Can we wire shut the jaws of our gluttonous pols?
& a farewell to Gordon Lightfoot
5-4-2023 (issue No. 86)
Eric Zorn is a former opinion 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.
Tune of the Week — From Gordon Lightfoot, naturally
News and Views — On striking Hollywood writers, Willie Wilson’s new column and more
Yes, we need more critics. And local staff columnists, too
Land of Linkin’ — Where I tell readers where to go
Mary Schmich — Thoughts on the demolition of a neighboring building
Re:Tweets — Featuring the winner of the visual tweets poll and this week’s finalists
The convictions of the ‘shockingly gluttonous’ ComEd 4
The U.S. attorney’s office won what some wags referred to as the undercard bout in the G’s fight with former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. A jury on Tuesday convicted four lesser-known figures who’d been charged with conspiring to bribe Madigan to advance legislation favorable to ComEd.
The verdicts were not a surprise. Federal prosecutors rarely lose cases at the Dirksen Federal Building, particularly not corruption cases where the defense amounts to “it was just politics as usual.” And given the centrality of Madigan’s role in the schemes outlined at the trial, his prospects when he goes to trial next April look even dimmer than they did before.
After the convictions were announced, state Senate President Don Harmon memorably described the conduct of the defendants as “shockingly gluttonous,” but really? Shockingly? Others expressed the familiar hope that this development would, at last, discourage elected officials and bureaucrats from their wicked ways.
But the fact that they don’t learn — that the rate of arrests, trials and convictions of our political gluttons never abates — underscores the need for stronger ethical reforms in Springfield.
Chicago Public Media’s Dave McKinney put the focus where it belonged in his post-convction article:
Reaction from the ruling Democrats in Springfield to the convictions was swift, but devoid of any need for further reform. … And while Republicans at the statehouse may see corruption as a persistent problem, they don’t have the power to make major change.
“We have had an opportunity to tackle ethics in our statehouse for years,” said House Republican leader Tony McCombie in a statement Tuesday. “This should not have been the first step to rooting out corruption in Illinois, but after today, it is clear there must be a sense of urgency in bringing back the people’s trust in state government.”
Indeed, how far legislators are willing to invest in new ethical soul-searching this time worries reformers like Joe Ferguson, Chicago’s former inspector general. He says Illinois is ripe for ethics reforms — if only someone would do something.
“Here we are, after what is an extraordinarily dramatic trial, and it’s been crickets,” said Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor now weighing a possible run for Cook County state’s attorney. “It is abundantly clear from what has played out at this trial and what we have all learned, this is not the way we should be governed.” …
The clock is winding down on the General Assembly’s spring session, which is scheduled to adjourn on May 19th, and Democratic leadership has been neither vocal nor specific about tightening state ethics or laws any further.
The article discusses in some length proposals and ramifications.
“‘ComEd 4’ Trial Underscores Need for Strengthened Ethics Reforms,” a statement Tuesday from the Better Government Association, made a similar point:
The defendants’ case relied heavily on the blurry lines between illegal influence and legal lobbying activity. Limited financial disclosures, short cooling-off periods between elected office and lobbying jobs, and “honor system” conflict-of-interest recusals in the legislation all contribute to the overly cozy relationships in Springfield between regulators and the regulated that were put on display at the “ComEd 4” trial.
Recommendations from the Better Government Association’s state policy agenda would strengthen public disclosure for lobbyists and legislators, lengthen the cooling-off period before former legislators can lobby their onetime colleagues (and be hired by state-regulated industries to do so), and require legislators with an economic interest to publicly recuse themselves from relevant votes.
Convictions like these and Madigan’s upcoming trial present a great opportunity for leaders like Harmon, House Speaker Chris Welch and Gov. JB Pritzker to craft the toughest political ethics laws in the nation. The public will be with them. The think tanks and editorial boards and online critics will be cheering them on.
As tired as we are of these crimes and these convictions, we’re more tired of the excuses for not trying to dissuade the gluttons.
Last week’s winning tweet
Tune of the Week
Can someone please do a wellness check on Kris Kristofferson?
Kristofferson, Harry Belafonte and Gordon Lightfoot were the three main artists in the soundtrack of my youth in the 1970s. My father played their records all the time, and I thought he had cool tastes. My musical rebellion, if that’s what you could call it, was going deeper into folk and the offshoots of traditional, largely acoustic music.
Belafonte died April 25 at 96, and Lightfoot died Monday, six days later, at 84. It’s hard to pick just one Lightfoot song for the Tune of the Week, he had so many great, memorable ones, including:
“Sundown” “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” “Early Morning Rain” “If You Could Read my Mind” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” “Minstrel of the Dawn” “Old Dan’s Records” “Carefree Highway” “Circle Of Steel” “Cold On The Shoulder” "Sit Down Young Stranger" "Dream Street Rose"
But my favorite is perhaps the simplest of his hits, “Cotton Jenny,” a four-chord, somewhat countrified love song with a simple narrative he once described as “Loving work, going to the mill, get home to the family, have supper, and, if it happens, get lucky. If not, fine — wait till next week.”
She wakes me up when the sun goes down And the wheels of love go 'round Wheels of love go 'round Love go 'round, Love go 'round A joyful sound I ain't got a penny for Cotton Jenny to spend But then The wheels go 'round
It doesn’t compare for musical or lyrical sophistication with, say, the exquisite “If You Could Read My Mind,” which is analyzed ably in this video:
But I am not a musical sophisticate. The fact that Lightfoot used a G6 chord with a #11 to go from Mixolydian to Lydian mode in “If You Could Read My Mind” was lost on me until I watched this video.
Bob Dylan once said, “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. … Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Lightfoot’s obituary in The New York Times said he “sang of loneliness, troubled relationships, the itch to roam and the majesty of the Canadian landscape” and quoted Canadian writer Jack Batten describing him as a “journalist, poet, historian, humorist, short-story teller and folksy recollector of bygone days.”
On Facebook, Mary Schmich shared her enthusiasm for Lightfoot:
If I had to count on one hand the singer-songwriters who marked my heart when I was young enough to be marked that way, Gordon Lightfoot would be on that hand. I knew all the lyrics to all the songs, played the records over and over, played the songs on the piano out of books that are now tattered."If you could read my mind, love." "I was standing by the highway with a sign that just said, 'Mother.'" "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down ..." "In the early morning rain, with a dollar in my hand and an aching in my heart"
Even if you weren't a Gordon Lightfoot girl, you'll like this documentary on his complicated life. Among its charms are the way he winces in his old age at lyrics like "That's what you get for loving me" and "I'm not saying I'll be true but I'll try."
Kristofferson is 86. He is retired but appeared on stage with Roseanne Cash to sing a version of his song, “Loving Her Was Easier Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again.”
That song was a Tune of the Week back in December 2021.
News & Views
News: Striking Hollywood writers are seeking to limit the use of Artificial Intelligence in creating scripts.
View: I get the impulse, and I’m rooting for the writers in this strike as they fight to prevent efforts to turn them from salaried employees to gig workers.
But when in history has it ever been effective when workers have demanded that technological progress be halted or even dramatically curtailed in order to save their jobs?
One of the Writers Guild of America proposals online is “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material and (union written) material can’t be used to train AI.” The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers reportedly rejected this proposal and countered with an offer to meet annually “to discuss advancements in technology.”
AI right now generates pretty crappy content, but we’re in the early stages of the revolution, and all assurances that AI will never match the power of the creative human mind should be regarded as hopeful and perhaps naive.
The writers are clearly worried that it will one day — soon? — provide genuine competition and threaten their livelihoods. Otherwise, why make it a bargaining issue?
View: Mary was my first editor when I joined the Tempo section as an intern 43 years ago this month. She was patient, collaborative, creative and kind to a kid trying to find a place for himself in a huge, competitive newsroom. Among her many innovations was starting Tempo’s “Scene” column, a place where staffers could try their hands at writing personal essays without the burden of having to generate two or three a week. It was in that space I got a feel for what I ended up doing at the Tribune for most of my career.
So farewell and thanks again to “Mary K,” an early friend and champion.
News: Elon Musk messaged “You suck” to the NPR reporter who did the story on Musk’s plan to give the network’s Twitter handle to another company.
View: The story was straightforward and Musk is a petulant, vengeful child. Bill Maher’s failure to ask him challenging questions during last Friday’s “Real Time”
tongue-bath interview was appalling.
News: Willie Wilson to write series of exclusive columns for Tribune’s opinion section
View: Oh, for goodness’ sake! Wilson, a gasbag perennially rejected by voters, has never shown more than a surface understanding of the issues of our time, and labors under the delusion that merely because he’s a successful business owner and generous philanthropist, he should hold high office. Now the Tribune is fueling his delusions by giving him a column space every other Thursday.
News: Tribune editorial headline reads, “Enough with fake newspapers where propaganda masquerades as news.”
I hate these fake publications, too, and the editorial makes an excellent case why they are a threat to democracy. But the suggestion that “Republican Party leaders … recognize the folly of continuing to rely on” propaganda sheets that look like newspapers or risk “self-inflicting more wounds” is not supported by any evidence that this deceptive tactic is ineffective. In fact the growth and prevalence of impostor rags suggests that Republicans (and Democrats, the editorial acknowledges) are finding them a useful means of voter persuasion.
News: My high school has limited the use of prop guns in its year-end production of “Oklahoma.”
View: Though this move was seen by many as a form of censorship even in liberal Ann Arbor, Michigan where I grew up, it struck me as a fair compromise:
Ann Arbor Pioneer High School students will eliminate the use of guns in instances that aren’t central to the plot.
The modified version of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical will, however, feature a couple of scenes where prop guns are used and gunshots are fired to stay true to the original dialogue and story. (MLive)
There will be two gunshot sound effects as the guns are pointed to the ceiling and “fired” to stay true to the dialogue and the story, according to (a joint statement from the Pioneer High School Theater Guild and Ann Arbor Public Schools). Gunfire will be simulated with a percussion rimshot by the high school orchestra. Additionally, a character holds a prop gun to threaten another character, which is integral to a musical number in the show. …
Jeff Gaynor, an Ann Arbor Schools board member (said) that … the board has received one email supporting the play change, and 48 urging the musical to be performed in its traditional form.
(Gaynor wrote to administrators that) the changes demanded by the administration were “absurd” and “censorship,” and will “hit the local and likely national media, and we'll be the laughingstock of the country.
“It’s theater,” Gaynor wrote. “People know the difference” between a cowboy musical and real life gun violence.” (Bridge Michigan)
It’s a symbolic gesture in response to gun violence — futile, probably, like most efforts to limit the carnage. But I say this adaptation is understandable under the circumstances and no big deal. You?
Yes, Tribune, adding more cultural critics would be a good start
In an op-ed in Monday’s Tribune, former senior arts editor at The Washington Post Christine Ledbetter explained “Why the loss of newspaper cultural critics hurts us as citizens.”
The theater, music, movie, fashion, book, dance and architectural critics who once populated the nation’s media have been systematically eliminated at our beleaguered newspapers. … Critics have long been indispensable guides in teaching us how to be cultural citizens, illuminating our interior world with ideas and providing history through the lens of arts commentary. They grow our horizons, prompting us to imagine different perspectives. They are needed now more than ever as our country grapples with small ideas, diminished vision, polar thinking and insularism.
Ledbetter pegged her essay to the layoff last November of The Washington Post’s dance critic Sarah Kaufman, her former colleague.
I doubt it makes economic sense for most newspapers to have critics regularly covering the comparatively niche fields of dance, fine art, classical music or architecture, but I do think there ought to be a place for culture critics at large. And there is a burning need in town for media critics to illuminate and analyze the large and influential information industry in town.
There is also a need at the Tribune, in particular, for locally based staff columnists — social and political critics, if you will — to “grow our horizons (and prompt) us to imagine different perspectives … as our country grapples with small ideas, diminished vision, polar thinking and insularism.”
A raft of us left almost two years ago, and not one staff member has been designated a columnist. Freelancers and failed political candidates aren’t filling the gap, as a media critic would tell you. And that gap is also hurting us as citizens.
Land of Linkin’
At Capitol Fax, Isabel Miller offers a useful rundown of the depredations of right-wing legislatures and laws around the country, like the story of a Florida woman compelled to carry a doomed fetus for three months.
How to apply for your share of Facebook’s $725 million settlement in privacy suit: “People who had an active U.S. Facebook account between May 2007 and December 2022 have until Aug. 25 to enter a claim (at
https://facebookuserprivacysettlement.com/#submit-claim). Individual settlement payments haven’t yet been established because payouts depend on how many users submit claims and how long each user maintained a Facebook account.”
If you are interested in the “No Mow May” idea — “let the wild flowers in your lawn bloom, providing a feast of nectar for our hungry pollinators … just for the month of May. In this way, smaller plants like clover, daisies, dandelions, selfheal and clover will get a chance to flower and give pollinators a head-start” — you might want to read some dissenting views on the practice, including this infographic from the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association.
As gender becomes a more fluid concept and trans and nonbinary people achieve greater recognition, expect to see more stories such as this account in Slate of the coming evolution in pairs figure skating and “How Do We Solve a Problem Like Gendered Tony Categories?” in Vulture.
You may be wondering what has happened to Johanna Zorn’s occasional column of podcast recommendations for the Picayune Sentinel. Well, she’s been busy helping edit podcasts, such as those on WBEZ-FM’s “Curious City” feed and the great new series on the water crisis out West, “Thirst Gap: Learning to live with less on the Colorado River,” from producer Luke Runyon at KUNC-FM, an NPR affiliate in Colorado.
The Tribune’s Will Lee had another terrific tale on the front page Sunday: “Once seen as a success story for life after prison, he’s now accused of double murder. Again.” Thoroughly reported, artfully structured, never didactic.
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
On written responses
Chicago writer and former Tribune reporter Steve Rhodes tweeted last Thursday at ProPublica: “You are under no obligation to accept written responses to your queries. Norfolk Southern refused to answer your questions, plain and simple, and you should say so.”
He was referring to the following passage in “As Rail Profits Soar, Blocked Crossings Force Kids to Crawl Under Trains to Get to School,” an investigation in Northwest Indiana by the not-for-profit newsroom in conjunction with Gray Television/InvestigateTV:
In written responses to questions, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said children climbing through their trains concerns the company.
“It is never safe for members of the public to try to cross the cars,” spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said. “We understand that a stopped train is frustrating, but trains can move at any time and with little warning — especially if you are far from the locomotive where the warning bell is sounded when a train starts.”
He said trains routinely sit in Hammond for a number of reasons: That section of track is between two busy train intersections that must remain open; Norfolk Southern can’t easily move a train backward or forward, because that would cut off the paths for other trains, which could belong to other companies. And Hammond is a suburb of Chicago, which is the busiest train hub in the nation, creating congestion up and down the network.
He said Norfolk Southern is working to identify an area where trains can stage further down its line and to have less impact on the community. The company will also review its procedures to see whether its trains can give louder warnings before they start moving. (ProPublica reporters witnessed trains in Hammond start moving without warning.) Spielmaker said that train schedules vary so much that giving Hammond one might not be helpful. He said that the company is in “constant communication” with local officials, and that representatives will discuss any proposed fixes with Hammond.
Rhodes has advanced similar complaints before. He rightly believes in the value of real-time, conversation-style Q&A in which reporters can immediately ask follow-up questions and challenge assertions and evasions. This is particularly important when the interview is at least potentially adversarial.
I don’t feel it’s particularly important to seek or even request real-time conversation when a reporter is seeking input from an expert on a particular issue or problem — in fact, rather than catch such sources cold and quote the first thoughts out of their mouths, I think it’s often better for reporters to allow sources time to compose their thoughts in writing so the thoughts are precise and coherent. Written responses also lower the risk of misunderstandings between journalist and source.
The job of a journalist is to impart truthful information as accurately as possible. And if the reporter had been asking Norfolk Southern for, say, its history as a company, a concise, considered written response would be preferable for use in a story.
When challenging the company about the dangers posed by where it parks its trains, an in-person interview is best and a phone interview is second best. But to decline the offer of written answers to questions and to then tell readers that the company refused to respond to questions is inaccurate.
It’s also irresponsible.
ProPublica could have written, “Norfolk Southern officials said they would respond to our questions only in writing and we refused to accept their terms,” but doing so would have deprived readers the ability to learn the company’s response and to judge that response accordingly.
As the story stands, readers can make of the written responses what they will.
Mary Schmich: Demolition Lessons
My former colleague Mary Schmich posts occasional column-like entries on Facebook. Here, reprinted with permission, is her most recent offering:
The four-unit building next to my ancient Chicago six-flat recently sold for $2.6 million. This week a demolition crew arrived to tear it down. The lot is destined for a single-family home that will sell for between $7 and $8 million and offer a “five-stop elevator” to a penthouse and skydeck.
The bricks and wood that seemed so solid, that provided the protection of what someone called home, may as well be cotton candy.
The demolition of old houses—bungalows, three-flats, graceful wood frame houses—is constant on my street and the ones around it. Virtually all are replaced by mansions in the style of fortresses. Some are handsome in their way but it’s hard not to sense that something’s being lost.
The building being demolished in these photos had zero charm so it’s no great loss, unlike so many of the others. But the dust and noise never end, and as the demolition continues it has inspired these thoughts:
Nothing humans construct lasts forever.
A wrecking machine can gobble up a building almost as fast as I eat dinner.
Instead of getting mad, get interested.
I could curse the dust and noise. And I do. But I feel better—even kinda happy—when I watch and wonder: Exactly how are they doing that?
There are people— e.g. demolition and construction workers— who know how to do things I will never know how to do.
Odds are, the people buying these mansions don’t know either. I know whose team I want to be on when the apocalypse comes and the survivors have to build from scratch.
Panelist Brandon Pope gave us a sneak preview of his interview with Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson to kick off this week’s episode of "The Mincing Rascals" podcast. The interview will air on this week’s episode of WCIU-TV’s “On The Block.” Pope joined Austin Berg, Jon Hansen, host John Williams and me for a run through the week’s news. 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 the pre-show video, above, Williams shared details of his recent vacation while I fussed with my various earpieces and tried to get my sound to work.
Prior to last week’s show, the panelists shared some of their life’s regrets on the pre-pod video that WGN posted too late for inclusion in the Picayune Sentinel.
In Tuesday’s paid-subscriber editions, I present my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest in which the template for the poll does not allow the use of images. Subscribers vote for their favorite, and I post the winner here every Thursday:
Hard to tell if this particular “Waldo” tombstone is Photoshopped, but I’ve seen other images that pretty clearly seem original but with less clever captions. Funny/odd tombstone photos are a thing.
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
If you burned CDs for the car so your original copies wouldn't get scratched, it's time to schedule your colonoscopy. — @benboven1
I get home late, dead tired, and see my name in big, bloody letters on the bedroom wall. And I'm like, nope, I will deal with this in the morning. — @Leemanish
My wife’s upset at me. I’m going to cheer her up and ask our nine-year-old to play “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. — @Chhapiness
Be kind. You never know what someone is going through. For instance, I'm going through this tub of ice cream. — @shopkins776
I'm laughing all the way to the bank and laughing right past the bank without actually stopping at the bank. I have no business at the bank. — @oldfriend99
Falsely accusing someone of being a contrarian is absolutely brutal. What can they say to that? — @_radsy
Traveling is nice, but there's nothing like being back among one's full complement of toiletries. — @mimismartypants
Me: I quit, here's my badge and gun. Head Lifeguard: Your what? — @Browtweaten
Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Hate me because I’m the witch of your small coastal town that has been turning locals into twisted forest trees though you can’t seem to prove it even with your wealth of experience as a big city detective. — @Jamberee13
If I had a twin and I was older than them by a few minutes, I'd start every conversation with "When I was your age" and describe something that just happened to me. — @karanbirtinna
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