A Million Miles Away

When Bill Recktenwald took early retirement from the Tribune in 1999 he bought 110 acres of pasture and woodland alongside the Shawnee National Forest at the foot of Illinois. “Sometimes,” he says, “I go to the window and I think, ‘Gee, this isn’t a dream.'” He’s 60 miles from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, but he doesn’t mind. “It’s such an easy 60 miles. I go 40 miles to get to the first light.”

Recktenwald teaches and preaches journalism at SIU, though he’s just come home from taking his message to east Africa. He reads each class the credo that Joseph Pulitzer wrote in 1907 as he surrendered the reins of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch: “I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles; that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

“Wonderful words,” says Recktenwald. They still excite him, and he’s pleased to see they excite his students. They excited a young journalist in Mwanza, Tanzania, who heard him read them and asked for the copy Recktenwald was carrying around that country in his binder.

Recktenwald says his SIU students are less like the Medill students he observed back in Chicago than they are like the journalists in Tanzania. “Our journalism school is filled with kids who aren’t from the upper class,” he says. “They’re nice, hardworking kids who are eager to learn, and they listen to you. There’s a difference between a person who works his way through college cleaning toilets and one who comes from a place where he doesn’t have to worry about cleaning toilets. Most of our students work. And many, in fact, do clean toilets and mop halls and work in the food service. They’re going to college because they want to go to college, and they’re going to take entry-level jobs in little newspapers and work their way up.”

In Tanzania every paper is little. Corruption is a tradition there and independent journalism still a novelty. “They’re coming out of a time when there wasn’t a free press–there was a paper that told the government’s view, and that was all,” says Recktenwald. “Now there’s a thriving press. Up and down the street you’ll see news kids standing on the corner selling seven or eight different papers. None of them I think are even 15 years old. Some of them don’t stay operating very long.

“I read the English ones. I looked at the Swahili ones. I haven’t tuned up my Swahili. We were there when there was a terrible, terrible train crash that killed 285 people. The [English-language] government paper led with a quote from the president of the country saying nothing could have been done to prevent this terrible accident. The privately owned paper called for an investigation.”

Does a newspaper that demands answers have reason to fear a knock on the door at midnight? “They don’t come in and slam-dunk the people and put them out of business,” says Recktenwald. “But I’m told that if they write negative stories it’s difficult to get calls returned and get answers to questions.”

In Chicago it isn’t?

“I told them lightheartedly about Jane Byrne,” he says. “I told them to keep calling and to find other places to get answers. And where there’s more than one side of a dispute, tell all sides or tell the readers why you can’t. When the free press is less than a decade old they haven’t learned these things.”

Before leaving office voluntarily in 1985 Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere created a one-party socialist state generally remembered today as a noble failure. He left behind both a literate, peaceful society and one of the poorest countries on earth. “If you’re literate,” says Recktenwald, “journalism gives you the opportunity to have a job where even if it’s not a high-paying job at least it’s a job where you have an opportunity to earn some money and you’re not carrying things on your back.”

This spring a delegation of eight senior Tanzanian journalists and educators visited Carbondale and went on to Chicago and Washington, D.C. They asked for copies of the U.S. Constitution to take home with them.

“They were asking, what does it cost to register a paper in the United States? What about the government media in the United States?” They assumed that our government, like theirs, had a newspaper and a TV station of its own.

Recktenwald was part of a four-person SIU delegation that returned the visit this summer, holding ten days of workshops for journalists in Dar es Salaam and other cities. “It was maybe the first formal training these journalists have had,” he says. “They had very interesting questions for us in the ethics section. Like ‘What if someone offers you money to do a story?’–which apparently happens all the time. And ‘You take the money, but you write the story fairly? Is that all right?'” He told them it’s theft.

And if you know something’s wrong, why not say so in your article? Reckten-wald says news stories in Tanzania are full of the reporters’ personal opinions, and he had his hands full trying to explain why they shouldn’t be.

Did his students get it?

“There was discussion among themselves that I wasn’t privy to,” says Recktenwald, because it was in Swahili. “I think they got it. But it’s kind of a new concept.”

Ethical Paralysis?

Recktenwald has created a Web site that consists mostly of links to other sites he thinks would be useful to his SIU students. But he’s also posted his bio there–of his 12 years with the Better Government Association, 7 of them as chief investigator, followed by 21 years with the Tribune. Among the high points with the BGA was his work on joint undercover investigations of vote fraud and corrupt ambulance services that helped the Tribune win a couple of Pulitzers in the early 70s.

His years as a reporter included this: “In 1978 he went undercover, working as a guard at the Pontiac State Prison, where a riot had led to the deaths of three guards. His reports on conditions led to a restructuring of the state system and earned the Edward Scott Beck Award, the Tribune’s highest editorial award.”

Such assignments wouldn’t fly at today’s Tribune. As the paper demonstrated when it rejected pictures taken at Ground Zero last September because its photographer was wearing a Chicago Fire Department T-shirt, thus theoretically misrepresenting himself, it believes that if access is 90 percent of journalism, being sure to knock has become 90 percent of access.

Recktenwald teaches investigative journalism. He tells his students to think of going undercover as a “last resort” but not as a technique that’s never proper. “I have a copy of the prison story I did,” he says. “We ran two photos side by side. One was taken on press day at the prison and one four days later. [He smuggled in a camera.] They showed the stark difference between what the reality was and what government officials wanted the public to believe. There was no other way to get that story.

“At some point we should remember we are supposed to be never afraid to attack wrong,” he continues, quoting Joseph Pulitzer. “We should be thinking of those things.” In 1970 his first BGA assignment with the Tribune sent him undercover into Illinois nursing homes. In the prior decade the state had closed two homes for failure to meet minimum standards. In the next 18 months it closed 100. “Every night people were going to sleep in clean sheets instead of shit because of the work we did. If that bothers some of the media ethicists, that’s too bad.”

News Bites

The other day I asked the Tribune’s Rick Kogan how he wound up writing last month’s page-one story about a burgeoning feud between the daughter and niece of the late Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers). He replied in one dangerous word: “Access.” Not merely Lederer’s friend, Kogan had been (among his other Tribune duties) her editor at the Tribune the last four years of her life.

Earlier in her career she’d waged a famous feud with her twin sister, Pauline Phillips, author of the rival column “Dear Abby.” That column’s now written by Phillips’s daughter Jeanne. After Lederer died, her daughter Margo Howard (herself an on-line advice columnist) called Kogan to accuse her cousin of scheming to make a run at her mother’s clients. Howard said she’d learned the “Dear Abby” syndicate intended to offer the “Ann Landers” newspapers a “farewell letter to Eppie” they could run at no cost. This, to Howard, was “making hay.”

And that’s how the Tribune’s exclusive account of the family tempest over the “Ann Landers” empire came to be written by Ann Landers’s editor. He might not have been disinterested, but Kogan was not only the most knowing reporter for the story but also the reason the Tribune had it in the first place. Common sense prevailed. The Tribune is a princess kept awake all night only by select peas.

A revamped “shirttail” appeared Monday at the bottom of “Dear Abby” in the Tribune. This italicized footnote announced that “Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips.” The old shirttail had said that Pauline and Jeanne Phillips wrote “Dear Abby” together.

The new language, composed by Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City, arrived with the column and ran in the Tribune without anyone there noticing, let alone marveling at, the astonishing news it conveyed. Without coronation, the daughter of the old empress had become Abigail Van Buren. But last Thursday the Kansas City Star carried an explanation from a Universal spokesman: “When several editors saw Jeanne on ‘Larry King Live’ and she mentioned that she was writing the column, we thought that it was time to clarify that for readers.”

It was way past time. Jeanne Phillips told King she took over “Dear Abby” in 1987. But it was less than two years ago that Universal took the principle of truth in packaging even so far as to acknowledge the daughter as her mother’s collaborator and provide the 1,200 papers that carry the column with a picture of both of them.

The Tribune called Universal Monday afternoon. “Their desire was to continue the two-head shot,” associate managing editor for features James Warren told me, “and we said no. At which point they instantly transmitted to us a single head shot of the daughter.”

Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander has written a sweet new book for boys about a lonely 11-year-old kid and the basketball star who befriends him. But once his own paper had run a series of excerpts of String Music there seemed no compelling reason for me to give it more ink. Telander thinks otherwise, however, and he’s making an offer I feel bound to pass along: he’s “not just eager but happy to go around Chicago reading to kids in inner-city schools and libraries.” Telander lives on the North Shore, and as he says, “My kids have it pretty good.” The kids he sees hanging around outside the United Center, who inspired his book, haven’t been so lucky.

Educators and librarians would be nuts not to take Telander up on his offer. Part of the fun kids will have with String Music is figuring out which Chicago Bull from the glory years inspired which stalwart–one of them even a cross-dresser–of the mighty “Thunder.” The main man himself, Jasper Jasmine, is the Mike every kid in Chicago in the 90s wanted to be like. Telander says he gave a couple of copies to Juanita Jordan, “who seemed kind of excited to get them and was going to have her kids read them.” Will they buy Telander’s godly hero?

One week the Sun-Times flies a banner at the top of its building touting Donald Trump’s casino in Gary. Two weeks later it carries a full-page story on a promising new program that allows Illinois’ desperate gamblers to ban themselves from the state’s casinos. The best thing about this program is that you can join it and still gamble in Indiana.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Branda Keehn.