us is the Tribune never gets rid of anybody over issues of quality. Once in the club, always in the club, no matter how stunted or sporadic their work has become. I can't tell you how many Tribune writers I've met over the years where I had to swallow the reply, "Good to see you; I thought you were dead." Bruce Dold wasn't in the business of cashiering mediocrities; he would have had to start with himself. Granted, that will change under Alden Capital, and this whole conversation might be like debating whether a man who is condemned to hang next week should be shot today instead. I used to feel competitive with the Tribune. Now I just feel sorry for them. They used to have office aeries with semi-circular windows looking out of the Gothic horror show of Tribune Tower at Michigan Avenue, far below. Now they're going to be tucked behind the presses at the giant windowless bulk of Freedom Center. I assume they got rid of the chap in livery handing out warm towels in the executive washroom long ago.
     Second, until Alden pulls the plug and runs the whole place off an algorithm and four workers in Kashmir, Kass will have a valid function. To be the blithering nincompoop that Greenfield decries. That's his job. Half of the Tribune readership laps up that kind of garbage. Why not keep them happy? The Sun-Times used to run Dennis Byrne, who though not quite as sphincterific as Kass, still wrote a column that was similarly a head-shaking mystery to those of us not locked in the grip of right-wing batshittery, I never thought the man should be drummed out because of it. Just the opposite. I was glad he was there. He gave me cover. Whenever someone would accuse the paper of being merely a liberal rag, I could murmur, "But we run Dennis Byrne. Read him instead of me."
     Remember, nobody forces you to read any particular columnist. That's what the photos are for. As a subtle hint of what you'll be getting below. Which, to be honest, still flies past many readers, who will write in to inform me, "A-HA, I'm onto you, Steinberg. You are in the LIBERAL camp!!!" Figured that out, huh? All by yourself! Thank you for writing.
     So maybe that's just me, with the superpower to nimbly jeté over the John Kasses of the world, and hoo-boy, there are a lot of them. I have never watched a moment of Sean Hannity. Why would I do that? You have to keep the poison out, and if I seem irked, it's because the Reader made me think more about John Kass over the past hour than I have in the previous decade. I hope none of this is seen as an indictment of John Greenfield, who has been around the block himself, often on a bicycle, and is editor of Streetsblog. He seems a solid guy, this an understandable lapse and I am not criticizing him for it, personally. Think of it more brotherly advice. I'm only telling him what I would tell a friend who left the dead mouse of a John Kass column on my pillow, as sometimes happens: don't be a vector, don't be the dim cat sharing your limp prize. If you didn't bring Kass up, I'd never think of him at all, and isn't that a happy place to be? Even as a Tribune subscriber. I can look at a page he is on and his column doesn't even register. My eyes dance over him without perceiving one word, the way you step over a turd on the sidewalk without needing to study its topography. I don't even realize he's there. Originally, I grabbed his headshot to illustrate this page, but I had to remove it, because otherwise my eyes couldn't focus on the words underneath. 
      Yes, it galls that the Tribune would keep Kass while showing the gate to such luminaries as architecture critic Blair Kamin, arts maven Howard Reich, and restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel. It is what I used to call, in the years that David Radler ran the Sun-Times, the Bean Soup Theory of Journalism, where occasionally you look into the bowls of soup you're selling and think, "You know ... I could pluck out a few beans, and it would still be bean soup." Until you find yourself with a bowl of broth and three beans.
     I'm glad that the Sun-Times seems on the way to becoming the preeminent newspaper in Chicago, but sad it had to happen this way. This is like winning a 100-yard dash then, as you cross the finish line, turning to see your opponent 30 yards back, writhing in the cinders, clutching his calf. It's good to win. But not like that.
     So if keeping Kass means that Eric Zorn will have a job a little longer, I am all for that. Remember, Fox News didn't turn rural America into gobsmacked haters who will buy any lies provided they're idiotic enough. Rather, Fox found them that way, and printed money by parroting their stunted biases back at them. The right wing media is like those vibrating mattresses once found at seedy motels. The Magic Fingers don't give you a bad back, and they don't make it better. They just provide the illusion of soothing your damage while charging you a quarter a minute. John Kass didn't lead that mob, he followed it. They're all followers, sheep beseechingly bleating for a shepherd, cattle in a chute. That's the problem.    
      Okay, you get the point. No mas. I do prattle on, and I apologize for that. One of the central if unspoken tenets in journalism is, "You have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it." You have to empty the bucket within reach of the readers.  So if the swine snuffling around the Trib are hungering for a big trough full of John Kass's musings then, soo-EEE, come and get it. If Fox News can keep Sean Hannity on the payroll, a truly evil man, a traitor and genuine abetter of terrorists who should probably be on trial in the Hague, then the Tribune should have no worry about its moaning Hannity homunculus, its wan Tucker Carlson wannabe, who does no harm to anybody but himself, and probably fattens the Tribune's thinning bottom line while he's at it.
     So I throw my full and enthusiastic support behind John Kass, for all it's worth. Besides, when I have doubts about myself as a columnist, as often happens, all I need do is think of Kass, his brow uncreased by doubt of any kind, and suddenly I find serenity and pride, confidence and satisfaction. I might not be much, but I sure ain't that. So for selfish reasons alone, I hope that the Tribune ignores calls for his firing, and keeps the man for as long as Chicago can stomach him.

37 comments:

  1. When I wished for more acid, you delivered by the truckload today. Brilliant! “My eyes dance over him without perceiving one word, the way you step over a turd on the sidewalk without needing to study its topography.” Devastating. “..right wing batshittery” hilarious. Others may be slipping but you are on top of your game, Mr Steinberg.

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  2. Wow. What a fascinating way to start the morning. A learning experience as well. Even though I've been in the electronic information/entertainment business all my adult life, I've always been a huge fan of newspapers. In our home we have framed originals of papers dating back to The Honolulu Star Bulletin from December 7th, 1941 headlining the attack on Pearl Harbor, to that wonderful Sun-Times "At Last" issue in 2008 with Dr. King and President Obama photos featured on both covers. This was a long read and worth every line.

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  3. What I remember most about Bob Greene is that half of every column was a recap of previous pieces, like his set up of Bagtime. Like a Kass column it caused some readers to move on to more interesting fare before reaching the bottom of the page. Is Kass actually tiny? I assumed from his lumpy face that his physical size was considerable.

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    1. Exactly! He had tropes, like Homer's "wine-dark sea." "The only family he had ever known" and such. I don't remember, it's been so long since I saw them man. It's the thoughts that are tiny.

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    2. As someone who took journalism classes with him at Columbia College way back when... yes. Kinda tiny. And looked old even then.

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  4. "an unfamiliar emotion, one that I have never felt nor could have imagined it were possible to feel: a need to defend John Kass."

    What follows that quote is one remarkable "defense". I hope you never feel a need to defend me. :)

    Brilliant piece of work. It is worth mentioning what you implied, but never actually said. Forget his bad thinking. Kass is the most comically bad writer ever to get a major writing gig in the country. Absurdly poor writing on every level. He wrote a column when he covered the Olympic Games that was the single worst piece of professional writing I've ever read. It was like he couldn't take the trouble to organize his thoughts to put pen to paper so he took refrigerator magnets and threw them at a piece of metal, then notated the results.

    Thanks for a great morning laugh.

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  5. Defending Kass. Ha ha ha. Look who's racist now.

    Seriously, get in the truck to the Mike Bilandic Reeducation Center #5.

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  6. my god, what a glorious insult. made my morning.

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  7. I love that you use babushka correctly; that was my Busia on her concrete porch at 103rd and Torrence and my Grandma Marie on 97th.

    This is a captivating piece about someone I knew nothing about. My favorite line is this hilarious thought: "Originally, I grabbed his headshot to illustrate this page, but I had to remove it, because otherwise I couldn't look at the words under it." You paint such colorful pictures.

    I did take pause at the comments about Bob Greene since I remember him from the mind of an adolescent. For some reason Greene, Abby & Ann, Erma Bombeck and the Cathy cartoon all run together as daily doses I could rely on in a confusing world. Jeff Zaslow too. Makes me realize how much the Sun Times and Tribune (and now the Times and the Times) are woven into the fabric of my being.

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  8. To put it mildly, I'm not a John Kass "groupie." However, I recently did something I never expected to do on Facebook. I shared a John Kass column on the issue of whether Patrick Mahomes should play this Sunday. The piece was thoughtful and well-written. I even sent him a congratulatory email, something I never ever expected to do.

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    1. Grammarian —I had the misfortune of reading that column as well, only because I’m a fan of Mahomes. Kass went with the easy, thoughtless conclusion that the recently concussed Mahoney shouldn’t play today, but probably will.

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    2. (...."Mahomes shouldn't play....)

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    3. I did not read that column but one of the serious dangers of concussion is having another soon after the first. Serious danger.
      The effects of having a concussion include spacial and balance deficiencies. Which in his line of work can lead to increased likely hood of contact. Which is the primary cause of concussions. Better safe than sorry is what I told my son. Play later not now. But I wasn't milking his youthful vigor for millions

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  9. I’ve made it through parts of his columns but they are difficult to read and after several paragraphs I’m still wondering what the point is. Then he presents his argument as if the previous slop has already incontrovertibly demonstrated it, as if it’s already been handily proven. It’s tempting to just accept that because it’s too hard to check by going back and trying to read the crap again.

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    1. This is a pertinent observation that seems to mirror my rare attempts to study the topography of the turds. Up until the conclusion about it being tempting to accept the argument. ; )

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  10. This column is beautiful. Almost up there with old "Bob Watch". I did see Kass once in the Billy Goat. Me and my friend sat on the other side as my friend was no Kass fan, but on the way out Kass was standing outside the door, and yes, he is very short. Maybe five feet tall. Looks much bigger in the paper. Must sit on two old Chicago phone books when he drives so he can see over the dashboard.

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  11. Wow Neil. Even got a little Vonnegut-y there for a second. I suspect there might be an angle for the Reader in all of this. Picking a fight publicly does pique interest I’m told.

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  12. I try to read columnists with different world views from mine but I have rarely made it through a John Kass column. His thinking, if you can call it that, seems so superficial. I'm pretty amazed that you put as much time as you did painting the picture of his banalities. I hope you have it out of your system now. Namaste.

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  13. speaking of sphincterific Dennis Byrne, he wrote a post in ChicagoNow with this same title. He's taking to using that platform to spread his right wing batshittery

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  14. I should open with a Full Disclosure that may end up dominating this post, but way back in the early 1990s sometime, my in-laws lived on the 5100 block of North Lovejoy in Jefferson Park, their backyard looking west over the alley behind the nondescript storefronts of Milwaukee Avenue. One day there was a knock on the door, and they opened it to find John Kass standing there. He introduced himself, and asked whether they had been informed that the city was looking to clear out the entire block for a new police station, starting with the Eminent Domain demolition of their bungalow, along with all others on that side of the street. No, they had not heard anything about THAT.

    I'm probably oversimplifying the whole brouhaha that erupted after that, but the gist of it was that a compliant alderman had not bothered to inform anyone in the affected area, perhaps hoping that when they did find out, it would be too late to do anything about it. The first Kass column on the subject opened with a kind description of my father-in-law: WWII veteran, clear-eyed, firm handshake and so on, skillfully building outrage in his readers over what an injustice was being dealt here, and in the end, public outcry led an embarrassed Mayor Daley to order the whole project scaled back. To this day you can see the full length of preserved housing in a row behind the Jeff Park police station. I firmly believe that Kass deserves full credit for his role in saving my in-laws' house, and for many years I felt that he'd earned a free Lifetime Pass from me for no criticism over anything else.

    That said... he has strained my patience for many years. I try to read every columnist in the Tribune regardless of their political views, on the theory that someone can be wrong but still be interesting to read -- I still remember the electric shock that ran through me circa 2017 when Cal Thomas wrote something I agreed with -- but people change over time, and sometimes a further change is indicated but not done. There have been many times when Kass seems in need of... oh, a little more editorial coaching, perhaps. "John, if you actually know something about this Springfield scandal, for Pete's sake spit it out and stop hinting all over the place." "John, no one has used the phrase 'water carriers' since 1953." And so on.

    I was quietly amazed at the Tribune's decision last summer to group all the columnists up near the Editorials section, seeming to suggest that readers were, in essence, too stupid to tell the difference between a news item and an opinion piece, and saying the readers had been complaining about it. Perhaps this was actually their way of avoiding a deeper reorganization of columnist talent, an admission that things change, and time marches on.

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    1. A rather insignificant opinion, but I actually like the new gathering of "Opinion" columns in one location. Only for the simple fact that it's easier to locate them all and read the one(s) I follow most.

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    2. IMHO, they don't need to "suggest that readers were, in essence, too stupid to tell the difference between a news item and an opinion piece." Many readers clearly *are* either too stupid or too uniformed to make that distinction.

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  15. While I disagree with Neil Steinberg on this issue, he did a brilliant job of defending John Kass's right to continue publishing, while simultaneously brutally, hilariously skewering Kass's horrible writing. Respect! My full thoughts on Steinberg's post here: https://twitter.com/greenfieldjohn/status/1353394986440560641

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  16. While I certainly join others in celebrating this hilarious, devastating vivisection of perhaps the city's most prominent hack, I'm captivated, as well, by the well-chosen photo accompanying the piece, as I often am. Is that a sculpture, or a natural formation, might I ask? Excellent, either way.

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  17. As a resident of integrated Morgan Park I got a great laugh out of the Mt. Greenwood reference, or as I call it Mt. Whitewood.

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  18. I realized a long time ago Kass has one column topic, himself. Once I came to that realization it no longer seemed worth reading.

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  19. Great analysis Neil. I've always found Kass incredibly annoying, though not anywhere near the Bob Greene level. His whole shtick of being the son of a poor immigrant grocer and the wisdom of his goat-herding grandparents seems to ape Royko in a desperate attempt to appear authentic. He's not about to be fired or "de-platformed" and his disorganized thoughts aren't worthy of it. His columns just parrot the latest right-wing talking points, or more correctly one point repeated endlessly in one sentence paragraphs, as he sadly tries for a notice in RealClearPolitics. Nothing is worth censoring. He's actually not a bad writer, but as you point out simply has no curiosity. Staying away from politics would improve his columns, but of course then it would just be an endless stream of goat grilling stories. I really enjoy the other Tribune columnists, though the number keeps dwindling.

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    1. I was, and I remain offended that Kass' word salad runs in Royko's space.

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  20. It is now 2021. How is it possible that only after reading this column did I learn you wrote "Bob Watch"?

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    1. Well....modest soul that I am, I don't bandy it about too much. First, because I don't like to live in the past—I think Bob did that aplenty for the both of us. And second, I guess the subject just doesn't come up. I did repost one three years back, trying to discourage a former Trib editor from dislocating her arm patting herself on the back over finally firing the guy. You might get a kick out of it. http://www.everygoddamnday.com/2017/12/bobwatch-knew-why-didnt-trib.html

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    2. You should go back and read some of Neil’s BobWatch columns, a great public service and very funny. Kass is nowhere near the threat to public mental health that Bob was.

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  21. I was still living in Chicago in the Eighties and early Nineties. I guess I either ignored Kass, or never read him at all. Can't remember a damn thing he wrote during that whole decade. I didn't miss much. Product of the white-flight refugee mentality of Chicago's Far South Side, Oak Lawn, and now Western Springs. No wonder the cheers go up in the cop bars, and in Mt. Greenwood, for the babblings of this right-wing jamoke.

    The Chicago Daily News may have been the best newspaper Chicago has ever had. Thirteen Pulitzers. Royko spent his first fifteen years there. Carl Sandburg worked there. So did Ben Hecht I grew up reading it. Best in the city, right up until March 4, 1978. I was one of the casualties of that day. Heard the bad news while on vacation in Florida, and came home to a pink slip, along with a thousand other folks who also got the ax that week.

    Bob Greene was such a doofus. I've already commented at EGD about my firsthand knowledge of his cluelessness and doofusness. It still amazes me that his newspoaper career lasted so long, and that he wrote all those books. Amazing output and longevity, from such a Johnny One-Note. All those Elvis columns. And his mind-numbing, excruciating, repetitive columns about Baby Richard.

    I finally couldn't stomach them anymore. I even began sending him replies: "Enough with the tortured children already!" I actually typed "tortured children." His downfall was pitiful, after all those years of wearing that rug and desperately trying to get laid, both before and during his marriage. Pathetic stuff.

    Congrats, Mr. S...for your well-deserved 2,400-word kick in the Kass. And it's one that apparently struck a nerve...hence the dozens of responses. Seems like old times. Bravissimo.

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  22. Fantastic piece. The highest compliment I can offer is that I couldn't wait to get to the end so I could re-read it from the beginning...

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  23. That John Kass is being criticized in this forum for writing self absorbed pieces seems more than a bit ironic, as I believe that many of columnist and blogmaster Neil's best work features Neil, his wife, his sons, his parents, his neighbors, his dog, etc. Of course, the quality of the subjects in themselves, the depth and honesty of self perception, the tone of the discourse, the humility of approach, characteristic of Neil's work is evidently missing from that of John Kass judging by the aforesaid critics -- I can't personally say anything one way or another about the Kass's literary/journalistic efforts, as I have never read him. But I'm assuming that his writing about himself fails because the subject is not that interesting and engaging. God forbid that we discourage columnists such as Neil Steinberg from writing about themselves. More rather than less is called for in my opinion.

    john

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  24. The pleasure of finding the terms "Sphincterific" and "Right wing batshittery" in a single paragraph alone is worth the price of my Sun-Times subscription. It's only you, Neil. I don't do Sudoku.

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