What I can’t say anymore

When the financial structure of the newspaper impacts our coverage, the reader deserves to know.

A bulletin board with a Maria Pappas calendar and assorted buttons and objects.

The months in the 2023 calendar sent out by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, a proud daughter of Greece, name the months first Greek, then in English.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

When my official Maria Pappas, Cook County treasurer 2023 wall calendar arrived last December, I immediately put it on prominent display. How could I not? Every month, Pappas models from her wardrobe of flashy fashion. The whole thing harkening back to a bygone era of outsized personalities in public office. She thoughtfully autographed it.

Of course I thought of writing about this amusing artifact. But there’s so much to unpack. It’s not just a calendar; it’s a relationship. Or was, anyway. We haven’t spoken in years.

I became better acquainted with Pappas 23 years ago, by complete accident after walking over to the 2000 Gay Pride Parade. There she was, in a spangly top, high-stepping down the center of Broadway, twirling a baton.

Opinion bug


The moment’s significance is examined in my memoir, “You Were Never in Chicago”:

“Pappas represents, to me, a glimpse of the vanished idiosyncratic glory of the city, the colorful past which always seems to be disappearing over the horizon, if not utterly lost already. The carnation-wearers, the bamboo-cane leaners, the nudge-and-winkers, the organ-grinders, the First Ward Ball revelers ...”

After I wrote as much in the newspaper, she reached out — actually made my wife and me dinner on the roof of John Regas’ mansion on Astor Street. A relationship ensued, and she ended up hiring my brother, who became chief financial officer of her office.

Therein lies the rub. Am I hopelessly compromised, ballyhooing her calendar because she made me dinner and hired my brother? Or score-settling, because he ended up fleeing her employment for a better gig?

That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a calendar. Which is why I didn’t mention it. Until now, by way of introduction to the concept of sunlight as a disinfectant. If the various relevant background factors in a story are set out, then readers can judge for themselves.

When there is an unseen thumb on the scale, you deserve to know. Such as a week ago Friday, when I wrote a column on Joe Biden being too old to run again. The column originally ended with a clear and pointed call to action that I can’t even specify here, because my editors felt it amounted to an endorsement in the race if Biden indeed does run against Donald Trump, which seems inevitable.

That part got shaved off by my editors, late in the day, and you should know why.

Last year, the Sun-Times was scooped up and is now an affiliate of Chicago Public Media. They are a 501(c)3 charity and now so are we. Because of that, the paper legally is not supposed to endorse political candidates. As with any rule, there is disagreement over what it actually means.

Some — such as myself — believe the restriction is limited to actual official endorsements, to editorials that begin, “The Sun-Times endorses Joe Shlabotnik for alderperson of the First Ward because, being already wealthy, he won’t steal as much as is usual ...”

Others — my bosses — have an even more vigilant view and believe that merely telling readers to support or oppose a particular candidate, whether or not it’s an official endorsement, could threaten our charitable status.

It’s a true dilemma, like being offered a pill that could cure your dangerous medical condition. Or kill you. Do you take it? Speaking truth to power and letting the chips fall where they may sounds good, until the entire financial basis of our operation is destroyed and we all lose our jobs. We can’t do much good if that happens.

I mention this, not just to explain to all the readers who wrote in, confused, wondering if I had lost my mind. But moving forward, into what will be a very contentious 2024 presidential election. You should know that, when it comes to deciding which vote supports democracy, and which might just end it, well, you’re on your own.

I don’t want to overstate the case. My column is a twig snapping in a bonfire the size of a barn. The entirety of responsible professional journalism has been blazing away at Donald Trump for eight solid years now. The smoke clears. And there he is, not a dyed and shellacked hair on his jabbering head singed, striding toward the 2024 presidency. It seems fairly clear the country is divided between those who figured it out a long time ago, and those who never will.

Editor’s note: As a nonprofit, the Sun-Times is no longer allowed to make political endorsements. You can read more about this here.

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