Moving on? Not quite yet

Why I'm still writing this week about the dust-up at DePaul

10-07-21 (issue No. 5)

One of the side projects I’m engaged in these days is sorting through and scanning images from my father’s vast photo archive — he was a camera buff long before everyone carried cameras in their pockets at all times and so has thousands of prints in various states of organization. So the task is voluminous.

Here are a pair of 1992 photos of my grandfather Max A. Zorn (1906-1993), whose whimsical, mimeographed newsletter “The Piccayune Sentinel,” inspired the name of this publication.

As I’ve noted before, the spelling error in the title was in all probability just one of many in-jokes intended for his colleagues in academia and interested friends and family.

My plan is to create a series of well-organized photo books with which to burden future generations.

In today’s issue, DePaul Part Deux, News & Views on Lightfoot/Foxx and the upcoming Rittenhouse trial, a Z-mail exchange with a backer of the existing Soldier Field, a plea for better “previously on…” segments and more.

Tweet of the Week

The winner of last week’s poll

Who is @OhNoSheTwint, a frequent finalist and occasional winner in the Tweet of the Week poll? I don’t know, and wouldn’t tell you if I did (as I do know the real names of some of the other frequent contributors).

Pseudonymity allows “The Volatile Mermaid” and many others to be as candid and lacerating as they wish without fear of losing their jobs or compromising their personal safety. Those who don’t like pseudonymous observations are always free to unfollow, mute or block those who don’t post under their real names. Yet more than 400,000 people subscribe to @OhNoSheTwint’s tweets.

This week’s nominees:

  • “Why are people so willing to believe unscientific nonsense?” ask the editors of newspapers that publish horoscopes … @JohnLyonTweets

  • "He died doing what he loved: his own research" …. @jessiestwats

  • Live your truth, as long as it doesn't conflict with my alibi … @geekysteven

  • Some things are better left unsaid. But that never stops me. … @nayele18maybe

  • In the middle of an argument, if your partner says "what did you just say?" the correct answer, if you want to live, is the exact opposite of what you just said …. @Havish_AF

  • This canned chili is terrible. No beans, hardly any spices, and for some reason, the side of the can has a picture of a Golden Retriever. ... @Writepop

  • I’ll email my dentist happy birthday wishes. Two can play at this twisted game …@GianDoh

  • “Can you keep a secret?” asked the person about to stop keeping a secret. … @UnFitz

  • When your pilot says “we’ll be on the ground shortly,” your fellow passengers don’t appreciate it when you loudly add “one way or another.” … @MelvinofYork

  • Please stop referring to things as "Orwellian". Some of us haven't read his books yet and you're spoiling them … @oldfriend99

Fill out the poll

For poll instructions and guidelines, click here.

A ‘learning experience’ at DePaul

I planned to devote the “Z-mail” subsection of this week’s newsletter to messages from people defending the students at DePaul University who recently demanded in a campus newspaper editorial that I be disinvited from panel discussion at the journalism school on the future of local print media.

The full background for that story is in last week’s Picayune Sentinel. But the short version is that these students jumped late on the pile of would-be tacklers who were furious about a column I wrote in early April saying it was too early to conclude that the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Little Village resident Adam Toledo was unjustified and to portray him as an innocent. For this I was widely branded as a racist and a cheerleader for police brutality and child murder.

So I certainly expected at least a few responses analyzing that column and citing passages that illustrated why it was so objectionable that I should be muzzled on all topics.

No luck. I received hundreds of letters on this topic, but not one supporting the position staked out by editors of the DePaulia student paper. Nor did anyone write to back the position of the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists that the organization “would not have agreed to co-host (the panel)” had its leaders known I would be invited, because they did “not agree with or support the sentiments” in the controversial column.

I did take some heat for my decision to not appear at the presentation last Wednesday.

Mark Glennon, founder of the conservative news/commentary site Wirepoints, ripped me for “cowardice” and charged me with having decided to “run away” rather than verbally joust with my detractors. On Twitter, he wrote that I had made a “pathetic, smarmy, dickless surrender.”

Glennon also accused Carol Marin and Don Moseley, co-directors of DePaul’s Center for Journalism Integrity that sponsored the panel, with having “allowed” me not to appear. That was emphatically not true.

Marin and I had a long phone conversation two days prior to the panel in which I explained to her — as I will now explain again to the inattentive Mr. Glennon — that I didn’t want to see a forum on the future of local journalism involving several of my former colleagues derailed by those who might have responded to the call to confront me at the event.

They didn’t agree to give up their Wednesday evenings for that.

On Twitter, a DePaulia editor accused me of being “terrified of being ‘cancelled’… (and of) engaging in conversation.” She added, “this shows how unwilling you are to hear out different views, and for that you are a hypocrite and a coward.”

Another tweeted “I don't regret publishing (the editorial). I don't regret the things we said.”

Reader, I took the bait. I wrote to those editors:

I am writing to invite you to send me the questions you'd like me to answer and I in turn have some questions for the authors of the commentary urging that I be denied the opportunity to speak:

Do you agree that after police shootings it's important, particularly for members of the news media, to wait for answers and weigh the available evidence before drawing conclusions?

Do you believe that it's unreasonable to point out, as a general truth, that 13-year-olds are capable of committing violent crimes?

What line, what sentence from my commentary leads you to conclude that race or ethnicity had anything to do with my analysis of the facts?

You might already be asking why I’m perseverating on this, why I feel the need to win an argument with a group of students roughly a third my age, why I don’t just let this go.

The answer is that we can’t and shouldn’t shrug off toxic orthodoxy that would rather shout people down or silence them than engage in respectful dialogue.

In the summer of 2020, I wrote :

“Cancel culture” — a social environment in which those on one side of an issue attempt to silence, ostracize, shame, de-platform and, in some cases, have fired the people and companies aligned with the other side of an issue — is bipartisan.

Yes, my fellow lefties have in too many cases been disagreeably enthusiastic in their efforts to ashcan or otherwise muzzle those whose words and deeds deviate from liberal orthodoxy….

But long before “cancel culture” was even a term, the right has been enthusiastic in its attempts to ban, burn and marginalize books, music, activists and anything or anyone else they feel has stepped over some cultural or political lines.

Preserving the distinction between heresy and differences of opinion ought to be a critical mission for all journalists. Too many jobs and reputations have already been lost in the misguided effort to sanitize our discourse.

A terse note came back from the student editors: The DePaulia staff has “taken this as a learning experience and are hoping to move on,” it said. “Hope you can do the same.”

In a separate note, their faculty adviser added that the writers who attacked me “understand what they did wrong and are moving on. They are students and will learn from their experience.”

Nice try.

In journalism you don’t get to defame someone as a racist and then, when called upon to defend that ugly accusation, simply say you’re moving on from a “learning experience.” You don’t get to do that any more than a hit-and-run motorist can drive blithely away from striking a pedestrian while noting that he’s had a “learning experience” about roadway safety.

This sort of failure to engage honestly was what was so dismaying about my interaction on this same column with Northwestern University assistant professor of journalism Steven Thrasher earlier this year. As I explained in, Resolved: That Americans need to learn how to debate again,

(Thrasher) tweeted that he was canceling his subscription to the Tribune (over the Adam Toledo column) because “there is no space in a newspaper for arguing for the murder of a child, and that it’s ‘never too early’ to think they are worthy of murder.”

A month later, after the hubbub died down, I (wrote) to Thrasher to say that’s not what I’d written and to ask if he’d be interested in “a more nuanced exchange by email.” I attempted to start that exchange by saying that “one of the jobs of a journalist is to question and challenge emerging narratives and conventional wisdom, to be clear about what we know for sure and what we suspect.”

His response, in full: “Your words make the murder of children more likely, and I have no interest in you, your unethical nature, your cynical worldview, or in communicating with you.”

Well, at least he wrote back, unlike the DePaul chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, to whom I sent a note similar to the one I sent to the DePaulia.

Sorry not to be moving on, as requested, but I’m not going to cede my reputation and good name to anyone who makes a public stink about what they think I wrote rather than what I actually wrote and who tries to deny me the opportunity to speak to a willing audience. Universities are not alone among the institutions that need to find a template for dealing with differences of opinion and dissent, and surrendering to loud voices and Twitter mobs should not be part of that template.

I recommend you read MIT Abandons Its Mission. And Me. an essay posted this week by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot, and to heed his conclusion:

It’s time to say no to the mob….This is not a partisan issue. Anyone who is interested in the pursuit of truth and in promoting a healthy and functioning society has a stake in this debate. Speaking out now may seem risky. But the cost of remaining silent is far steeper. 

News & Views

Foxx and Lightfoot spar over Foxx’s failure to file charges in the wake of a West Side gunfight.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s frustration with gun violence in her city boiled over Monday when she lashed out at Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for not filing charges in a fatal, gang-related gun battle Friday morning in the 1200 block of North Mason Avenue.

Foxx lashed back Tuesday, saying she was “mortified” by Lightfoot’s “inappropriate” remarks, and that her office simply didn’t yet have enough evidence to file charges against specific people.

I’m cautiously giving Foxx the benefit of the doubt here until I have a far better idea what the evidence shows. We know these are difficult cases to investigate. Witnesses and even victims understandably refuse to give statements — to better understand why, read Alex Kotlowitz’s book An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicagoand it’s therefore difficult to sort out instigators from innocents in these mutual combat situations.

The charge-them-now-and-let-the-jury-sort-it-out school of prosecutions has led to miscarriages of justice in the past. If Foxx is waiting until she feels her office can meet its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the most serious charges, well, then, she’s doing her job.

Pre-trial maneuverings in the Rittenhouse case focus on self-defense

My read on all the video evidence I’ve seen from the night of Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is that teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse was exercising his legitimate right of self-defense when he shot and killed two assailants and wounded a third during street protests in that town.

Yes, he was likely a bit too young to be legally armed. Yes, it’s lousy that Wisconsin law allows citizens to openly carry rifles and other firearms during tense street altercations. Yes, Rittenhouse has been embraced by the Proud Boys and others on the far right whose views on race are repellent.

My Sept. 3, 2020 column, Here’s why Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen shooting suspect in Kenosha killings, is likely to get off, details my interpretation of the available video evidence and how the law on self-defense in Wisconsin seems likely to apply. I guessed that a jury will conclude that Rittenhouse reasonably believed that he faced “imminent death or great bodily harm” when he was set upon first by an evidently enraged Joseph Rosenbaum, his first victim, and then by members of a mob that pursued him down the street.

I was intrigued by this passage from a recent Tribune story about a hearing last month in advance of Rittenhouse’s murder trial, now set to begin Nov. 1.:

(Kenosha County) Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger landed a blow to (the self-defense) narrative when he announced the FBI has images showing Rittenhouse was the one who initially followed Rosenbaum. As the two reached the car lot where the shooting occurred, Rittenhouse said something to Rosenbaum, who then turned around and started to chase Rittenhouse.

The recording was captured by an infrared camera attached to an FBI fixed wing aircraft that was monitoring the city during the chaos, Binger said.

“The FBI video gives us the context we have been missing,” Binger said.

That video has not been made public. And though my mind is open to the possibility that the new images will turn Rittenhouse’s narrative on its head, whether or not Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum exchanged cross words or had a previous non-physical altercation strikes me as irrelevant to any legal analysis of the fatal confrontation that occurred when Rosenbaum chased and caught up to Rittenhouse that night.

At a hearing Tuesday, an expert in self-defense hired by Rittenhouse’s attorneys testified via Zoom to Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder. Schroeder said he won’t decide whether to admit that man’s testimony until he hears from a prosecution expert on the same topic during an Oct. 25 hearing.

Critics frequently argue with me that Rittenhouse, formerly of nearby suburban Antioch, had no right to be in Kenosha that night. But he did. He had the same right to be there as those who came from out of town to protest police violence.

And I continue to predict the jury will decide that he also had the right to defend himself when attacked.

Tell me your views

Minced Words

Topics covered on this week’s Mincing Rascals podcast:

  • Monday’s surprise Facebook sabbath and the vague determination in Washington to “do something” about that platform’s malign effects. Yeah, but what?

  • Public figures, private spaces and protesters. Should Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have been off-limits during a trip to the restroom?

  • The wars of words regarding crime in Chicago between Mayor Lightfoot and State’s Attorney Foxx, and between billionaire investor Ken Griffin and billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

  • Our love for the finals-bound Chicago Sky

  • White Sox/Astros predictions (spoiler — I am the pessimistic outlier)

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Land of Linkin’

  • Read the Picayune Sentinel was the headline on a blog post last Thursday by Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg. Yes, it’s self-congratulatory of me to amplify this laudatory essay (even though it does accuse me of frequently being too timid), but Neil’s creative zest for imagery and wordplay is on full display here and will serve as a reminder to you to bookmark “Every goddamn day” so you never miss it.

  • Wednesday saw the release of the first two episodes of “The Madigan Rule,” a limited-series podcast sponsored by the Better Government Association and hosted by Justin Kaufmann of Axios Chicago. The rise and fall of veteran state House speaker Michael Madigan is an important story well suited to the medium. Find it on your podcast app and subscribe. I did.

  • Goodbye, Arlington International Racecourse, and good riddance, an op-ed in the Tribune by David McGrath, emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage, concludes that the track was not “a place of pastoral beauty and light” but rather “a dark place for the impoverished lives on the backstretch, for the frustrated souls yelling at the track’s TV monitors and for disposable horses bred for speed and greed.”

  • “What’s your middle name? Why is it your middle name? How many people know it? Do you know the middle names of your best friends? If you don’t, are you as close as you imagine?” Former Tribune columnist Mary Schmich is still writing entertainingly and provocatively, now most Tuesdays on Facebook. And I will keep linking to her output here until she threatens to sue me.

  • Caropop, from my former Tribune colleague Mark Caro, is “a podcast and blog… for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the music, movies, food and culture that they love.” Caro describes himself as “a relentlessly curious journalist and on-stage interviewer (who) loves digging into the creative process with artists and drawing out surprising stories that illuminate the work that has become part of our lives.”

  • For families like ours dealing with dementia, last Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment on singer Tony Bennett was particularly moving. What is still locked away up there?

  • Democrats’ Gerrymandering Dilemma, Tuesday’s episode of Slate’s What Next podcast, lays out crisply why Democrats in blue states would be insane to unilaterally disarm in the gerrymandering wars. The politically suicidal impulse of “reform” organizations to lead by example is baffling. The show also explains why changing the system isn’t as easy as simply handing the process to non-partisan commissions.

Z-mail

Some 20 years ago I was a skeptic about the costly redesign of Soldier Field:

Would another location in the city better serve the "public purpose?" Would a different design--one featuring a retractable dome, say?--ultimately bring more benefits to the region? Do the citizens have a different view of this than the lawmakers who rubber-stamped it?

There remain compelling arguments on both sides. But the most compelling argument of all is one that says we should step back, turn off the bulldozers and consider them seriously, thoroughly, publicly.

The decision not to build a retractable-dome stadium but instead to construct an outdoor seating bowl in the shell of the old stadium -- a decision made by the Bears and elected officials who didn't consult you though it involved your parkland and your money -- means we'll never join Minneapolis and Detroit on the roster of cold-weather cities to host the Super Bowl. And we can kiss our NCAA basketball Final Four dreams goodbye as well.

Both those events and others that require domes would have been excellent for tourism and economic development, causes that project backers claim are foremost in their minds.

Behind the scenes I was debating these points via email with my friend Barnaby Dinges, who was handling public relations for the project and was as enthusiastic about it as I was pessimistic. After news broke recently that Bears, who now consider the facility inadequate for their needs, appear willing to break their lease with the Chicago Park District and relocate to Arlington Heights, I needled Dinges that I was planning to write a book, "Soldier Field Redesign: Travesty or Monstrosity?"

Even though he’s no longer paid to represent the project, he replied "We should take up the Bears discussion again, both the Soldier Fields and Arlington Heights options." So I offered him the invitation to address the "new" Soldier Field in hindsight. His reply:

Domes are sterile environments and are not The Chicago Way. The New Soldier Field is the NFL’s most intimate stadium and it delivers a great fan experience. In its 18 years of outdoor life, the new stadium has proven excellent for football, soccer and big rock concerts. It’s delivered everything except a Super Bowl … but that’s on the Bears.

If the Bears depart (remember the stadium was built for a 30-year lifespan) I see the concourses redesigned for retail and restaurants to serve the booming South Loop community and the busy Museum Campus. The stadium will still work well for soccer, historic football mash ups, rock concerts and fund raisers.

You seem to think a dome is key to boosting Chicago tourism or hosting an NCAA Final Four. I’d suggest McCormick Place and downtown Chicago do a fine job at that … and the United Center is a nifty venue for big time basketball. Nonetheless, a dome might make sense for Da Bears in Arlington Heights … but if they build one I hope it features open air options (like LA and Minneapolis) and it uses real grass rolled in on game day (a la Arizona).

Finally, what I remember most from 20 years ago was the Tribune’s unprecedented agenda journalism aimed to derail the project (and presumably try to win a Pulitzer Prize). Never in my 30-plus years of PR and reporting had I witnessed more groupthink (an army of editors, reporters and columnists united against a project).

Other media is town took a much more measured and balanced approach. So when you cite entities that lost touch with their public … I’d suggest the Tribune’s coverage of the Soldier Field story was a classic case of a newspaper writing to serve itself, not its readers. And so here we are today. — Barnaby Dinges

Let me know what you think

(correction—a letter last week attributed to Robert L should have been attributed to Steve R.)

Consumer report

The last episode of the first season of the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show” streamed in December, 2019, meaning that 21 months elapsed between episodes when season two kicked off Sept. 17. To say that a lot has happened in all of our lives since then is an understatement. And most of us have watched an unusual amount of streaming TV during the partial home confinement of the pandemic.

So even if you have pretty good memory, as I still do, the three-and-a-half minute, quick-cut. “previously on…” update prior to the start of the new season was an insufficient refresher. Who did wrong by whom? Who was fired and who quit and why? What were the circumstances of Hannah’s death? And who was she again?

I know. Written recaps abound online and it’s not terribly difficult to get back up to speed with a little research, but come on! Every continuing series ought to offer at the start of each new season a narrated, 10-minute look back at the high points and key moments from the previous season as an option for those who need to catch up or want to jump in.

I’m looking at you, “This Is Us.”

Cheer Chat

We’re pleased to be welcoming Zarah Glenda Baker to the Songs of Good Cheer cast this year. We’re still a go for four live SOGC events in the Old Town School’s main auditorium in the Lincoln Square neighborhood December 10th through 12th.

Since 1999, Mary Schmich and I have fronted a band of supremely talented musicians as they lead an enthusiastic crowd in familiar and unfamiliar songs of the winter holiday season.

Buy Songs of Good Cheer tickets here

Today’s tune

If you’re not familiar with old-time string band music, you may think of it as scratchy fiddles and plinky banjos played over the sound of stomping feet — and, fair enough, some of it does sound like that, particularly the vintage recordings.

To educate yourself what it’s really like today, give a listen to at least a few seconds of this recording I made nearly three years ago in the kitchen of a student’s house near the campus of Warren Wilson College outside of Asheville, North Carolina, during a late night, unrehearsed jam session. Seen here are just a few of the many young musicians who are keeping the tradition alive even as they’re building on it. The tune, “Sweet Nell,” was co-written by Jim Mullany, whose daughter Maddie is the fiddler perched on the counter. That’s my son Ben in the foreground.

I shot two other short videos at that session if this whets your appetite: Icy Mountain and Lady on the Green.

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