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Ballad of Narayama

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Dear John, Dear Roger, Dear Conrad A Sun-Times Correspondence

[Editor's note: Earlier this month during contract negotiations at the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert sent an e-mail to Publisher John Cruickshank saying he would support his colleagues in the Chicago Newspaper Guild if they went out on strike, prompting this exchange between Ebert and Hollinger International chairman Conrad Black.]

Roger Ebert writes ...

Dear John,

It would be with a heavy heart that I would go on strike against my beloved Sun-Times, but strike I will if a strike is called.

The recent revelations about Hollinger mismanagement have left me feeling betrayed, and I know they did you, too. There were obviously millions of dollars winging away to the Radler and Black billfolds while we worked in a building where even basic maintenance was ignored.

I realize I am not underpaid. Far from it. I do not anticipate getting a raise under a new contract. But I have been a Guild member since 1967 and I will stand with my fellow Guild members if this comes to a crisis.

I hope a reasonable solution can be found that will prevent a strike at this crucial time in the paper's history.

Best, Roger Ebert

... Lord Black replies ...

Dear Roger,

I have been disappointed to read your complaints about the former Hollinger International management. I vividly recall your avaricious negotiating techniques through your lawyer, replete with threats to quit, and your generous treatment from David Radler, which yielded you an income of over $500,000 per year from us, plus options worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and your own Web site at the company's expense. You know the successful efforts we made to improve the contents of the Sun-Times, to improve industrial relations, to strengthen it with the acquisition of the Southtown, and the Gary and Copley newspapers.

It was our management that revived the newspaper and moved it to new presses, which it had urgently needed for many years. As you know, and as Sun-Times management has pointed out, none of the payments that are the subject of the present controversy are related to the compensation levels at the Sun-Times. In the light of these facts, and the many kindnesses David Radler and I showered on you, your proletarian posturing on behalf of those threatening to strike the Sun-Times and your base ingratitude are very tiresome.

Sincerely, Conrad

... Roger Ebert answers

Dear Conrad,

One of the things I have always admired about you, and that sets you aside from the general run of proprietors, is that you so articulately and amusingly say exactly what is on your mind. I am not at all surprised by your letter to me, because I would assume that is how you would feel; what is refreshing is that you say so.

Let me just say in response that I have never complained about my salary at the Sun-Times, but to describe my lawyer as ''avaricious'' is a bit much; he engaged in spirited negotiations, as he should have, and he and you settled on a contract. It goes without saying that any contract negotiation includes the possibility that either party might choose to leave rather than to sign. I hope you are grateful that I did not demand an additional payment for agreeing not to compete with myself. Since you have made my salary public, let me say that when I learned that Barbara received $300,000 a year from the paper for duties described as reading the paper and discussing it with you, I did not feel overpaid.

Although it is true I now have my own Web site, you make it sound as if the Web site was some kind of present from the company. For years my reviews and other writings have represented more than half the total hits on the Sun-Times Web site, and presumably more than half of the paper's income from it. I am the most-read film critic on the Web. The elegant new Web site, rogerebert.com, has been an astonishing success. Since it is a joint venture, presumably both the paper and I will benefit from its success.

I enjoyed immensely those times when I had dinner or conversation with you and Barbara, and with David and Rona. You are all charming, witty, and intelligent. You can imagine my dismay when I read auditor's reports indicating the company was run as a ''kleptocracy,'' and that, between you, you allegedly pocketed 97 percent of Hollinger's profits. This while the escalators in the building were actually turned off to save on electricity and maintenance. It is hard to believe that the departing millions were not somehow related to compensation levels at the Sun-Times, since management pleaded poverty in its negotiations.

I recall the friendly dinner we had on the day you bought the paper. I observed, ''Well, there's one thing for sure. You can't get to the right of the Tribune.'' You exchanged an amused look with Barbara. You did indeed position the paper to the right of the Tribune, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city and marginally Democratic state, trumping my proletarian posturing with your own aristocratic, not to say medieval, persuasion. But I admire you for sticking to your ideological guns in the face of the common sense which cries out that the Sun-Times naturally, obviously and by tradition belongs in the center. If you had been as forthright about your finances as about your politics, we might not be having this correspondence.

Sincerely, Roger

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