Media deliver mixed messages on Ryan’s release
On Wednesday, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass issued an impassioned plea to his colleagues in the media to turn away from George Ryan, “the old corrupt ex-governor,” who was being released from federal prison after nearly six years.
“The old man did his time. And as long as he stays out of our public life, we should leave him be,” Kass wrote. “Just give him space. Just leave him be.”
That same day, Chicago radio host John Kass devoted an hour of his WLS-AM (890) talk show to Ryan and his release from prison. “I wrote that we shouldn’t ridicule George Ryan today — he did his time — to leave him alone,” Kass told listeners. “But I can’t leave the state alone because we have to reckon with what this day means." At one point, an emotional Kass nearly broke down recounting Ryan's crimes.
Kass earlier had tweeted a promo for his show — “Geo Ryan leaves big house Wednesday” — along with the studio call-in number for WLS. That prompted Sun-Times political reporter Natasha Korecki, who covered Ryan’s trial in 2006, to question Kass publicly: “Wait!” she tweeted. “But I thought we were supposed to ignore him?” (Kass responded by calling Korecki “snarky,” adding: “don’t b mean.”)
If it seemed hard to figure how Kass the columnist could decry what he called “the George Ryan media circus,” while Kass the talk show host was contributing to it himself on a 50,000-watt news/talk radio station, his wasn’t the only mixed message of the day.
In Wednesday’s Sun-Times, columnist Michael Sneed, an unabashed apologist for Ryan, concluded her latest defense of the ex-governor with: “The fact is . . . Ryan’s trial had nothing to do with the deaths of the Willis children.” Twenty-one pages back, columnist Carol Marin offered a more even-handed assessment of Ryan: “He also is remembered as the secretary of state whose office traded bribes for commercial driver’s licenses, resulting in one horrific case in which six children were incinerated in the family van.”
I asked the journalist who broke the bribes-for-licenses story that led to Ryan's conviction, veteran ABC 7 investigative reporter Chuck Goudie, what to make of Wednesday's coverage. Here's what Goudie told me:
“There are six reasons that George Ryan deserved today's extensive news coverage. Their names are Benjamin, Joseph, Samuel, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter. Biblical names. They are collectively known as ‘the Willis children.’
“In 1994, long before they were able to realize their dreams — and years before they were able to vote — those six children were killed in a terrible car crash on I-94. They were incinerated. It may have been an accident. But it could have been prevented, were it not for then-Secretary of State George Ryan's inbred system of office campaign shakedowns that resulted in an unqualified truck driver getting his commercial drivers license. The fact that a faulty truck and the Willis family van crossed paths that day is something that ex-Governor Ryan has never reconciled.
“Today he had another opportunity, in the presence of live TV cameras, to apologize to Scott and Janet Willis. Apparently six years in a ‘correctional’ facility didn't correct his lack of remorse. Ryan was speechless, something his attorney attributed to federal prison rules. Perhaps when Mr. Ryan was driven through Chicago today, getting his first look at the Willis Tower — it was renamed from the Sears Tower during his incarceration — he thought briefly of the Willis children and the tragedy that began his bribes-for-license scandal. Or maybe he is waiting for an anniversary to finally apologize to the memory of Benjamin, Joseph, Samuel, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter.
“On November 8, 2014, they will have been gone 20 years.”