Chicago Lawyer: New Management, Less Muck

The September issue of Chicago Lawyer comes out in a few days and you’ll find Rob Warden inside saying goodbye. It’ll be clear from the rest of the issue that he’s already gone.

The typefaces, the design, the cut of the stories, even the number of pages–48, more than Warden could usually manage–will all say under new management. And so will Warden’s valedictory, a bittersweet reminiscence of his ten years as crusading publisher. He thinks he’s leaving the local judiciary even worse than he found it, although he’s proud of victimized little guys–such as Gary Dotson and accused Nazi Frank Walus–whose legal causes the Lawyer championed and helped prevail.

“Of course none of these cases produced justice, not real justice,” writes Warden. “The victims were all irreparably injured and left without meaningful recourse. Injustice cannot be undone; it can only be made to stop compounding. The officials who in varying degrees were responsible for the injustices suffered only the sanctions of their consciences, if any.”

It’s vintage Warden, patron of the underdog. “There won’t be nearly as much of that,” Bernie Judge, who’s the new publisher, told us. “I won’t say there won’t be any of it–there are things that can happen to an individual I’ll want to write about. But it won’t be dedicated to the little guy.”

No Chicago newspaperman as seasoned as Judge (he’s worked at both the Tribune and Sun-Times and for a while ran City News Bureau) could say that about the little guy and be happy with how it sounds. He pushed on. “I mean, the Tribune and Sun-Times both do investigative reporting–I’m trying to explain this–but it’s only a part of the mix. Neither one of those papers could be called investigative, muckraking papers, but they do it, it’s a part of it, but it’s not the reason for their existence. I work for the Law Bulletin Publishing Company, 134 years old. It serves the legal community and that’s what this publication’s going to do. Which makes it different than it was.”

There’s no point in belaboring the change. The Chicago Council of Lawyers gave Warden its newsletter to run in 1978 and he immediately began raking muck. But in his ten years publishing Chicago Lawyer, the last nine months as its owner, Warden never could figure out how to turn a profit; when he finally wore out he made a decent buck by selling his paper to someone he respects.

“Bernie and I really go back a long ways,” said Warden, “to 26th and California in the 60s.” Warden was covering the criminal courts for the Daily News, Judge for the Tribune. “We wouldn’t exactly agree on a lot of things”–Warden laughed–“but nevertheless I’ve always had a good feeling about him and liked him a lot and admire what he does.”

Judge told us, “If things work the way I hope they work, the magazine will have a much higher profile among lawyers and a much lower profile in the rest of the community. It’ll read somewhat like a combination of the National Law Journal and American Lawyer–two very good publications on law but strictly on the law.”

Judge’s managing editor, Donna Gill, could tell we were dubious. “There are all kinds of issues that deal with courts, the practice of law, changing laws, the management of law firms. There are tons of things there,” Gill said. “What happens in law and the courts affects everyone in the country.”

She mentioned, “On the commentary page we will have a monthly guest article on ethics and professionalism, The first will be written by Robert Cummins, former chairman of the state judicial inquiry board.”

The new Chicago Lawyer is certain to be a solid, thoughtful journal and we’re sorry we’re not more excited by it. We asked Warden what his plans are.

“I’ve been reading a little fiction for the first time in years,” he said. “Some very old stuff, a Ben Hecht novel, Count Bruga. I’ve read The Shepherd of the Hills, by Harold Bell Wright, written about the 1900s, about the Ozarks. I just picked it up at an antique bookstore. I picked up a first edition–some of the illustrations fell out of the book as I was reading it.”

It sounded lovely, but not like a life.

Warden also told us about a magazine article he’s working on.

“It’s a piece on false convictions. I believe 154 people have been sentenced to death under the current Illinois capital punishment statute. Of those, I believe at least eight are innocent. Eight specific people. And I’m enumerating those cases.

“If I’m right that’s absolutely horrifying,” Warden said. “If I’m right, or even half right, it’s absolutely horrifying. ”

That’s more like it.

Pr—ct C–nsored

Terrible as censorship is, there is probably some means of combating it more adroitly than Project Censored, a journalism competition held again this summer out at Sonoma State University in California.

Taken at face value, Project Censored poses quite the oxymoron: it exists to honor published censored stories. What it really means to do is hold the mass media’s feet to the fire–identifying major stories that the mass media grossly underreported for one reason or another, by hailing those obscurer journals that did report them.

That’s a smart, useful undertaking. But here’s how the recently judged ’88 competition worked out. The winning story was a piece called “The Real George Bush” that appeared last October in Willamette Week, the alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon. It was a high-concept, low-effort exercise. Publisher Richard Meeker simply culled the alternative press for derogatory information on Bush that had been largely ignored by the mainstream press. About which Meeker concluded, “Their laziness, inattention, cowardice and pretenses of fairness have helped hand this election to George Bush.”

Meeker’s article amounted to alternative journalism’s brief against Bush, and he allowed the alternative news service AlterNet to distribute it free of charge. At least ten other papers carried the article.

“At least half a million copies of that story were printed, so how censored could it have been?” Meeker observes ironically.

That’s not the only irony.

Professor Carl Jensen of Sonoma State put together an extremely impressive panel to judge Project Censored this year: Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Nicholas Johnson . . . “These are really important people I have participating in the project. Very busy, I know, Jensen told us. He met them more than halfway. His staff at Sonoma State culled the entries down to 25 finalists; and instead of sending these stories on to the judges to read, Jensen sent them one-page synopses!

“Obviously, we’re not dealing in an ideal world,” said Jensen.

Says Meeker, “I can’t imagine judging any journalism contest, offering any value judgment about it at all without being confronted with the thing yourself. You get a sense from reading it whether it’s true or not.”

The synopsis of Meeker’s story listed the various briefs against Bush that the alternative press had made and Meeker repeated: on Bush and environmental regulations, on Bush and the CIA, Bush and the Senate Watergate Committee, Bush and Nazi sympathizers on his campaign staff. So forth and so on.

But there was one particular brief that Jensen’s synopsis omitted. This, to quote the title of the article in the LA Weekly that Meeker drew on, was “the mistress question.” “The Mistress Question” had made tantalizing reading, but it raised questions. It was not solidly sourced, for one thing, and it stuck its nose into a gray area that some people, including some contest judges, might think isn’t necessarily journalism’s business.

So when he prepared the synopsis, Jensen just ignored it. In other words, Project Censored censored the winning entry. The judges were given no idea that Meeker had waded in the murky waters of George Bush, alleged philanderer.

Jensen explained later to Willamette Week that he’d felt that mentioning the mistress question “might discredit the rest of the story.” He was less direct with us, but he said roughly the same thing.

“When he called to tell me I won the prize the second thing out of his mouth was, ‘I took this out. I hope it’s OK with you,'” says Meeker. “I don’t feel any moral indignation about this whatever,” Meeker goes on. “I’m perplexed. As far as I can make out, Carl Jensen is a good guy pursuing a worthwhile cause, and this was a stupid thing he’s done. I don’t ascribe much meaning to it, but he clearly felt funny about it.”

Meeker tells us, “All contests are cockamamy. There’s not one sentence in there [he means in his own article] that’s original to me. It’s all from other peoples’ articles. I didn’t even do all my research myself.”

Nor was it Meeker who called his article to the attention of Project Censored. Someone with the contest spotted it in the San Francisco Bay Guardian–which is why Meeker’s winner’s plaque says he works there. A lot of the papers that reran Meeker’s piece edited out the material about the mistress question–they were as uncomfortable with it as Jensen would later be. The Bay Guardian, however, reprinted the whole thing.

And Meeker won a thousand dollars.

“I think this is the first time that authors of censored stories in America received cash awards, which I think is quite a breakthrough,” said Jensen.

“From a distance,” Meeker tells us, “it’s my impression that Project Censored is a good thing. I like Carl Jensen, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of anything to criticize it.”

It’s a good thing and it can stand refinement.

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