The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Monday, July 30, 2007

When fear (about everything) lurks around every corner

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

I'm done. I'm alarmed out. Alarm numbness has set in.

There's no escaping the alarms about our lives, nation, globe and universe. The number of alarms issued by experts, politicians and media has become, well, alarming. Everywhere we turn, we're greeted with more "alarming" news. NBC's evening news guy Brian Williams, for one, can't seem to get through a single show without once saying, "In alarming news, ..."

Alarming news about our health, children, marriage, weather, life savings, retirement, schools, national security, politics, religion, driving, environment?go ahead, name any topic, and you'll discover something alarming about it. So many alarms are going off at the same time that it has become impossible to know which one we ought to be alarmed about. Or, we're so overwhelmed, we can't pay attention to any of them.

Take a ride on Google News, and you'll find stories about "alarming cop vacancies," "alarming evolution of germs," "young pitching arms breaking down at alarming rates," "reducing the alarming trade gap," "the alarming spread of fascism in Putin's Russia," "car rental excise taxes proliferate at alarming rate," "alarming rise in global HIV," "teen sex trends hit alarming plateau," "Kashmir battles alarming increase in suicides," "alarming increase" in multiple driving-under-the influence cases in Sheboygan County, "alarming number of tourists go without travel insurance." This, in just a few hours.

Wait, breaking news; this just in from a Google News alert: The dry spell in Northern Luzon threatens a "very alarming impact on agriculture, water resources, health conditions and energy supply" and could last months, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration said.

Now back to our regular programming: The European Union says it is "very alarming" that not enough companies have "independent directors" on their boards to limit the potential of abuse. "Very alarming," I guess is one notch above merely alarming, which is akin to just an orange, rather than a red, homeland threat level.

None of which may be as alarming as the two-for-one alarm, as in the "double dose of alarming reports" that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) cited when arguing that America should get out of Iraq pronto. Which makes, I should imagine, the alarming report of thousands of dead carp in Ontario's cottage country only half as alarming. Which is about as much "cause for alarm" as the bazookas, snakes and toys stuffed with narcotics making their way into Canada through the mail.

Rates are alarming -- whether increasing or decreasing, such as "anorexia [in India] rising at an alarming rate," or "Tibet warming at an alarming rate." Most frequently alarming, of course, is global alarming, err, warming. Even in Chattanooga, Tenn., the local Kiwanis Club couldn't escape a professor's warning that "global warming trends are alarming" and that "it's kind of like we're running out of time." From China we hear about "glaciers melting at alarming rate."

Health alarms are prolific and sometimes conflicting, such as "84 percent of sunscreen products are harmful to health, says alarming [study]." If you're befuddled by that, plenty of clear-cut health alarms are available: "[The World Health Organization] warns of alarming health situation in Sri Lanka," "Aluminum and possible alarming health hazards," "Alarming health statistics -- Obesity," "New research reveals alarming increase in mental health prejudice," "Alarming health effects of global warming," "secondhand smoke is an 'alarming' public health hazard," "Rising trade in human organs is alarming," on and on to dumbfounding lengths.

The job of alarming us has turned into a mega business. The alarmers usually are found lurking in non-profit "public-interest" groups, whose members make a profitable living spinning out news releases about the latest "risk" at dizzying speed. An editor who tries to read and evaluate them all is guaranteed permanent brain damage. Reporters who try to verify every claim end up disappearing into a quagmire of minutiae.

Perhaps we haven't gone far enough. We need a company (consultants take note) that can rate the alarms for everyone. A 10 would be a comet five minutes away from hitting New York City. A 1 or a 0 would be anything that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) calls alarming.

Far be it for me to diminish the importance of any of these alarms, but we need a breather. The act of being alarmed is a subjective thing, rooted in the mind and emotions of the beholder. If I'm alarmed, I'll know it. I don't need the likes of Brian Williams and the rest of alarmhood to tell me when I'm scared. So, just shut up, will ya; we are all exhausted.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Is 61 years in prison enough retribution?"

"Notorious triple murderer William Heirens seeks parole yet again."

The Chicago Tribune asks this question in a featured story and the correct answer is: For this child murderer, 61 years is not enough. He should spend the rest of his life there, as was intended in the first place.

But, yet again, we're being asked to (a) have mercy on this diabetic old guy because he's been in prison long enough, and (b) let him out because he's no murderer, the poor guy.

This public plea for forgiveness/justice comes around as regularly as Halley's Comet, ever since Heirens became the poster boy for the "wrongful conviction" crowd. Freeing William Heirens would be their crowning achievement, a blow against a criminal justice system that they believe is inherently flawed. Heirens confessed to his crimes, not that it mattered to these folks. They're playing Heirens to inflate their celebrity, because that's how they get the grants and contributions that keep the game going.

The wrongful conviction crowd has done quite well for itself, freeing a number of prisoners whose DNA has contradicted the evidence of their guilt. They've done fine work in exposing the brutality that was allowed to continue for too long in the Chicago Police Department. We all should be glad when innocent people are freed, even though its not clear whether the guilty received undeserved forgiveness with the innocent when former Gov. George Ryan freed or commuted sentences for a bunch of them. Ryan's was a cynical act, designed to burnish his image in the face of his own criminal prosecution. It didn't work, but the wrongful conviction folks were pleased to have him on their side. In a way, they deserved each other.

Heirens didn't have the benefit of DNA evidence back in the 1940s when he pleaded for his life for the grizzly murder of Suzanne Degnan and two others. Suzanne was snatched from her bedroom and later found dismembered in Chicago's sewer system. Heirens says he was coerced to confess to escape the state's own grizzly justice in the electric chair.

Heirens and his handlers have this down to a fine art, coming up with a question here, a seeming inconsistency there and a Plan B finger pointed at someone else. Just enough "evidence" to raise doubts about Heirens' guilt.

But it's BS.

I'm not going to go into the details yet again; years ago when this waltz started I interviewed the prosecutors at the time at length, examined the documents and talked to the Degnan family about their own certitude. I'll just say that I believed then that they got the right guy, and I still believe it. The criminal justice system 60 years ago intended that he should be in prison the rest of his life, and that's where he belongs--not just for the brutality of his crimes, but for the integrity of the system.

Heirens' handlers, though, aren't dummies. Quite the contrary; they've got great PR savvy and a determination to never give up on their poster boy. First, they thought that they could convince everyone that Heirens was innocent, so he could be freed with no strings attached in front of the cameras in what would be a beautifully self-serving PR coup.

No one other than the ideologically blind bought this innocence line though, so it required a change in strategy: We won't talk about his guilt; we'll play the compassion card. This poor old guy has suffered enough. Who can he hurt now? He long ago met the criteria for parole. He's the longest serving prisoner in Illinois history.

Having previously learned a lesson about how negative public reaction can sink Heirens' bid for freedom, they kept a low profile this time. The problem was that they needed to put some public pressure on the parole board without giving the Degnans and opposing forces time to make their voices heard. So, the plan was to allow an in-prison interview with the pathetic creature, so that a mostly sympathetic story would appear a few days before the parole board hearing. Make it a big spread complete with a tape of the harmless old guy in his wheel chair. No tape, of course, of the Degnan family or the prosecutors. And from Heirens, not a word of contrition or of comfort to the victims' families. Ever.

It's a simple plan, and so far it's working beautifully. The TV cameras will be there when Heirens is wheeled out prison and into the waiting arms of his handlers. They'll receive their plaudits and more grants will flow. And during it all, a little girl's brutal murder will be forgotten

Monday, July 23, 2007

Politicians mucking up arguments

As Indiana approves the expansion of a BP refinery, Illinois officials muddy real issues

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

The cynic might say that Mayor Richard M. Daley is making a stink about increased Lake Michigan pollution from a planned expansion of a BP refinery because he wants to avert attention from allegations that an old friend of his had mob connections.

Daley is going full tilt in his fight against Indiana and Washington approvals of the $3.8 billion upgrading of BP's Whiting, Ind., refinery because it supposedly will degrade the lake with more "sludge" and ammonia. His outrage has flowed. "That is our drinking water. That is our economic development. That is our recreation," Daley exclaimed with such passion that it might have left the impression that we're going to find viscous, black muck oozing from our faucets. Not missing the hint, the Park District (read: the taxpayers) is organizing a petition drive to flood the Indiana governor with "thousands" of signatures.

Happily for Daley, this cross-border assault on us by Indiana came just as a key witness in the Family Secrets mob trial was talking about how a Daley pal -- Fred Barbara -- helped bomb a suburban restaurant in the early 1980s. Daley wasn't as forthcoming with reporters about that, so the cynics might be right about the BP expansion being a handy diversion.

Not being a cynic, I think that the explanation is simpler: opportunity. Opportunistic politicians -- such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who can be counted on to demagogue anything handy, and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), desperate to appease his increasingly liberal North Shore constituency -- are making similar stinks. Opportunity, as in a chance to ride the wave of ill-informed and knee-jerk criticism that is pounding the shore.

I'm as devoted to maintaining the cleanliness of the Great Lake as the next guy who never goes in the water because it's always too cold, or because the suburbs near my home charge "non-residents" outrageous prices just to sit on the beach.

But the level of discourse about this project has been anything but rational or informed. Consider the critics' reference to the sludge that supposedly is going to crud up the lake. The description conjures up 19th Century images of thick, viscous blobs of muck percolating from a filthy concrete culvert into the lake.

Just for the record -- and everyone is allowed to argue with it -- here is the company's response to the assertion that it will be pouring sludge into the lake, an explanation I don't see much mentioned by the critics: There is no sludge in the discharges.

Sludge refers to the concentrated larger solids that are removed by treatment from the wastewater before any discharge into the lake. Sludge is disposed of as a solid waste; it never reaches the lake. Tiny dispersed solids, too small to be caught by the treatment's fine filters, do reach the lake; they are about 10 microns in size (1/25,000 of an inch.) The 20 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged daily into the lake is 99.999 percent water; the remaining 0.001 percent is mostly two kinds of salt -- chloride and sulfate -- and even tinier amounts of nutrients, organics and metals, most of which are found naturally in Lake Michigan.

The critics like to say, as a matter of shorthand, that BP wants to "dump" 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more "sludge" into the lake every day. But citing percentages alone is misleading without reporting the huge raw number upon which the percentages are based. In fact, a 35 percent increase in maximum daily particulates translates into an increase of less than a dozen parts per million. The actual increase would be more on the order of 8 parts per million. Same infinitesimal increases apply to ammonia.

BP notes that if the wastewater were toxic under the definitions and regulations of the 1977 Clean Water Act, no discharge would be allowed. Simply stated, according to the company, the current or planned discharge is not toxic; it is not harmful to humans or aquatic life. If you don't believe that, then argue with the legal limits.

These kinds of technical and legal arguments deserve airing, as the critics demand. Certainly, you can argue with the facts and the company's interpretations of them but that would be a vast improvement over the current level of hysterical discourse. This is a monumentally complicated technical issue, one that is too easily simplified. That's understandable, because we all yearn to have the world explained in simple, comprehensible terms. Passion in arguing the issue is OK. But that doesn't excuse the politicians and BP's

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chicago Proposes 401(k) Accounts for Transit Workers

By Dennis Byrne
Budget and Tax News

A groundbreaking effort to switch a public employee pension system from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan is underway in Chicago.

The Chicago Transit Authority wants to follow a growing trend in the private sector toward a 401(k)-type retirement system in which the employer and employee make regular contributions into a retirement account controlled by the employee. Supporters say this approach can save taxpayers money while still providing solid retirement income for state workers.

A CTA spokeswoman said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the state's most powerful Democrat, has signed on to the retirement restructuring.

Read more at Budget and Tax News

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More subsidies for the wealthy

The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, whose merger is a done deal, pride themselves on being an arena for the pure marketplace. At least that's what we hear whenever some regulator suggests that it should increase its oversight. The very thought is enough to choke on an option.

Yet, along comes Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley suggesting that the city "absolutely" give the merged companies a multi-million-dollar subsidy to stay in town. Not that anyone had seriously threatened a move as a result of the merger, but you never know, right? Maybe it's just a wedding present, who knows? The money would come from a city tax increment finance district, a neat way that government increases our tax burden without us feeling like we've been burdened.

Considering the controversy surrounding TIFs, it'll be interesting to see just how seriously the two exchanges take their own free market credo. If offered the money, will they take it, or will they stand on principle? Maybe we could make a futures market on the outcome.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Benchmarking the Iraq war

Careful reading of report shows patience required

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

The Bush administration's report to Congress on the status of the Iraq war on balance should give Americans encouragement -- if they'd bother to read the document themselves instead of just listening to the back-and-forth rhetoric.

Instead, before President Bush's critics even had time to skim it, they, like our Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, were taking potshots that were too simple-minded to deal with here. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in truly ridiculous fashion, didn't wait until the end of Bush's news conference last week before concluding that the president's "policy has failed." No doubt, editorials and commentaries -- with only superficial examination of the report -- will repeat the same the policy-has-failed line.

But it hasn't -- at least not as badly as the harshest critics would have it -- as any fair, careful reading of the report would show. Don't bother e-mailing me that only Bush the Evil Idiot and Bush lickspittles would say such a thing; let's look at the 18 assessments of the war made by the report.

Many news accounts said that "only" eight benchmarks recorded satisfactory progress, implying that the other 10 were failures. I don't know how someone came up with the number, but the way I read it is: eight successes, four mixed, one "progress but not enough" and five unsatisfactory to varying degrees.

Satisfactory progress has been made on: forming a constitutional review committee and completing the review; moving ahead with legislation to form semiautonomous regions in Iraq; establishing political, media, economic and service groups to support increased Baghdad security; providing three trained-and-ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations; establishing all of the planned joint-security stations in Baghdad neighborhoods; protecting the rights of minority political parties in the Iraq legislature; and allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.

Significantly, the report said Iraq has made satisfactory progress in ensuring that Baghdad doesn't become a safe haven for, in Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's words, "outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation." As a result, the discovery of weapons caches there has tripled since last year because of "an erosion of insurgent safe havens."

The report gave a mixed review on establishing new election law procedure and reducing the level of sectarian violence. Benchmarks for granting a general amnesty and disarming sectarian militias could not be rated either way because the "right conditions are not currently present" for their accomplishment.

In what I would place in a separate "not-satisfactory-now, but-progress-is-being-made" category is making Iraq Security Forces evenhanded in its enforcement actions. The report noted "significant progress," but its "overall judgment" was unsatisfactory because "we are holding the ISF to a high standard." As they should.

That leaves five "unsatisfactory" ratings in areas of: de-Baathification (reconciliation) reform; equitable distribution of oil supplies; insulating military commanders from political influence; increasing the number of ISFs to operate independently; and ensuring that political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against ISF members. It's not as if nothing was happening. While rating progress on these benchmarks as unsatisfactory, the report said that no revisions to current plans or strategies are required to achieve some of these benchmarks because progress is being made.

Obviously, this is the Bush administration's view of things, and while events change daily, the report is, in its own words, reflective of "trend data" and "trajectory." Many Americans see only U.S. casualty figures as a measure of the war's success or failure -- and that's certainly a legitimate measure -- but it's also important to have a longer view. That longer view says some things are working, and some things need to have time to work, raising the question: If a policy appears to be working, or soon will be, how rational is it to abandon that policy?

Clearly, the report ought to give pause for more thoughtful examination by knee-jerks like Obama and Durbin. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) had it right: "There is nothing in this report that should justify anyone who's not already made up their minds that they want to retreat from Iraq to vote to mandate a retreat from Iraq. The report is too mixed. There's too much on the line in Iraq."

Instead, we get the monumentally irresponsible Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) thoughtlessly intoning: "It would be immoral to wait until September to change a failed policy." To the contrary, abandoning that policy now in the face of progress would be immoral.

Sex abuse victims get shafted again

The Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $660 million to 508 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. Considering how the church allowed this outrage to continue for decades, the amount isn't unreasonable.

But wait, the victims won't be getting a lot of that money. The plaintiffs' attorneys can expect to receive as much as 40 percent of the $660 million settlement money for their work.

No doubt that some of that money will go to Democratic candidates who have financed their campaigns with lush contributions from trial lawyers. Just how indebted the Democrats are to the trial lawyers was demonstrated again yesterday as five of the Democratic presidential candidates came to Chicago to personally vie for the attorneys' support. The kiss-ups at the assembly of trial lawyers were Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.), Joseph Biden (Del.), former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Richardson was the only non-lawyer among the candidates.

None of the candidates had to say it, but the trial lawyers can continue to count on the Democrats to kill real tort reform, as long as the lawyers keep the money flowing.

It's the ideology, stupid

There continue to be reports of wide-spread amazement that the Liverpool bombers turned out to be doctors. This wonderment usually is expressed by folks who look to the old standbys--poverty and education denied--to explain harmful, illegal and, dare I say it, evil acts.

"How do physicians who have taken an oath to do no harm commit such acts?" is how it usually is asked. The question is dangerously naive. We've known for years that the terrorists, the leadership most certainly, have risen from a well-educated, middle and sometimes upper class.

Yet, whenever President George W. Bush reminds us that we are engaged in a world-wide war against an ideology, he's portrayed as a lunatic. Now that everyone can no longer deny that's the case, perhaps we can get some realistic ideas from Democrats about how they would fight this war.

Divisive diversity

You can have diversity as long as it is not divisive. That's apparently the operating rule in Kansas City, Mo., where the appointment of a member of the anti-illegal immigration group, the Minutemen, to the city's Parks and Recreation board has angered the diversity guardians.

The Wall Street Journal today reported (subscription required) that the clash erupted after the Kansas City Star outed Frances Semler, 73, who believes "...very strongly in obeying the law," as a Minutemen member. It didn't take long, the Journal reported, for the ruckus to start:

The city's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau held a new conference on June 14 to9 condemn the appointment. Later that day, the city council, voting 9 to 3 adopted a resolution calling for Mrs. Semler's removal from the parks board.

Beth Gottstein, a board member who voted for the removal, said, quite predictably, "This is about racism and divisiveness--everything we are not supposed to be about."

In case you're confused, as I was, Gottstein wasn't talking about her vote to oust someone from the board because of her views and associations ("Are you or have you ever been a member of the Minutemen?). Bouncing someone off a public body because of her views and affiliations smacks of the old Communist witchhunts and feels like the kind of divisiveness that violates the First Amendment. No, Gottstein was talking about Semler's views and affiliations, which are not illegal and, to many Americans, not even offensive.

Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who appointed Semler, is standing by her woman, refusing to remove her. "Diversity," he said succinctly , "is also about the diversity of views."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The South Side Sun-Times?

Here's wishing the best of success to Cheryl L. Reed, the new Chicago Sun-Times editorial page editor. I have something of an interest in the fate the paper's commentary section, having served under four editorial page editors at the Sun-Times over a 12-year-span. I also wish her the best in taking the commentary section into a new direction, one that she says will be passionate liberal. Reclaiming its historic, liberal past is a suggestion I made with another editorial board member more than a decade ago. It didn't fly. It wasn't my first suggestion that didn't.

Some folks will doubt that I ever made the suggestion because of my conservative views, and that's fine. When I joined the board in 1986, I was a liberal, but for reasons to tedious to go into here I switched sides. It had nothing to do with who owned the paper, and--this needs to be said loudly--nor did much of the newspaper's day-to-day editorial policy.

It has become standard wisdom to say that the paper's owners, after its sale to Rupert Murdoch in 1984, was turned into a conservative newspaper. The assumption is made mostly by people who don't know what they're talking about. Whatever the perceived shift , it was the function of who was serving on the board. And while a number of board members were conservatives, many also were liberal. Indeed, some of them would be insulted to be called conservative

Board members always prided themselves on approaching each issue separately and taking a position based on its merits. It put us somewhere in the political middle and to the right of the board headed by well-respected Lois Wille in the day's before the Field brothers betrayed their heritage by selling the paper. On some issues, we took conservative positions; on others liberal. So, I still grate when I hear the paper's editorial page routinely called conservative.

The point here? I'm asking for fairness for all those editors, deputy editors and editorial writers who did their jobs conscientiously and honestly; they don't deserved to be labeled, or to be defamed with the conservative tag. And I sincerely hope that Reed extends to the new board members, who she says will be more reflective of the city's population, the same respect and freedom that I and my co-workers were granted by our editors. Among them was Steve Huntley, one of the most decent persons I know, who has moved along from editorial page editor to be a featured columnist. I know that Steve will bring distinction to the paper.

I have just one nit to pick: In a piece on the direction of the newspaper, Reed said:

Chicagoans, whether they drive a Mercedes or a rust heap, identify with hard work and hard workers. Many have risen from Chicago's middle class bungalows to lake-view condos but still root for the underdog Cubs or the South Side Sox. Being in the Midwest -- that whole Second City thing -- makes us all underdogs. [Emphasis added.]
I believe it wasn't an intentional slight. But if she was looking for descriptive for the Sox, she could have referred to them as the city's last World Champions. She needs to know that it's the Chicago White Sox, if she wishes her section to be viewed by the city's blue collar, working-class folks as one of them, or as their spokesman. After all, it's not the North Side Cubs or the South Side Museum of Science and Industry, the South Side Soldier Field or the University of South Side Chicago.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Farm Bill Cometh

By Dennis Byrne

It's hard to imagine Bill Gates, that high-tech icon, as a farmer. Yet, he has bought up hundreds of acres of Illinois farmland, putting the world's richest man in line for federal agriculture aid, just like any other American farmer.

Agribusiness; perhaps no other endeavor reaps as government aid. But all that aid will disappear on Sept. 30, when the 2002 farm authorization act expires--unless, of course, Congress passes a new one. And considering the powerful special interests at work, it's a safe bet that Congress will pass the 2007, on time and with as much or more largesse.

Gates, the good businessman that he is, can't be blamed for making a small--for him--investment in farmland, which is in high demand right now, and consequently, quite pricey. Crain's Chicago Business reported July 2 that Gates has spent $14 million buying Illinois farmland since 2006. Gates also owns 20 percent of California-based Pacific Ethanol Inc., the holder of almost $65 million worth of American farmland. Gates, the publication said, was positioning himself to benefit from the boom in ethanol, which is made from corn, soybeans and other biomass generated down on the farm.

Read more at RealClearPolitics

Friday, July 13, 2007

Chicago jury convicts a British lord

Chicago juries are in the habit of sending their own politicians to prison for a startling variety of corrupt acts, but none that I know of has had the pleasure of sending an esteemed member of the British House of Lords to the jug.

This will be a shock to their lordships, but Chicago juries recognize a fraud when they see one, even though the British peerage doesn't. It also will be a great shock to conservatives, especially in Canada, who insisted that Black was a victim of a politically motivated trial. Black was esteemed by certain conservatives, and managed to dupe some of them, such notables as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, to serve on his board.

But this is one conservative who is not lamenting his conviction. I leave to others to comment on whether the jury was right or wrong; I believe I shouldn't because I wasn't in the courtroom to hear all the evidence nor in the jury room to listen to all the arguments. I followed that practice and kept my mouth shut about the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. So, without saying the jury was right or wrong, I can t say I don't feel sorry for a man who made my life, and that of so many others who had worked for him, miserable.

Black took a struggling, but fine newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, and worsened its struggles. Cutting budgets, demeaning the staff and imposing his sense of what a newspaper should be on a publication in the nation's best newspaper town, brought the Sun-Times to new lows. Well, at least we presume so, because under his proprietorship the paper's official circulation figures were jiggered to make things look better than they were. Black also subjected the paper to the nastiest man I ever knew in this business by appointing David Radler as the Sun-Times publisher. Only the dedication of a determined and talented staff kept the paper afloat while it was being torpedoed by Black and Radler.

Radler turned on Black and got a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against his former boss. What now would be sweet is if the two had to share the same cell. They deserve each other.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Judging Amy

In a perfect example of contemplating their own navels, the Chicago media have gone wild with the story about WMAQ-Ch. 5 reporter Amy Jacobson getting axed because she attended a pool party hosted by the subject of a news story that she had been covering.

A friend called the excessive coverage foofaraw, and perhaps it is. But it raises a larger question: Just how close should reporters get to their sources. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, writing on his blog, thinks it’s not a big deal. Responding to a comment, he said:

And you misunderstand the reporter/source relationship if you think it's all about having the notepad out and the voice recorder on all the time. Reporters and sources go to ballgames, play golf, dine and just hang out from time to time to build rapport, familiarity, trust and so on. The presence of kids might have even facilitated that, though I'd hate to think any journalist would deliberately use his or her kids as professional props.

Leaving aside the bit about the kids, I’d like readers to know that not everyone in this business thinks it’s a good idea to “just hang out” or otherwise socialize with people they are covering. It’s called “getting too close to your sources,” and it can lead to big trouble. By that, I don’t necessarily mean trouble for the reporter; it’s just bad journalism. Getting too close to the people you are covering raises serious questions about your objectivity. It skews your perspective and sets you up to be used.

Does any but the most naive reporter seriously think that he’s being entertained and befriended because he’s such a swell guy? Early in my career 30-plus years ago, I found myself being invited to some nice parties thrown by people on my beat. I accepted some of the invitations, but it soon dawned on me that it’s harder to write a balanced and fair story when you’re palling around with the very people you’re writing about.

Of course, some journalism educators no longer teach that objectivity is a myth, and therefore it’s not just all right, but recommended, to buddy around with the mayor, governor, alderman, county president, congressman, senator and whoever your little heart desires. But don’t ask your readers to trust you. Because you’ve betrayed them.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Middle America doing us proud

Their Cities Lead U.S. in Volunteering

When it comes to giving of the most personal kind—volunteering—the Heartland is a standout compared to the coasts. A new report has found that the cities with the highest levels ofr volunteering are largely focused in Middle America.

Volunteer rates in America’s largest cities range from a high of 40.5 percent in Minneapolis-St. Paul to a low of 14.4 percent in Las Vegas. After Minneapolis-St. Paul, the cities with the highest volunteer rates are Salt Lake City, Austin, Texas; Omaha, Neb.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Tulsa, Okla. The cities with the lowest volunteer rate are Las Vegas; Miami; New York; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Riverside, Calif.

I guess the liberal-leaning New York, Los Angeles and other liberal-dominated coastal cities are simply too busy demanding that someone else—the federal government and taxpayers—do the good works for them.

This post also appears on Political Mavens

Very latest round of cliches places thinking at risk

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Ever evolving, language sometimes brings forth an ugly mutant. Words or phrases that at first sound clever, inventive or insightful soon enter the vocabulary of every dullard, stocking the ever-expanding universe of cliches. Sadly, there are no black holes to suck them into oblivion. We can't pass a law against language abuse -- nor should we -- so our only weapon against this onslaught is scorn. So, let's get to it:

Very latest. TV news operations think that by putting "very" in front of "latest" we'll think that we're getting something later than merely the latest. As in: "Now we go to Frank Frake, who's on the scene for the very latest." As if we'd turn to another station if Frank were going to give us only the latest, without the very. Likewise, the 10 p.m. news tells us to tune in at 5 a.m. tomorrow for the very latest when the latest hasn't happened yet. Is there a lesser degree of latest, short of the very latest, such as kind-of-the-latest, or the penultimate latest? In truth, there's no very latest. It's either the latest or it's not. It's like saying, "very unique" or "very pregnant." It's very aggravating.

Place at risk. Or "put at risk," as if there's a spot for risk on the bureau or kitchen counter. Risk is not an object that has a location. Yet, the placing of risk has become a scourge. What is the compulsion to use a clumsy, refried phrase in place of efficient, sharper words? Endanger. Jeopardize. Threaten. As in, "this constant use of placing at risk threatens my sanity." It has been embraced by an entire generation of journalists who apparently were never taught anything about an economy of words or read the venerable "Elements of Style." Or who want to sound like superior academic types, whence the risk placing came.

Nuanced. This headache-starter could have been created by political and media elitists who want to impress us with their understanding of complex issues -- stuff that the rest of us couldn't begin to get. Notice that the use of "nuance" is rarely followed by an elucidation of the subtleties, suggesting that the speaker himself may not really understand. Or perhaps that it's all just a bunch of gobbledygook anyway. Used in a sentence: "Al Gore's explanation for global warming is more nuanced than that of that idiot, Bush." Bush, who is credited with being as nuanced as an unpainted canvas, turned the tables on his 2004 presidential opponent U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by saying the Democrat's position on Iraq was "nuanced." Bush was cleverly mocking Kerry for not having a position, but, of course, Democrats didn't get it.

Snarky. Thank the Internet for this one, which often is deployed by dullards to feel like they've come up with a clever insult. Gag.

Grace note. Usually meant as a compliment, such as: "He ended his speech on a grace note," suggesting that the closing remarks were "gracious." It doesn't. It's a musical note that is added as lilting embellishment or ornament, played quickly, "printed in small type, and not counted in the rhythm." Would it be ungracious to suggest that the constant misuse of "grace note" reveals ignorance?

Within 3. Or 2, 1 or whatever. As when the TV announcer says the Bulls, having made a basket, have made the score 75-72 and now "have pulled to within" 3 points. No, "within 3" would be something less than 3, such as 2.95. I guess it's too difficult to simply say, "The Bulls have pulled to 3 points behind."

Change. Not the stuff that slips out of your pocket and between the cushions on the couch. This is the stuff, any stuff, that you're for if you are progressive. Here's U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recently on the subject: "We are [cliche warning] striking a chord and I think people have confidence that maybe we can [cliche warning] bridge some of those divides in this country. That's what it's going to take to bring about [cliche warning] significant, real change. Change can't [cliche warning] just be a slogan. Change has to be something that is demonstrated day-to-day on an [cliche warning] ongoing basis." Barack, either change your speechwriters or tell us what change you have in mind.

It's (all) about. My lambasting this most hackneyed phrase a decade ago was about useless.

The election is still a year away, but already the candidates are boasting that their campaigns are "about" honesty or some other virtue and that their legislation is "about the children."

It's about enough already.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Excuse me?

By Dennis Byrne
Political Mavens

Though wild-eyed and hysterical, President George W. Bush’s critics seemed most pleased that he had given an excuse for another scolding by commuting the prison sentence of Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Read the rest at Political Mavens

Monday, July 02, 2007

Brain drain of prosecutors in Cook County

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

From any reasonable point of view, there should be some balance between how much the public pays to prosecute criminals and free the indigent innocent.

That's not the case in Cook County, where assistant state's attorneys are paid less than public defenders. It's not because public defenders are paid too much; they earn every penny they make for the important job of representing defendants who cannot afford counsel. Rather it's because when compared with prosecutors in the nation's other large counties, assistant state's attorneys here are underpaid and overworked.

Cook County assistant state's attorneys have disproportionately heavier caseloads than in other large counties. Here they close more cases and have more statutory duties.

The disparities are causing more assistant state's attorneys, including some "first chairs" or lead prosecutors, to leave for better paying jobs, while making the recruitment of new prosecutors more difficult, Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine said in an interview. "The balance in the criminal justice system is vital. When you tilt it and higher pay goes for defense than for prosecution, then we've got problems. We're seeing an accelerated rate of resignations; it isn't dramatic yet, but I anticipate that we'll see a brain drain."

How it got this way is clouded in the arcane politics of the Cook County Board, where political preservation and advancement seem to trump the public interest at nearly every turn.

*When the board passed the budget in February, the state's attorney's office lost 100 people (out of a staff of about 800), including 44 prosecutors and 10 investigators. With about 540 lawyers, the public defender's office is smaller, but it lost proportionately fewer lawyers than the state's attorney's office.

*The typical prosecutor's annual pay before then was about $63,000, compared with $73,000 for public defenders. Since then, prosecutors received a raise that would bring them closer to "parity" with the public defenders, but they still lag about 8 percent behind. This while the total number of active felony cases per attorney is 50 in the public defender's office and 109 in the state's attorney's office.

*In Cook County, the prosecutor's office costs each citizen $23.07, which is in the low-end among big-county annual costs and compares with Manhattan's $48.97 and San Diego County's $43.62. The average caseload each prosecutor carries in Cook County is 600.17, among the nation's highest, which compares with San Diego's 88.32. The average number of filings per prosecutor here is 533, also among the highest, compared with San Diego's 150. The average number of cases closed per prosecutor here is 434 misdemeanor cases and 73 felony cases, also among the nation's highest, compared with San Diego's 32 misdemeanors and 46 felonies.

With the defections, declining staff, large workload and static salary, morale in the office is "horrible," said state's attorney spokesman John Gorman. But morale could improve if the County Board, at one of its two July meetings, approves a cost-of-living increase that would help catch them up. The $8.7 million needed, Gorman said, could come from the county's "814 account," which is money set aside for raises for county employees. Apparently how much is in the account is somewhat foggy, as Gorman said, "we've heard figures from $37 million to $16 million." There may be enough votes to pass the raise, but a veto by County Board President Todd Stroger would require a four-fifths vote of commissioners to override, a virtual impossibility. The county's budget is heavy with red ink and opponents of a raise for prosecutors easily could depict achieving parity between assistant state's attorneys and public defenders as just another special interest pleading. Indeed, striking a balance between all the needs competing for county money is a challenge for even the most dedicated County Board and skillful County Board president, let alone for Stroger.

Yet, Devine sees salary parity as a high priority compared with other needs because an effective criminal justice system requires balance between resources for the prosecution and the defense. "Prosecutors can vote with their feet," he said, "and unless the County Board acts, we will have a loss of talent that will seriously impact the prosecution of criminals in this county."