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Should 'Tribune' Columnist Bob Greene Have Resigned Over Affair?

Aired September 21, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Sexual perversity in Chicago: "Tribune" columnist Bob Greene resigns over his long-ago affair with a high school student who came to the paper to interview him. A fitting punishment for a man who wrote about the joys of fatherhood, or an overreaction by a newspaper intruding on a staffer's private life?
Also, Georgia's Sunday debut, Jane's swan song and Rosie's dramatic exit.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn the critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

It was a sex scandal, a gossip sensation and a media ethics controversy wrapped into one that ended the career of "Chicago Tribune" columnist Bob Greene. "The Tribune" asked for Greene's resignation this week after 24 years at the paper, admitting that more than a decade ago, he had a sexual encounter with a high school student who came to see him about a school project.

"The Tribune" accepted the resignation after investigating the matter. And the paper ran a statement from editor Ann Marie Lipinski, which said, "Greene's behavior was a serious violation of 'Tribune' ethics and standards for its journalists. We deeply regret the conduct, its effects on the young women and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers have placed in Greene and this newspaper."

Well, joining us now, Jim Warren, deputy managing editor of the "Chicago Tribune." He was Bob Greene's direct superior and he's known him for 25 years.

Also in Chicago, Neil Steinberg, columnist for the "Chicago Sun- Times."

And in New York, Andrea Peyser, columnist for the "New York Post."

Neil Steinberg, plenty of "Tribune" readers and some journalists feel that Bob Greene got a raw deal in losing his job. Yes, what he did was sleazy, but it didn't warrant, they say, a journalistic death sentence. Where do you come down?

NEIL STEINBERG, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Howard, they feel that way because the "Tribune," sort of, botched the communication of what happened. By focusing in on this one event, readers asked, "Should this columnist, who we love, be cashiered for this one indiscretion?" The question the "Tribune" refused to answer is, what kind of pattern of practice was this of his?

I mean, a person should be able to write to a columnist they admire without getting called up and asked to lunch and hit on. And that's what this is really about. This is not a romance type of thing. This is really an abuse of power type of thing.

KURTZ: Andrea Peyser, the girl is 17. She goes to a Catholic high school. Fourteen years ago, she comes to Bob Greene's office at the Tribune Tower with her parents to interview the great man for a school assignment. It sounds to me like you might say that was job- related.

ANDREA PEYSER, NEW YORK POST: Well, I think all you need to know about ethics and journalism is contained in a very old adage that I'm sure you're familiar with. And it goes like this: If you're going to cover the circus, don't sleep with the elephants, especially if the elephant is 17 years old. I mean, it's just common sense. You know, who's going to trust this guy now? It's just crazy that he thought he could get away with it.

I thought the "Tribune" should have explained to us why Bob Greene called the FBI on her when she tried to contact him also just recently.

You know, it's an embarrassment. It's an embarrassment to the profession. And it's embarrassment to this paper.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, would you agree that the "Tribune" didn't do the world's best job in explaining to readers? I mean, it was editor's, you know, last Sunday, that didn't give the girl's age, didn't say exactly when this happened, didn't explain how the FBI came to call the girl, now young woman, after she had gotten back in contact with Bob Greene. If somebody had handed that in to you as story, you probably would have thrown it back and asked for some more facts.

JIM WARREN, DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think there was a certain inevitable ambiguity left by virtue of our decision to be very sensitive to a couple of concerns: first, privacy involving both the girl and Bob; and also to our own in-house rules when it comes to details involving alleged sexual misconduct with youth. So we were -- sort of, had a hand tied behind our back, I think for the best reasons.

Having said that, just a couple of matters just to disagree with folks a little bit and to the premise here. This is not about a pattern or practice. This was about a particular incident, the first one which had ever made it our way as a complaint to us.

This was not about legislating personal morality. This was not about telling our folks what they can do off the premises, whether it's sex or booze or liquor. It was about the inextricable nexus that was in evidence between Bob's professional life and the personal, and the exploitation of the trust of, in this case, this girl and her parents who came in to interview him.

And when it also comes to the matter of our asking for his resignation, Howie -- just a point of information -- early on in the process, presented with these allegations, Bob voluntarily offered the resignation. We did not accept it. This is one of our most valued guys, one of our best-compensated guys, someone we did not want to leave here...

KURTZ: But ultimately, of course, you did accept it.

WARREN: ... by undoubtedly with a huge following.

We then did our investigation, having suspended him with pay -- with full pay, pay that you or I would gladly swap our deals for, Howie. And finally, at week's end, a week ago, on a very painful evening...

KURTZ: Accepted the resignation.

WARREN: ... we finally, several days later, accepted the resignation.

KURTZ: Let me move on to Neil Steinberg now. On Friday, you wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times about another young woman in her late 20s, at the time -- this was back in the early 1980s -- who says, on the record, that she had an affair with Bob Greene after she contacted him about a column. You've also written about his toupee and you've written about what you call his reputation for goatish pursuit of young women was an open secret.

Why drag all these other details in? Isn't that, kind of, piling on?

STEINBERG: I think they're germane and they help explain what's going on here. I think if I walked around telling people I worked for the Sun-Times and asked them for a dollar, eventually I'd get in trouble over it.

Here you got a guy who is famous. If the "Tribune" didn't know about this then -- and being a news organization they should have -- who is famous for using his position as a columnist for the "Tribune" to try to get women into bed. It's a misuse of a position that they put him in. And in a way, they're responsible for his behavior and -- by allowing it to go on.

And I really wouldn't have written that had the "Tribune" not tried to paint this episode as a moral triumph for them, that because they have this upright policy, that they acted quickly in this way. When, I think, if you look at Bob Greene, they did not act quickly, but they waited until this case we still don't understand came to light and then they did what they did because they had no choice.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, you're shaking your head. WARREN: Just absolutely unfair to us, the notion of, "we just waited for." The hierarchy of this newspaper had never been presented with evidence of this sort. The people at the very top who were involved in this decision did not know what Neil seems to think was common knowledge. Did not know...

STEINBERG: Is this a shock to you, Jim?

WARREN: Did not know the sort of allegations that Neil was clearly party to and helped in some ways to goad on on a two-hour radio show here last week, in which Neil and his cohort on the radio show, a disc jockey named Steve Dahl (ph), even allowed a woman to go on the air and claim that Bob Greene had raped her.

No, Neil, this was not known to the hierarchy.

PEYSER: If we could broaden this just a little bit, I think this makes our profession look really bad. You know, we're seen as a bunch of undisciplined people with no rules, no ethics, no fear of anything.

I mean, I'm glad this happened in a way, because it gives you an opportunity to say that. But I just want to know...

KURTZ: But Neil Steinberg made the point, Andrea Peyser, that journalists using their positions to impress women and perhaps get them into bed -- I mean, you could depopulate a lot of news rooms if you applied the standard to every affair that's ever gone on.

PEYSER: Yes, exactly. Now I completely agree with you, which is why I go back to, you know, the nexus of the column writing and the people you meet.

And my goodness, I don't care if it's legal to sleep with somebody at 17 in Chicago. Perhaps it is. But there's got to be something wrong with that. And the fact that the guy didn't seem to be aware of that, that he thinks that that's as legitimate as, you know, hitting on a woman in a bar, that's really embarrassing to all of us.

And you know, why do we have to have written standards? Why can't we use common sense? What is wrong here? Why is there an atmosphere in Chicago that this is permissible? I don't get that.

STEINBERG: Well, first of all this is -- I mean Andrea, this is unique. I've been writing in Chicago for 20 years. I've never forced myself on a reader yet.

And now to get back to the radio show, because this is something important. The first couple of callers were telling the standard Bob Greene Story we've heard hundreds of times, where they write him an admiring letter. He calls them up at home. He arranges a lunch, and then comes on to them to some sort of degree, and they get away. The last caller of the evening, though, didn't get away. It was something of a shock to us all. Obviously we didn't want to put unfounded accusations on there. KURTZ: But should she be allowed to make that charge on the air without giving her full name, without going on the record? You haven't checked it out.


PEYSER: Look what this opens us up to. When somebody uses his position to sleep with a 17-year-old girl, look what this opens us up to. I mean, I'd say he asked for it, in a sense. Whether or not that's true, I can't say. This is what happens.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, are you surprised at all that so many "Tribune" readers -- not all of them certainly, but a good number of them -- are -- you know, think that the guy should not have been let go by your newspaper, and are willing to overlook this incident as a long-ago mistake in judgment?

WARREN: It's curious how, you know, we can both relate to this sort of division on a subject like this. It's, sort of, akin to what we both saw and talked a lot about on this show for more than a year when it came to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

And I think there's certainly an element out there that is seeing us as, sort of, legislating personal morality and blue noses. There are some folks who think that we somehow retroactively imposing a new code of ethics. So I'm not surprised at all, particularly with the fact that there are a few details that we have not let out there.

But I think as the days go on and we make clear what some of the facts were, and the fact that Bob voluntarily offered his resignation when confronted with this, offered his resignation because apparently he fully realized that he had exploited his position, a position of trust when it came to this matter.

STEINBERG: And this was not 14 years ago. This was he exploited his position this year by this girl -- woman called him and said something which hasn't been released, which by being vague that surely makes it seem like she's threatening him, blackmailing him. We don't know. For all we know, she's calling as part of some sort of therapy, which is common, confronting her person she was involved in.

KURTZ: Let me go to a different issue, Neil Steinberg because -- for those who are not familiar with Bob Greene's work, I mean he is a -- has been a television commentator on Chicago's (ph) WGN, he's been on "Nightline," he's been on Oprah. Is there something about the kind of column he wrote, a very personal column, he wrote a book about the joys of fatherhood, he crusaded against child abuse, that makes him more vulnerable to the criticism that has surrounded this incident?

Neil Steinberg?

STEINBERG: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes, of course, it is. It's rank hypocrisy. Bob Greene was not writing the car column for the "Tribune". He was writing a column where he castigated society week in and week out for their failings. When a judge, Judge Hyple (ph), who ruled in a way Bob didn't like, got a speeding ticket and yelled at the cop, Bob wrote seven columns in a row on it. So this is a man who can turn viciously on people who don't act in a moral way that he thinks is appropriate.

PEYSER: You know, since we brought up Monica Lewinsky, I'd like to point out that Monica Lewinsky was about 21 when her affair with the president happened. And that was seen widely as a gross abuse of power. So if you're going to compare it to Monica Lewinsky, I think you're taking the wrong tack in saying that we're legislating morality somehow here.

Here's a man 55 years old, married, makes a career, as Neil has just pointed out, moralizing, and he hits on a 17-year-old high school student. My goodness. I mean, if this isn't common sense that you just don't do a thing like that, and that it's a black eye to us all in this profession when somebody gets caught doing that, then I don't get it.

KURTZ: Jim Warren...

PEYSER: I mean, if that's morality, if that's an abuse of morality, then I don't get it.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, newspapers love to complain when corporations or the Catholic Church or you name it don't give interviews when they get involved in some kind of controversy. Shouldn't the editor of your newspaper be out answering questions to news organizations?

WARREN: Well, it's difficult. We've made the decision to, sort of, lay low for a bit, let our initial statements speak for themselves. She may well, you know, feel that she wants to speak. Right now, I'm his boss, I've come out, I'm speaking to you. It's just very difficult, particularly given the decision that, for reasons of privacy, we are not going to reveal all the details that we know. We're only going to say that we feel that Bob clearly...

PEYSER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to tell him, "What were you thinking?" I hope you told him as his friend, "What were you thinking?"

KURTZ: Neil Steinberg, we only have 30 seconds. A decent amount of time pass, can Bob Greene resurface, write a book about this, sit down with Larry King, sit down with Barbara Walters and somehow resuscitate his career?

STEINBERG: I think we certainly can expect that; that shame, as Bob Greene has pointed out many times, is in short order nowadays. And I think Bob will be back casting his particular spin on this. And we can all look forward to that.

WARREN: Yes. I mean, Howie, I agree. I think we're a nation seemingly built on giving second chances, whether it's Marv Albert or even a serial fiction writer like Mike Barnicle of Boston, who has resurfaced. But right now, my concern is a long-time colleague and friend -- is really more for his wife and his two kids. And I wish them well.

KURTZ: Understood, understood. Jim Warren, we appreciate you coming on in this difficult situation.

Neil Steinberg, Andrea Peyser, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Rosie O'Donnell's bitter departure from her latest media venture, and George Stephanopoulos joins the ranks of Sunday morning TV actors. We'll give you a report card in a moment.



It was a bad week for Rosie O'Donnell, who announced this week that she's had it with "Rosie," the magazine.

When "Rosie" debuted nearly a year and a half ago, O'Donnell promised more serious topics than those offered up by most women's magazines, and it had built up a healthy circulation of 3.5 million. But the former talk show host has been feuding with the publisher, which is threatening to sue her for walking out on her employees and her contract.

December will be "Rosie's" last issue.

And it was a bad week for Jane Clayson, who is following Bryant Gumbel out the door at "The Early Show" on CBS. After three years in the anchor chair, unlike Gumbel, Clayson will stay at the network, becoming a correspondent for "The CBS Evening News."

No definite word on the new lineup for "The Early Show," which has been struggling for years to compete in the morning TV ratings game.

And finally, it was a really bad week for Associated Press reporter Christopher Newton, who was fired after the AP discovered that two people he quoted in a story about crime rates turned out to be, well, fake. One of them worked for the Institute for Crime and Punishment in Chicago, which doesn't seem to exist. AP researchers were also unable to verify the existence of about 15 other individuals in stories by Newton.

For his part, Newton says he's never fabricated a news story, but the AP obviously disagrees. Said a spokeswoman: "Credibility is AP's most important asset, and we're distressed that we have discovered that some of Chris Newton's stories contain material that doesn't hold up. It's a violation of our most basic rules. We are intensely investigating how this happened and reviewing our editorial process to make sure it never happens again."

Well, time now for the Spin Cycle.

George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton spinmeister, took the anchor chair at ABC's "This Week" last Sunday. We grabbed some popcorn, settled down on the couch, and watched the show.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: How did the new guy stack up against the likes of Tim Russert, Bob Schieffer, Wolf Blitzer and Tony Snow? There were new graphics, a new table and a new video screen. Not bad.

But the man who used to advise White House aides on finessing talk show questions found Condoleezza Rice doing exactly that.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, ABC'S "THIS WEEK": First, the capture in Pakistan of Ramzi Binalshibh, who is believed to be a key player in the September 11 plot. Is he now in U.S. custody?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Oh, we will be working with the Pakistani officials to make certain that he gets to the right place. KURTZ: She didn't quite answer the question. Stephanopoulos tried again.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he's not there yet.

RICE: This is someone who can tell us a lot. The United States is going to want to have him.

KURTZ: Another fudge, but give him an A for persistence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I just want to clear this up: Ramzi Binalshibh is not yet in U.S. custody.

RICE: Not yet.

KURTZ: You need to interrupt more, George, like that Sam Donaldson fellow you replaced. ABC tried having an out-of-town newspaper editor weigh in, Amanda Bennett of the Lexington Herald- Leader.

AMANDA BENNETT, LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER: Just the other day, just completely unexpected, four ordinary, middle-aged readers showed up unexpectedly in my office, sat down, and their question to me was, "How can we stop the president from forcing us into Iraq?"

KURTZ: Good question, but by the time they got to her, Rice was almost out of time.

Did Stephanopoulos lean toward the Democrats? The fact is, he was neutral, as in this question to Tom Daschle.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, the Democrats in Congress have also come under some pretty sharp criticism, not only from Republicans, but from some commentators. You might have seen the "New Republic" magazine this week. They have a cover story saying -- calling the Democrats bystanders.

KURTZ: But Stephanopoulos was like a car stuck in neutral when it came to the roundtable, with George Will joined by ABC's Michel Martin and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. His questions were, shall we say, a bit on the dull side?

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what are we likely to see from the U.N.? George, can he make that work?


KURTZ: Stephanopoulos told me he doesn't want to offer partisan opinions. But he may want to let more of his personality show. Hey, it's television, not a congressional hearing. And we're sure he will as he grows into his new role. Whether "This Week" without Sam and Cokie can overtake "Meet the Press" in the ratings is another question. We'll be watching.

When we return, who's being forgotten in the media's coverage of Iraq? That's coming up in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the Back Page.

Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's a big hole in the coverage of the debate over Iraq, and it's this: The media are missing the voices from below, from Main Street America, Mr. and Mrs. USA, whose sons and daughters could end up in the front lines of any war with Saddam. Did I say missing? Maybe under-reported is more accurate.

By contrast, the voices from the top, have no problem getting heard. It's built into the system. President Bush speaks, it's everywhere -- his face, his voice.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Saddam Hussein has stiffed the United Nations.


KALB: The same with Rumsfeld and Powell. The same too with former thises and thats: Kissinger, Baker, Scowcroft, they're on all the talk shows, agreeing or disagreeing with the president, their opinions dominating the op-ed pages.

And then too, there are the 24-7 pundits, who've never met an issue they couldn't solve in a minute 15.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": This man is within six months to two years of having three nuclear weapons. We don't -- we can't afford to give him that time.


KALB: But what about the unfamous voices from below, from grassroots America? Are the media giving them equal opportunity to sound off? Yes, there are occasional pieces from Smalltown, USA, and yes there are public opinion polls showing growing support for the president's Iraq policy.

But here's Tom Freedman (ph), writing in the "New York Times": "Don't believe the polls that a majority of Americans favor a military strike against Iraq. It's just not true."

And almost as if on cue, this anti-war eruption when Rumsfeld began testifying on Wednesday, this mini-demo making the nightly newses and front pages with one of the demonstrators later saying that this was an act of desperation.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We feel that the voice of the American people isn't being heard. I agree with Thomas Freedman (ph).


KALB: She's got a point all right, and a big one.

Now, it is true that the media are giving us lots of polls and statistics, but in this critical debate over Iraq, they should also be giving us a lot more of the faces and voices from below, regardless of where these Americans stand on the war.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern. CAPITAL GANG is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.



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