A Place That Needs Journalism

If you’re a Chicago journalist, Gabriel Nicolescou has a proposition for you. Fly to Romania, where truth is a strange new concept, and show the nation what to do with it.

“This will be a very exhaustive trip,” said Nicolescou, who wants you to teach “crash courses” in journalism day in and day out for two months or so before coming back to Chicago. Can your people pay for transportation? we asked him. “If we can get a grant,” he said. A salary? No, said Nicolescou. We’ll give you lodging, he said, an interpreter, and access to university students.

We asked Nicolescou what’s wrong with the journalists now at work in Romania, the ones filling the sort of tiny, passionate papers that spring up through every crack in tyranny. “They are very sincere and they are very much aware of the historic moment,” Nicolescou said. “They are aware the revolution might be stolen by the people the revolution was directed against.”

But, he went on, they are also tendentious and prolix. They don’t know how to get to the point. They are unfamiliar with the concept of letting facts speak for themselves. And for want of example, they often lapse into covering a new era in the suffocating language of the old.

“Something very interesting,” Nicolescou told us. “Some words have lost their power and are slogans. Let’s say–‘For the understanding among the peoples around the world.’ Or ‘Noninterference with internal affairs.’ We have heard for so long Ceausescu selling this to the United States and the world, and selling it for a good profit . . .”

What Nicolescou touched on here was President Nicolae Ceausescu’s adroit manipulation of the West, which favored him as an Eastern bloc independent while he ruled as the worst kind of Stalinist. The scam infuriated Romanians. “We felt something similar to what the Chinese students must feel now,” Nicolescou said, “when Mr. Bush maintains close relations with Deng Xiaoping.”

An architect educated in Bucharest, Nicolescou, who’s 45, left Romania legally in 1978 and has lived in Chicago since ’79. He is absolutely serious about sending journalists over. Journalists, he said, and also typewriters and copiers and fax machines. The people of Romania, where under Ceausescu typewriters had to be registered with the state, have virtually none of the modern tools for sharing information.

Last November, when Ceausescu was “reelected” maximum leader while freedom was seizing a foothold in every surrounding country, “I decided we had to do something about it,” Nicolescou told us. He defiantly organized the Romanian Freedom Forum; and although its “very, very active nucleus” consists of no more than 30 of Chicago’s 18,000 Romanians, a few people can accomplish impressive things. No sooner had Ceausescu been toppled last December than this nucleus began putting together Democratic Romania–“a monthly journal of fact and opinion for a free people.”

Did you begin your newspaper, we asked Nicolescou, the editor, to give Romanians a source of information they can trust?

“Right now, they know what they don’t trust,” he said. “They don’t know very well what they trust. But they know they don’t trust Communists, even the Communists who did not have such a good relationship with Mr. Ceausescu.” Nicolescou was speaking here of the Council of the National Salvation Front, which seized the reins of Romania and is riddled with old apparatchiks. His paper will support equally the three non-Communist parties that have sprung up in opposition, and urge them to run a coalition slate against the Front in May’s national elections.

Nicolescou drew us a map describing the distribution system he is putting together. He’s about to ship 5,000 copies of the February Democratic Romania from Chicago to New York by UPS, then via Taron (the national airline of Romania) to Bucharest, where colleagues will route them to such principal cities as Timisoara and Cluj and especially Iasi. Iasi is the gateway to Soviet Moldavia, the republic that was part of Romania until the Soviet Union seized it during World War II.

You’ll be smuggling the papers into the USSR? we asked Nicolescou. “The border is open now,” he said. But will the Soviet Union tolerate a newspaper printed in Chicago that is full of notions of democracy, anticommunism, and Romanian nationalism? we wondered.

“We’ll see,” Nicolescou said.

The January issue of Democratic Romania was 12 pages long and almost entirely in English. In the future, Nicolescou said, the paper will run 24 pages or more, and everything in it will appear in both languages. Some of the material will come from letters and phone calls from Romania and the accounts of visitors; but the heart of the operation is CompuServe, the computer data base that gives the paper access to the AP, UPI, and Washington Post news wires. One day soon, Nicolescou means to ask these services for permission to reprint their articles; “We are thanking them in advance in these pages,” said the January issue.

In that same issue, Nicolescou printed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He told us the February issue, due out this week, would carry Lincoln’s observation, which Nicolescou finds so pertinent now–“You may fool all the people . . .”

This may be the first Romanian translation of that, we said.

Not so, said Nicolescou. “Until ten years ago, when [Ceausescu] started to squeeze everybody, we had all the classical literature in the libraries. But then he emptied the libraries and put in only his masterpieces, and his wife’s.”

Air Pollution at WFMT

The quality of life in Chicago just underwent another fundamental change. Last time this happened was when night baseball came to Wrigley Field. Now WFMT has decided to accept prerecorded commercials.

“I view this as the most important, most fundamental decision anybody’s had to make at this company,” station manager Alfred Antlitz told us a few days before he made it. Antlitz had just fired seven employees in one afternoon, a modest act by comparison.

Some listeners also see the commercial issue as momentous. Last July the citizens group Friends of WFMT filed suit in Circuit Court to try to keep the station as is, and a petition submitted last October to the Federal Communications Commission accused WFMT’s owners of “fraudulent, deceptive, or unethical” conduct. The grounds: WFMT contrived a “deficit” last year, raised $400,000 from listeners to meet it, then broke its word by “taking steps to change the character of the station” anyway.

What would this change be? “An absolute break with the ‘live-copy’ policy,” said the petition, which continued, “Perhaps no single act would be a bigger break with WFMT’s existing character than to play jingles over the air, instead of allowing the announcers to read the advertising material in a calm, even, professional manner.”

No single act? What about an overnight shift to all-news, to all-talk, to rock ‘n’ roll or C and W? But those are unthinkable acts. Canned commercials, the Friends recognized, were not only thinkable but likely.

“I think many in our group–clearly a majority in the group–regard the recorded-commercials issue as a paramount one,” Friends attorney Tom Geoghegan told us before the change was formally announced. “If the station begins using recorded commercials you can never reclaim it as an institution. It’s been despoiled in some way.”

And now it has. WFMT pledged that “our new policy will prescreen and broadcast only commercials that reflect the high standards of our programming,” but in the long run, this pledge is probably meaningless. “If you can be selective, you are OK,” Al Antlitz told us, “but we’ve been told by industry people you really can’t police this.” Where WFMT formerly drew the line is the only place it can be drawn and held.

William McCarter, president of the Chicago Educational Television Association, which runs WFMT and TV station WTTW, had made it clear inside the station that he was fed up with management by hallowed custom. Communicating his disdain for what Antlitz calls “just plain resistance to change,” McCarter has slung around such dripping sarcasms as “Vienna choirboys” and “the rape of the vestal virgins.”

Up to a point, Antlitz agreed. He thinks WFMT has “ossified” over the years, losing a spirit of playfulness. “Twenty some years ago,” he said, “an announcer would feel free to do something idiotic on air. Marty Robinson would feel free to make fun of Talman. . . . In the old days, you’d be listening to Brahms, Mozart, and there’d be a little bit of Pete Seeger, a show tune. Things would be strung together as a sort of tapestry. Nobody does that anymore.”

But even if WFMT could stand some change for change’s sake, Antlitz wasn’t sure that the commercial policy was where to make it. Last summer WFMT paid the Chicago firm Strategic Radio Research to organize focus groups of people who frequently listen to classical radio. These groups liked the staff-read commercials; what’s more, they trusted them–the station was putting its own dignity behind its sponsors’ products. “Talman’s a case in point,” Antlitz said. When one group was asked if anyone had opened an account at Talman on the strength of its advertising on WFMT, “everybody in the room raised their hands. We were astonished by that!”

Even so, the prevailing wisdom at WFMT had the station losing more than it gained. As anecdotal evidence, there was the experience of Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From 1963 to 1978, Fogel operated a classical music station in Syracuse, New York. He modeled it after the best there was, WFMT, and for a time prohibited recorded commercials. Eventually he dropped the policy. “It was, in Syracuse, economically not viable,” Fogel told us. “We cut ourselves off from some national advertising and some major agency clients who’d invested a fair amount of money in specially produced commercials.”

And? The old advertisers didn’t mind, Fogel said. “Some of the listeners did, but not many.” He told us, “When you are the only radio station in the country to have a certain policy, it becomes a badge of honor and you become very emotionally attached to it. I can understand this, but as a listener it would absolutely not affect my respect for the station at all.”

To us, the issue’s not a loss of respect. We didn’t respect the Cubs baseball team less when they started playing at night. The issue’s a loss of urbanity.

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