In this post I will summarize the controversy that former Tribune columnist John Kass returns to over and over in an effort to discredit not just the members of the Tribune’s newsroom union but the newspaper itself. I do so because I find it infamous how he is trying to harm the paper and the men and women who work there by advancing a false narrative. There are some redundancies in this narrative because it is an amalgamation of several posts. (Last updated August 15,2022)
In early 2022, at the online site where he now posts columns, John Kass offered up this bit of revisionist history about the events of nearly two years earlier when he and I both worked as columnists at the Chicago Tribune:
The woke newspaper guild—which I had politely and repeatedly declined to join—used the (financier George) Soros-(Cook County State’s Attorney Kim) Foxx column to falsely defame me for reporting the truth. A defamatory public letter was leaked and media gossips feasted.
But what I’d written was fact. And these facts that had been reported by other prominent news organizations across the country: Soros had indeed backed Foxx and a cadre of other prosecutors. A weak editor, fearful of the wrath of the woke news guild, moved me off my home of two decades on Page 2, to far back in the paper, a move that signaled management’s tacit approval of the union’s defamation of me.
This isn’t the first time that Kass had claimed that he “politely and repeatedly” declined to join the Tribune newsroom’s union. In fact, yes, he declined — I have no idea how politely or repeatedly — to sign a union authorization card, which is the preliminary stage in labor organizing in which employees signal their wish to be represented by a union.
The effort at the Trib to gather signatures to form a union came about in 2018 because many front-line journalists were alarmed by the cost-cutting measures and lack of job security under Tribune Publishing. I signed the authorization card along with 85% of the newsroom not because I thought it would benefit me — any raises I might have gotten during that penny-pinching era would likely have been more than offset by union dues — but because I believed and still believe that the future of journalism depends on it being an attractive long-term career path for talented young writers and reporters, and that strong local journalism is a key component in civic health.
I like to think that the support of veteran columnists and critics gave the union movement credibility and courage. I don’t know why Kass “politely and repeatedly” refused to stand in solidarity with the vast majority of his colleagues, though that was certainly his right.
It was not, however, Kass’ right to decline to “join” the union once the company recognized it. Illinois is not one of those “right to freeload” states where employees in private-sector unionized shops can refuse to join the union while still enjoying the protections and benefits afforded by collective bargaining. Once the Tribune recognized the union, all of us were in.
Kass, however, found a workaround.
Tribune executives had successfully insisted during early negotiations that members of the Editorial Board be deemed part of management and therefore ineligible for union membership, even though most of the writers and editors on the board were not managers by any conventional definition of the term and several board members were enthusiastic backers of the union.
I know this in part because I reported to the head of the Editorial Board, had a desk in the Editorial Board pod and participated in nearly all board meetings (with the exception of endorsement sessions) for the last dozen years of my career at the Tribune, though, I was not a voting member of the board and did not write editorials.
Anyway, one day in the fall of 2018, one of my colleagues on the Editorial Board was looking for information on an internal company directory and noticed that Kass was listed as a member of the board. This was news to just about everyone in the department because —
- Kass hadn’t attended a single board meeting in recent memory.
- His new job title hadn’t been announced in the newsroom or to the other members of the board.
- He wasn’t being edited by anyone on the Editorial Board (as board member/columnists Steve Chapman and Clarence Page were and as I was).
- His column wasn’t running on pages managed by the Editorial Board.
- His column didn’t mention in the italic shirt-tail that he was a member of the Board.
- His bio didn’t appear in the online feature “Meet the Editorial Board.”
It all had the whiff of “fuckery,” to use the colorful, apt term one of our union leaders employed when made aware of the stealth move. Whose idea it was — Kass’ or the bosses’ — doesn’t matter now, but since Kass keeps distorting what actually happened I thought I’d bury his misrepresentation with a shovelful of truth.
Shortly after his move was discovered, he began attending Editorial Board meetings. And that he had given his middle finger — or should we say the moutza? — to his colleagues who were part of the union movement was ancient history by July, 2020 when his column headlined “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness” appeared.
In that column, Kass repeatedly invoked “left-wing billionaire George Soros” and wrote that he “has spent millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors.” Kass referred to “Soros-funded prosecutors,” suggested President Donald Trump “call the mayors and ask them about the prosecutors backed by Soros,” noted that “Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx … reportedly received at least $2 million from a Soros backed political action committee” and wrote that releasing “violent offenders back into poor neighborhoods to commit other violent acts on poor people (is) what Soros paid for.”
The obsession with Soros runs deep on the right, where he is every bit the boogeyman as Charles Koch (the surviving member of the dreaded Koch brothers) is to those on the left — shorthand for the extremely wealthy ideologues who use their vast resources to influence public policy in unaccountable ways.
Bleat loudly enough about Soros and you don’t have to deal with such facts as that there was a “statistically negligible difference” in murder rates in 2020 between cities run by Democratic mayors and cities run by Republican mayors, and you don’t have to think seriously about the root causes of urban crime and strategies to combat it.
“Soros” also reads as “Jew puppet master” to some on the right. See “The Antisemitism Lurking Behind George Soros Conspiracy Theories” from the Anti-Defamation League, “The alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter thought George Soros was controlling the world economy. Here’s the anti-Semitic history of that far-right narrative” in Vox and “The Troubling Truth About The Obsession With George Soros” in Forbes, just for example.
From the Forbes column:
A cursory read of conservative and far-right media would have you believe that Soros and his funding is behind Antifa, Black Lives Matter, violent protests, illegal immigration, fraudulent voting schemes and a myriad of other radical conspiracy theories. … (But) if it isn’t facts that are driving the animosity towards Soros, what is it?
Anti-Semitism, plain and simple.
Soros’s critics barely hide their anti-Semitism anymore, frequently posting images of him with grossly distorted anti-Semitic features. The attacks also frequently reference, directly and indirectly, longstanding anti-Semitic theories from texts such as the Elders of Zion that claim Jews are running an international cabal. The most perverse attacks on Soros relate to fraudulent claims that he was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. In fact, Soros’s family escaped persecution from the Nazis, who killed over 500,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II. … By giving oxygen to anti-Soros theories, … pundits not only do a disservice to the truth, but they fuel anti-Semitic hate and violence that is beginning to reach worrisome levels of pervasiveness in America.
I don’t think Kass knew this.
Many of my liberal friends scoff when I say it, but I don’t believe for a second that Kass was deliberately trying to wink at religious or cultural bigots or that he is one himself.
But it was far from just the “woke” newsroom union that objected to his Soros-a-rama.
A letter to the Tribune from David Goldenberg, the midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, decried the column’s perpetuation of “conspiracy theories against Jews that have been the gateway to anti-Semitism for centuries. … Casting a well-known Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates high-profile events for malign purposes has the effect of mainstreaming anti-Semitic tropes and giving support, however unwitting, to bona fide anti-Semites and extremists who disseminate these ideas knowingly and with malice,” Goldenberg wrote.
Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, jumped in to write, “The narrative that George Soros is behind these protests is just the latest manifestation of an old trope that Jews foment civil unrest and that (people of color) don’t have the agency to organize ourselves. It’s racist and anti-Semitic, and it should never have been published in the Tribune.”
A letter to Tribune management from the newsroom union’s executive committee quoted these and other criticisms, adding:
The odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is a puppet master controlling America’s big cities does not deserve a mainstream voice, especially at a time when hate crimes are rising.
And let’s be clear: This column from the Tribune’s lead columnist does a disservice to our entire institution, not just the editorial board, for which he nominally works. It undermines the efforts of our newsroom to provide fair and diligent reporting to readers who, we all know, don’t always grasp the distinction between “opinion” and “news.”
We ask that the paper, and Kass separately, apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes.
Kass called this letter “defamatory” and insisted that what he’d “written was fact.”
Indeed it was factual in noting that Soros was bankrolling the campaigns of progressive prosecutors. No serious person has disputed that, and Soros’ explanation of his motives in the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2022 — heralded by some on the right as some big reveal — was no secret to anyone who’d been paying attention.
But the union letter was factual as well. Unwittingly, I contend, but undeniably, Kass had blown an anti-Semitic dog whistle. Rather than saying he didn’t mean any offense, he referred to the charge in a follow-up column as “something I didn’t do.”
I’ve covered a number of stories of misinterpretations and misunderstandings that result in explosions of umbrage. I’ve been at the center of a few myself. And my tendency to take the side of those who feel unfairly treated by the indignati doesn’t change here because of my overall political differences with Kass.
A simple “I’m sorry, I didn’t know” would have gone a long way to smoothing all the ruffled plumage.
That was certainly the strategy I employed when I came under fire from the LGBTQ community for referring in writing to someone as “transgendered.” The proper term, they told me, is “transgender.” “Transgendered” is offensive, they said, in the same way that “Blackened” would be an offensive way to refer to a Black person. Well I’d certainly meant no offense and my confession of ignorance on this point along with my apology was sufficient to blunt further criticism.
And it’s worth pointing out that, as Kass carried on his vendetta against the entire Tribune in August of 2022, only four of the nine Chicago Tribune Guild executive committee members who signed the letter are still with the paper. His tantrum is now focused on four people — Megan Crepeau, Dave Roknic, Sara Harvey and Gregory Pratt.
But even if Kass had offered at the time a contrite expression of regret for having inadvertently upset so many people, it wouldn’t have stopped the editors from moving his column off Page 2 and onto the then-new “Tribune Voices” pages just in front of the editorials and op-eds. Putting all opinion content into one area of the main section was a plan that had been in the works since that March, and had nothing to do with anyone’s fear “of the wrath of the woke news guild” as Kass still tells his readers.
Colin McMahon, then the executive editor, even offered something of a defense of Kass to Daily Herald media blogger Robert Feder:
“The Chicago Tribune, like other quality U.S. newspapers, has long prided itself on being home to a robust marketplace of ideas. Readers engage deeply with the Tribune’s editorials, columns, op-eds and letters to the editor, and the Tribune has long accepted that people taking issue with or even offense at the opinions expressed goes with the territory.”
Kass’ grievance, to put it short, was that his columns began appearing on the same pages as staff-written columns by Heidi Stevens, Rex Huppke, Dahleen Glanton and Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich, though almost always at the top of the page and four times a week when other writers got only three. Staff columns by me, Steve Chapman and Clarence Page appeared even further “back in the paper.” (Only Page was still on staff by mid-2022).
As far as I know (and I was at the Tribune at the time) no one internally called for his firing or for him to be muzzled. He endured some internal criticism from his colleagues — poor lad! — and was permitted to use his considerable platform to fire back.
His boundless self pity emerged again in mid-July of 2022 when the Tribune reported — in the second of three items in a real estate transactions column at the bottom of the seventh section — that he’d bought a house in exurban St. John, Indiana.
You’d have thought the Trib had put his phone number and home address above the fold on Page One from the way he carried on in a column posted shortly thereafter to his website.
I see the woke media for what it is, what it’s done to the city, how they’ve avoided the truth of what’s happened to Chicago. And the left hates my guts. … So to get at me, they targeted our modest home in Indiana — still just barely in the Chicago metro area where they still sell “the paper” at the local stores — and wrote a story about it. …
There were other stories more important to the Tribune’s readers than vengeance on me.
They could have written about the continued rise in violent crime and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pathetic administration of the overworked and understaffed police department, where there aren’t enough cops to handle 9/11 emergency calls.
Or they could have fully explored the abysmal news that many cheerleading press agents ignore amid all their forced happy talk: Downtown commercial office vacancy rates have hit record highs.
This whine about presenting a story that wasn’t “important” came from the guy who regularly wrote about how and why to shove beer cans up the asses of chickens before throwing them on the grill. Kass often let readers into certain corners of his personal life, including — you guessed it — in a May 2020 account of his decision to move from the suburbs back into the city.
And good for him! A column — like a newspaper itself, like Kass’ new venture and like the Picayune Sentinel — contains a mix of light and heavy, serious and frivolous, urgent and timeless. Nearly every newspaper has sections devoted to sports and to entertainment in an effort to satisfy the wide-ranging interests of readers and offer a break from scandal and mayhem.
Fact is, readers were interested in Kass’ decision to leave Illinois, whether or not he or anyone else considered it an important story. Chicago Public Square daily newsletter editor Charlie Meyerson told me that a link to the online version of freelance reporter Robert Goldsborough’s item on Kass’ new home was by far the most clicked on of the 38 links that appeared in Meyerson’s July 14 news roundup, even though it came near the bottom of the newsletter.
Vengeance? Not from me. I applauded Kass’ decision to move in the Picayune Sentinel, writing, “I’ve got to respect that, unlike most of those who complain endlessly about Illinois, he suited his actions to his words and summoned the movers.”
What made this story all the more intriguing was how Kass was clearly trying to keep his status as a new Hoosier a secret, making the home purchase “through an opaque Indiana land trust,” as Goldsborough reported, and declining to answer queries about the move, including one in an email from me.
In his 1,500-word tantrum over this everyday item — the Tribune regularly reports on the real estate transactions of Chicago media personalities, including ones less well known than Kass (see below) — he wrote:
A weird angry troll on social media then documented, publicly, a full day of his travels from Chicago via bicycle and public transportation, traveling to my home. Our home. This is what “the paper” triggered.
The “weird angry troll on social media” was John Greenfield, co-editor of Streetsblog Chicago and a columnist for the Chicago Reader. He was not traveling to Kass’ “home,” and indeed the first entry in the Twitter thread that chronicled his trip to St. John contained the assurance, “No, I won’t identify or visit Kass’ house.”
Further, “the paper” didn’t trigger Greenfield’s excursion. He’s a longtime critic of Kass’ writing and started tweaking him about the then-rumored move long before before Goldsborough nailed down the details and published them.
Rather than be amused and flattered that some still consider him important enough to tweak, Kass rose to the bait and gnawed on it furiously, not just in the essay posted to his website but also on his podcast and in a radio appearance.
He ended his published rant with this: “But really, I don’t give two figs.”
So one fig equals 750 indignant words. Do the math.
His indignation is preposterous. Former Tribune audience editor Charlie Johnson posted this image to Facebook to illustrate that it’s not unusual for the Tribune to report on the real estate transactions of local media personalities:
And of course — you knew this was coming — an eagle-eyed critic on Twitter noted that in August, 1998, Kass printed U.S. Rep. Luis Guttierez’s exact home address in a snarky column about his real-estate tax bill.
Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg took the controversy and ran with it in an epic blog post on August 2:
In 2000, I moved to the suburbs. Since certain columnists were already manifesting their lifelong habit of presenting themselves as living on Evergreen with the ghost of Nelson Algren, warming their hands over scrap lumber fires in 55-gallon oil drums on Lower Wacker Drive, when in fact they were hiding in Western Springs, hoarding dried food against the collapse of civilization, I was very public about my move, even writing an article about it for North Shore Magazine , which ran a photo of me, my wife and kids sitting on the front steps of our 1905 Queen Anne farmhouse in Northbrook. Nothing to hide.
This caught the attention of (Tribune freelance reporter Robert) Goldsborough, who noted that while I shared the tableau of a neighbor stopping her car in the street before our house and leaping out, door flung open, to demand, “How much did you pay for that?” I did not actually share the purchase price with my readers.
“But Upper Bracket will share,” Goldsborough chuckled. “Steinberg paid $370,000 in June (although the sale closed in October) for the house on a half acre, according to public records.” …
My reaction to my private real estate deals ending up in the pages of the Tribune was very different from Kass’s. I remember reading Goldsborough’s report with surprise, raising an eyebrow, and thinking, “‘Upper bracket?’ I wish!” No collapsing to the ground and clawing at myself. …
The news, John, is good, and I’m happy to be the one to share it with you and the world. It isn’t you being picked on, or victimized, or paid back for your daring … umm … whatever it is you do that has made you the cynosure of a Dick Tracy rogues gallery of villains. We are brothers here. I too have felt Bob Goldsborough’s lash. Or his fleeting professional attention, anyway. The Trib’s real estate Torquemada gave similar treatment to a newbie nudnik more than 20 years ago. So you aren’t the victim of vast conspiratorial forces arrayed against you.
It was a lovely companion piece to “In defense of John Kass,” a January 2021 effort that also shows off Steinberg’s ability to turn a phrase that rivals that of the late wordsmith Christopher Hitchens.
At his website, Kass then attacked “the Jacobins of The Tribune (Union) Guild that run the newsroom” and named criminal courts reporter Megan Crepeau and City Hall reporter Greg Pratt while insinuating that they “let their biases shape their judgment in favor of progressive political actors.”
The union does not “run the newsroom.” Editors and supervisors are not members of the union.
Kass’ relentless mischaracterization of the facts prompted Charlie Johnson to post “John Kass, George Soros, and the response I never published” in order to clarify an issue that, as he noted, “Kass has continued to regularly bring up … in columns on his website and tweets.”
Soros, is a political financier and booster of the “progressive prosecutor” movement. He is also the target of conspiracy theories, rooted in anti-Semitism, about his “puppet master” like control of governments and people. The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was inspired by them. A bomb was found at Soros’ house.
One does not need to be anti-Semitic — and I do not believe John is, to be clear — to be spun by these tropes. And just because one does not mention Soros’ religious background does not absolve one of responsibility for parroting them. Anyone with a brain knows out-and-out pronouncements of Jews controlling media or government will be revolting to most and find no home in any mainstream press. … To write about Soros and his money, therefore, requires care. It requires differentiating his influence as a financier of causes from crackpot theories about him creating migrant caravans headed for the border. … Writers who understand this would be careful to ward off the bigoted and mentally unstable with caveats and context.
On August 4, 2022 Kass crony Charles Lipson posted to RealClearPolitics the assertion that Kass had been “driven out” of the Tribune newsroom. He was not. He left of his own accord and with a generous buyout package roughly a year after the dust-up over George Soros.
In an August 7 guest column posted to Kass’ website, former Sun-Times pundit Steve Huntley wrote:
The Tribune guild accused Kass … of anti-Semitism. .. To the Tribune Guild, Soros is a Jew. And even though Kass did not reference Soros in any way as a Jew, the liberal guild used Soros’ Jewish identity as a weapon to attack Kass, whose well-argued conservative views the union honchos hate.
Again there was no such accusation. There was a complaint/observation, easily confirmed as I’ve shown above, that invoking Soros is seen in some quarters as anti-semitic. This may strike you as a fine distinction, but it’s key.
I’ve said this already, but I don’t contend that anyone who invokes Soros is anti-Semitic. I contend only that anti-Semitic people have so frequently invoked his name to advance anti-Semitism that using his name over and over in a column gives rise to the appearance of advancing anti-Semitic tropes.
I don’t agree politically with Kass on much of anything, but I don’t think he intended to give that appearance and I don’t think he’s a bigot or an anti-Semite. I think he was surprised and then hurt and then angry at the insinuations, and I can certainly understand those emotions.
But for the sake of argument let’s say that the Guild executive committee had directly accused Kass of being an anti-Semite and had demanded he be fired or suspended. So what? Columnists get criticized all the time, especially ones who adopt the confrontational, condescending tone Kass often adopted. Sometimes that criticism is over the top or unfair; sometimes it comes from colleagues.
Respond to it thoughtfully and carefully and carry on! Enduring the knowledge that others held unflattering views of him ought to have been easy, particularly during the pandemic when nearly all of us at the Tribune were working remotely and didn’t have to endure daggers being stared at us by fellow journalists. There was no need to be a snowflake.
But about Soros, why invoke him at all? To suggest that Kim Foxx is a tool of a rich, liberal, foreign ideologue and is following marching orders, not her own judgment, to institute policies that deliberately result in greater threats to public safety?
That’s a lazy, ad hominem argument, as are arguments on the left that because Charles Koch, the surviving member of the dreaded Koch Brothers, helps fund a program, it’s automatically bad.
Back to Steve Huntley’s guest essay:
It. .. was an example of the radical cancel culture that’s intolerant of any view not progressive. Resorting to Orwellian language contortions, progressives demonize dissent by calling it disinformation or misinformation. And Kass’ dissent from the prevailing far left culture of the Tribune could not be tolerated.
Kass was not “canceled.” He was not suspended. He was not disciplined. He was allowed to respond to his critics in print.
(Kass never expected) to be betrayed by a Tribune publisher and editorial executives who would not stand up for basic journalistic and constitutional standards of free thought and free speech.
Again, Huntley is writing this but Kass is posting it to his website and it’s complete bullshit. The publisher and editorial executives continued giving him the most prominent position given to any local columnist. Huntley doesn’t seem to know this.
Kass knows it, of course. But he nevertheless features this falsehood on his site.
It’s hard not to conclude that it’s the Guild, and not editorial management, that’s running the newsroom.
Based on what evidence? Huntley doesn’t say. Neither does Kass ever cite specific stories to bolster his allegations along these lines.
Because of this sad chapter at a once great journalistic institution, Kass did the only honorable thing. He took a buyout, left the Tribune and established this website …
If Kass’ departure had been principled, it would have occurred in mid 2020 when all the feathers were flying over the Soros column. But no. He waited nearly a year and accepted an attractive buyout offer, as many of us did. Spare us the posturing and claims of honor and principle, lovingly presented in the proxy voice of Steve Huntley.
On June 16, 2022, Kass wrote “Once I was given a chance to jump of that fetid swamp, I jumped,” when, of course, he could have jumped right away. The “chance” he refers to was a nice fat buyout check. Hey, I took one, too, but at least I don’t preen about my reasons.
Finally — or so Kass seems to be promising — on August 9, 2022, Kass awarded his monthly Golden Moutza (eat shit!) award to the Tribune and the Tribune Guild.
I … hope the anesthesia (for an upcoming shoulder surgery) is strong enough to block dreams of my former employer–“the paper” — and the Chicago Tribune Guild slandering me for daring to write about lefty billionaire George Soros and the woke non-prosecutor prosecutors he’s installed in Chicago and other crime-ridden towns. The Trib Guild buzzed like flies over a garbage dumpster outside a butcher shop.
“Moutza to the Chicago Tribune Guild for dictating dirty tricks to weak-spined editors,” writes (Kass reader) Tom Winike. “Trolling John Kass is a shabby scheme to silence criticism of Preckwinkle/Foxx/Soros regime. But it’s also about circulation. Tribune realizes that johnkassnews.com has cut into their subscription pie. They fear Kass as a Pied Piper leading thousands of readers into freedom from censorship. Nah!”
Some Jacobin trolls want me to forget about it, others of the left are quite sensitive about Soros these days, since he himself bragged about funding his progressive prosecutor project and said he has “no intention” of stopping. A few trolls want me to shut up and take it.
I admit I’m growing weary of their cries, their tears, their shrieks of pain. And the whimpering. …
Tribune? Tribune Guild? You defamed me and yet you wonder why you’ve lost subscribers? Readers subscribe to johnkassnews.com
You ever wonder why? You forgot journalism and became political operatives.
Just lift your faces to the light. Behold your great prize. The Golden Moutza of the Month.
I’ve got drugs to take. I’ve got surgery. I’ve written columns about this, and others have written about this. too.
And now I’m done with you.
I don’t want to mention you again. After what you’ve done, you disgust me. And I’m done. I hope to have written my last words about your nonsense. Just leave me and my family alone.
Just go away.
What Kass hears as shrieks of pain and whimpering is laughter — laughter at this bitter, thin-skinned egotistical old crank who couldn’t stand appearing on the same page of newsprint as other columnists, who collapsed into a puddle at criticism that came not just from his colleagues — whom he refused to support when they were trying to form a union to protect journalists far less well paid than he was — but from all over, and who vibrated with paranoia at the routine reporting of his latest real estate transaction, and now is trying to recast the entire story with himself as a victim.
The Chicago Tribune continues to do good journalism during trying financial times. It’s not above criticism or reproach on some matters, but it remains an important civic asset and Kass should be ashamed for betraying his former colleagues by trying to tear it down with a wrecking ball of lies.