Desperately Seeking Muckrakers

The Times newspaper based in Munster, Indiana, is advertising for a new reporter. But not just any reporter, to work not just any beat. And because a lot of hard-charging journalists don’t normally think of places like Munster to work, the Times has written not just any ad.

It begins, “County government reporter position–Help readers understand what makes Lake County, Indiana the unique, sometimes exasperating place it is. Dig for the real stories beyond the surface of county government.” The ad was sent to the placement offices of various journalism schools, and I spotted it on a listserv that alerts University of Missouri graduates to job opportunities.

The Times is looking for a “senior-level reporter” whose “routine duties” will be to cover the county council and county commission. OK, that sounds pretty boring. “But covering the meetings and machinations of these two entities is just the beginning,” the ad goes on. “In addition, the writer will examine the methods, motives and results of a county government considered inefficient, politically motivated and corrupt with cronyism.”

Journalism’s help-wanteds are usually phrased more delicately than that. Thumbing through recent issues of Editor & Publisher, I find papers looking for someone “hard-hitting,” someone who “cuts through hooey,” someone who wants to head to an “intensely competitive” market or to “one of the most storied areas in the nation” (the Mississippi delta, if you’re wondering) and “make an impact.” But nobody’s being invited to–in so many words–bring a bucket and drain a swamp.

The Times ad ignited a brief debate among Missouri graduates. “Hmmm,” commented a ’67 grad. “Sounds as if this editor has committed the Cardinal Sin of journalists–deciding what kind of story to write, before gathering the facts. It’s this kind of attitude that gives ‘the media’ a bad name.”

’67 was promptly called out by an east coast publicist. “If there’s a widespread thinking that a part of the govt is corrupt, why wouldn’t an editor have his or her beat reporter look into it and see why people feel that way?” ’67 snapped back, “Perhaps you misunderstood my point. All too often, I see editors decide what kind of story will be written and published BEFORE the reporters gather the facts, and IN SPITE OF the facts they gather. That guy has already made up his mind, and he’s going to hire accordingly. It’s unethical. There’s nothing wrong with investigating corruption, but making up your mind that it exists–damn the facts, full speed ahead–before you gather the facts, is wrong. (Maybe that’s why the position is open?)”

The ad was placed by Mike Chapin, managing editor of news at the Times. Did ’67 suppose that Chapin just arrived in Lake County, fresh off the turnip truck? A ’97 graduate waded in: “Frankly, you have no idea what this editor knows or doesn’t know about the local board. To suggest that his allegations about the county board are baseless is to engage in the very kind of speculation without facts that you are criticizing.” ’97 asserted that an “equal ethical sin to pre-judging a story, or perhaps even a worse one, is the tendency of some papers (and publishers) to discourage reporters from digging into certain stories.”

“Point taken,” replied ’67. But, she insisted, “I don’t think that pejorative stuff belongs in the help-wanted ad or job description. It might be more appropriate to address it in an interview.”

A Florida reporter was then heard from. “He said ‘considered,’ which is likely true. Many people do consider government corrupt and inefficient and there’s no question that most of it IS politically motivated. If that’s the local perception of the county government, there’s nothing wrong with saying so in a job advertisement. Maybe the new reporter will find otherwise. We often do find that what the public ‘considers’ the truth isn’t.”

’97 asked the ether, “Anybody from Munster, Ind., feel free to enlighten us on the state of county politics.”

No one answered.

Would a Chicago paper that advertised for a muckraker ever be accused of intending to slant the news? No, I don’t think so either–it’s a given among journalists what kind of stuff goes down in Chicago. But even those of us just across the state line know hardly a thing about Lake County, Indiana–that Land Beyond the Skyway. Almost half a million people live there, but they’re irrelevant. Unlike the folks in Du Page County to our west, they don’t elect their legislators on the basis of their willingness to go off to Springfield and make Chicago’s life miserable. They’re a state over, and they might as well live in another world. The Chicago papers barely pay attention. Most of what we know about Lake County we pick up going to and fro on the toll road 30 feet above the ground.

I called Chapin about his ad. “Usually I write them a little straighter,” he said. “I really wanted to make the point we were looking for an investigator.” He said the ad “was based on what we’ve been writing for the last 30 years. If you know anything about government in this area, it makes the old Mayor Daley look like a choirboy. Some of the corruption here is so blatant. And given the results of the recent primary, we don’t expect that proclivity to go away.”

Rudy Bartolomei, sheriff until 1984, when he was convicted on federal weapons and extortion charges, disappeared into a federal witness-protection program. But that’s local color so old it’s folklore. When I asked Chapin for a recent scandal, he told me about the series that just earned reporter William Lazarus a Lisagor. Lazarus’s articles last year examined the fate of convicted drug dealers in Lake County. When they’re convicted in state courts that fate is generally pretty kind: thanks to the plea bargaining of the Lake County prosecutor’s office, “most defendants charged with Class A felonies for drug dealing get no prison time.”

In Indiana three grams of cocaine are enough to make a sale a Class A felony, yet in one case Lazarus cited, police reported seizing 406 grams from the car of a suspect who negotiated a six-month suspended sentence.

Another case Lazarus came across involved a repeat felon accused of opening fire when police pulled his car over and trying to murder five cops and a security guard. He wound up pleading guilty to two counts of attempted battery. His lawyer was county prosecutor Bernard Carter’s former campaign manager.

Then there was the man Carter backed to head up a $3 million federally funded program to fight the drug trade in Lake County. One day he found out his candidate, who’d been accused by the Indiana Attorney Disciplinary Commission of improprieties “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” had lost his law license. The next day Carter voted to have him take over the program.

My Lexis search tells me the adventures of Bernard Carter have escaped the notice of the Chicago dailies. So reporters who don’t write for the Times (or one of the other Lake County papers) are missing out on the fun. Chapin said Carter ran unopposed for reelection this spring in the Democratic primary. “And there’s no Republican candidate in the fall. I’m not saying he’s one of the bad guys, but his record is his record.”

Editorials Without the Fuss

The research-and-development arm of the nation’s newspaper industry is determined to find new ways of appealing to readers who don’t like to read. One important pioneer, executive news editor John Dodge of the Sun-Times, has been hailed for demonstrating that the weather can be condensed into a single word on page one–a word such as “clammy,” or “tempestuous,” or “hopeful.” Equal praise should go to the Times in Indiana.

For several years now, the daily has accommodated skimmers by preceding its editorials with their conclusions. For example, the recent “Dueling plans for Gary’s airport” began: “Our opinion: When public money is involved, there is nothing wrong with keeping the public informed of the progress.” This was followed by the actual editorial explaining why the Times thinks that’s so.

The classic role of the editorial page is twofold: to state the newspaper’s opinions, and to offer the newspaper’s reasons for holding them. In this busy age, role two is passe. Many readers don’t care what the reasons are or suspect the real reasons are ones the newspaper wouldn’t acknowledge in a million years. Other readers are defensive about their certitudes and fear immersing them in hostile logic. It’s far better for everyone to be able to take in the paper’s position at a glance and turn the page.

The Times’s innovation raises an intriguing possibility. Because most of us shape our opinions by excluding all facts to the contrary, a shrewd newspaper could stake out both sides of some big issues by doing likewise. While its thumbnail opinion panders to the mob, the editorial can follow the high, hard road of principled logic to a contrary conclusion.

For example. “Our opinion: We should bomb the bastards.” Our editorial conclusion: “Peace cannot be achieved without restraint, compromise, and the courage to try to see the world through the enemy’s eyes.”

Something for everyone.

News Bites

Despite what you might think, the Sun-Times story about James “Pate” Philip and Navy Pier was a pretty good one. It’s the story reporter Tim Novak launched May 28 with a piece about Philip, president of the Illinois senate, wanting to throw a 50th-reunion party three years ago for his high school pals. Philip called Scott Fawell, head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, and next thing they knew Philip and 80-some buddies were celebrating on the pier. It didn’t cost any of them a dime–the authority ate all the costs.

Novak couldn’t reach Fawell–indicted recently on racketeering charges in connection with the license-for-bribes scandal–but apparently freebie parties have been a common occurrence at the pier, justified as “promotional.”

This Tuesday the Sun-Times reported that after it brought the wingding to light, Philip wrote a check for $15,161 to cover the cost. Since the money came from his campaign fund–despite a state law prohibiting the personal use of campaign contributions–he still hadn’t paid anything out of his own pocket.

All of this was certainly entertaining, but some readers might have wondered if any of it mattered. The Tribune ignored the story, and surely the Tribune would eschew nothing of genuine importance. But I fear there’s more than one reason for the news the Tribune doesn’t deign to cover. Inconsequence is number one, of course, but indignation at getting scooped follows close behind.

There wasn’t enough room on the Tribune front page last Friday for the acquittal of the five off-duty sheriff’s cops charged with topping off a night of carousing three years ago by chasing after and repeatedly firing at a black couple in an SUV. Judge Clayton Crane threw the rhetorical book at the officers, calling them “bozos,” but at the end of their bench trial he found them all not guilty–of attempted murder, of aggravated discharge of a firearm, and even of official misconduct.

The Tribune played the story on page one of the Metro section. The Sun-Times led the paper with it. But the Sun-Times had a little bigger story to tell. Putting the acquittal in context, both papers noted that two months earlier, another circuit judge acquitted three sheriff’s officers accused of beating Louis Schmude in a Bridgeview cell. Schmude died a few days later. The Sun-Times also recalled that earlier last week state and federal prosecutors announced they wouldn’t prosecute the Chicago cops accused of fatally shooting two unarmed motorists, LaTanya Haggerty and Robert Russ, in 1999. So it’s been a pretty good run for law enforcement officials who don’t like getting picked on for every little thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.