Bucket Brigade

Thirteen months ago, as James Warren packed his bags, Hot Type asked him what he’d do when he took over the Tribune’s bureau in Washington. Well, he had a clear idea what he wouldn’t.

“I have absolutely no desire to make this a long-term thing,” he said. “I have no desire to be there in five or ten years as part of the Gridiron Show, prancing around onstage, singing to the president, or whatever the fuck they do.”

Warren’s piquant language earned him a fast citation in Newsweek, putting him on the D.C. map. Last June the American Journalism Review featured him in a cover piece on the new breed of chiefs “bringing renewed brashness, skepticism and outside perspective to the oh-so-serious News Capital of the World.” Warren was introduced as the cavalier who’d made it clear to the Chicago Reader that “he didn’t intend to hang around the Gridiron Club “prancing around onstage . . . “‘

November brought a profile in the Columbia Journalism Review, and it was clear Warren didn’t need us anymore. The stress was placed on Warren’s “Cokie Watch,” his vigil over Cokie Roberts and other media celebs so eager to prove no sum of money can buy them that they won’t make a speech for less than $10,000. But CJR did note in passing that Warren “has also assailed the Gridiron Club . . . as a hoary relic of the bad old days when reporters cozied up to pols.”

The ultimate ratification of Warren’s notoriety came the day after Christmas–a long feature story with photograph in the business pages of the New York Times. The Gridiron Club (whose dinner last year, incidentally, Warren attended) was nowhere mentioned. Instead, a Times media writer drawn to Warren by the journalism-review articles raised an awkward question that some other journalists were by now asking among themselves: Was Warren’s iconoclasm largely cosmetic, a new varnish on a plywood bureau?

Or let’s put it this way–if in two years another brash young face, Newt Gingrich, has as little new product to back up his scorn as Warren now does, the Democrats will be running Congress again in 1997.

The New York Times, natch, brought Warren fever back to Hot Type. Yes, the Tribune bureau is second-rate–or second-tier, as Warren and Tribune editor Howard Tyner prefer to put it. The Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal–all run Washington operations three or four times as large. And when they cozy up, pols cozy back. The Tribune can’t play the insider game because it’s not on the inside. It’s a paper from the boondocks.

“I wanted Warren to be a bureau chief who was skeptical of what was going on in Washington, which is a tradition dating from Joseph Medill and was a big part of Colonel McCormick’s attitude,” Tyner told us. “I don’t think being the sort of insider we were for the last ten years or so was achieving much of anything for us except a pedestrian Washington report. So we’re providing something different.”

What? we asked. In the Times Warren had cited a page-one story on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s crusade to produce a safer five-gallon bucket. Is that it? we asked Tyner. A bucket story? We spoke at the end of week one of the Republican Congress, a historic week we hadn’t noticed the Tribune revealing in any uncommon way.

“First of all, he had problems,” Tyner said. “Changing [the bureau’s] culture, changing attitudes, is something that takes a while to achieve. I can’t sit and list a bunch of dramatically different stories either.”

We turned to Warren. What are you doing that the reader can see? we asked. He mentioned Michael Arndt’s bucket report, last Sunday’s piece by Christopher Drew on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration–“Covering labor and OSHA is boring to most Washington reporters”–a sidebar by Timothy J. McNulty the day the Republicans took over, a piece by Michael Kilian on a onetime South Pole explorer who at the age of 88 climbed the antarctic mountain named after him back in 1930.

“We are less focused on the breaking story and more focused on coming up with our own stories,” said Washington reporter Mitchell Locin, whom Warren pulled out of the White House and assigned to cover the Illinois congressional delegation. Does that mean the bureau’s now writing stories unimaginable before? “No,” Locin said. It’s simply “a greater part of our focus to find those stories.”

Locin, as it happens, has been reassigned to Chicago, along with Arndt and Elaine Povich, who’s apt to quit rather than come here. They’re being replaced by Frank James and Jan Crawford Greenburg from Chicago and Linnet Myers from Warsaw. Tyner believes this upheaval alone is reason enough to put off an assessment. Furthermore, Steve Daley’s taking over Congress but losing his Sunday column, which will be carried on by Michael Tackett.

We asked another Washington bureau chief what he thinks. “Warren’s a strange duck, and I don’t know what the Tribune is thinking of, frankly,” he said. “His predecessor [Nicholas Horrock] had a pack of problems, but he was a serious journalist and ran a serious bureau. Now I don’t know what they’re doing.”

He went on, “I’ve never seen Warren in a shmooze environment where he is in fact shmoozing. He’s always standing around with this scowl. I really hate to say it, but he’s not a big presence here. In terms of wreaking a revolution in Washington journalism, it has not happened. Nor have I heard a bugle in this war, nor have I smelled any whiff of gunpowder.”

Yet he wishes Warren well. “I know of a lot of guys who came to Washington to redo things. I was one, and I found I didn’t get very far. To the extent he wants to expunge sin and corruption, I wish him luck. He’s a true Don Quixote–almost. Of course Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts are huge targets. But a lot are pencil people with TV gigs. They earn $80,000 a year from newspapers and $100 a show for TV, which is peanuts, but use the TV exposure to market themselves on the lecture circuit at $20,000 a pop. I know a guy who’s earned $100,000 a year on the lecture circuit. And I’m jealous!”

2 Little 2 Late

Good evening. We are your local TV station, and we very nearly destroyed your city. We’re sick with shame. As decent citizens shrank aghast and momentous developments of a positive but unsanguinary nature were scanted by our lens, we wallowed in gore. Our boots even now are crusted with the reeking filth of drying viscera. Look, I am taking off one boot now and holding it up to the camera. See this thick black thing lodged in the crack between sole and heel. To tell you exactly what it is and how it got there we turn to chastened anchorman Furman Dumpster.

Dumpster: “That thick black thing is exactly what you think it is. And it is on our boot because under the old regime we were ordered to eat, sleep, and root for vile sensation in the murk of putrescent slime. I must add that I fought this policy at every turn, and much of the time I had no idea what was going on.”

Thank you, Furman. Now we want to hear from you, the public, whom we pummeled into stupefied nausea with our reprehensible broadcasting policies. Beginning tonight, and continuing nightly until all 31 of our regular viewers have had their say, we offer “Interact Nous.” We urge you all, especially those of you in affectionate family settings, to expunge your righteous anger by pelting us with maledictions via fax, E-mail, or your very own telephone. Rest assured that any oath you utter will be gentler than we deserve.

Caller: “What about satanic ritual?”

An excellent question, and one we’ve kicked around repeatedly here at the station. Nobody here seems to have any specific memory of satanic ritual, which is all the more proof that depraved frolicking along these lines must have occurred on a regular basis and been repressed as too sickening a memory to be borne even by the paltry consciences that frequent these quarters. For more on the subject, here’s former reporter Reggie Pfeffer, who after extensive outpatient therapy now has a lovely job at soon-to-be-obliterated National Public Radio.

Pfeffer: “I shudder at the memory of the degenerate warlock who used to run this station. Dipping his quill in the entrails of a butchered chicken, he scrawled a staff memo on the wall, right about where that lovely embroidery now hangs stating the station’s inspiring new “Contract With Chicago.’ It became our unalterable policy that whenever an outbreak was spotted of babies seized from their mothers’ breasts, cooked on spits while devil worshipers gamboled and shrieked in the hides of wolves, and buried in mass graves at midnight, it would lead the six o’clock news. Granted, this only happened twice.”

There’s time for one more call.

Caller: “Your ratings are in the toilet. What if this family-values malarkey doesn’t work?”

It’s not malarkey. It’s a way of life with us. It’s a commitment to Chicago. Give us two weeks.

News Bites

We saw The Santa Clause over the holidays and can’t get it out of our head. The Christmas season’s biggest family hit, a film that’s enchanted children and beguiled their parents, begins with Santa Claus falling to his death. That’s not a scene we ever expected to see at the movies, although The Santa Clause presents it with great sensitivity.

The film’s simple message is this: “Santa Claus is dead! Long live Santa Claus!” Obviously it touches something deep.

Investigative journalism in the era of the new Republicanism: “Cops’ Free Rein Costs City Millions–Police Rarely Punished Over Repeated Misconduct Suits” cried page one of last Sunday’s Sun-Times. Nobody cares at the moment if police brutality’s moral, but readers might sit still for the argument that it isn’t cost effective.

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