The B Side: Here’s a new wrinkle — great customer service

  • Written by Bob Rakow

Bob Rakow for web  A few years ago, I dropped in on the dry cleaners my family had patronized for several years and asked if they could press the dress shirt my son was required to wear at St. Rita High School on the days that Mass was celebrated.
  The shirt was badly wrinkled but also needed to be cleaned. The trouble was, my son needed the shirt the following day, and there was no time for dry cleaning. I asked if it simply could be pressed so it would look presentable. The owner of the dry cleaners flatly refused, saying it had to be cleaned as well.
  I walked out of the business after telling the owner that there were several other dry cleaners in Oak Lawn. I’ve never returned, choosing instead to bring our regular cleaning business to a competitor a few miles away.
  On another occasion, we ordered food for my son’s graduation party from an Oak Lawn restaurant. On the day of the party, I watched a family member place a piece of chicken on his plate that had a bone and deep-fried skin. There was no meat.
  We laughed about it, but it was an embarrassing moment. I complained to the restaurant owner a few days later, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do. I was more than a little surprised, as we routinely ordered dinners and pizzas from the restaurant for years prior to the party.
  I recount these examples of poor customer service after receiving something unexpected in the mail this week.
  Our family Christmas Eve party was catered by Barraco’s Restaurant, which has locations in Evergreen Park, Burbank and Crestwood. I spotted a coupon for their holiday catering offer and decided to give them a try.
  On the night of the party, my wife waited for more than 30 minutes at the restaurant to pick up the food. It was an inconvenience, to be sure, but we quickly forgot about it when the food was served. Fried chicken—with meat on the bone, by the way—mostaccioli, tossed salad and rolls had all of our guests raving and returning to the table for seconds. My son went beyond seconds—always a good gauge for measuring quality food.
  More than one week later, I got a phone call from Barraco’s asking about the holiday order. I told the woman on the phone that the food was great, and then, reluctantly, I mentioned my wife’s long wait. I added that it was understandable because Christmas Eve is a busy night. The woman apologized and told me the owners would be notified. I appreciated the call and forgot about it.
  Then, last week, an envelope arrived from Barraco’s containing a $65 gift certificate. I was more than a little surprised. “Have a meal on us,” the restaurant was saying, “we appreciate your business.” This was a great example of excellent customer service—something that’s become all too infrequent these days.
  Of course, the move makes good business sense as well. There’s no doubt we’ll go back to Barraco’s for future parties or dinner. And, I’m bound to tell people about the gift certificate (as I’m doing in this space), something that can only benefit the restaurant. I look forward to a coming night when we have a meal at Barraco’s.
  Community leaders often remind us to shop local, support area businesses and keep your dollars in town. That’s a good idea. Small business owners rely on us for their success. But we also have the right to good customer service and to vote with our wallets.
  When you’re unhappy with a product or service, tell the proprietor. Ditto when you’ve had a great experience.
  A smart business owner will respond appropriately.
— Bob Rakow is a news reporter for The Reporter

Civility: Let’s try that free speech option

  • Written by Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

The First Amendment protects our freedom to say and write just about anything we want — but that doesn’t mean we ought to, particularly in public life.

The difference rests between “can” and “should.”

Our nation’s founders were no strangers to rude, callous and raucous debate in public life and to vicious commentary, even by today’s “anything goes” online standards. Sex scandals, infidelity, personal weaknesses and even religious differences were exposed, debated and mocked in public life and in the newspapers of the day with personal glee and political purpose.

The self-governing system eventually created for the United States depends on vigorous public involvement and debate, but it also depends on a measure of what we call today “civility” to function. Not civility in the sense of polite nods and watered-down language — that’s not “free speech” in any sense — but rather a thinking response and respect for robust debate over ideas and policies.

The Bill of Rights, led off by the First Amendment, rests on the creative tension of rights and responsibilities. It is civility in its historical meaning — involved, engaged citizenry — that powers those two great civic engines.

A First Amendment advocate should be the last to call for laws or other official limits on speech, such as campus speech codes or restrictions on campaign speech. But Congressional gridlock, growing public disaffection with politics and growing concern about online discussions perpetually locked into the lowest level of comments, require a non-governmental response.

Journalists are a good starting point for self-initiated positive action. A recent gathering of about 40 practitioners, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., gives hope in that direction.

The group met in early December to talk about incivility in the media, in a multi-day session sponsored by the Newseum Institute, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. A concluding task was to set out some core values for journalists and to face the serious issue of whether this group or any other might actually produce change.

A good starting point for the organizers (Note: I was one of them) was to assemble a group that resembles the nation in 2014: Journalists from traditional media and new media, with great diversity in age groups, ethnicity, location and views.

The values statement stressed truth, independence and transparency as well as focusing on the free press role envisioned by Madison, Jefferson and others: Exposing wrongdoing, airing of multiple points of view, empowering people with information needed for self-governance, and providing the means for the nation to hear from “the disenfranchised and voices that are not being heard.”

Worthy goals all, for a nation that is without doubt increasingly diverse and increasingly divided — and also a good refocusing for a free press battered by falling and fading revenue sources, diminished public respect and the loss of many of its most-veteran participants.

In the mid-1940s, journalists and academics joined in a post-WWII seminar popularly known as the Hutchins Commission to consider the role of journalism in a cynical, war-weary world. According to reports of the time, it was an era in which the public had little respect for the large media enterprises of the day, finding them increasingly uncivil, unconcerned with or unable to perform their “watchdog on government” role — and out of touch with news consumers. Sound familiar?

There is no minimizing the difficulty ahead in reshaping public debate that now focuses on the shrill, in which partisan confrontation often overwhelms nonpartisan compromise. Perhaps journalists are the group of that can first move the idea of “civility” from premise to practice — a New Year resolution with real promise.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Inside the First Amendment - From a 5th-grader, uncomfortable truth about religious conflict

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  When children speak the truth, adults often squirm and shut them up.

  That’s apparently what happened to Zachary Golob-Drake last week after he delivered a speech entitled “In the Name of Religion” to his 5th-grade class at Patel Partnership School in Tampa, Fla.
  The teacher initially applauded Zachary’s speech, awarding him first prize and an opportunity to compete to represent his school at the regional 4-H Tropicana Public Speech Contest.
  But later that same day, school officials had second thoughts.
  An assistant principal took Zachary aside and explained that the speech wasn’t appropriate for 4th- and 5th-graders. As Zachary told WFLA-TV, “She thought that probably I would have to rewrite my speech, take the religion out or not compete.”
  Stripped of his blue ribbon, Zachary was found crying when his older brother came to pick him up at school.
  After family members protested, the school returned the ribbon. But still-worried administrators postponed the school-wide contest until parents signed permission slips allowing their children to hear the speeches.
  What’s the scary, controversial, age-inappropriate content in Zachary’s speech that young children shouldn’t hear without parental consent?
  “The world’s major religions all have messages about coexisting,” he writes. But sometimes people “use religion as an excuse to take each other’s lives.” He cites the Crusades, Genghis Khan, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as examples.
  Despite news reports to the contrary, school officials now claim that the “topic of mass murders” and not religion is the issue.
  That’s strange, because Zachary’s short speech isn’t graphic or inflammatory. He merely states the obvious: “Religious differences have always sparked conflict, even leading to warfare and mass murder.”
  If Zachary’s school doesn’t teach young kids (or allow them to discuss) the truth about religious conflict in history, what exactly does it teach?
  I suspect that Zachary’s school, like many public schools, is afraid to touch “religion” with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Even when religion is mentioned in the upper elementary grades — holidays, places of worship, and other basic facts — there is rarely discussion of the role of religion in society, for better and for worse.
  It may be uncomfortable and politically incorrect, but Zachary is saying what 4th and 5th graders need to hear about one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.
  “In the name of religion,” Christians and Muslims are fighting in northern Africa; Sunni and Shiite Muslims are at war in the Middle East; Buddhists are attacking Muslims in Burma; extremists are perverting Islam to justify violence across the globe — and the tragic list goes on.
  As only a child can do, Zachary calls attention to the contradiction between the message of compassion found at the heart of the major world religions and the failure of many adherents to live that message in their relationships with people of other faiths.
  Fortunately, however, little Zachary is smart enough to recognize that there is more to the story — that religion can also be a force for great good in the world.
  Zachary ends his speech by telling us “religion provides moral guidance for most of the seven billion people on the earth.” He quotes the admonition of Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you,” an early version of the Golden Rule found in many of the world’s great faiths.
  “This world would be a better place,” writes Zachary, “if everybody followed that rule.”
  From the mouths of babes comes truth and wisdom.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New Year, fresh start - Resolved to build a better 2014

  • Written by Joan Hadac


 Editor’s note: the opinion piece below was written by correspondent Joan Hadac and is adapted from something she published online a year ago. It serves as a timeless reminder that New Year’s resolutions can and should be about more than losing weight or quitting smoking.

  Well, now that most of us have broken our New Year’s resolutions…

  OK, kidding. Sort of.
  It seems to me that most New Year’s resolutions involve personal behavior: lose weight, stop smoking, exercise regularly, etc.
  But fewer resolutions involve social behavior — that is, changing the way we act in our neighborhoods, city, state, nation and world. With that in mind, here are 10 social resolutions I suggest all of us think about.
  In 2014, resolve to:
  • Introduce yourself to six neighbors you currently do not know. By “six” I mean six households — not the mom, dad, two kids, dog and cat living next door. By “introduce” I mean face to face — not Facebook friending or anything similarly lacking in the human touch. And by “face to face” I mean something more than a smile, wave or head nod. Invite them over to dinner — or meet them at one of your local restaurants, who could certainly use the business.
  • Support your local newspaper. Buy a gift subscription for your neighbors. Patronize the paper’s advertisers and let them know you saw their ad. Community newspapers are an important part of the local social fabric, and they offer something important that the downtown papers can’t possibly give. A community that loses its local paper is a community in decline.
  • Live your faith. If you are a believer, support your local house of worship with more than lip service. Participate in services regularly and contribute your time, talents and treasure to give glory to God.
  • Send someone flowers or a fruit basket. Just once in 2014, send a gift to someone you have never sent a gift to before — preferably someone taken for granted by others. A crossing guard, a school or church secretary, someone like that.
  • If you are eligible to vote, register to vote and vote in every election. Ever wonder why some parts of the greater Chicago area seem to get more attention from elected officials than others? It’s because they produce votes, and in big numbers. Also, cast an informed ballot. Know the issues and the candidates.
  • Support your local police. They can’t be everywhere, and they need extra sets of eyes and ears to keep them informed. If you see something, say something. And get involved in your local neighborhood watch or whatever works best for you.
  • Consider adopting a dog or cat from a local shelter. In addition to saving the life of an animal that might otherwise be killed, a good house pet can actually improve your physical and spiritual well being.
  • Attend and support local public events. Check out your local civic association, historical society and chamber of commerce. And attend events that support our local boys and girls. Granted, it’s not always easy shoveling down Cub Scout pancakes, Boy Scout spaghetti, or potluck whatever — but these are the types of events, small as they are, that help build and strengthen the fabric of our communities.
  • Shop locally. The small businesses within a mile or two or your home pay local taxes, employ local men and women, and donate to local organizations like schools, churches, Little League, Scouting groups and more.
  • Finally, resolve to smile, laugh and spread cheer among people you meet — whether you’ve known them all your life or whether you met them five minutes ago.


Inside the First Amendment ‘Ho Ho’ or ‘Humbug’? — let’s celebrate and protect our basic rights

  • Written by Gene Policinski’

  Tis the season to be jolly and of good will, right?

  Responding to holiday cheer with a well-voiced “Bah” or “Humbug?”
  Well, it’s our right under the First Amendment to speak and write in ways that are naughty or nice. Let’s stick with that seasonal theme as we move from the Christmas season into resolutions and forecasts for the New Year, and consider the past year and what’s ahead.
  For both this year and next, the controversy over the National Security Agency and its electronic surveillance programs will be the “gift that keeps on giving.”
  With regular revelations of top-secret details, and a federal district court decision just days ago declaring some elements of the NSA programs unconstitutional, the top story of 2013 in the area of privacy, press and individual rights most likely will be the top story for at least the first six months of 2014.
  A presidential advisory board examining NSA policies recommended on Dec. 17 that the agency be blocked from storing massive amounts of data on Americans’ telephone records, and that court orders be required to conduct individual searches. But officials charged with preventing terror attacks said such restrictions will seriously slow efforts to prevent such attacks. And on Dec. 19, veteran national security writer Walter Pincus of The Washington Post wrote that “the vast majority” of 1.7 million classified documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden took with him in fleeing the U.S. have not yet been “leaked.”
  Free press advocates supporting a federal shield law — protecting journalists from being compelled in court to disclose sources — got an early present from President Obama. In June, he responded to a controversy over Justice Department seizures of press telephone records of The Associated Press, and phone and e-mail records of a Fox News correspondent by throwing administration support behind the bill. In 2010, following disclosure of U.S. secret cables and reports by the group Wikileaks, Obama opposed a similar bill.
  Still, the Grinch that is Congress pushed any chance of opening that gift to a free press into the New Year, as the Free Flow of Information Act languished in the Senate in December — though some forecast a floor vote on the bill as early as January.
  News photographers reporting on the President ended the year battling administration policies they say freeze out news media lenses in favor of the official White House camera. At a Dec. 17 meeting between top news media representatives and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, they agreed to continue talks in January about access for photo journalists to President Obama’s public events and appearances.
  Not much under the First Amendment holiday tree for Freedom of Information (FOI) advocates — who see little in the way of major changes in laws to encourage “transparency” in government, but also continued problems in getting open access to officials who can interpret or explain policies, or parse increasing amounts of raw data available on government Web sites.
  And then there’s an issue highlighted by — but not limited to — the NSA disclosures: The huge amount of data about us held by “third-parties” — private companies ranging from retailers to phone companies to internet providers. Not subject to FOI laws like government data bases, but vulnerable to government subpoenas or secret agreements with agencies, these information icebergs sail along like their real-world counterparts — with much of their bulk generally out of sight. Santa may reside in a toyshop at the North Pole, but deep details of our daily routines live in these private sanctorums-in-cyberspace. reporter Jana Winter got the best gift of all — freedom — on Dec. 10 from the New York state Court of Appeals. It ruled she did not have to comply with a subpoena that would have forced her to choose in a Colorado court between going to jail and revealing confidential sources. The New York court said Winter was protected by that state’s “absolute” shield law — and not subject to Colorado’s significantly weaker law — from having to identify the sources of a story about a revealing notebook kept by accused Aurora, Colo., movie theater gunman James Holmes.
  As we head into 2014, ultimately the best gift we can present to ourselves is continued vigilance about our First Amendment rights. And with that thought, to all a good night.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .