Newspaper reporter strive for intimacy with their sources; knowing people who make the news means you might be there to cover the story when it happens. Tribune reporter Robert Blair Kaiser has managed that, and more. When Joan Kroc scheduled a recent vacation in Rome, reporter Kaiser arranged for the McDonald's millionaire to have a brief audience with Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square. Kaiser, who is Kroc's current friend and escort, then hopped aboard her Grumman G-3 jet and flew to Italy, where he wrote about the June 5 papal visit.
Kaiser and Kroc met last October at Lindbergh Field minutes before she flew off for a brief Palm Springs vacation after her Padres won the playoffs Kaiser, silver-haired and single, returned to the Tribune newsroom with both a story and Kroc's friendship: the two started seeing each other socially, says Kaiser, who advises that "dating" would be "going too far" in describing his relationship with Kroc.
Kaiser covered the Padres' April 16 opening home game this year from the team's private box, telling Trib readers how, "in the world according to Joan Kroc, everyone belongs." Dressed in a "cool turquoise jumpsuit caught with a Mayan belt," Kroc greeted "no less than half a hundred friends, many of them bearing flowers or other gifts," Kaiser observed. "She was nothing but warm all evening.
When Kroc decided on the Italian getaway this spring, she recalled Kaiser's previous experience as Time magazine's Rome bureau chief and asked him to accompany her and a few other family members on the pilgrimage. Before joining the intimate party, Kaiser phoned the office of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, whom he knows "by reputation, as he knows me." Kaiser says Bernardin agreed that since the McDonald's corporation is headquartered in Chicago, "it wouldn't be coming out of left field for Bernardin to request that the Vatican arrange front-row seats for the Kroc/Kaiser entourage to see His Holiness in St. Peter's Square.
When Kaiser told his editors he'd be taking a few days off to accompany Kroc, they suggested he send back a story. His Vatican dispatch, accompanied by a photo of Kroc with Pope John Paul, told readers how "the Pope and Kroc made a colorful pair under the noonday sun. He was all in white. He even wore a little white skullcap. Kroc was wearing a mauve pink dress by Givenchy, with a matching straw hat." Kroc whispered to the Pope that she is "praying for an end to the arms race," and later told Kaiser that the pontiff "has warm hands."
Tribune deputy editor Bob Witty says he hasn't talked in detail with Kaiser about the reporter's personal relationship with Kroc. "He told us he was her friend, that's all," says Witty, who requested the Vatican story because "there's a lot of interest in Joan Kroc." Barbara Herrera, the paper's features editor, says the "subjective" tone of Kaiser's dispatch left her wishing she had placed Kaiser's photo alongside the story to distinguish it from a strict news account. But the story arrived in the Tribune newsroom too close to deadline to do so. (Photos of Tribune columnists John Sinor and Neil Morgan, among others, are used to indicate the personal nature of their columns.)
Kaiser says he doesn't think "there's any impropriety" in his personal relationship with Kroc or in his acceptance of the free airfare to Rome. He says he and Kroc have discussed the issue and that he's "agonized over what people might think," but he decided he has "been able to maintain a stance fair to our readers, and that's the main thing I care about, not some abstract [ethical] ideal." For Kaiser, former chairman of the University of Nevada Reno journalism department. "The question is, Would I do that story any different today than I would have before I met her? and the answer is no. Access is key, and the closer I get, the better for our readers."