Panelist Interrupted

Twitter is a great medium for hurling insults, but a terrible one for dialogue or debate.

9-30-21 (issue No. 4)

In response to readers who said they’d like to hear more of my column voice, I’m starting a new regular feature I’m calling News & Views (an unoriginal subheading, as I learned when my Google search for those words in quotes returned literally millions of results).

For ease of skimming, I’ll precede News & Views with the Tweet of the Week and I’ll usually follow it with some or all of these features: Land of Linkin’, Z-mail, Consumer Report, Minced Words (a run-down of the topics covered in the newest Mincing Rascals podcast), Cheer Chat (updates on the Songs of Good Cheer program, in season only) and, finally, the palate cleanser of Today’s Tune. Today I’m breaking format with an essay on my experience at DePaul University this week.

I wish Substack’s platform allowed direct links to each feature, but it doesn’t yet.

Tweet of the Week

The winner of last week’s poll:

A precision-minded reader suggested that “church” should be “house of worship,” as not all of those citing religious exemptions are Christians. Good point.

This week’s finalists:

  • Whenever I'm sad I think about how my boyfriend thought "antipasta" was "every Italian food that's not pasta," implying a great intra-Italian struggle between pasta and not pasta … @sarapaige__

  • Oh I get it. Fun onions ... @whatsJo

  • Every time you break up with someone, you guarantee that someday when they’re choosing baby names yours will be vetoed … @eleniZarro

  • I don't understand why I, an American, have to wait at red lights ….@Prof_Hinkley

  • I've seem to have misplaced all of my loose fitting jeans. …@a_simpl_man

  • Sticks and stones may break my bones.  I think I have a calcium deficiency. … @darksidedeb

  • Idea:  A hookup app for the elderly called "Werthr" … @BeeeejEsq

  • I’m creating intrigue by texting "We need to talk about what happened at the lake house" to all my friends and following it up with "Sorry that was meant for someone else!!"…. @i_zzzzzz

  • It’s a damn shame that you eat just one or two people and suddenly you’re a “cannibal.” …. @AmishPornStar1

  •  It’s true that you can’t fix stupid but COVID is definitely giving it the old college try … @OhNoSheTwitnt

Fill out the poll!

For poll instructions and guidelines, click here.

I’m curious to see how well the tweet referencing Werther’s Original hard candy will go over with the electorate. I’ve found many references to it online as an old person’s treat, the kind of thing grandmas and grandpas often have in a dish by the davenport. And, of course, the reason for the missing vowel at the end of the name of the app ought to need no explanation.

Will it beat the extremely dry Funyuns joke?

Why I bailed on DePaul

I was pleased to be invited to a forum Wednesday (yesterday) for journalism staff and students at DePaul University titled “Tough Times for Local Journalism.” The panel, assembled by Carol Marin and moderated by Daily Herald media blogger/columnist Robert Feder, included my former colleagues Mary Schmich, Heidi Stevens and Fred Mitchell.

Where and how will legacy media — particularly newspapers — fit into the Chicago journalism scene? What will the business model be in the increasingly online era? Is it the medium or the message that is causing defections to alternative news sources? Where will the job opportunities be? Those were the issues I expected to help address.

On Sunday, the DePaulia, a student publication at DePaul, posted a commentary by two news editors under the headline “DePaul prides itself on diversity, but invites controversial guest speaker Eric Zorn.” The authors accused me of expressing “racist views about Latinx youth and great insensitivity towards police brutality” in my April 6 Chicago Tribune column “Let’s wait before turning slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo into a martyr.” Their column did not link to nor directly quote from my column in order to substantiate this false and toxic charge.

For background: At 2:38 a.m. March 29, Chicago police Officer Eric Stillman shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo after a foot chase in an alley in the Little Village neighborhood. The officer suspected the boy was carrying a handgun. The slaying prompted protests and the claim that it was another wanton murder by police. But since the facts were still unclear more than a week later, and the body cam video hadn’t been released, I wrote this:

Activists and concerned community members are right to keep the heat on for answers. The public deserves them after any police shooting of a civilian. And they may be right that officers fired without justification and that Adam Toledo is a martyr whose killers should be prosecuted.

Or a thorough review may find that police shot in justifiable self-defense….It’s too early to say.

Many of the protesters who marched after the shooting emphasized Adam Toledo’s youth as a way of suggesting his innocence and harmlessness, and to indirectly underscore their contention that the shooting was “murder,” a term that the DePaulia editors also employed.

I wrote on April 6 that “it’s not too early to stop romanticizing and infantilizing 13-year-olds,” and listed five cases in the national news in the previous six months in which murder charges had been filed against 13-year-olds.

What do these news stories say about Adam Toledo? Nothing. They simply suggest that using his age as shorthand for innocence and harmlessness in this situation generates heat but sheds no light. He was not a “baby” (as some activists described him). A 13-year-old pointing a gun, if that’s what he did, is as dangerous as a 23- or 33-year-old, maybe even more dangerous given what we know about the lack of judgment and impulse control in adolescents.

In fact, it’s that very lack of judgment in still-developing brains that inspires the hope for growth, reform and redemption that undergirds the concept of juvenile justice. It’s what renders it immoral to impose life sentences on young offenders. It’s what makes Adam Toledo’s death a tragedy no matter what the circumstances.

I stand by those sentiments and the suggestion to avoid a rush to judgment against the officer, against Toledo or against his parents. I also stand by my follow-up column two days later in which I expressed regret for my “chilly, analytical tone” in the original piece.

In focusing on details and marshaling evidence and arguments, I can neglect the emotional resonance in situations, as though I’ve forgotten or don’t care that a child who was loved has died, and that the death of someone with so much life ahead of him is always, always a tragedy. I should have done better.

I was well and fully slammed on social media — mostly Twitter — and harshly criticized by even some of my newsroom colleagues. Most of the criticisms were brief and furious, accusing me of excusing a murderer and slandering the memory of a slain child, probably, they implied, because he wasn’t white.

Twitter is a great medium for hurling insults, but a terrible one for dialogue or debate.

Had any of these enraged critics reached out to me in other, potentially constructive ways, I would have been glad to discuss with them my broader purpose of highlighting the danger of getting caught up in emotions before the facts are in. In many of the cases of wrongful convictions that I’d covered over the years, the initial search for truth was clouded at the outset by presumption, prejudice and sympathy. Journalists, even columnists, need to take a certain dispassionate tone and sort the relevant details from irrelevant ones if they’re going to advance that search rather than just cheerlead for broader causes.

When video from the police officer’s body cam was released on April 15, a little more than a week later, it seemed to show that Adam Toledo attempted to discreetly discard a gun behind a fence as he stopped running and quickly wheeled around with his empty hands up. In a split second, the officer fired one fatal shot. At best, it was terrible mistake, the result of the officer’s self-defense reflex in the heat of the moment.

At worst, of course, it was a cold-blooded murder, possibly even also a hate crime.

Six months after the fact, though, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has yet to charge Stillman, suggesting — but not proving! — that investigators and experts in police use of force have concluded that the shooting was legally justified even though hindsight revealed it to be wholly unnecessary. Stillman remains on administrative duty. It’s too early to exonerate him.

From the DePaulia:

It is inappropriate for Zorn to speak at DePaul, which prides itself on diversity and social justice. … (the DePaul chapter of the) Society for Professional Journalists advised students to attend the in-person panel and publicly voice their concerns to Zorn himself.

To be clear, I’m more than willing to discuss the issues and concerns raised by my April 6 column with those who are truly interested in such an exploration. My email address is on that column, it’s in this newsletter, it’s in my Twitter profile.

I have a long and largely progressive record for subjecting claims in criminal cases to tough scrutiny, and I championed the causes of many wrongfully convicted men of color over the years. Further, I wrote numerous columns about Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke that decried his decision to shoot Laquan McDonald and the cover up orchestrated by others in the department.

And while I stand ready to discuss my body of work, what I wasn’t willing to do — what I chose not to do this week — was to risk turning a forum about the future of local journalism into a platform for the sort of boisterous dogpiling we’ve seen before at DePaul. Here is a passage from a column I wrote in May 2016 after an on-campus appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos sponsored by the DePaul College Republicans:

The activists snatched a microphone and refused to give up the stage as they tried to lead chants of "Dump the Trump!" "Feel the Bern!" "Black Lives Matter!" and other slogans …. When Yiannopoulos started to get in too many words edgewise, (demonstration leader Edward) Ward blew continually on a referee's whistle to drown him out.

For Wednesday’s forum to have turned into an airing of grievances against me wouldn’t have been fair to Marin, to Feder and to my former colleagues on the panel. And, to adapt a phrase from the disputed column, it likely would have generated heat but no light.

So I decided not to attend and to ask that the following statement be read to explain my absence:

I was honored to be invited to discuss “Tough Times for Local Journalism” with so many thoughtful and experienced members of the local media. There are many intriguing challenges and opportunities for legacy institutions on the digital landscape. But in recent days I learned that some of those in attendance would like to turn this into a forum to protest some of my columns pertaining to the justice system, and I concluded that my presence here would distract from the agenda and be unfair to my friends on the panel.

I’m open to anyone who wants to engage in thoughtful dialogue about my work, which continues on Substack. My email address is there and in my Twitter bio if you’d like to follow up.

Marin and her long-time producer and fellow co-director of the DePaul Center for Journalism Integrity & Excellence Don Moseley included my statement in a robust defense of me posted to the DePaulia late Tuesday:

Eric Zorn is neither a racist nor a contributor to ideologies of hate. … We believe he is entitled to express his views, controversial or otherwise, and that blocking his presence at DePaul runs counter to basic tenets of journalism. And Vincentian values as well.

And I’m told the forum stayed on topic and went forward without incident.

I was and remain concerned that I appear to have folded here, to have granted my critics the dreaded “heckler’s veto.” They wanted to prevent me from appearing at the forum and I’m guessing they felt some satisfaction to learn that in light of their objections I would not appear. They may even be telling themselves that my refusal to participate in whatever performative confrontation they had in mind signaled an acknowledgement that I have forever forfeited the right to speak on any topic at any public forum, and also signaled my fear of having to address their concerns.

But no, of course, as I hope I’ve made clear here.

I strongly dispute the characterization of that column and of my body of work, and I further consider it beyond troubling that the expression of opinions that may differ from the opinions of certain students or even the majority of students ought to bar someone from speaking on campus on any subject whatsoever. The inability of the intolerant to distinguish between poisonous hate speech and differences of opinion, tone or emphasis is troubling and it’s hardly limited to this one minor example of attempted cancellation.

Any meaningful commitment to diversity includes a commitment to diverse viewpoints.

Your thoughts?

News & Views

Arlington International Racecourse Holds Final Day of Races After Nearly 100 Years

The loss of jobs at the Northwest suburban track is sad, though a new facility on the site — likely a stadium complex for the Bears now that the team has signed an agreement to purchase the property for $197 million — is likely also to be a significant employer. Otherwise, yawn.

In 1994 I wrote a column that turned a hairy eyeball on the whole enterprise out there:

Horse racing, the so-called sport of kings, is not a sport at all. It's just an elaborate, fabled, often spectacular gambling diversion-an activity that, without the wagering action associated with it, would draw fewer spectators than your average suburban holiday parade.

A horse race, as such, is no more a sport than a dog show or a frog jumping meet. And so, logically and inevitably, it’s been eclipsed by more convenient and more understandable forms of gambling.

Real sports don't worry about losing fans to gambling. Real sports rely on the excitement, intrigue, grace, beauty and drama of the contest itself to draw spectators.

A Bears game without gambling on the side would still be a sellout. The 5th at Arlington without gambling on the side would be a washout — a bit of exercise for high-strung animals.

Tom McNamee is stepping down as head of the Sun-Times editorial board .

I was at a singing party earlier this month where McNamee, 67, played guitar and performed a very revealing song he wrote recently titled “My Old Friend Retired.” Here are a couple of verses:

My old friend retired to learn how to draw

And try to make things right with a son he never saw

He read the news in print, watched ME TV

Repainted a room to a Moody Blues CD

My old friend retired to be a boy once more

Walked the neighbor’s dog, road his bike to the store

For a cherry coke Slurpee, and five prescriptions

And off to the library, for Fiction, D and Dickens

The chorus begins with the exhortation that McNamee has now heeded: “Quit your job, Tommy…”

He’s long been a bright light at the Bright One. I hope he, too, gets to be a boy once more and that he writes more songs in retirement.

Obama Presidential Center formally breaks ground in a Jackson Park ceremony

Much as I admire former President Barack Obama, I’m increasingly skeptical that it was a good idea to cut off a hunk of one of our great lakefront parks to build a temple in his honor. It’s now pro forma for ex-presidents to raise gobs of money to erect edifices that celebrate their reigns (the Obama Center isn’t even a presidential library), and I suppose if rich people want to donate to that cause instead of far more worthy and needy causes out there, that’s their prerogative.

And if they buy the land and put up the building, well OK.

The Obamas didn’t carve out a particularly choice area of Jackson Park, true. But giving them public land — our land— sets a terrible precedent. And the idea that the OC is going to revitalize its neighborhood on the South Side strikes me as pure fantasy.

Tourists may come visit, at least until word gets out that it ain’t worth the trip. And locals may attend special events there. But my guess is that they won’t often venture off the grounds to support nearby businesses.

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia urged to scrap residential permit parking

This is tricky. Originally, I felt that the only circumstances in which residential permit parking was justifiable was when new developments in a community unexpectedly creating street-parking shortages where none had existed before. For example, when a large school or business opened up.

Otherwise, no. When you move into a congested neighborhood, scarcity of street parking is part of what you sign up for. When I lived in an apartment on Sheridan Road in the early 1980s, prowling the neighborhood for a space was a ritual every time I returned home from an excursion in my car.

We all pay for the streets and we therefore own them equally. Johanna and I were among those who firmly and successfully opposed a movement to create a permit parking zone on our Northwest Side street.

But…

For more than 40 years now, people have been buying and renting in Chicago in part based on the knowledge that the permit system will make parking easier for them and their guests. That knowledge no doubt increased property values in more than 2,000 such zones, so scrapping the permit system would lower property values in certain areas, particularly densely populated areas near the lake where a lot of wealthy, influential people live.

Therefore, book it, this idea ain’t going nowhere.

House Democrats poised to pull infrastructure vote amid stubborn stalemate

The progressives on Capitol Hill who are making the perfect the enemy of the good this week are going to find far, far more of their big dreams dashed when voters turn on the feckless, squabbling Democrats a year from November and make it nearly impossible for President Joe Biden to get anything done in his last two years in office.

Politics is the art of the possible, and right now, given the lay of the land, what’s possible is a dramatically scaled back but still urgent and useful infrastructure initiative. Without it, the Democratic moderates who now give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi her slim majority, will be turned out by the restive electorate in 2022, and instead of a full loaf the progressive won’t even be able to get crumbs.

Writing in the Hacks on Tap newsletter that he co-authors with Democratic political consultant Robert Gibbs, Republican consultant Mike Murphy writes:

Republicans …are all happily taking online Cheshire cat grin classes and preparing to print a million new “Democrats Cannot Govern, Just Raise Taxes” yard signs. All this, of course, is a huge headache for Joe Biden. Already facing tough House midterms, this is the last sort of political mess he needs.

Land of Linkin’

  • Robert Kagan’s Washington Post essay “Our constitutional crisis is already here” is so harrowing that I had to stop reading several times just to settle my nerves. The bottom line is that our republic was not crafted to withstand the machinations of a Trumpian demagogue and the Democrats aren’t up to doing what needs to be done to stop this deeply cynical, utterly corrupt party from seizing power in 2024. Have a nice day!

  • This is a COVID horror story in which no one actually gets COVID, and it could still happen to anyone is a Twitter thread by Summer Brennan, an investigative journalist and author. She writes about how a simple fall by her father resulted in a harrowing odyssey through a hospital system now stretched beyond the breaking point by the selfish people who refuse to get vaccinated.

  • If devious Democrats were conspiring to infect Republicans with a potentially fatal illness, the right would be justifiably outraged. But there’s been no need for any such conspiracy, as David Leonhardt writes in his New York Times newsletter: "Because the vaccines are so effective at preventing serious illness, Covid deaths are ....showing a partisan pattern. Covid is still a national crisis, but the worst forms of it are increasingly concentrated in red America......state-by-state numbers can understate the true pattern, because every state has both liberal and conservative areas. (But) when you look at the county level, the gap can look even starker."

  • In her Tuesday Post on Facebook, Mary Schmich resurrects the legend of archy, "a fictional cockroach invented in 1916 by Don Marquis, a daily columnist for The Evening Sun in New York City ….At night, when the newsroom was empty, archy would crawl onto Marquis’s typewriter--how convenient for the human columnist!-- and compose his deep thoughts on life, society and his adventures….”

  • Top 40 Weekly is the only popular music chart archive you’ll ever need.

  • Neil Steinberg on the potential conquest of work-from-home: “What if the guilty secret of COVID is that a big swath of white collar workers never needed to come into work, not five days a week, not two or three, not ... gulp! ... ever. What if nothing that happens at the office can possibly counterbalance the time lost commuting, and the smartest thing any business could do is ditch their physical space entirely and distribute the savings to the staff as bonuses?”

  • James Austin Johnson’s dead-on Trump impression earned him a spot on “Saturday Night Live” for the new season that starts Saturday. c Meanwhile, here in a 2015 ranking of the best SNL cast member of all time Rolling Stone had returning star Kate McKinnon as the 37th best. Paste ranked her No. 17 in a 2020 countdown; The Delite had her at No.4 earlier this year. Looking over such lists reminds you of how enormously talented many of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players are or have been.

  • Yoo-hoo Arlington Heights: When They Line Up for Stadium Deals, Cities Get Sacked, by Steve Chapman.

Z-mail

My item last week “When does a protest become newsworthy?” (scroll down; no direct link available) challenged media coverage of tiny demonstrations in a way that magnifies their significance.

The same phenomenon of media overreaction to protest is even more pronounced in social media, and more problematic. For example, if you are a corporation or elected official actively monitoring social media, you might cringe at a few negative tweets or Facebook posts, but if you're a bit smarter you'll look more deeply at the number of retweets or "shares," and perhaps then take the additional step of counting twitter and Facebook followers or clicks or other metrics. Even then you're missing depth of emotion (it's a lot easier to retweet than join a march) or motivation (maybe the retweet is an expression of disgust rather than sympathy). Thus the anti-vax/mask movement gains outsized influence, a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest is perceived as rioting and looting, and a small number of barely qualified "experts" can persuasively and wrongly claim good climate science is wrong. They are the digital equivalent of three angry people at a town hall meeting, representing no one but themselves, able to make elected leaders cower. —James G.

One would get the idea from this kind of constant coverage that the only way to effect change in our society is to yell and scream in the streets, disrupt traffic and disturb the peace. (No justice, no peace.) What was once a last resort after failing to overcome a bureaucracy (or an entire political system) now seems to be the avenue of choice for savvy activists. Perhaps it’s because they know the media are full of useful idiots. — Steve R.

Send Z-mail

Minced Words

Topics covered on this week’s Mincing Rascals podcast:

  • The Arlington Heights Bears. Will the transformation of the Monsters of the Midway to the Monsters of the Northwest Tollway damage Mayor Lori Lightfoot politically?

  • The effort to eliminate of residential permit parking in Chicago

  • Vaccine mandates for firefighters and LeBron James’ wishy-washy statement after getting his jab

  • The R. Kelly verdict and if and how we should consume the work of deeply problematic artists

  • The move by Chicago Public Media (WBEZ-FM) to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times (a move that advanced Wednesday evening.

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Cheer Chat

We’re cautiously optimistic that the ebbing of the Delta variant will allow us to host live “Songs of Good Cheer” events at the Old Town School December 10th through 12th. We have secured funding for a new video iteration of this tradition and are now thinking it will be in the form of a live-streamed concert also available for later viewing.

Our hopes for doing a more elaborate video with multiple stagings and settings ran into all kinds of scheduling conflicts. It turns out that when you have really talented bandmates, they have lots of gigs and other obligations. We’re lucky to be able to grab them for a few rehearsals and a weekend run of shows.

We’ve decided that, for audience-health reasons, we’ll not have the usual intermission that sees people crowd in the lobby and lines for the bathrooms.

Ticket sales have been so brisk that it’s now possible we’ll add a show on December 9th. Watch this space!

Buy Songs of Good Cheer tickets here

Today’s Tune

Rolling Stone’s recent listicle The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time came up last week on the Mincing Rascals, and though music is so personal and greatness so debatable that it’s all pretty absurd, I offered the opinion that, if I had to pick one song as the greatest of all time, I might pick this:

Fleetwood Mac has three songs on Rolling Stone’s list — “Dreams” at No. 9; “Landslide” at No. 163; and “Go Your Own Way” at No. 401 — but none are as interesting to my ear as the title track from the band’s 1979 album, “Tusk.” As Rolling Stone noted elsewhere, that single is

“A nervous, jittery (Lindsey) Buckingham sing-along with a mysterious title, an out-of-nowhere drum freakout, and only a handful of lyrics, with the bone-dry tom-toms mixed louder than the whispered vocals. Then there are the interjections of the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band….”

And no, “Tusk” is not a penis joke as it says in some corners of the internet. The band’s then art-director told Rolling Stone that the title was inspired by the African nature photography of Peter Beard, whose work appears in the album art.

Any mention of the idea of a "best song ever” recalls for me the fall of 1974 when CKLW-AM, a pop music station in Windsor that beamed into Ann Arbor, where I was then in high school, breathlessly counted down the top 300 songs of all time as determined by a listener vote.

What would it be? “Hey Jude,” maybe? That topped the list when the station pulled a similar stunt in 1970. Some memorable songs that had since been released, such as “American Pie” “Ain’t No Sunshine” “Killing Me Softly” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? But no. All the likely candidates for the No. 1 spot kept appearing in the countdown, which my friends and I listened to on transistor radios with the same anticipation felt by Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he finally received the Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin that allowed him to translate a secret message.

At last the moment arrived… the No. 1 song of all time was “Kung Fu Fighting,” a novelty song by Carl Douglas that also just happened to be at the top of the pop charts at that moment.

My old friends and I still joke about this when we get together, along the lines of “this is the best chicken sandwich of all time.

Clarification: Last week I credited David Allan Coe with “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” since he had a hit with it, but I should have instead highlighted that it was written by Steve Goodman and John Prine.