Tribune colleagues blast John Kass column as ‘antithetical to our values’

John Kass

John Kass, the Chicago Tribune’s most prominent columnist, is under fire from his co-workers for invoking what they called an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory involving billionaire George Soros in a column last week.

A letter from the Chicago Tribune Guild, signed by nine members of the executive board, called on the newspaper and Kass to “apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes.”

Kass did not respond to requests for comment. Colin McMahon, editor-in-chief of the Tribune, declined to comment.

Under the headline “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness,” the column blamed Soros for spending “millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors [including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx], adding: “He remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar.” (Here is the link.)

Noting the controversy ignited by the column, the Chicago Tribune Guild letter said: “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.'”

Shortly after the Chicago Tribune Guild was formed in 2018, Kass was added to the newspaper’s editorial board, which exempted him from the union. Every other metro columnist at the paper joined the union, sources said.

It’s not the first time this year Kass has run afoul of his colleagues for regurgitating conservative talking points. In April he apologized for a column in which he wrote: “America’s cultural elites, in politics, government and media, are doing just fine during the coronavirus shutdown.”

Coming on the heels of furloughs, salary reductions and staff cutbacks at the Tribune, the swipe at media “elites” angered fellow journalists.

“I am truly sorry I was not clear,” Kass told me at the time. “I was referring to myself as a columnist who has the luxury of working from home, and to the TV talking heads, politicians and bureaucrats. I was not referring to reporters, many of whom have been laid off as coronavirus negatively impacts local advertising.

“Our reporters are working hard, many for low pay. I should have made that more clear.”

Kass, 64, joined the Tribune as a reporter in 1983 and was promoted to lead columnist after the death of Mike Royko in 1997.

Here is the text of the Chicago Tribune Guild letter:

Colleagues, 

The week began with national press recognizing the Chicago Tribune for its scoop in uncovering Trump administration plans to send federal law-enforcement personnel here. It continued with another honor for the “Quiet Rooms” investigation, this time the top prize from the Education Writers Association.

In between, though, these efforts were undermined by another John Kass column antithetical to our values as a newsroom and detrimental to our hopes of winning new readers.

It, too, earned national recognition, but for being “shocking” and “anti-Semitic.” Kass’s July 22 effort, headlined “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness,” was cited by the Midwest Anti-Defamation League.

Said the Chicago-based ADL chapter, “Shocking @John_Kass column in @chicagotribune scapegoating George Soros with charges that regularly feed antisemitic conspiracies. Violence plagues Chicago, but let’s get real. @chicagotribune has a responsibility to not give these conspiracies a platform.”

Dan Froomkin of the Washington, D.C.-based Press Watch was less restrained, also pointing out that our social media account (accurately) echoed Kass’s vulgar invocations of Soros: “Chicago Tribune opinion page prints bullshit anti-Semitic dog-whistle pro-Trump incitement by paid columnist, then @chicagotribune Twitter account disgustingly promotes it on social media.”

And here’s 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin: “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 PoC don’t have the agency to organize ourselves. It’s racist and antisemitic, and it should never have been published in the Tribune.”

Many other readers criticized the column in similarly stark terms on Twitter, more than a handful citing it as the reason they would cancel subscriptions. Our own reporters were frank about the column’s offensiveness in exchanges with newsroom management.

The essential point? 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. And we would welcome the opportunity to speak with him and with newsroom management about the matter.

We are, all of us, fighting for the future of this institution. Let’s work together to make it known more for journalism — work such as vital scoops on the feds coming here and investigations like “The Quiet Rooms” — than for incendiary viewpoints. 

The Chicago Tribune Guild Executive Board:
Megan Crepeau
Elise De Los Santos
Sara Harvey
Erin Hegarty
Charlie Johnson
Steve Johnson
Todd Lighty
Greg Pratt
Dave Roknic

Friday’s comment of the day: Emily Barr: I had the privilege of working with Jerry [Taft] for 15 years at WLS. He was funny, self-deprecating, humble and smart as a whip. I miss him and wish Shana, Skylar, Storm, Danna and Jay my sincere condolences. May his memory be a blessing for all who knew and loved him.