Greene Is Sent Out to Pasture; Cronies Cry Foul

The Chicago Tribune's decision to fire popular columnist Bob Greene for an affair he had with a young female source was the right one. Why are so many journalists coming to his defense? Also, shots fired at activist's home.

Bob Greene

CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)-The journalism world is heated debate right now over something that ought to be clear as day. And that's why the Chicago Tribune asked for its columnist Bob Greene to resign from the newspaper he had worked at for more than 30 years.

Greene was shown the door when it came to light that 14 years ago he had an affair with a high school student he had written about in his column. This summer the woman, now 31, contacted him for unknown reasons and soon after got a call from FBI agents. Greene, it seems, had accused her of threatening him. The FBI checked out the complaint, found nothing there and closed the file. Two weeks ago, the Tribune received an anonymous account of the whole story, which set off the internal investigation that led to Greene's resignation. The Tribune editor Anne Marie Lipinski published a brief note on. Sept. 15 saying that he had violated both the public trust and the paper's 12-page ethics policy, which says, in effect, don't do anything in your private life that you wouldn't want to read as front page news.

As a purveyor of heartland vignettes and an ardent protector of children, Greene has a huge following. He was syndicated in 150 papers and not so long ago, Oprah Winfrey devoted a show to all he had done for kids who had been let down by the courts and social welfare agencies. It's not a stretch to say that, in losing Greene, the Tribune gave up its most popular columnist and millions in syndication fees.

Most believe that this is the first instance of a columnist of Greene's stature being removed for what some view as private conduct. And he wasn't simply asked to leave-his actions were made public and the Tribune has apologized for the “conduct and its effect.” That it took a woman boss to do it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that having women in management does make a difference.

Tribune Is Still Being Asked to Justify its Decision

It's now more than a week later and the Tribune is still having to justify its decision-not so much to its readers, who grasp that Greene is ill-suited to champion family values-but to the rest of journalistic community. For many women in the field, the continued defense of Greene, found on the industry's most-read media news columns and Web sites, and the labored excuses offered to hang onto him are as dismaying as the Tribune's act was principled.

Bob Laurence, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, was incredulous. “Something about this story doesn't ring true. Either the Tribune is the most puritanical, self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou workplace this side of Dr. Laura's broadcast booth, or there's more happening here than either side is admitting,” wrote Laurence on the Jim Romanesko MediaNews forum on the Poynter Institute Web site.

It shows that some of our colleagues don't get it and possibly never will. Every profession greeted the influx of women in the 1960s and 1970s with hostility and hazing rituals, but journalism's response was particularly pernicious in its propagation of a myth of the good old days. You know the drill: Oh, for the days when men were men, and women were secretaries who got chased around the desk or low-level reporters who got stuck covering society galas. Real journalists swore, drank, womanized and occasionally rolled up their sleeves and banged out stories on Remington manual typewriters. The only place to meet a source was in a bar and sexual harassment codes-well, they didn't exist.

The ethics code being invoked to exculpate Greene is no less archaic. It's a pretty minimal standard: Journalists must avoid conflicts of interest. It's a conflict of interest if you sleep with a source. You can write the story or have the affair but you can't do both at the same time.

If you apply that standard, what Greene did back in 1988 is fine and dandy. He met the woman, wrote a column about her, and then commenced the relationship. As far as we know, he never wrote about her again. She was of legal age to give consent and he broke no laws. Ergo, it's nobody's business but Greene's and he has the perfect right to keep cranking out columns deploring the use of profanity around children and the suggestiveness of Madonna concerts.

Tribune Used Commonsense Standard

The Tribune uses a commonsense standard, rather than a handful of rules. It looked at the entire transaction and judged it a breach of the public trust. The girl was 17-too old to be a statutory rape victim but still living under her parent's roof. She contacted Greene for a class project and came to the Tribune Tower to interview him, dressed in her school uniform and with her parents in tow. Shortly thereafter, she went to dinner with him and ended up in a motel room. Greene was married, 41, the author of five books and at the top of his game as a journalist. Sound like a fair match to you?

The crux of the Tribune's argument is that he used his job to go to bed with her and given the disparity in their ages and levels of sophistication, that's not an OK thing to do. Plus there's that other matter of Greene's siccing the FBI on the woman, presumably to intimidate her into silence. That's recent conduct, not covered by a so-called statute of limitations, cited, by the way, as yet another justification for getting Greene off the hook.

What's most galling is the suggestion that, as a superstar journalist, Greene had earned his groupies and should be left alone to enjoy them as one of the spoils of fame. Indeed, one of his former bosses, who apparently can't tell the difference between David Bowie and David Broder, described the Greene of the 1980s as a “rock star.” We don't know anything about the encounter, so there's no way to gauge whether this young woman was indeed a groupie, smitten with Greene's manifold charms, or was seduced by someone who pretended to be her friend and mentor.

Maybe it was a little of both. No matter. The presumption that young women are raw meat is a frightening reminder of the way things used to be. And that's nothing to be nostalgic about.

Stephanie B. Goldberg is a Chicago-based magazine writer.

For more information: Steele's Talk about Ethics
“The Personal is Professional”:

Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Letters
“Letters and links re Bob Greene's resignation”:

Shots Fired at Home of Leader of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (WOMENSENEWS)-Gunmen on Friday fired shots at the home of Estela Carlotto, who as leader of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo has pressed authorities to reveal the fates of thousands of grandchildren who disappeared under Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship.

The attack came two days after Carlotto, one of Argentina's most prominent human rights activists, formally pressed the courts to investigate alleged police repression. The minister of security of Buenos Aires province, Juan Pablo Cafiero, said that the incident “was not an attempted robbery but a political attack.”

“Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Not even during the dictatorship,” said Carlotto, 72.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are activists who demand that government officials locate their “disappeared” grandchildren, that the Argentinean courts investigate those disappearances and bring those responsible to justice.

Last Wednesday, Carlotto presented a complaint to the Supreme Court of Buenos Aires alleging that city police engage in “practices of eliminating persons that are similar to those used during the last military dictatorship, such as executions and ‘quick-trigger' crimes,” and that “the proliferation of torture and prison overcrowding constitute terror practices.”

-Marina Artusa, WEnews correspondent.