By: Dave Astor
In 1999, Bob Greene spoke at a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I attended about how his syndicated feature often addressed the horrors of child abuse. “Why did we go into this business?” he earnestly asked the NSNC audience in Louisville, Ky. “I would hope it is to give a voice to people who have absolutely no voice.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Greene became a columnist. A couple of others: to feed his big ego and sleep with younger women. Greene, who spoke at that meeting near the home of the Kentucky Derby, richly deserved to get knocked off his high horse this month.
Which is why I’m a little puzzled that a number of journalists have at least partially supported him since his resignation from the Chicago Tribune two weeks ago. The man had a sexual encounter with a high schooler. While 17 might be slightly older than the statutory-rape threshold, and while the 1988 tryst might have been consensual, what was the then-41-year-old Greene thinking? I would have hoped there had been a voice in his brain to “just say no,” but there was absolutely no such voice.
Also, Greene’s status as a famous Tribune columnist helped bring this situation about — meaning he abused that status. The girl reportedly contacted Greene while working on a school journalism project, and he wrote about her in his column. While there is no indication of a sex-for-help quid pro quo, it sure doesn’t look good. Journalists are already despised by much of the public. Thanks, Bob, for making parents scared to bring their children into newsrooms.
Greene’s private behavior also may have affected his professional work. A Tribune editor has said Greene shied away from commenting on such important topics as the pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Finally, there are the reports that Greene contacted an FBI agent he knew after receiving phone calls this year from the now-31-year-old woman. This led to his downfall, because, after the FBI warned the woman, she apparently then e-mailed the Tribune. But, although Greene became the victim of a sort of “blowback,” he still abused his power and position by contacting the FBI. In accessing some law-enforcement muscle, Greene could have easily intimidated the woman and went on writing columns for another 14 years.
So why has there been some backing for Greene? Undoubtedly, some of his supporters have also strayed from their marriage vows. They may be thinking — at least subconsciously — that if Greene can be dethroned, maybe they could be next. Heck, Bill Clinton may have been spared removal from office partially because dozens of U.S. senators voting on his fate also had sexual peccadillos in their backgrounds.
Other Greene supporters have argued that the sexual encounter happened 14 years ago, so there should be some sort of statute of limitations. But this doesn’t appear to be a single transgression; press reports allege that Greene played around with a number of women he met directly or indirectly via his column. And, the way I see it, Greene — a father of two who has been married since 1971 — was lucky to have 14 more years of being a high-profile, lionized columnist. His disgrace was postponed from age 41 to age 55.
As some journalists support Greene, others have been accused of kicking him when he’s down. Well, there has indeed been some “piling on,” but it’s hard to resist when Greene has hypocritically donned a family-values persona for so many years.
Of course, the Tribune is not blameless in all this. It made the right move to discipline Greene, but initially parceled out very little information about the situation. This, unfortunately, is endemic in our industry. The media are always insisting that politicians and others come clean, but these selfsame media usually clam up when dealing with their own embarrassments. To the Trib‘s credit, at least it let its reporting staff go after the Greene story.
And, in this cynical age, one can’t help wonder if the Tribune also had other motivations for putting Greene in the rearview mirror. It’s jettisoning a big salary in a cost-cutting time, and many observers feel his column has been repetitive and past its prime for years.
But Greene made his own bed (or beds). Hopefully, he is doing a lot of introspective thinking about his actions rather than wondering if being a notorious ex-columnist is a turn-on to women young enough to be his daughter.