My interview with Robert Feder: Was it journalism?
Plus reflections on our cosmic insignificance, tasty links from around the web and more
7-14-2022 (issue No. 44)
Eric Zorn is a former veteran news columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above.
I frequently hear from people who complain that the Picayune Sentinel is too long. I understand. But I also hear from people who are very glad that it doesn’t arrive more than once a week (twice a week for paying supporters). Most of us are inundated with email, including, now, newsletters.
The good news is that Substack now allows me to create a clickable table of contents with direct links to certain items so you don’t have to scroll to get to, say, the Tweet of the Week or the Land of Linkin’. I hope this makes the length of this publication somewhat more bearable!
News & Views on Soldier Field, Biden’s unpopularity with Democrats, BMW’s subscription plan for heated seats, John Kass’ move to Indiana and more
Land of Linkin’ a collection of links to sites that I hope will amuse, entertain or outrage you
Mary Schmich is off this week.
Last week’s winning tweet
Another tweet that has been stolen so often and so brazenly that I can’t confidently assign a source.
In defense of quote approval
I characterized the “exit interview” with veteran Chicago media columnist Robert Feder in last week’s Picayune Sentinel as “journalistically unusual” because, as noted in the italic preface, I allowed Feder the opportunity to edit his transcribed remarks before I posted them.
Generally, once subjects agree to interviews, they also agree to put themselves into the hands of their media inquisitors to present their quotes accurately and in context, with the understanding that any unguarded or ill-advised remarks are fair game. There are no take-backs; no retrospective demands that something said is off the record.
Savvy interview subjects will begin by declaring everything that follows to be off the record and then negotiate afterward. The journalist then is ethically bound to come back to ask, “Can I quote you as saying this? Can I quote you as saying that?”
“Allowing a subject to edit quotes?” asked former Sun-Times Managing Editor Andrew Herrmann, chirping at me on Twitter in response to the Feder interview. “In no legit world of journo does that exist.”
If you define “journo” as an adversarial game of gotcha in which the goal is to coax the subject into some admission, gaffe or inadvertently revealing verbal pratfall, then yes, interviews conducted with an agreement to allow subjects to approve the quotes that will be attributed to them are not legit.
Herrmann is quite fortunate if he never had to bargain such an agreement with a subject in his nearly 30 years at the Sun-Times and subsequent stints at DNAinfo and the national news channel Newsy, where he now manages the Midwest bureau.
I had to do so once or twice a year, and I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often given that sources usually have very little to gain in exchange for taking the risk of granting an unconditional interview.
I almost always agreed to the terms, just as I often agreed to submit questions in writing to potential sources who insisted that they’d prefer to think about their answers and phrase their responses precisely rather than wing it. Yes, this delayed the asking of follow-up questions and often slowed the reporting process, but given that a journalist’s responsibility is to relay accurate information, obtaining considered responses seems not just defensible but responsible.
Herrmann contended on Twitter that rules against allowing a subject to edit quotes after the completion of an interview “were established to support and protect us— all of the folks in the trenches— against accusations we are mouthpieces of the powerful.”
But of course there is a certain amount of journalism that is basically stenography — publishing verbatim remarks from not only the powerful but also the powerless. Contextualizing and balancing those remarks is, of course, where the real work begins, and my understanding of most “accusations” against journalists is not that they post too many accurate quotes, but that they neglect their duty to frame those quotes in a way that best enhances public understanding.
By those standards, I freely admit that my lengthy item on Robert Feder wasn’t “journalism.” I was the one who proposed the ground rules so that he, Neil Steinberg and I could speak freely over lunch and not have to choose our words carefully or self-consciously. The three of us have been friends for decades. I would not and ethically could not write a profile of Feder or even claim to conduct a hard-hitting interview with him.
There are rules against that.
Our lunch lasted about two hours. I transcribed Feder’s portions and sent the quotes to him — he took a few things out that concerned his family and personal life, added a some useful dates and details, and cleaned up his syntax in places. Verbatim quotes that sound fine in person can come off rambly, digressive and ungrammatical in print.
It wasn’t an exposé. It was an effort to coax the usually somewhat reclusive Feder to share with the public the story of his life and career much the way a ghost writer might. And my view — not a condition that Feder demanded — was that the best way to proceed was in a conversation in which he didn’t have to weigh every word and every disclosure carefully.
I’ve used the same technique with long, taped interviews with my father, my mother and my wife as well as members of “The Mincing Rascals” podcast team.
And the idea of letting sources choose their words carefully is similar to the way I conducted written, online debates — “The Rhubarb Patch” was one of the most fun, enlightening features I presided over at the Tribune. It’s also the technique used for t “as told to” pseudo-autobiographical articles found in magazines.
However you want to categorize “Robert Feder, the exit interview,” it was accurate. It was informative. And it was popular. Last week’s post was the most viewed ever here at the Picayune Sentinel.
News & Views
News: A Chicago advisory panel offered a list of suggestions for updating Soldier Field including adding more seats, a dome and synthetic turf in an effort to prevent the Bears from moving to Arlington Heights.
View: I was a critic of the Soldier Field redesign 20 years ago, and I can only add “I told you so” to the quote that stadium facilities expert Marc Ganis gave to the Sun-Times. Ganis noted that the proposed upgrades won’t fundamentally “change what the building is: A small, difficult-to-get-to, publicly-owned and operated stadium that is not even close to being sufficient to host an NFL team in the third-largest market in the country for decades to come in a modern-day NFL that requires a large physical stadium with many areas to be programmed and team facilities.”
News: A new poll shows roughly 2 in 3 Democratic voters want President Joe Biden to step aside for another candidate in the 2024 election.
I agree with this sentiment, mostly because it’s so large. I suspect history will be fairly kind to Biden given the crises his administration has faced and the ghastly legacy of his predecessor, and I’ll vote for him without reservation if he heads the Democratic ticket in two years. But the Democrats badly need a candidate to excite its base and independent voters if they’re going to block the return of Donald Trump — or at least Trumpism — to the Oval Office.
The New York Times-Siena College poll found that … 33 percent of Democrats cited (Biden’s advanced) age as their main reason, 32 percent said job performance, 12 percent said they prefer someone new and 10 percent said Biden is not progressive enough.
Biden will turn 82 in November 2024. That’s five years older than the senescent Ronald Reagan was when he left office. The day after the midterm elections, no matter what the result, I hope Biden announces that he’s not running again in order to give his would-be successors a long runway to help them take flight.
View: Touché. Brandy Bottone has a court date next Wednesday to fight the ticket a police officer wrote after reportedly telling her that the traffic lane was reserved for “two bodies outside of the body.”
And as silly as her claim might sound, CNN noted that Texas is among the states pushing to define an unborn baby as a “person” for legal purposes and quoted former Los Angeles County prosecutor Loni Coombs: “If we're talking about a fetus being a person, there's a lot of other rights that attach to being a person that will be litigated in the courts, such as, does my fetus qualify for a tax deduction? Does my fetus qualify for citizenship? Does my fetus qualify for child support?"
And, of course, how does a police officer gainsay a claim of pregnancy? Bottone was 34 weeks along when she was pulled over and obviously well into her third trimester, but what about someone who has just seen two colored lines when peeing on the test strip?
View: I’ve been saying and hoping all along that economic pressure stands to play at least as big a role as political pressure in the creation of state-by-state abortion policy. Red states are likely to find that young people — students, emerging talent — are particularly disinclined to support their extreme crackdowns on abortion rights and therefore disinclined to attended school and accept jobs in their oppressive realms.
From The New York Times coverage:
“An extreme response is not in the state’s competitive interest,” said Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, an influential business association in Michigan. “To the extent that the data shows today that young professionals care about this issue, I don’t want to give young professionals a reason not to come to Michigan to work for Michigan companies.” …
Big companies are fighting a “war for talent,” (U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina) Raimondo said. And particularly for female talent given that women make up a growing majority of new college graduates. A former governor of Rhode Island, Ms. Raimondo predicted that companies would find it difficult to recruit skilled workers in states where women’s rights and medical services were sharply curtailed.
In the wake of Roe's overturn, college counselors said abortion has figured prominently in many conversations with clients, with some going as far as nixing their dream schools.
"Some of our students have explicitly stated that they will not apply to colleges and universities in states which may infringe on their access to reproductive rights," said Daniel Santos, chief executive of the Florida college counseling company Prepory.
Kristen Willmott, a counselor with Top Tier Admissions in Massachusetts, said students she works with have told her they are taking some top schools in Texas, Florida and Tennessee off their application lists due to their restrictive abortion laws.
In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin writes:
MAGA cult ideology burdens red states in a variety of ways, from decreasing life expectancy to chasing women from the workplace to causing “brain drain” as college-educated workers head for states grounded in the 21st century. If that happens, it would not be the first time the archaic social policies in the South left it struggling to keep up with the more prosperous North.
View: I would boycott BMW over this ugly business model if their cars were in my price range. These automotive bandits also “announced in 2020 that its cars’ operating system would allow for microtransactions on features like automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control,” according to the Verge. Only a consumer revolt will prevent this idea from spreading.
News: John Kass joins the “Illinois Exodus.”
View: The new home of the former Tribune columnist and current internet pundit is south of Interstate 80 but only about as far from Chicago City Hall as are homes in Aurora, Elgin or Waukegan, so Kass remains in this media market. And I’ve got to respect that, unlike most of those who complain endlessly about Illinois, he suited his actions to his words and summoned the movers.
For whatever reason, though, Kass has been reluctant to confirm his long-rumored relocation from his most recent home near me in the Albany Park neighborhood — he didn’t respond to a recent email from me asking about it, for instance — but ace Tribune freelancer Robert Goldsborough published confirmation Wednesday of the 2020 real-estate transaction and offered this clarifying tidbit:
The Indiana house, which Kass and his wife bought for more than its $279,900 asking price, had a $2,796 property tax bill in the 2021 tax year. During his last year in Western Springs in 2019, Kass paid $16,432 in property taxes.
Meanwhile, there seems to be no truth to the rumor that his podcast, “The Chicago Way,” will be rebranded “The Hoosier Way.”
Land of Linkin’
Jon Stewart for president? Politico's Juleanna Glover noted recently that the wonky comic is “a better fit than most politicians for what modern politics has become” in part because he is “a truly gifted public speaker who can break down our most complicated political debates into common sense arguments for effective policy.” I’d rather see Al Franken stage a comeback, but Stewart could be a seriously compelling candidate. Here was Stewart’s somewhat Shermanesque response on Twitter:
“MAGA Fan Accused of Setting Fire to His Own Van After Blaming Biden Supporters and Black Lives Matter.” Did Jussie Smollett teach us nothing?
I went down the WhatHowTry rabbit hole on TikTok the other day where the host has intriguing fun with food. In one video he makes pancakes out of blended ingredients from a McDonald’s meal. In another, he tries and taste-tests Homer Simpson’s disgusting (but evidently yummy!) recipe for waffles.
“Why BA.5 Feels Different” by Ed Yong, our nation’s best chronicler of the COVID-19 pandemic: “The new variant is spreading quickly, likely because it snakes past some of the immune defenses acquired by vaccinated people, or those infected by earlier variants. Those who have managed to avoid the virus for close to three years will find it a little harder to continue that streak, and some who recently caught COVID are getting it again.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia “questions whether July 4 shootings were 'designed' to get Republicans to back gun control” because there is no limit to her cruel shamelessness.
Also in Georgia, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel “Walker's dubious claims about air pollution and China were not one-off remarks, but rather a regular feature of his stump speech. According to a review of audio from more than a dozen recent campaign events, Walker regularly discussed ‘rotation’ of air that the U.S. can't ‘control’ and blamed China and India for ‘bad air.’”
“More than 8 million Illinoisans get drinking water from a utility where forever chemicals have been detected” by the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne is yet another example of why local newspapers are so important.
“Why Locking In Subscribers Is Bad for Business” in Chicago Booth Review describes research indicating that the common practice of relying on customer inertia to sustain revenue is a long-term loser.
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT-AM 820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in the new issue. The listen-live link is here.
Trigger warning! Under the Twitter hashtag “WhatsToCome,” @ZachPraiss has offered his Photoshopped guesses about the headlines in our nation’s future, including:
Let’s hope this comes to seem almost comically alarmist.
Host John Williams welcomed Heather Cherone, Jon Hansen and me to “The Mincing Rascals” virtual table this week. Topics discussed included the images from the Webb telescope; the announcement of a trial date for Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, and the prospect that Democratic state Rep. Aaron Ortiz will unseat him next spring; the probity of a gun raffle in Kendall County in the wake of the Highland Park mass shooting; the disenchantment of Democratic voters with President Joe Biden; what we’re learning from “Patsy Baloney” and others who are testifying to the Jan. 6 committee; and whether it was a good idea for protesters to disrupt Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s restaurant dinner.
Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can now hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720.
In Tuesday’s paid-subscriber editions, I’ve been presenting my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest because the Crowdsignal polling template does not allow the use of images. Starting this week, I’ve asked subscribers to vote up their favorite so I can include it in the Thursday’s main issue. Here’s our first winner:
Here are the new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Doctor: You should go see Pagliacci. Me: The clown? Doctor: No, the oncologist. — @blainecapatch
Shouldn’t the missionary position be standing up in a doorway? —@wakeupangry
Someone said I was the last person they’d call if they were ever in trouble and, honestly, I’ve never been so relieved. — @Parentpains
ATTENTION: Can the owner of the 'MarioKart Champion' T-shirt return to security? There are several women here who'd like to have sex with you. —@SortaBad
A lot of my confidence comes from the completely unfounded belief that, in the moment I need to, I will know karate. — @TheAndrewNadeau
I'm so lazy, I'm more of an atrophy wife. — @AngryRaccoon2
A haunted house, but for dads and all the lights are on. All of them. — @mommajessiec
Me: Waiter, this soup is cold. Waiter: It’s gazpacho. Me: Gazpacho, this soup is cold. — @nathanwpyle
“He’s learned from his mistakes,” says a woman who hasn’t. — @Reductress
First person to shoot fish in a barrel: I don’t even know how to describe how easy this is. — @Prof_Hinkley
Dad tweets, the finalists
Due to personal reasons I will be saying "aye" and "arggg" instead of yes and no from now on. Please respect my piracy during this difficult time. — @fartoothinky
What do you do if you get rejected at the sunscreen company? Reapply. — @Utopia_Soup
Why do we call them "firemen" when clearly they are water men? — @citizenkawala
Two slices of bread got married...It was going great until someone suggested toasting the bride and groom. — @tlhicks713
When a magician enumerates their chores, that’s a ta-da list — @ADHDeanASL
Me: tell me what those circle diagrams are called. Dracula: Venn. Me: now would be nice. — @clichedout
Bought a pair of Converse shoes months ago and they haven't said a single word to one another. — @AllanForsyth
Is this a poorly-lit camping store? Because I feel tents. — @ozzyunc
Got fired as a detective. I have no clue why. — @ACartoonCat
Q. What did the farmer say when he was looking for his tractor? A. "Where is my tractor?" — @hansabumsadaisy
For instructions and guidelines regarding these polls, click here.
Race to the slop
As long as the Cubs and White Sox are both under .500, I will periodically post this update comparing the teams’ records with the worst team in the majors. After Tuesday’s games:
Team Record Games back
White Sox 42-45 (.483)
Cubs 34-53 (.391)* 8
A’s/Nats 30-59 (.337) 13
*percentage corrected after posting
Can we have your liver, then?
I was disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm on social media for my caption, above, on the first image released from the James Webb Space Telescope Monday — just one retweet and three likes on Twitter!? C’mon!
Most of those points of light you see are galaxies, and the frame above reveals a distant patch of sky that’s about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. It all reminded me of the “Live Organ Transplants” sketch in Monty Python’s 1983 film “The Meaning of Life.” In that grisly portion of the movie, a British housewife played by Terry Jones is reluctant to donate until Eric Idle emerges from a refrigerator to sing “The Galaxy Song,” a sprightly ditty meant to remind the woman how tiny she truly is:
We're thirty thousand light-years from Galactic Central Point We go 'round every two hundred million years And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions In this amazing and expanding universe
“Makes you feel, so, sort of insignificant, doesn’t it?” she says when the song is over.
“Yeah,” replies the organ harvester played by John Cleese. “Can we have your liver then?”
“Yeah, all right,” she says. “You talked me into it.”
Speaking of the James Webb Space Telescope and a cosmic perspective on life, what better tune today than “From a Distance,” a song that asks us to consider all that we human beings have in common as we hurtle through space on this comparatively minuscule celestial ball.
From a distance we are instruments Marching in a common band ... From a distance you look like my friend Even though we are at war From a distance I can't comprehend What all this war is for.
It was written in 1985 by American singer-songwriter Julie Gold, and Bette Midler’s rendition won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991. But my favorite version is Nanci Griffith’s sublime take on her 1987 album “Lone Star State of Mind.” Here is a live version:
Others who have covered this song include Judy Collins, The Byrds, Kathy Mattea and Jewel. Griffith died last August at age 68.
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