Monday, May 14, 2007

After Even a Decade,
Royko Name Lives On;
He Saw Real Murdoch
As Clearly as a Bell

Late April marked the tenth anniversary of the death of the popular Chicago-based columnist Mike Royko. Editor & Publisher's always-incisive Mark Fitzgerald nicely marked the occasion
here. A couple of years ago, I wrote this tribute to Royko, recalling my all-too-brief telephonic brush with him. The piece also describes why I think Cleveland's closest Royko counterpart, columnist Dick Feagler, falls short of his stature--though to be fair, just about everyone does.

But Royko's in my thoughts for yet another reason this week. Ever since media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an offer to purchase the Wall Street Journal, I've been waiting for someone to mention a key Royko anecdote that related directly to this potential deal. Since I haven't yet seen it, let me do so. Many years ago, Murdoch purchased the Chicago Sun-Times, which is where Royko happened to work at the time. Without waiting around to find out more about what the new owner planned to do with the paper, or what promises he might make about retaining its independence or its quality, Royko simply quit in January 1984 and decamped to its cross-town rival, the Tribune. As his fellow Chicago writerly icon Studs Turkel later
recalled, he simply wrote: ‘I resign. No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.’

So I ask you: why is this simple reality, so clear to Royko decades ago, even before Murdoch went on to ravage other media properties with his unique blend of political treachery and sleazy lowbrow taste, so difficult for members of the serious media to see now? Just a question...

26 Comments:

At 11:34 PM, Blogger redhorse said...

Good question. Perhaps b/c Murdoch has been wildly successful at turning profit in his transactions? Perhaps b/c some institutions are wary of incurring mockery in heavy cycle rotations? I don't know.

Thanks, though, for reminding me of Royko, especially near what would have been my grandma's birthday. She loved Royko, I gave the crusty old guy a shot only b/c of that, and I was hooked.

When sports columnist Dick Lein died unexpectedly several years ago, the Peoria Journal Star ran his next scheduled column with his header and blank space along the left side of the page.

I don't recall what the Trib did for Royko, or even if he was still contributing regularly at that time, but he deserved no less. When a community loses an icon, a community should mourn together. What better way to mourn a columnist?

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All quite true, and well said. I like that idea of the blank space. And I REALLY like the idea of taking hints about worthwhile columns from one's grandparents. How very transgenerationally hip of you, RH. As always, thanks for reading, and double thanks for commenting.

 
At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Mädchen said...

At the risk of taking the spotlight off of Mr. Royko, I just wanted to address a comment by Mr. Bluster. Although one might presume it so, my name certainly does not make me an expert on the German language. Nevertheless, Mr. Bluster would be wise to re-check his sources. Mädchen means “girl.” (that’s what my parents told me, anyway.) As for the musings about men, women, stereotyping and objectifying, the thread concluding that male intellect (or lack thereof) determines how evolved men behave toward the opposite sex seems a silly premise. Also, ms. christine seems naively subjective about the issue. It sounds as if she is saying it’s the condescension that marks a male as her intellectual inferior. But in the presence of a woman, or women, sometimes the first words out of man’s mouth, even a brilliant man’s mouth, would make gloria steinem’s skin crawl. Sometimes hormones (and genes) trump intellect. Sometimes guys—at least the ones I know (and some of them are quite intellectually gifted)—just need to say guy things. That’s what guys do, intellectually “secure” or not…

 
At 4:28 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

"Sometimes hormones (and genes) trump intellect." A truer statement may not have ever appeared on this site. I like how you think and write, Madchen, and am thankful that you've somehow found this blog, and return often. But as the host of this discussion, I'm just hoping you can keep your comments civil toward my other guests.

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger Christine said...

I don't think John was concluding anything about "evolved men" - I think it was my lack of willingness to lay a blanket stereotype over all men, that he labeled as "evolved." (Though I'm not sure I'd necessarily agree....)

If you'll look back at my comment,Madchen, I said specifically that I was basing my opinion on men that I've known, not all men. I established my "subjectivity" up front. If I didn't make that as clear as I seem to remember making it, I apologize. Trust me, I'm not "naive" as far as historic and global issues of power between men and women are concerned.

Regarding something you said:

"Sometimes guys—at least the ones I know (and some of them are quite intellectually gifted)—just need to say guy things."

With all due respect, what do you mean by "guy things"? Do you mean deliberate condescension toward women? That's a "jerk" thing, in my book, and by calling it a "guy thing", it seems to imply guys = jerks. Forgive me if I'm being touchy, and that's not what you mean, but I've known too many good men who respect women to tolerate the guys = jerks line anymore.

(ps- thanks for the late afternoon debate; I was feeling really sluggish!)

 
At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster, aka Buster said...

Mädchen, I don't think we are in disagreement. The online Babylon English-German defines "maiden" as
Mädchen, Jungfrau, ledige Frau; Babelfish translates "Mädchen" as girl.

"Mr. Bluster"...I may adopt that!

 
At 9:05 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Glad to see that everyone is taking the ribbing and debate in good humor. I always like it when my guests get along with each other. This thread is yet another reminder that smart people (a category which of course describes all of you) tend to enjoy the intellectual challenge that comes from having their views challenged and openly debated.

 
At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Mr. Buster said...

I think I still have some of Royko's columns about the time Oral Roberts said he would be called home if the faithful didn't cough up $7M.

Priceless cartoon of the era: God: "7 million, or the preacher gits it."

 
At 11:20 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sounds like you're an incorrigible pack rat like me. But then, there are lots worse things to save than old Royko columns. And tell us, if you will, who's the closest Royko equivalent in your region (you identified yourself earlier as being from Tulsa, Oklahoma)? Anyone we should be sampling occasionally?

 
At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Honestly, I can't think of anyone who even approaches Royko.

Frosty Troy has been the publisher of the Oklahoma Observer newspaper for many years. He is plain-speaking and acerbic, but not exactly in the Royko vein. He now has a blog (http://www.okobserver.net), but it isn't updated frequently. He used to comment regularly on AM radio in Tulsa before it became the exclusive domain of Rush wannabes.

If there is a second coming of Royko, I wish it to be here.

 
At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

By the way, I enjoyed your previous article on Royko.

Re: your original question, "So I ask you: why is this simple reality...so difficult for members of the serious media to see now?"

The answer is that "serious media" is almost an oxymoron today. The best-informed media consumers today are viewers of Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report", according to a recent Pew survey.

Conversely, "serious" MSNBC fell on its face a couple of days ago by describing Falwell's role in Bush's administration with "info" from spoof site Whitehouse.org.

The blogs are the brightest media spot, as we discussed earlier. There is Josh Marshall and Digby at http://digbysblog.blogspot.com.

Politico.com, appears to be the new "go to" blog for the networks, but it has little merit from what I've seen. Perish the thought of actually crediting a substantial blog like Josh's TalkingPointsMemo; that could backfire. Better to create your own pet lapdog.

 
At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

I should add that Bill Moyers is exempt from my overgeneralization.

 
At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Looks like Glenn Greenwald agrees with me about Politico.com: http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2007/05/03/politico/

 
At 11:12 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Buster, I understand your point, but if this blog is dedicated to any notion at all, it's to the idea that we do still have plenty of serious quality media (well, maybe plenty isn't the right word, cause to me, you can never have enough), and that we have to both distinguish good from bad and also cherish the remaining good stuff.

So herein is a brief list, and while it doesn't include everything, it certainly gives you a good start. I challenge you to spend the next few weeks sampling from this buffet and then come back here and try to convince me that these are not credible, high-quality outlets:

NPR
New York Times
Washington Post
Wall Street Journal
L.A. Times
The Nation
The New Republic
The Economist
The New Yorker
Harper's Magazine
Mother Jones
Frontline (PBS)
Smithsonian Magazine
Vanity Fair
Atlantic Monthly
The Guardian (British paper)
BBC
Christian Science Monitor
New York Review of Books
National Journal
Consumer Reports
New York Observer
Washington Monthly
Financial Times

I could go on some more, but I think you get my point by now.

 
At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Of course my comments were a wild overgeneralization. But to look at the first three on your list:

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times disgracefully promoted the war and have mostly avoided doing the kind of serious reporting done by McClatchy/Knight-Ridder (who will be winning some prizes.)

NPR: Ken Tomlinson recently stepped down from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting chair after a report describing his e-mail correspondence with the White House, which indicated that Tomlinson "was strongly motivated by political considerations in filling the president/CEO position." NPR's news still shows the effect of this heavy political hand.

The patients are alive, but not at all well.

 
At 2:20 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Okay, but how about this: the NY Times has just hired as its third ombudsman (with full independence to act as a critic in their own pages for his two-year contract) the head of the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau. That is being widely and rightly seen as a tacit admission on their part that they were badly off on that story. Good news organizations take criticisms into account, and try to adjust.

As for the dreadful Tomlinson chapter, as I've written here before, NPR itself bravely and aggressively led the coverage (along with the NYT) uncovering this right-wing charlatan, a Karl Rove plant. Their media reporter was merciless about it, and I remember listening with delight as even the usually bland Diane Rehm asked him some very hard questions on her show.

Most people fail to understand how little federal money there actually is in public broadcasting. The ratio is way lower than you would think. And the $200 milllion donated by the widow Krok moved that ratio even lower.

Finally, one last small item: I should perhaps omit the NY Observer from that list of quality pubs. I've watched with disappointment in recent months how it's begun to steadily lose its zip under that idiot new owner, a 20-something son of a disgraced jailbird millionaire developer. What a shame.

Anyway, let me again congratulate you for your close reading and thoughtful, well-informed comments. They've become a great addition to the site and a spur to the conversation.

 
At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

I personally have to take the ombudsman thing with a grain of salt after observing how the Washington Post's Deborah Howell has conducted herself. And how about the Post's Ben Domenech affair? Wow.

 
At 3:11 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I agree that Howell is pretty pathetic. But then, she's a creature of the Newhouse newspaper chain (where she worked for years). As Clevelanders know (the hometown PD is a Newhouse paper) that chain was never a breeding ground for aggressively independent voices. So no argument there. I can't begin to understand why the Post tapped her, of all people. Skeptics (myself among them) might well conclude that the editors wanted a break after suffering through the era of her more aggressive predecessor, Geneva Overholser.

But the Times has established a much better precedent, largely due to the extreme aggressiveness and courageous hyperindependence of its first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, who has now written a book I intend to read. Anyway, this too points up my main argument--that blanket statements are almost invariably wrong. We ought to be specific in our criticisms.

As for the Ben D. affair, I must admit to ignorance about that. Why don't you enlighten us.

 
At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Maybe the Times' new ombudsman will do a better job than Howell, and it seems likely. But he might also be the Times' equivalent of the new war "czar": someone to deflect heat for them. I hope not.

How could the Times go so wrong for so many years and not have us infer that the fix is in at the highest level of the paper?

Ben Domenech was a co-founder of the right-wing blog, RedState.com. The Post hired him as "balance" to Dan Froomkin. He was bowled out of the job in three days for multiple instances of plagiarism, as discovered by Kos' readers. (see http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/007960.php)

His dad, Doug Domenech, was a White House insider with connections to Abramoff (see http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/week_2006_03_19.php#007962)

Hmmm, do you suppose the Post did much vetting of Ben, other than his right-wing credentials, which were in good standing?

 
At 7:47 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Oh, yes, I do remember that whole ridiculous hiring of the right-wing blogger. But his dad having connections to Abramoff is new to me.

Unfortunately, the situation with the Post is this: publisher and owner Don Graham doesn't have 10% of the balls that his late mother Kay did, nor is he challenged by a ballsy, swashbuckling editor like Ben Bradlee, as she was. Instead, his editor is the tentative, sometimes fearful Cleveland native named Len Downie. Graham's and Downie's semi-spinelessness reinforce each other.

 
At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Probably the owner is very clubby with Washington Republican bigwigs, too.

What is the story with the New York Times? Maybe they got tired of garment-rending after the Jayson Blair case?

 
At 11:41 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

Perhaps the Times is too heterogeneous an entity to speak of this way (after all, Frank Rich writes a column there).

Still, TPM has documented numerous occasions where the NYT "smartly salutes" the White House's preferred terminology/euphemism for whatever they are trying to peddle (e.g. when they dropped "private accounts" in favor of "personal accounts".)

 
At 11:39 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The WaPost is also quite heterogenous, and one could point to plenty of its star reporters and columnists who have mounted extremely aggressive reporting on the Bush administration outrages. They range from Pulitzer winner Dana Priest on the secret CIA prisoner renditions and the Walter Reed hospital scandal, to Walter Pincus on defense policy and Dana Milbank, maybe the best (and earliest) journalist at deconstructing the Bush presidency and ruthlessly showing the emporer without clothes.

E.J. Dionne has also been a stalwart progressive voice (whose megaphone is enhanced by wide syndication) and Dan Froomkin's White House Watch has frequently been downright devastating to the Bushies, so much so that the print White House beat reporter at one point famously complained to his editor that Froomkin was going to dry up all his sources if he continued to alienate the White House. Even the brilliant Tom Shales gets in his occasional shots on political themes from his unlikely perch as TV critic.

In short, it remains a great paper, if sometimes too squishy, especially on the editorial page. I would encourage you to poke around in the online archives and read some of these folks. They're all national treasures.

 
At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Buster said...

I acknowledge all you say about the WaPo. E.J. Dionne is one of the few voices of reason in our local paper. Broder needs to retire.

Since I am not a newspaperman, I don't understand the relationships between the working reporters, the stars, and management.

Do working reporters adjust their reporting to management biases? We know Fox News' slant is guided by a daily memo, originally from Roger Ailes, now from a senior VP.

Or is it apparent to them from editor feedback how coverage should be framed and reported for a given paper? I'm sure it varies. Our paper is satisfied when the blasting they get from each side is roughly equal.

The concerted "mau-mauing" from the right makes this policy a loser for the purpose of good reporting.

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, of course I naturally left Broder out of the praise, because he's become a disgrace, despite his widely being considered the "dean" of Beltway reporters. But you've asked a few great and important questions, so good in fact that they would require longer diquisitions than I have time for today. Can we table these questions till over the weekend? I'd love to address them. And of course I'd also enjoy hearing other readers' takes on them as well. Meanwhile, I'm glad your paper runs Dionne. He's an ace.

 
At 1:26 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Buster, first of all, let's stipulate upfront that Fox "News" isn't reflective of anything else in this industry (besides perhaps other Murdoch outfits like the NY Post), because it's essentially a propaganda organ, not a credible news organization.

I think you admirably phrased how it tends to work at most media outlets when you asked, "is it apparent to them from editor feedback how coverage should be framed and reported for a given paper?" Yes, I think that's how it tends to go, just as it does in most place of work. Mandates come from on high (the owner), and are filtered down to the rank and file through middle management, which in this case are editors.

But there are various other pressures that impinge. Some organizations are more interested in winning awards (Emmies, Pulitzers, Press Club awards, wire service awards and a host of others) than others, and are thus more open to pushing the edge on aggressive reporting and on spending for enterprise and investigative reporting. Some editors are ballsier than others (meaning more ready to get fired if it comes to that) in fighting for good journalism with their bosses and on behalf of their underlings. Some outfits have a more glorious past on which to fall back on and live up to (like the WaPo and Watergate, for instance, or the NYT and the Pentagon Papers) or more public embarrassments to overcome. I could go on for quite awhile longer with the various permutations, but I think you get the drift.

 

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