A tiff between columnist and editor ends John Fountain's years at the Sun-Times
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John Fountain and the Sun-Times are parting ways
In a journalism career of nearly 40 years, I have rarely felt as disrespected as my encounter with (Sun-Times executive editor Jennifer Kho). … And it signals to me not an end but a new beginning, — John W. Fountain
I reached out to Kho, who took over the reins at the Sun-Times earlier this year, for her side of the story of the dispute which prompted the recent resignation of Fountain, a prize-winning veteran contributing columnist. She did not respond.
Fountain told his side of the story in The Crusader and at his website about what happened after he submitted his column for Sunday, Nov. 27. He said that Kho called him and emailed him two alternate proposed revisions.
Essentially, she said she thought (the submitted column) moved too slow, was confusing, and did not [get quickly enough to the news peg, which was that a documentary film by one of Fountain’s former students at Roosevelt University, the late Aaron Lee, was about to air on the Marquee network].
I explained that I had been deliberate in structuring the column and intentional in my decision to delay revealing to the reader Aaron’s “big news.” That this as a column was different from a hard news story or a feature. And that as a columnist, my words and the way I choose to tell the story are essential to my voice and perspective. …
She said things to me that were presumptuous and also disrespectful. She told me, in fact, that I think my writing is too perfect to need an editor (a near direct quote). I explained that I did not, and that indeed I tell my students that every writer needs an editor. I always have needed an editor and always will. …
I argued that … I had constructed the story intentionally as a narrative to not give the end away and to draw the reader. …
I explained to Jen that good “editing” does not necessarily mean making wholesale changes. That punctuation, grammar and fact checking are also a part of editing but that in column writing, maintaining the writer’s voice and choice—notwithstanding any factual errors—of how to tell a particular story are critical. In hindsight, it was clear to me that Jen had decided that my column would be changed in the way she saw fit to tell it. …
Ultimately, Jen said that I could choose one of the two revisions she had suggested. Or, she said, I could take another stab at the column. I told her that I would not agree to either. She said: Well, I’m not going to run it. I responded with two words: “I resign.” She hung up. So did I.
Fountain is a tenured professor of journalism at Roosevelt, a former staff reporter for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, and the author of five books. His Sunday column in the Sun Times has won numerous awards over the past 13 years. He shared with me the edits Kho proposed, the first a significant overhaul, the second a somewhat lighter revision.
Both versions “included restructuring as well as modified sentences and the insertion of her own words,” Fountain told me by email “Frankly, (the column) no longer felt like mine but hers.”
It was a dealbreaker for me because as a writer who happens to be a Black man, native Chicagoan and West Sider, it has always been clear to me that my voice in journalism, especially here at home, and especially as a columnist, offers a unique perspective and voice. And that voice must always be my own — the way I speak, the way I tell the story, my words. Not an editor's. She wouldn't budge. She wouldn't listen to reason and she was downright belligerent and disrespectful to me not just as a writer, and not just as one of the Sun-Times' most decorated columnists, but to me as a human being. She left me no choice.
Fountain said that he was invited to submit a farewell column for the following Sunday, but that Kho spiked that column too. In it, he described himself as “finally liberated by the last insult, indignity or innuendo,” and wrote, ” I must say farewell ultimately because my feelings, thoughts, and every word I write must always be my own. And I believe that is no longer possible for me in this newspaper.”
He described himself as “no longer a participant in volunteer slavery, but as a Black journalist at last set free. Free to tell whatever stories I choose exactly the way I choose to tell them. Free at last.”
He asked readers to follow his writing at FountainWorks NP, a media, arts and literacy initiative now based at his website.
Fountain’s is a powerful, important voice in Chicago, and it’s unfortunate to downright curious that the normal give and take between editor and columnist didn’t resolve the differences over an otherwise uncontroversial essay, differences that turned into what appears to have been a power struggle during which unfortunate words were said.
The original column struck me as fine but, on paper, some of Kho’s suggestions also seemed reasonable. I’m not sure I’d want to referee this dispute even if I had been able to get Kho’s side of the story.
I would just ask both parties, can this relationship be saved?
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
Some of these messages are in reference to items in last week’s issues of the Picayune Sentinel.
Jon. L — Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court case about the Christian web designer who wants the right to refuse to make wedding sites for gay couples, l say there can be legitimacy to discriminating against events rather than persons.
Marc M. — The issue before the Court regarding provision of service is specifically about the distinction between a generic business (public accommodations) and a commissioned artist; and how that distinction can be made. The uniqueness of the creative process and the product make them different and a representation of the artist. Artists are allowed to choose their customers. No one would argue that a painter or musician can be compelled to create work for Neo-Nazis or Trump. There is no threat to standard services which provide a common product to all customers. The case last year from a baker was based on religious freedom. This case is based on freedom of speech - an artist cannot be compelled to 'speak'.
As to businesses refusing service to organizations or individuals for ideological reasons, there are no federal protections and only limited protections in some states. Again, refusing to host a QAnon luncheon is allowed. Refusing to provide services to a religious organization because of their religious beliefs is prohibited by federal law. Claiming a Muslim group made the staff feel 'uncomfortable or unsafe' because of their beliefs would obviously fail the test.
Jean G. — My concern about requiring a person to perform services for ideas they do not agree with seems that it could backfire. If I’m a web designer, for example, I should not be forced to create anti-Semitic or white supremacist web pages if I do not agree with those ideals. I am struggling to see the difference between this and requiring someone to create something for a gay person if they object to that lifestyle.
I received many messages on this topic, most wrestling with the sorts of distinctions and hypotheticals above. To my mind, it stretches the definition of “artist” to say that someone who drops a few names into a software template or custom frosts a wedding cake is plying creative talent in a meaningful way.
Cooking is certainly an art in many respects, so could a chef refuse to bake a souffle for a gay couple who comes into her restaurant? Obviously not. Could she refuse to cater a gay wedding reception, though? The line between between art and service is unclear, as is the line between bigotry and mere preference.
The standard should be that we may discriminate against people for what they do, but not who they fundamentally are. And since being gay is not a choice but an inherent element of identity, then refusing to bake a cake or design a website for a same-sex wedding is analogous to refusing to bake a cake or design a website for an interracial couple.
Being gay is not a “lifestyle” choice, to borrow Jean G.’s term, the way being a white supremacist or antisemite might be said to be a lifestyle choice.
Of course identity and essence are also tricky concepts. What about religion? The law offers broad and special protections for faith, even though religious identity is a choice. The reasoning seems to be that that your faith system is so foundational that it truly is who you are.
But your right to be who you are ends when it tramples the rights of others to be who they are.
Loren S. — I’m disappointed that you’ve made common cause with the soccer-is-boring-or-worse crowd. It’s is the cry of the lazy-minded lunkheads, the ones who believe flag waving and devotion to American football (which I enjoy) are proof of patriotism. Your posture defines as clueless those millions around the world who love soccer, not the much smaller number of humbugs.
You know, cricket is not my thing. Don’t watch it, don’t care about it. Same with chess. Why? Cuz I don’t understand it. Didn’t grow up with it, can’t decode its rules or pick up on its subtleties.
I suspect that, deep down, you and the other soccer kvetchers know this to be true about you, too. You’ve attempted to represent your ignorance as insight. But the truth is that you never learned to watch soccer. (In fact, I didn’t either until my kids became players and I started seeing the game through their eyes.)
Fine. But turning that xenophobia into a virtue is an exercise best left to the MAGA crowd. You’ll never be as good at it as they are.
I think it’s perfectly possible to understand a game — to recognize the skill level of the players, to know the rules pretty well, to see what the strategies are — and yet find it tedious. I don’t banner this as insight or superiority when it comes to soccer. I recognize it’s a matter of taste.
Remember, I’m a fan of old time string band music, which many music lovers find dully repetitive and melodically unadventurous. I feel no need to try to convert people and have no sense of superiority over those who don’t get it.
Jake H. — I’m pretty sure you're the one who thinks that the parenthetical addition in “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. (Baby is dead)” is hilarious, and I don't care what your poll says, you're 100% correct.
You’re 100% correct that I am in the 7% of the population that finds that joke funny. My sense of humor can be quite dark and strange. I have never been walloped in a click-poll that badly in my life.
John G. — Thank you for a moving, memorable and meaningful evening at Songs of Good Cheer over last weekend. My daughter and wife both cancelled on me but I went by myself anyway. So glad I did (first time). I hope to bring a gaggle of folks next year.
Thanks. To you and to the approximately 1,500 people who came out to the four shows this past weekend. Those who come alone quickly find and feel the communal feeling in the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music auditorium. Now that Mary Schmich and I have left the Tribune, we rely more than ever on word of mouth and return customers to keep the SOGC franchise healthy, so please do round up that gaggle for our 25th annual show next December.
Sallie W. — I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy the Tweet of the Week polls. I don’t ever look at Twitter myself and I depend on you to curate the best humor from that source. It’s usually my favorite part of the Picayune Sentinel.
Thanks. I hope the polls can continue in the Elon Musk era. Twitter’s new overlord is driving good people away, and now that he’s threatening to allow 4,000-character tweets the feel of the site may change dramatically.
Ya gotta see these tweets!
I often run across tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the Tweet of the Week contest (the template I use for that poll does not allow me to include images). Here are a few good ones I’ve come across recently:
Vote for your favorite. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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