Friday, January 12, 2007
Ah! I'm happy to see that somebody in the media--Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader--is starting to comment on the Chicago Sun-Times' coverage of the Marshall Field's fiasco. It's been rather creepy reading the Sun-TImes lately.
Why would a newspaper care one way or the other about a department store? Very simple. Department store ads are newspapers' Number 1 source of revenue. And Federated Department Stores, Inc. is the largest department store operator in the nation. That makes it the most important "client" of almost every major newspaper in the country--including the Sun-Times, whose financial troubles make it particularly vulnerable to "client" pressure.
In fairness, the Sun-Times didn't start out toeing the Federated line. When the rumors started flying in early 2005 that Federated would take over Marshall Field's (and other May Department Stores) and turn them into Macy's, Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert wrote a series of scathing columns. In the first, he told Federated: "Don't mess with Chicago, and don't mess with the name Marshall Field's. You will generate rage beyond your wildest nightmares." In the second, when it had become clear that Federated was going to ignore his advice, he howled that "[t]his is an abomination on a par with renaming the Chicago Cubs the Chicago Mets." And in the last, he called Terry Lundgren, the "three-headed chairman, president and CEO of Federated" and wrote: "I am looking at my Field's charge card, which I have cut up into tiny pieces. They look like little tears ...." Huge numbers of Chicagoans followed suit.
Rumor has it that Federated wasn't amused, and let the Sun-TImes know in no uncertain terms. I've no idea whether it's true. But the fact is that, by September 21, 2005, the Sun-Times was actually editorializing in favor of the Macy-ification of Chicago's beloved department store with an essay entitled, "We'll Miss Field's Name, But We're Ready to Move on."
Perhaps, of course, this was an expression of the editors' actual view uninfluenced by their need for ad revenue. But I am skeptical. If you really think the change is no big deal, why bother to editorialize about it? The demise of Marshall Field's was and continues to be a huge issue for large numbers of Chicagoans, who for reasons I have discussed in previous posts, feel deeply about the store. Why would the Sun-Times want to anger their readers if they weren't being encouraged to do so, subtly or otherwise, by Federated? Why not editorialize about the war on terrorism instead?
The same week, the Sun-TImes ran several articles with headlines like "Macy's Is Here to Stay ... and We'll Get Used to It" and "Few Are Outraged Enough to Cut Ties with Their Old Friend" as readers quietly (or not so quietly) seethed. The author of the latter article--Mark Brown--was then deluged with letters. To his credit, he acknowledged several of the letters, but asserted that he believed the change was a "done deal" and argued that a boycott would be "the wrong way to go," since it would "undermine the thousands of Field's employees who will be left behind to make it work." But the precipitous drop in sales since the changeover proves that his notion that "few are outraged enough to cut ties" was dead wrong. Just as Ebert predicted, lots of them were.
More recently, the Sun-TImes was the only media outlet to fail to cover the very photogenic protest held on the day after Thanksgiving 2006 in front of the State Street Store. The Tribune ran the story. And television cameras fell all over themselves to get pictures of the crowd of a hundred or so protesters, many of whom were wearing 19th century fashions. But the Sun-Times was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was busy running front-page ads for Macy's (the first front-page ad I'd ever seen), and co-sponsoring a number of Macy's promotions. Authors of anti-Macy's letters to the editor complained that no letters were being published.
Miner gives another example in his Chicago Reader article. He writes:
"[T]his month Macy's announced that a new manager was taking over the State Street store .... On January 3 the Tribune ran the story on page one, under the headline 'Macy's learning it's what's in a name.' The backdrop to the change, the Tribune told its readers, was a weak Christmas, an estranged public, and a critical Wall Street. It quoted a retail consultant who lives across the street from the State Street store observing that 'you could shoot a cannon through there most of the time.'
"The Sun-Times story -- back in the business section -- read like a personality profile of the new manager, Linda Piepho. Readers learned that she'd gone to Evanston Township High School and studied education and communications in college and that her mother had worked part-time at Field's on State Street. 'I walked in the store,' Piepho told the Sun-Times, 'and said, Oh, my God. How lucky am I to be coming home to run this facility.'
"This heartwarming tale didn't hint that Piepho was coming home to trouble. And whereas the Tribune wrote neutrally that the old store manager was taking the newly created post of "regional vice president of corporate communications" -- a title with a kicked-upstairs ring to it -- the Sun-Times called the move a promotion."
I've got other examples, but I'll spare you for right now. Suffice it to say that while Federated stock was plummeting in the wake of dismal sales, the Sun-Times re-printed a piece from another newspaper in which the author gushed like a school girl about how Federated's CEO looks like a movie star, only taller, slimmer and better dressed. (Swell. We're all happy to hear it.)
Rumor has it that many Sun-Times employees are angry at their employer's stance. And I strongly suspect it's true. I corresponded with a Sun-Times employee last Spring who wanted to help the efforts to save Marshall Field's in any way she could. But she made it clear that it was imperative that her employer not find out about it. Complaining that the atmosphere at the Sun-Times was one of complete submission to the will of Federated, she feared that she would lose her job if she were seen publicly opposing the change. (No, for obvious reasons, I can't give you her name.)
((Loyal right coast readers will also recall that I blogged about the difficulty I had in placing an ad for free "Keep It Marshall Field's" lapel stickers in the Sun-Times last summer. When I told the account representative, Richard Hummel, what I wanted to do, he replied that "Federated is a big client of ours" and expressed doubt that the Sun-Times would be willing to print it. When I suggested that it wouldn't look good for the Sun-Times to decline such an ad, he replied, "I can tell you right now that not going to matter. Federated is our client." The Sun-TImes did end up relenting, but only after I complained to the publisher.))
Uh oh! I've allowed this post to get entirely too long. I'd better finish my tea and go to bed. Let me finish by stating that no, not every article published by the Sun-Times seems biased to me. But the totality of the coverage suggests an eagerness to please Federated that is disturbing in a newspaper. It's a good thing Federated doesn't take stands on the war on terrorism. Who knows what mischief it could cause if it chose to throw its weight around.