Chicago: Bad Press

How politicians use newspapers and newspapers use politicians

IN THE AFTERMATH of last summer’s TWA hijacking, the American press engaged in a brief frenzy of self-flagellation, deeply troubled by allegations that the television networks in particular had been “taken hostage” along with the plane’s passengers and crew. The Fourth Estate can use all the scrutiny it gets, but much of this breast-beating missed the point. It assumed that such collaboration was a gross departure from the norm, in which public figures are the actors while the press simply reports the facts.

But this civics-lesson model is followed more rarely than we want to believe, and nowhere is its naiveté more manifest than in Chicago. In the city that The Wall Street Journal recently dubbed “Beirut on the Lake,” the major newspapers and television stations have long been locked in a symbiotic relationship with politicians, sometimes cozy, sometimes hostile, but always rife with mutual manipulation and intrigue. Ever since two former Chicago newsmen captured the journalistic mores of their town in The Front Page, Chicago’s press has enjoyed a reputation for uninhibited, often unscrupulous shenanigans. But nobody can recall a period of such political-journalistic pyrotechnics as that ushered in by the bitter mayoral campaign of 1983.

The contest between the black Democrat Harold Washington and the white Republican Bernard Epton produced a potent mixture of character assassination and racial innuendo. This included repeated references to Washington’s jail term for failing to file tax returns, and leaflets about his alleged sexual preferences; charges that Epton had hidden ties to the insurance industry and had made improper overtures to a federal judge; an Epton slogan, “Before it’s too late,” warning white voters of the consequences of a black takeover; and Washington TV ads that interspersed scenes of Martin Luther King’s and John Kennedy’s assassinations with shots of his opponent’s vociferous supporters.

Since the press was the medium in which much of this invective surfaced, both sides soon began boxing the messenger’s ears. After Washington won a narrow victory, Epton called the press “slime.” And when attacks on Washington not only failed to abate but actually intensified, Chicago’s first black mayor denounced the press over a period of months as “scurrilous,” “insidious,” “immoral,” “more interested in tearing down than building up,” and guilty of “institutional racism.”

This last charge seemed to be underlined by the May, 1984, suicide of Leanita McClain, the only black member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. Alive, McClain had stirred up a journalistic brouhaha with a piece for The Washington Post headlined “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites,” in which she said that the reaction of her white colleagues to Harold Washington’s victory had made her feel “like machine-gunning every white face on the bus.” Until more became known about McClain’s troubled private life, her tragic death seemed a metaphor for the city’s racial anguish and intensified the debate about bigotry in the newsroom.

MANY CHICAGO journalists see the Mayor’s denunciations of the press principally as posturing for his black constituency. When Washington condemned an early Sun-Times column by Mike Royko as “racist,” the columnist, known for his rough-hewn populist positions, was stunned. A few days later James Hoge, then the paper’s publisher, asked Washington about the charge. “Oh, Mike knows I don’t mean that,” Washington said. “He has to write his column. I have to say that.”

Certainly, such attacks can only help him with the city’s black population, which his aides call “the base.” It would be difficult to grow up black in Chicago without feeling some resentment toward the white press. The Mayor seems to be saying, You know the papers have never given you an even break. Well, they’re not giving me one either.

The Mayor claims that white editors and reporters cannot adequately comprehend his point of view, because they don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the “black experience.”There’s an element of truth in that, but the notion can be carried too far, as recently suggested by the Chicago Reader, a liberal weekly, which invented a mayor named Jeffries who challenged his journalistic critics: “Unless you too grew up on the 1900 block of Jarvis—unless you too had to be careful to keep your football away from the Witherspoon dog—unless you and your sister had to deal with Bobby McGruder on a daily basis—how can you presume to understand the experience that shaped me?”

Indeed, the Mayor’s color has probably helped him more than hurt him with the press. No journalist relishes the prospect of being denounced as a bigot. Most of the press seems to have leaned over backward to avoid any such appearance. But there is ample evidence that some elements of the Chicago media, in pursuit of fresh sensation, have eagerly cooperated with the Mayor’s political opponents to embarrass—even harass— him.

THE LEADER OF that opposition is Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. “Fast Eddie,”as he is known to some, has a suspect past—he has been accused of all manner of wrongdoing, though never convicted of a crime—and nobody would deny that he is one of the shrewdest political operators in Chicago’s history.

From the start Vrdolyak has seen Harold Washington as a threat. At a rally of white precinct captains before the 1983 primary he urged them to support Mayor Jane Byrne, not Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Daley (the former mayor’s eldest son), as the only realistic white alternative to Washington. “It’s a racial thing,” the Tribune quoted him as saying. “We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.” Vrdolyak insists that when Washington won the primary, he did all he could for his party’s candidate, although others have their doubts.

Vrdolyak’s hostility is probably not rooted in race. He uses race to rally his troops—as Washington does with his— but the real issue is one of power and patronage. So when Washington sought to reorganize the City Council and remove Vrdolvak as the president pro tem and the chairman of the Buildings and Zoning Committee, Vrdolyak pulled a coup d’état, welding together an implacable majority of twenty-nine of the council’s fifty aldermen, which gave him the power to block any of the Mayor’s legislative initiatives.

The ensuing struggle—called Council Wars—has been bitter. The Mayor’s first gibes at the press came over its coverage of this feud. “The City Hall reporters simply failed to give him the presumption of incumbency that they would have granted any white mayor,” says Grayson Mitchell, a black who was Washington’s first press secretary. “He would announce free inoculations for schoolchildren and the reporters would run right over and ask Vrdolyak about it. Washington was the black mayor and Vrdolyak was the white mayor. It drove Harold Washington up the wall.”

The Mayor gave full vent to that rage during an exchange with Ed Bradley, of CBS, at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When Bradley tried to maneuver him into a debate with Vrdolyak on the convention floor, Washington bridled at this effort to equate him with his rival, exploding at the black newsman: “You’re one of the lowest possible individuals I’ve seen. . . . You’re an insult to common sense.”

But not everyone saw it that way. “Why should the press grant Washington the power he doesn’t have?” asks Neil Tesser, the longtime press critic for the Reader. “Sure, he’s mayor, but he doesn’t control the council or the party. Real power in the city is up for grabs.” That is a situation made to order for the Chicago press, which thrives on political contention. And here Eddie Vrdolyak had another advantage over Washington, because he was better equipped to wage the press wars.

His principal weapon is Joe Novak, a Polish-American college dropout from Chicago’s northwest side. Just thirtyone, Novak has labored for an impressive roster of Illinois politicians, developing a reputation as a ruthless behindthe-scenes operator. He is particularly skilled at manipulating the press, and since he signed on with Eddie Vrdolyak, in 1983, he has planted dozens of items suggesting that Harold Washington is a duplicitous incompetent who is draining the city’s resources for the exclusive benefit of his black “base.” Novak knows something about reporters that isn’t part of the civics textbook: some of them are lazy and don’t want to be bothered digging up their own stories. So he does their work for them, dropping a packaged product in their laps.

Novak is said to have done well with a former employer of his, the WBBM-TV anchorman-commentator Walter Jacobson, probably the most influential media personality in town. Jacobson built his reputation by muckraking the Daley regime and concedes that he is under pressure to come up with a “curmudgeonly commentary” every weeknight. Novak shrewdly plays to that need, delivering tidbits on which Jacobson can grind his teeth. Still talked about is a 1983 commentary in which Jacobson strongly implied—if never quite said—that Washington was using city painters to redecorate his apartment. (It turned out that the painters were touching up new equipment installed for the Mayor’s security.) Washington has denounced Jacobson as “the bottom of the barrel.” Jacobson concedes that sometimes he may be “unfair” to the Mayor, adding, “I’m not only a reporter. I’m a commentator, and by definition I’m unfair.”

NOVAK HAS HAD his most conspicuous success with a Tribune gossip column called INC. INC. has had three female staffers, Michael Sneed, Cheryl Lavin, and Kathy O’Malley, but most of its political items have been contributed by the woman with the masculine name, Mike Sneed. A former press secretary to Mayor Byrne, Sneed is married to Bill Griffin, also a former Byrne aide and now a political consultant with close ties to the Vrdolyak camp. Although Sneed appropriately declines to name her sources, insiders say that the most important of them is Joe Novak.

For several years now INC. has regularly sniped at Harold Washington with items like the following: “When Washington gave himself an ‘A’ grade at midterm, one of his City Hall protagonists [sic] quipped: ‘Now we know why the grading system at the Chicago public schools has no credibility.’ Nasty. Nasty. . . . INC. hears that Mayor Harold Washington’s limousine frequently is parked outside City Hall to give the impression that hizzoner is working there, even when he’s actually conducting business from his Hyde Park apartment—which is often.”

At times INC. is wrong. On March 14 it reported that when the Mayor of Genoa and his party arrived at O’Hare Airport on an official visit, nobody was there to meet them. The next day INC. conceded that a limousine and a police escort had been at the airport but had missed connections because the Italians had unexpectedly rescheduled their flight. “Sorry, folks,” INC. said.

Alton Miller, the Mayor’s current press secretary—himself a frequent object of INC.’s ridicule—brandishes a content analysis of INC.’s columns which shows that for one eight-month period 59 percent of the items about Washington were negative, while only 18 percent of those about Vrdolyak were. Miller has started a “column” of his own, called STING.— distributed in the City Hall press room—designed to counter INC.’s “inaccuracies, rumors, innuendos and outright fabrications.” Miller promised to “follow INC.’s journalistic guidelines,” by never “call[ing] the people I am writing about to check my story.”

James Squires, the Tribune’s editor, vigorously defends Mike Sneed, insisting that she is “a first-rate reporter,”who infuriates politicians because she prints material they want to keep secret. Sneed herself says that if she seems to be harder on Washington than on Vrdolyak, that’s only because “I get more stuff from the opposition than I do from the Mayor. City Hall is a cesspool of people who want to tattle.”

But not everyone at the Tribune is so sanguine about the column. Some years ago a “staff review group” of Tribune employees examined several weeks of INC. and complained to Squires about its political bias. And Mike Royko, now with the Tribune, says flatly, “Gossip columns like INC:, totally ignore the fundamental rule of reporting—find out whether it’s true. I suspect they don’t make too many calls, because if you make the calls the story has a way of vanishing.”

The most renowned story ever to appear under Sneed’s byline led the paper last February 20. It reported that James Burrell, one of eight persons opposing Washington’s candidate for alderman, Dorothy Tillman, in a special Third District election, said that he had taped a conversation at the Mayor’s apartment during which Washington had tried to persuade him to withdraw from the race.

The tape of the meeting had been given to Sneed, who now says that her source had intended only that she print an INC. item noting that Washington was privately badmouthing Tillman while praising her publicly. The Mayor would presumably deny this. Then Sneed could publish extracts from the tape to prove the Mayor a liar. But when Jim Squires heard about the tape, he commandeered the story for page one.

Although it bore Sneed’s byline, it was largely composed by the political writer Phil Lentz, with ample assistance from Squires and Richard Ciccone, the managing editor. Squires refused to lead with the Tillman angle, emphasizing instead the very fact that the Mayor had been taped. And the story indicated that the tape had been provided to the Tribune by the Vrdolyak camp. Some Tribune reporters were deeply concerned about this unorthodox fingering of the paper’s source—by political affiliation if not by name—but Squires insists, “The necessity of indicating the intentions of the leakers superseded my traditional concern for protecting the leakers.”

Though Squires was plainly on guard against manipulation by the Vrdolyak forces, the story as printed seemed to play into their hands by suggesting that the Mayor may have been guilty of some sort of impropriety. This was partly because efforts to transcribe the two-hour tape went much more slowly than anticipated. “You can imagine a bunch of Harvard-educated whites trying to translate three black fellows on the South Side,”Squires says with a rueful laugh. So Lentz had to write the story under deadline pressure without access to a full transcript. The story suggested that the Mayor not only had deprecated his own candidate but had tried to maneuver Burrell out of the race with various inducements, in a way perhaps reminiscent of the Daley era. Lentz now says that if the full transcript had been available when he wrote he might have given the story a slightly different emphasis.

Indeed, the next day the rival SunTimes trumpeted a front-page “analysis,” arguing that the real significance of the tape was that the Mayor had resisted Burrell’s efforts to set him up, to draw him into some improper bribe or threat. The Sun-Times may have been motivated less by a desire to be fair to the Mayor than by a need to disparage its rival’s scoop. Since it was purchased, several years ago, by Rupert Murdoch, the formerly liberal Sun-Times has generally been more hostile than the Tribune toward Washington. But that only strengthened the rejoinder’s impact. Indeed, the following Sunday—after the Tribune had published the full transcript—its chief political writer, Steve Neal, wrote a front-page column in which he too emphasized the attractive side of Washington’s taped performance. Citing the Mayor’s remark “I’m not a boss,” Neal said that Washington had come across as “pragmatic, self-assured, witty, intelligent, thoughtful, self-deprecating and salty.” In fact, the tape, which had been leaked to damage the Mayor, eventually turned the tide in his direction. In the months since, there has been a grow - ing perception that the private Washington is very much like the public Washington, that he is not a boss, that he means what he says about being a reformer.

MEANWHILE, IN THE Tribune at least, a mood of ever greater skepticism prevails about Eddie Vrdolyak. The Trib’s editorial page has been thundering at “Fast Eddie” of late, accusing him of blocking vitally needed city programs in order to further his political fortunes. After Vrdolyak and his partner, the alderman Eddie Burke, finally agreed to release $127 million in funding for social-service agencies, which they had held up for seven weeks, the two Eddies claimed to be acting in a spirit of compromise. The Tribune responded editorially: “Does a mugger ‘compromise’ if he stops beating you over the head after you give him your wallet?”

Only a few days before, the Tribune had run an editorial excoriating Vrdolyak and Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House, for blocking legislation that would permit the installation of lights at Wrigley Field, the stadium where the Chicago Cubs play their home games. The Cubs happen to belong to the Tribune Company.

In its editorial, written by Jim Squires himself, the paper told its readers that Vrdolyak was going around town saying that “he won’t do anything for the Cubs because of the Tribune’s editorial policy toward him.”Mr. Vrdolyak, the paper suggested, was interested in a deal. “Forger it,”Squires wrote. “The Cubs will be playing morning games on a sandlot in Gary first.”

Though few informed observers believe that the Trib’s editorial page is down on Vrdolyak principally because of Wrigley Field lights, the editorial created the unfortunate appearance of a conflict of interest. Within hours Joe Novak was on the phone to friends in the Chicago media, telling them that the very paper to which he has been feeding anti-Washington nuggets for over two years is “no longer interested in truth and justice but only in the monetary interests of their parent company.”

The Wall Street Journal’s epithet, Beirut on the Lake, is surely hyperbolic if it is meant to imply communal warfare in the streets. In fact, if one strolls through Chicago’s Loop these days, one finds blacks and whites mingling in apparent ignorance of all the invective whistling around their ears. But if one takes the Journal’s phrase to apply to the rather abstract world of political-journalistic calumny, then it is accurate enough. And the glee with which some elements of the Chicago press have played the urban-guerrilla game could one day turn rhetoric into reality.

—J. Anthony Lukas