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Private Life Collides With Popular Columnist's Public Image

Media: Bob Greene, who championed Midwestern values for 30 years at the Tribune, is accused of sexual acts with a teen 10 years ago.

September 17, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY and JOHN BECKHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — For almost 30 years, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene was an institution in this city.

With a straightforward Midwestern style, he came to epitomize the folksier side of American values. He wrote about Elvis and Michael Jordan and the plight of abused children.

That public persona came crashing down around Greene on Sunday when a brief notice on the front page of the Tribune announced that the columnist, who is married, had resigned after an investigation into sexual misconduct with a teenage girl more than a decade ago.

Greene's departure from the paper, where he had worked since 1978, was newsworthy enough to be the lead story of the day on a number of Chicago television stations. A lengthy account of the events leading up to Greene's resignation appeared prominently in Monday's Tribune. That story detailed almost a week of intense discussions, Greene's suspension and finally the acceptance of his resignation on Saturday by Editor Ann Marie Lipinski.

But even with the publicity, questions remained about the circumstances surrounding the misconduct, including why the incident emerged more than a decade after it happened. But top editors at the Tribune remained tight-lipped when asked for further information. At an emotional meeting for newspaper employees held Monday in a Tribune auditorium, Lipinski repeatedly declined to expand further on the events of the last week, saying that a more detailed account would endanger the privacy of individuals involved.

"I cannot discuss more detail," she told a group of about 200 staffers who attended the meeting. "It would make things easier for me. We are dealing with somebody who complained who does not want her name to be used."

Lipinski told The Times in a telephone interview that the events were "heartbreaking." She declined to elaborate on the discussions with Greene or on the final decision to accept his resignation.

Steve Rhodes, who writes about the media for Chicago magazine, said another question that remains unclear is which line Greene crossed. "The Tribune is in the position of knowing the real story and not telling the rest of us. The story is not going to end here."

According to accounts in the Tribune and other sources, an e-mail was sent to the newspaper a week ago Monday containing allegations of sexual impropriety by Greene. The e-mail was channeled through the Tribune's news tip line, then on to top editors.

Quoting sources who have seen the e-mail, the Tribune story said a girl, then in her late teens, met with Greene in his office as part of a high school project. Those sources also said the teenager was later the subject of a Greene column, followed soon thereafter by a dinner and a sexual encounter.

The Tribune reported that the e-mail said the woman involved in the encounter had tried to contact Greene twice in the last year. After the second attempt, she received a call, purportedly from the FBI, warning her to stop calling.

The inflammatory e-mail led to discussions among the paper's top brass, with Greene and with the woman in question. On Saturday, Lipinski and Managing Editor Jim O'Shea interviewed the woman. Later in the day, Greene resigned.

Greene, 55, sent an e-mail to Associated Press shortly after his resignation in which he said there were "indiscretions in my life that I'm not proud of."

"I don't have the words to express the sadness I feel," he wrote. "I am very sorry for anyone I have let down, including the readers who have for so long meant so much to me."

Lou Pomerantz, owner of the Candle Cart, a Michigan Avenue candle store, has read Greene for years. She said she admired his columns on the welfare of children. "His style was simple and to the point," she said. "The Tribune possibly overreacted, but if those were the rules, then he knew the rules and I am genuinely deeply saddened by the whole thing."

Neil Steinberg, a columnist and editorial writer for the Tribune's rival Sun-Times who once wrote a regular column mocking Greene's folksy style, said he wasn't surprised by the allegations. "The shock is to the poor readers who think Bob is trying to keep America pure," he said.

Greene could not be reached for comment.

He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1969 after graduating from Northwestern University. After a few years as a reporter, he became a columnist, then jumped to the Tribune in 1978.

His celebrity expanded nationwide with the syndication of his column, plus television appearances, books and magazine articles. One of his books, "Good Morning, Merry Sunshine," was a best seller that chronicled the first year of his daughter's life.

Other columnists, most notably the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, have been fired in recent years for professional misconduct. Although all the facts haven't been disclosed, this could be the rare case in which personal misconduct was cited as the cause for a columnist's departure.

At the Tribune meeting Monday afternoon, Lipinski told Tribune employees that the reaction of readers had run the gamut but that she believed the right decision had been made by the paper's editors. (The paper is owned by the Tribune Co., which also publishes the Los Angeles Times.)

"I feel awful about this," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I am so proud of this place and I don't want to see it hurt."

Another question came from the audience: Would Greene have a final column? "He no longer works here," she replied.

*

Kennedy reported from Los Angeles and Beckham from Chicago.

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