A Nose for News: The Anchorman and the Bridge Tender

What’s TV news supposed to do, anyway? Channel Five’s behavior was exemplary the other night. They’d sniffed out — literally — a story that no one else had, stood a vigil through the dark of night, and eventually got their man. So why are we uneasy?

We watched anchorman Ron Magers on the news the day after: there he was at the Kinzie Street bridge, chasing after bridge tender Edward Przislicki, asking him if he’d been drinking. Then he was behind the anchor desk, explaining that he’d sniffed alcohol on Przislicki’s breath.

“I smelled alcohol,” Magers told us later. Was this subjective or objective reporting? “Was it subjective that I saw a taxicab hanging from a bridge? I’m a reporter — I see, I smell, I think, I feel,” said Magers.

It had been a terrible accident. The rising bridge had flipped this cab onto its back, then crunched through the cab as it came back down, decapitating the driver. As journalists converged, Przislicki came down from his tower and stared at the wreckage. Someone pointed him out to Deborah O’Malley, a Channel Five producer.

“First thing I noticed was the smell of alcohol,” said O’Malley. She told Magers, “I think we need to stay. I smelled alcohol.” A policeman took Przislicki back inside the bridge tower — and that is where he stayed for three hours, until 1:30 in the morning.

The other journalists left. We’re told they all thought the bridge tender had been taken away. Magers and O’Malley and their camera crew waited, along with Sun-Times reporter Michael Gillis, in whom Magers had confided.

Przislicki came out. “It was dramatic. And it was an unusual confrontation,” said Magers. “I walk up and I say ‘Hi. I’m Ron Magers from Channel Five.’ I shook his hand as I said that. He said ‘Hi, Ron Magers.’ I asked him ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ He told me to talk to the commissioner. When he spoke to me, I smelled alcohol. I said ‘It smells like you’ve been drinking.’ He said no.”

Gillis did, not get close enough to the bridge tender to smell alcohol. But he mentioned it in a memo to his editors, and Thursday’s Sun-Times had Przislicki admitting that he’d had two beers a couple hours before work that Tuesday night.

When an accident occurs on a CTA bus or train, the driver or engineer takes a breathalyzer test immediately. The Department of Public Works is now writing new guidelines, but there was no clear policy about operating a drawbridge while under the influence of alcohol. The four hours that went by before Przislicki finally was tested for alcohol in his system obviously taints the results. Przislicki knows what they are, but because he took the test voluntarily, Northwestern Memorial Hospital will only turn over the results if Przislicki is charged with criminal behavior.

Police did not give Przislicki a breath test because he hadn’t been driving a vehicle and hadn’t been arrested in a traffic accident. A captain said his proper place was on the back of the accident report, under “witnesses” (even though it was his bridge, and he made it go up and down, and he’s insisted that he didn’t even see the cab). The police are very careful of people’s rights, the captain said.

So that is why we are glad that Magers and O’Malley stuck it out after the accident, and Magers got close enough to the bridge tender to be able to report the odor of booze. If we did not hear it from Magers we might never have heard it at all.

But we could have just heard it. We did not have to see the tape. His encounter with Przislicki doesn’t prove anything.

We acknowledge that what we are suggesting here may sound absurd. This is an era when TV stations send their reporters and cameras out onto empty el platforms to recite lines they could recite back in the studio. When a crew puts in three hours outdoors and something actually does happen, no power on earth will keep a TV news operation from slapping it onto our screens. To Magers it’s “unsanitized” news, the real McCoy.

What we saw was haggard Edward Przislicki three hours after his bridge had cut somebody’s head off, right after the police were done with him, at 1:30 in the morning, trying to get into his car, saying he hadn’t been drinking to a camera shoved into his face, and looking guilty as hell.

“I think we represented the public interest very well that night,” Magers told us. “Bridge tenders aren’t supposed to be drinking.”

No, they aren’t. Yet Channel Five managed to squeeze from us an ounce of indignation over the man in the bridge tower who is going to be thrown into the harsh light of video as soon as he steps out.

Why Is the Bright One Turning Blue?

Why can’t Chicago have a newspaper that’s satisfied, happy even, to be itself? The Tribune wants so much to be the New York Times. Now we’ve got the Sun- Times looking like the Tribune. The Chicago Sun-Times logo will soon be in blue, giving us a city of blue newspapers.

So why blue? We are told that’s the color that comes off best on newsprint. We don’t believe it — take a look at the Sunday funny pages.

Blue is all over the Tribune trucks. The Sun-Times trucks are yellow and red. We thought “Bright One” meant sunny yellow. But that was just promotional, and so, we guess, is this new blue.

We are told a number of people don’t realize yet that Sun-Times ownership has changed from Rupert Murdoch to Robert Page. A conspicuous signal is needed, we are told, of the new era. Who are these people who don’t know? Will they care? One thing is for sure. This is very big thinking — to make the Sun-Times look like the Tribune.

We went to see our consultant, Dipak the news vendor, at one of the city’s busiest 24-hour newsstands. It sells about 200 Sun-Timeses every day, and about 150 Tribunes. On weekends, it sells 900 Tribunes and 300 to 400 Sun-Times newspapers.

Will blue attract more readers to a newspaper?

“It makes no difference, ma’am, if it is blue or it is green or it is red,” said Dipak.

What about “Chicago Sun-Times” in blue?

“It look funny. You cannot copy what these people do,” said Dipak, touching a Tribune. “They will not take Sun, Times if it is blue or red or green — some people are crazy for Tribune and some people are crazy for Sun- Times.

“Wait for one week. I will tell you how much Sun-Times is going after making blue,” promised Dipak.

We approached a cluster of news boxes on one of the city’s busiest corners — we’d been told people were more attracted to the Tribune in boxes because of its color showing through the windows. We put our questions to the yellow Sun-Times box and the white Tribune box with the blue stripe.

Both had no comment.

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