A tale of 2 news stories raises fairness questions

MIKE ROYKO

November 09, 1992|By MIKE ROYKO

Is the press fair? That's a debate that never ends. Some papers are and some aren't. But one thing you can count on -- they're usually fair to themselves, as this story illustrates.

The Chicago Sun-Times is this country's ninth largest city paper. One recent day, prominently displayed on its front and back pages was a promotion for one of that paper's sports columns. It was an "open letter" from the columnist to Mike Ditka, coach of the Chicago Bears.

Oh, my, but it was an angry open letter. Among the words used to describe Ditka were "boorish," "pathetic," "stale," "smart-ass," "monster," "egomaniac," "berserk," "psychosis," "immature" and "lunatic." And it concluded by telling Ditka, "If you are unprepared to act like a civil human being, then quit."

In addition, the Sun-Times invited readers to vote in a phone poll, the question being, "Should Bears coach Mike Ditka quit?"

What was Ditka's crime?

During a recent news conference, Ditka was asked a stupid question clearly aimed at provoking him. Ditka took the bait. He called the sportswriters SOBs, which gave them their 15-second sound bite.

I'll let others debate whether Ditka should quit, be fired, or strung up from a tree. But what is interesting is how the treatment of that story compares with another news item in the same newspaper.

The other story was less than half as long as the anti-Ditka tirade. And it was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.

This story was about a former Sun-Times sportswriter who had been indicted the day before on 196 felony counts.

He is accused of using his position at the newspaper to persuade publicity-hungry inner-city high school athletes to have sex with him or with prostitutes. He allegedly liked to videotape the young men and the hookers.

The story was written in a non-emotional, factual way. It didn't describe the accused sex criminal as being a monster, a lunatic, having a psychosis, or any of the other flaws attributed to Ditka. It made no judgments at all.

At the bottom of the story, there were three brief paragraphs saying that investigators were concerned about the possibility that some of these youngsters might have caught AIDS from the prostitutes. The investigators advised them to consult their physicians.

So here we have two different approaches to two different news stories. In one story, a football coach calls sportswriters a crude name. So a sports columnist questions the mental and emotional stability of the football coach and suggests that he either reform or quit his job and abandon his life's work.

This is considered so newsworthy it is promoted on the front page, the back page, and even on the page where the story about the accused sex offender appears.

However, an accused sex offender who wrote sports stories for the same paper is indicted on almost 200 felony charges, and that is not worthy of front page treatment.

Nor does Page One carry the warning to teen-age athletes that they might have become infected with AIDS as a result of this sports-writer's behavior. All of which might lead a reasonable person to ask what is more socially significant: A sports columnist's anger at a football coach's language, or the threat of AIDS to some child-athletes who were allegedly exploited by a perverted sportswriter?

There are other questions a reasonable person might ask. Although several weeks have passed since the man was arrested right in the Sun-Times newsroom, his employers haven't clearly explained how a convicted sex deviate managed to get a job writing about high school sports. He had been hired after serving a prison sentence for raping a teen-age boy.

Nor have they clearly explained why the paper didn't become curious about the man when some coaches called, complaining that he was becoming pesty toward their players -- phoning them at home, trying to take them out.

If the mayor or some other public official had hired a person with so sordid a background to work with teen-agers, and that person sexually exploited the teen-agers, the Sun-Times would demand immediate explanations.

But when the editor of the Sun-Times is asked about hiring procedures and those concerned calls from the troubled coaches, the paper's spokesman says: "No comment."

It's doubtful that the Sun-Times would accept a "no comment" from a public official or a football coach under the same circumstances.

Then there is the telephone poll.

If readers are asked to vote on whether a football coach should go, why shouldn't they be asked to vote on this question: "Should the sports editor who hired an ex-con sexual offender be asked to quit?"

Or these questions: "Is it really right for the editor of a newspaper to say 'no comment' when he is asked about how his paper happened to hire a dangerous sex offender as a prep sportswriter? And should that editor quit?"

And finally: "One of our sportswriters was indicted on 196 felony counts. Could that be an all-time record?"

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