Famed Chicago Alt-Weekly Barely Survives a Covid Scare

Famed Chicago Alt-Weekly Barely Survives a Covid Scare

Famed Chicago Alt-Weekly Barely Survives a Covid Scare

When the Chicago Reader’s editor sent the co-owner’s anti-vax column to be fact-checked, the fallout nearly killed the paper.


The Chicago Reader has just survived a near-death experience by the skin of its battered and chipped teeth. The 51-year-old alternative weekly was headed to oblivion because one of its co-owners reneged on an agreement to let it transition to nonprofit status. As a condition of signing off on the deal, he wanted the copublisher dismissed.

In a bizarre role-reversal, co-owner Leonard C. Goodman accused the Reader’s publisher and editors of suppressing his freedom of speech and violating the First Amendment. All because they wanted to correct a column he wrote that was full of misinformation casting doubt on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.

The dispute has played out like a weird dance since Goodman published a column on November 24, 2021, saying he didn’t think the vaccine was safe for his own daughter. Under the headline “Vaxxing our kids: Why I’m not rushing to get my six-year-old the COVID-19 vaccine,” Goodman trashed the “feverish hype by government officials, mainstream media outlets, and Big Pharma, and the systematic demonization and censorship of public figures who raise questions about the campaign.” Critics of mass vaccination, he alleged, “have faced heavy suppression on social media and vicious attacks from corporate media outlets.”

After complaints poured in from readers and editorial staffers, copublisher Tracy Baim authorized editors to have the column retrospectively reviewed by an independent fact-checker. Then she took on the unenviable task of offering Goodman several options, including a rewrite, posting the fact-check, or posting an editor’s note and pulling the column. “The rewrite kept his personal opinion of his own daughter intact,” Baim said in an interview. “The non-peer-reviewed science was what we wanted to put the fact check around.”

Goodman balked. In a meeting on December 15, his allies on the paper’s governing board accused Baim of censorship and violating the Reader’s history of publishing dissenting views. One of those allies, lawyer Sladjana Vuckovic, told The Washington Post, “If they think it’s journalistic par-for-the-course to rewrite and edit an article because it’s unpopular, they should go back and review the First Amendment.”

Quite aside from the absurdity of claiming the First Amendment protects writers (much less owners) from being fact-checked and corrected, the boardroom dissension couldn’t have come at a worse time. For two years Baim, a well-known figure in Chicago media circles as cofounder of the Windy City Times, the local LGBTQ paper, had been working to set up a 501(c)3 so that the Reader could seek out support from foundations and individuals, and transition to a more financially stable nonprofit status. The Reader had been losing about $1 million a year for several years, and its interim co-owners, Goodman and real estate investor Elzie Higginbottom, had never intended to subsidize it forever. The transaction was supposed to close on December 31.

(It may be worth noting in passing that, as a criminal defense attorney, Goodman represented disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich in his appeals of his criminal conviction. It is possibly also useful to know that he is a member of Chicago’s plutocratic Crown family, worth $10.2 billion, according to Forbes, and whose major holding is a sizable interest in defense contractor General Dynamics.)

As the parties dug in their heels and the dispute dragged on into March, the weekly’s cash reserves dwindled. “It was really about the power imbalance, between the owner—whether that’s Jeff Bezos or Alden Capital—and the editing team,” Baim said. “The imbalance was too much.” By April Baim felt in danger of not being able to meet payroll.

The fate of the Reader mirrors that of many other alternative media outlets that flourished in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s—and then lost their way after the Internet, and Craigslist, walked off with their advertising base. Famously free to anyone who bent down to pick it up, in its heyday in the late 1990s, the Reader—thick as a brick in four hefty sections—was deposited in enormous snowdrift piles on Thursdays and Fridays in the entryways of shops, restaurants, and transit stops. On the North Side and downtown, it was ubiquitous. By Saturday morning, the piles would be gone.

It was the Reader that first published the accounts of the torture of Black male suspects to force false confessions, conducted by Detective Jon Burge and the Chicago Police Department in the 1970s and ’80s. These exposés by reporter John Conroy eventually led to multiple investigations of police violence and mistreatment that cost city taxpayers millions in reparations and led to the overturning and commutation of dozens of criminal sentences. The reputation of the Chicago Police Department has never recovered.

Changes to the Reader’s ownership structure are only the most recent in the convulsions that have wracked the Chicago media market. Recently, the Sun-Times was effectively acquired by WBEZ, the thriving local affiliate of NPR. The once-dominant Chicago Tribune has gone through a dizzying series of owners in the past 15 years—including Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire, and Michael Ferro, a tech entrepreneur who also owned the Sun-Times for a spell. Last year the Tribune succumbed to a takeover by vulture hedge fund Alden Global Capital, after which many of the Trib’s marquee columnists and bylines quit or retired, leaving it much diminished. The Trib’s former newsroom and offices in the Tribune Tower have now been converted to condos, and its printing plant will be demolished to make way for Chicago’s long-awaited casino.

WGN, a former cable superstation (“World’s Greatest Newspaper”) operated by the Tribune Co., was taken over by Nexstar, which has rebranded it as NewsNation. The Ricketts family, who purchased the Chicago Cubs from the Tribune Company and whose fortune derives from TD Ameritrade, shut down hyperlocal news site DNAinfo.com as soon as the staff made moves to unionize. And, back in the 1990s, the Sun-Times was pillaged under the ownership of Conrad Black, the arriviste Canadian would-be aristocrat, convicted fraudster, and later Trump pardonee.

“The next time some rich guy offers to rescue your newspaper, run the other way,” wrote local media blogger Robert Feder.

Feeding the Backlash

The backlash against Covid precautions and the refusal to get vaccinated even when virus cases are rising is causing alarm among US public health officials. “Misinformation is now our leading cause of death,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, addressing a conference of health care journalists in late April.

The worst of these falsehoods are found online, but when they percolate into the pages of established media, public health experts freak out. The Goodman column was a masterpiece of the genre.

“There is a lot of misleading framing in this, and cherry picking of many different things,” said Rachel E. Moran, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. The column contains a kernel of truth, in that “he is speaking to a very real distrust in the pharma industry.” But then he goes on to mix in a lot of commentary that is “not about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. It’s whether Pfizer is a good company, or whether the market system for health care in the US is a good thing.”

Goodman’s column is “one thing after another, spouting out a lot of surface-level arguments that don’t engage with the science,” said Tara Haelle, an independent science journalist who follows the anti-vaccine movement from her base in Dallas. “It’s glossing over what the science says, while at the same time demonizing the messengers of science. All while making it sound like silenced critics have the real story, while everybody else is in bed with pharma. Which is classic.”

Here are some statements from Goodman’s column (in italics), and why they’re not correct:

“Congress is so in the pocket of Big Pharma that it’s against the law for our government to negotiate bulk pricing for drugs.” This is true. The pharmaceutical industry vigorously protects its ability to charge full prices to Medicare and Medicaid. But this is not a reason not to take a Covid vaccine. By leading with that, Moran said, Goodman is “setting up this frame of uncertainty that makes the other arguments more compelling.”

“But no actual data from the vaccine trials has been provided to the public.”The data and results from the initial Pfizer vaccine trial, as well as reams of other data, can be found on the FDA’s website. “This is the first time that we have actually had that much data for a vaccine,” Haelle said. “That is completely wrong.”

“The risk of Covid to healthy kids is extremely low.” Quite apart from how vulnerable healthy children may be to the virus, “children can carry the virus and infect other people,” said Lael Yonker, MD, a pediatrician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“I was also surprised to learn that there are reputable scientists opposed to mass vaccination, such as Dr. Robert Malone, an original inventor of the mRNA vaccine technology behind the Covid vaccines.” Malone is one of many researchers who contributed bits and pieces of science that eventually culminated in these successful vaccines. His claim to authorship of the vaccine technology is not taken seriously, and he has been largely discredited by the scientific community.

“In place of mass vaccination, Malone recommends early intervention with therapeutics shown to be effective against Covid, including ivermectin.” Ivermectin is the false idol of the anti-vax world. On its website, the FDA explains in some detail “why you should not use Ivermectin to treat or prevent Covid-19.” An NPR report situates ivermectin in the universe of unproven Covid treatments.

“The final straw for me is the apparent lack of durability of the Covid vaccines. Recent data indicates that the limited protection from the vaccine lasts only four to six months. Since Covid is not going away, is it Pfizer’s plan to artificially boost my daughter’s immune system every four to six months for the rest of her life?” Respiratory vaccines in general are not as durable as other vaccines, Haelle said. The flu vaccine, to cite the most obvious example, doesn’t last. You have to take it every flu season. As the Covid pandemic matures into endemicity, this is one possible result: We might have to get a shot every year.

“These are all super common tropes throughout anti-vaccine history,” Haelle said. “The facts are that the benefits of avoiding Covid greatly exceed the risks of the vaccine.”

“It’s a very frustrating column,” in Moran’s summary view. “This gentleman is using his privilege and wealth as owner of this outlet to spread misinformation in a public health crisis.”

The danger in these kinds of writings, said Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, a health communications scholar at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., is the sense of confusion and apathy they could induce in the general public, “the false sense of…lack of consensus.” The average person feels like “there is so much going on, I don’t know who to trust.” It also means, she added, that “you don’t even believe there is objectively held science-based truth. And that means corrections could be useless.”

End of the Road

The conflict at the Reader was resolved in the last week of April when Goodman finally agreed to relinquish control and let the transaction to not-for-profit (NFP) status go through. He conceded only after editorial staff demonstrated in front of his house and The Washington Post ran an unflattering news feature.

But Goodman got off a final blast of indignation in the ScheerPost and Robert Malone’s substack, headlined “Beware the Fact-Checkers,” in which he repeated the canard that the virus “poses almost no risk to healthy children” and asserted that he was defending the right to free speech. This fired up a national audience of vaccine skeptics.

“We are now at the end of the road,” Goodman wrote in a statement when he relented. “We cannot continue the fight without destroying the Reader. I am stepping aside. I will sign off on the sale so that the Reader can transition immediately to NFP status. I wish it every success. It was an honor to be part of the Chicago Reader.”

But as Chicago media blogger Robert Feder noted: “It was a road the Chicago attorney made infinitely rockier through petulance and vanity when he conflated legitimate editorial oversight into a phony crusade about free speech rights and censorship.”

“Nobody ever bought a bike and didn’t ride it,” said Neil Steinberg, a columnist with the Sun-Times and occasional Reader contributor. “When you buy a paper, there is a temptation: It’s your paper. You can do with it what you like. It takes a certain discipline of mind to not screw with it. You wreck the thing you’re supposedly helping.”

The Reader has taken a hit for this, Baim admitted, “but it did not amount to a permanent injury. The problem was we were not allowed to do the normal course of journalism, to do a post-publication fact check of what corrections were necessary.”

Today, Goodman’s column still appears as written on the Reader’s website, now a historical artifact in the long, unsavory history of anti-vaccine propaganda.

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