A Writer's Fall From Grace

The front-page editor's note was terse. "Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene has resigned and will no longer appear in the pages of the newspaper," began the statement signed by Ann Marie Lipinski, a woman who has been in the top job at Chicago's famed broadsheet since February 2001. "Green's resignation was sought after he acknowledged engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct some years ago with a girl in her late teens whom he met in connection with his newspaper column."

Would that it were so simple. Greene, a best-selling author and one of the country's best-known columnists, did continue to appear in the pages of his old paper. All week, articles, editorials and letters cluttered the Tribune. It was an operatic tale: a man who made his name opining on the lost innocence of high school, the horror of childhood abuse and the redeeming love of a good family had destroyed his career because of a tawdry encounter in a downtown hotel with a 17-year-old high-school student.

His behavior shocked the city, and roiled the newsroom. Still, many colleagues wondered why, exactly, Greene was drummed out of his job. Unlike plagiarism or printing fiction as fact, being linked to a one-time subject--even a young one barely over the age of consent--generally doesn't end a journalist's career. "There are a surprising number of people who think Greene got a raw deal," says Steve Rhodes, a media columnist for Chicago magazine.

In this sped-up media age, the tragedy-farce cycle played itself out in less than a week. On Friday, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a piece detailing another woman's supposed affair with Greene (who's been married since 1971). "It was pretty traditional, normal sex," the woman alleged. (Greene didn't respond to several phone calls.)

While discussion of Greene's private life dominated Chicago's airwaves and newspapers, Lipinski insisted it was one incident, having to do with one column, that got him in trouble. In the 1988 piece (which, along with the rest of Green's work, has been scrubbed from the Tribune's Web site), Greene wrote about a 17-year-old Roman- Catholic-school girl who was escorted to the Tribune's offices by her parents because she wanted to interview him for a school project. Of the girl, he wrote, "She seemed to be a bright and perceptive young woman"--before ridiculing her choice of questions.

After the piece ran, according to Tribune sources, Greene asked the teen out to dinner, and at some point they had a sexual encounter. This spring, 14 years later, the woman, who hasn't spoken to the press, contacted Greene again for an unknown reason. Greene called the FBI complaining of harassment (on Friday the bureau's Chicago office released a two-page statement saying a preliminary inquiry determined there was nothing to warrant further investigation). Then, two weeks ago, the woman sent an e-mail to the Trib's tip line detailing the 1988 encounter. When confronted, Greene resigned.

"This was not about a sexual indiscretion," Lipinski told NEWSWEEK. "He took advantage of his position for personal gain. Just because it was sexual rather than financial in nature makes it no less wrong."

Within the Trib's newsroom, this calculus doesn't totally add up. Greene, according to Tribune sources with knowledge of the situation, didn't promise the teenager anything. "I thought what he did was sinful, but not grounds for dismissal," says Paul Gallaway, an old colleague of Greene's. "They say he used his column in connection with a sexual moment with a person of age of legal consent. Well, do you never say you're a Tribune reporter? In some areas, that might seem romantic."

Lipinski doesn't understand the confusion: "If we let him stay, what do we write in our next editorial about the Catholic Church? How can we report on the credibility of other institutions if our own professional conduct is called into question?" For the time being, at least, it looks as if the Trib will be stuck reporting on its own institution, and answering questions about where to draw the line.

A Writer's Fall From Grace | News