Deconstructing The Bob Greene Affair

A sickly schadenfreude is pervading the coverage of Bob Greene's swift demise. A little over two weeks ago, Greene was one of the country's best-paid journalists, writing a four-times-a-week syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. Then, on Sunday, Sept. 15, a 1988 hotel-room encounter with a teenager came to light.

GREENE RESIGNED, apologizing for his "indiscretions." The Tribune covered the story on its front page. Since then, Chicago's been awash in gleefully salacious tales of Greene's other purported extramarital affairs: Steve Dahl, a Chicago shock jock, invited women who were willing to divulge the details of their dalliances to call in to his show last Wednesday. Meanwhile, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, who was a guest on Dahl's show, penned one of the year's tawdriest columns, detailing one woman's description of her affair with Greene.

But the press can only fixate on a sex scandal qua sex scandal for so long; even editors eventually end up feeling a little tawdry. So, not surprisingly, l'affaire Greene has evolved from being a story about a moralizing columnist's tryst with a teenager to a story about a venerable newspaper's behavior when faced with a scandal in its midst.

The Tribune hasn't acquitted itself well. Forced to explain why it was getting rid of a columnist who seemingly hadn't broken any laws or codified newsroom rules, management insisted Greene wasn't fired, he quit. When asked why an outfit devoted to newsgathering was being so stingy with the facts, the Tribune said it had to respect the privacy of the people involved. And when queried as to why Greene wasn't forced out a long time ago if his behavior was so wrong, editors said, well, they never knew. Let's look at these, one by one.

1) Bob Greene wasn't fired; he resigned. When, as the scandal was breaking, the paper was trying to seize the moral high ground by announcing Greene's departure on its front page, Editor Ann Marie Lipinski wrote: "Greene's resignation was sought after he acknowledged engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct ..." Later, Lipinski told NEWSWEEK that neither she nor anyone at the paper had in any way asked for Greene's resignation. So why say differently on the front page? "We didn't want to get in to the whole chronology," she said. "We had a limited amount of space to deal with this." If, indeed, the paper didn't seek Greene's resignation, that sentence should have read, "Greene resigned after he acknowledged engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct ..." There's no chronology to explain. And besides, fudging the facts because of space constraints shouldn't be a rationale for presenting a less than complete version of reality.

That point is important because if Greene was asked to resign, he was presumably asked to do so because he violated Tribune policy. And Lipinksi did say that Greene did violate policy by "using his position for personal gain." But how? According to Tribune sources, Greene didn't promise the teenager a job, a recommendation or anything else in exchange for sexual contact. When Lipinksi was asked how Greene's case differed from that of a city hall reporter who ends up dating--or even just sleeping with--a city clerk after he moves on to a new beat, she answered, "If you don't see how that's different, I don't know how to explain it to you."

2) The Tribune brass didn't know about Greene's reputation as a womanizer. On CNN's "Reliable Sources" this weekend, Greene's former supervisor, Tribune Assistant Managing Editor Jim Warren, said the "people at the very top" of the paper "did not know" about Greene's reputation. That's not true: Warren himself told NEWSWEEK that "he had a lot, a lot, a lot of younger women who kind of paid homage to him in one way or another. But we're not the morals police, and we didn't follow him out of the building if and when he left with them." Bob Greene's reputation as a womanizer--indeed, his reputation for using his column as a way to meet women--has been well-known for decades. From 1975 to 1985, Greene ran an annual "Ms. Greene's World Pageant" where he invited, in his column, women to "send photographs of themselves to pageant headquarters" where they'd be judged. The winner who was chosen would honor "not merely the traditional ideas of beauty, but the qualities that a truly modern woman should have to get by in this world...." Tribune sources say people in the newsroom referred to the contest as the "Bob Greene dating service." Virtually every current or former Tribune employee NEWSWEEK interviewed (about a dozen) knew about Greene's reputation. If Tribune editors truly hadn't heard anything, their newsgathering organization has bigger worries than what its married columnists--even those who write adoring books about becoming a father--are doing after hours.

3) The Tribune has been forthcoming and upfront about the Greene imbroglio. The big question mark that remains is: why now? Why, after 14 years, did a woman who seems to have had, at most, a handful of encounters with Greene, contact him? What did she want? Why did Greene call the FBI? What did the woman's e-mail to the Tribune's tip line say?

The Tribune has refused to answer any of these questions. Warren explains this by saying that the paper made a promise of confidentiality to the people involved. But Tribune editors have been leaking Greene's 1988 column about the school girl since the day the scandal broke. And they could explain what happened now without giving out more information about her, like her name or where she currently lives. "There are probably a lot of people out there who think we're moralizing, blue-nosed jerks," Warren told me. "And by not disclosing all the details, they can say we're not coming clean. Look, this whole area inspires violent disagreement about what's relevant and what's not relevant."

Warren also made the argument that news organizations aren't good about covering themselves. "We're saying no comment. We don't like doing that. Would we probably be chiding politicians and others who were as reluctant? Yeah, probably. We don't do this very well when it comes to our own, and fortunately, we don't need to do this very often," he said.