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.