ChicagoNow blogger Dahl regrets Tribune’s errors

It wasn’t the first time a newspaper had smeared someone’s reputation on the front page and then buried a retraction of the most damning parts of the story days later.

In this case, the Chicago Tribune reported allegations of graft and kickbacks by the food service director of the Chicago Public Schools. The page-one story March 17 cited as its source a report by James Sullivan, the schools’ inspector general. (The original version of the story is no longer accessible online.) By the next day, both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard were publicly demanding the director’s firing.

Three days later, near the end of a story under the headline “CPS stresses ethics after gifts taken,” the Tribune acknowledged significant mistakes in its initial report: The value of the gifts the director had received from vendors “appears to be far less than the amount reported in the Tribune’s weekend story,” the newspaper wrote. In addition, the Tribune admitted that it had “incorrectly reported” that the inspector general found the director had used her CPS credit card to purchase as many as 143 dinners with vendors when, in fact, “those expenses were on [her] personal credit cards.” (Italics added.)

Were the allegations still serious? Yes. But suddenly they seemed a lot less egregious than first reported.

“No apology, no ‘The Tribune regrets the errors,’ just a restatement of the facts at the end of an article, the headline of which enticed absolutely no one to read,” Tribune reader Daniel Rosenthal wrote in a letter to the editor that never was published. (He later shared it with me.) “How sad that a newspaper that once garnered such great respect has fallen so low, and how ironic that this fact is brought to light in the handling of a story about ethics.”

Rosenthal wasn’t the only reader to take the Tribune to task. The initial exaggerations also drew harsh criticism from Janet Dahl, wife of veteran Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl and a regular contributor to the ChicagoNow blog network, which is owned and operated by the Tribune. She’s also a lawyer and a former west suburban school board member.

“What does strike me as more than a little unfair is that the Trib revealed its faulty assertions a week later, and tucked into the last third of a story with a headline: ‘CPS stresses ethics after gifts taken,’ ” she wrote on March 23. “In essence, a giant splash of GUILT is followed by a microscopic, buried correction. The correction is little comfort for this employee. The retraction will be unread or unnoticed by the masses. It does not seem to honor the journalistic notion of fairness. And it has ruined a career.”

Janet Dahl said it wasn’t the first time she’d used her ChicagoNow blog to criticize the Tribune. “They have been very fair in the past when I have been hostile to something they did,” she told me, adding: “I have a feeling that we are pretty low on the Trib’s radar.”

The story came full circle Wednesday when CPS officials announced that the food services director, Louise Esaian, had resigned — one day before she likely would have been fired. Naturally, the Tribune took a bow for first reporting the inspector general’s findings.

Now that it’s over, Janet Dahl remains no less critical of the Tribune for what she called a “rush to a judgment that was full of misinformation” that led both the mayor and schools chief to demand the director's firing precipitately.

“These men do not back up, even in the face of new or different information,” she said Wednesday. “[Esaian] was wrong, but the scale was not as damning as she will be remembered with, via a public and journalistic excoriiation.  She was a headline, now she is a footnote.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)