By Michael Miner

Rokyo’s Guide to Ethics in Journalism, Part One: Sensitivity

Mike Royko noticed something interesting last week. As he wrote on Thursday, his Tuesday column ridiculing Mexico and Mexicans “had been delivered to homes about 8 hours before the first phone call” demanding he be strung up like a pinata over 18th Street. “I must say that this was an oddly delayed reaction,” he commented, “which is a testimonial to the power of talk radio.”

I’m not privy to the circulation figures, but I’d guess it’s more of a testimonial to how many Mexicans across Chicagoland wake up each morning and read the Tribune. When he worked across the street Royko used to ridicule the Tribune. Now one of the pleasures of age could be making that same stuffy paper scramble to defend him.

“We recognize some people were offended by Royko’s column and regret that they have misinterpreted the intent,” said the Tribune’s prepared statement. I don’t think they misinterpreted anything. The column savaged Mexico as a “corrupt narco-state,” its government as “corrupt pocket-stuffers,” and its people, “who have clearly established that they don’t know what the heck they are doing.”

Said the Tribune, the column was “well within the confines of irony.” Since irony refers to the employment of words to mean their opposite, it must be that what the Tribune thought Royko was driving at is that Mexicans are actually the Swiss of Latin America, right down to their stolid inability to see the joke. This would come as news to Royko. What the Tribune called irony Royko in a later column called hyperbole. The demonstrators storming the Tower last Friday and demanding Royko’s head called it defamation.

Inside, up in publisher Jack Fuller’s office, foreign editor George de Lama spoke over the ruckus. Earlier in the day he’d turned over to Fuller and editor Howard Tyner a two-page letter of protest he’d written as senior Hispanic at the paper. Now he and Fuller were talking over what he calls “some of the most anguished days I’ve ever had at the Tribune.”

Says de Lama, “I’m a Chicago native, and I grew up reading Royko, and he was my hero. He’s the main reason I’m in the business, like a number of other folks here. Mike is best on the edge, and I told him this. But I told him some of what he wrote last week went over that. He went over the cliff with some of his remarks. And what most upset me and some other people here was the Tribune’s original statement. I thought it was condescending and most unfortunate. Particularly upsetting was the part that this was all well within the bounds of irony.”

Fuller listened. That night the Tribune modified its statement; it now regretted that readers had been offended. This Wednesday the paper did something even more remarkable: it published an editorial saying it was “sorry that many Mexican-Americans were deeply insulted by the Royko columns” and “particularly sorry that the first public statement the company made in the aftermath added to the injury.” The editorial went on to say, “We are not sorry that the Tribune publishes Mike Royko.”

De Lama says the editorial “struck the right tone. It had the right balance.”

Thirteen other Hispanic editorial employees had added their names to de Lama’s letter to Fuller and Tyner. Among them was Alfredo Lanier, editor of Exito, the Tribune Company’s Spanish-language weekly. De Lama points out that the letter didn’t ask the paper to take any action against Royko and that it identifies a portion of Royko’s column where he was harsh but within his rights.

Here’s the letter:

“In the best journalistic traditions of freedom of expression, we write to register our disbelief and deep distress at the Chicago Tribune’s ill-advised endorsement of columnist Mike Royko’s racial slurs against Hispanics.

“True enough, as you say, anyone who has read Royko for the last 30 years knows well his sharp and sarcastic voice, a voice he long wielded as a weapon on behalf of common folks against injustice.

“But more recently, sadly, our colleague repeatedly has crossed the line between legitimate political satire and ugly racial and ethnic slurs that have no place in the pages of our great newspaper.

“Mike Royko is well within the wide bounds appropriately reserved for columnists to comment, however caustically, on his view of Mexico’s government, its political leaders, its police, its problems with corruption, emigration and illegal drug-trafficking.

“But it is unacceptable to disparage and demean an entire nation and its people on the basis of ethnic and racial differences, especially when it perpetuates cruel stereotypes that this newspaper is dedicated to dispelling.

“Even worse, we find the Tribune’s statement of support for Royko smug and dismissive of legitimate offense taken by many Chicago area residents whom it is our mission to serve.

“Is it really ‘well within the bounds of irony,’ as you put it, to write, as Royko did on Tuesday, Feb. 27, that ‘Liberals say that Buchanan is a crazed nationalist and a bigot and suspect that in private he refers to Hispanics as beaners’?

“What if you substitute the word ‘African-Americans’ for ‘Hispanics’ and a cruel racial epithet for blacks for the word ‘beaners?’ Is that an acceptable use of irony in our newspaper?

“Similarly, Royko wrote ‘there is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans.’ Substitute Israel for Mexico and Jews for Mexicans. Is this well within the bounds of irony?

“When Royko describes Mexico as a ‘useless country’ and invites readers to ‘name just one thing that Mexico has done this century that has been of any genuine use to the rest of this planet. Besides giving us tequila,’ he is degrading an entire nation and its people. Again, reconfigure that sentence to make it read Nigeria and slaves instead of Mexico and tequila. What notion of legitimate irony would this encompass?

“We are angered, embarrassed and profoundly saddened by the newspaper’s decision to stamp the imprimatur of the institution on this racist rhetoric.

“In his two subsequent columns, Royko has added insult to injury, ignoring his very real transgressions against decency and choosing the most extreme Latino reader reactions–not coincidentally, highlighting some respondents’ difficulties with English–to mock any offense taken as hypersensitivity.

“This is not about hypersensitivity, a point that, alas, even some of our colleagues at the newspaper have missed. At issue are the core values that guide us, collectively and individually, as we strive to perform our vital mission of informing citizens in a democracy, especially at a time of rising hate crimes and racial intolerance.

“We, too, are fervent believers in the inviolability of the First Amendment, but even that sacred American precept does not give license to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. It is unworthy of an institution dedicated to shedding light on the dark corners of the world to sanction lighting a match to one of the most inflammatory issues of our time.

“In your statement of support for Royko, you note, almost in passing, that some people were offended by his work and express ‘regret that they have misinterpreted the intent.’ This suggests that if Hispanic readers, or others, are offended, it is their problem.

“No, it is not. This is our problem. The sooner we recognize that, the better. No less than the reputation and credibility of the Chicago Tribune are at stake.”

De Lama’s letter states his case much more clearly than last week’s columns stated Royko’s. However, a couple of points can be made in response. There’s no serious correspondence between tequila and slavery or between “beaners” and “niggers.” And just as the First Amendment is always inviolable to some when inflammatory language has been spoken, to others the theater is always SRO and an inch from pandemonium.

Royko’s column perplexed me because it didn’t stand for anything. It didn’t ridicule Pat Buchanan’s views on immigration, though it exaggerated them. It didn’t mount a serious argument in Buchanan’s favor, though Royko constructed it as a jesting endorsement of Buchanan for president. Mexicans were mocked elaborately but gratuitously. So what was the point of the column? To tweak liberals, I think. Only that.

Part Two: Honesty

The one sin those protesters outside the Tower failed to denounce Mike Royko for was plagiarism. Believe it or not, on-line that unlikely base was covered too. Here’s Royko on February 27 observing that “there is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans” and suggesting that “we should grab it, could privatize the whole country, and turn a neat profit by giving Club Med the franchise.”

And here’s Randy S on the Tribune’s on-line editorial bulletin board back on January 20, 1995, responding to a Tribune editorial on aid to Mexico by offering this:

“The main thing wrong with Mexico is that it’s run by a bunch of Mexican!… There is, of course, a Simple Solution ™ for the current problems in Mexico. Instead of merely giving them aid (which they will probably waste on what, food for the hungry?), we should instead just buy Mexico and make it part to the U.S.”

Randy S stepped forth last week to take credit. “I see that Mike Royko has caused a new flap,” he noted on the Royko message board. “I just saw him on TV being pursued by some news reporters, some of them perhaps having ‘perky bosoms’ (see previous flap).” Randy S pointed out the amazing similarity between what Royko had just written and his own sallies from 13 months earlier. But instead of joining in the general censure, Randy S gallantly seconded Royko’s notions–which was only appropriate for someone certain he’d had them in the first place.

Part Three: Choosing a Target

Do fighter pilots after a kill really talk like the bully in a Disney movie? According to a transcript produced by the U.S. mission to the United Nations, when the first of two tiny Cessnas was blown out of the sky over the Straits of Florida last week, the two Cuban MiG pilots had the following exchange. (The parentheses follow the style of the transcript.)

MiG-29 pilot to MiG-23 pilot: “We took out his balls ((shouting)).”

MiG-23 pilot to MiG-29 pilot: “Wait, wait, look and see where it fell.”

MiG-29 pilot to MiG-23 pilot: “((Garbled.))”

MiG-23 pilot to MiG-29 pilot: “We gave him (balls) ((shouting)) ((1 word garbled)).”

MiG-29 pilot to MiG-23 pilot: “Mark the place where we took it out. It’s ((garbled)).”

MiG-23 pilot to MiG-29 pilot: “This one won’t mess around any more.”

Won’t mess around? Papers that asked to see the original Spanish were blown off. “There’s certainly been a demand for it. But we never had it. We never got it,” a member of the U.S. mission who wanted to remain anonymous told me. The translation was given to the mission by the National Security Council, which was politely unhelpful when I asked for the original.

Among the papers that received the transcript was the Miami Herald, which publishes a Spanish-language edition, the Nuevo Herald. Faced with converting the ten-page transcript back into the Cubans’ actual language and condensing it for space, the Herald staff enjoyed a unique advantage. They’d heard bits and pieces of the actual conversation that reached Miami from Cuban radio. So they took liberties. For example, the last line above became the much more likely “Este no nos va a joder mas.” Which means, “This one’s not going to fuck with us anymore.”

And the unlikely “We gave him (balls)” simply disappeared. Would even the most rabid commie jet jockey deny that the Cessna pilots must have had plenty of cojones to begin with?

The Nuevo Herald’s Spanish transcript was then picked up by the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation and made available on the Internet–both in Spanish and in a new English version that the CANF created by translating the Herald’s Spanish! “This one won’t mess around any more” returned to English as “This one’s not going to screw with us anymore.”

Whatever the transcript from the U.S. mission’s worth, the Sun-Times, which under new editor Nigel Wade is displaying an engaging respect for hard news, found more room for it in its pages than the Tribune did even on Chicago Online. The Sun-Times included this exchange between Havana and the pilot of the only Cessna that would make it back to Miami.

Jose Basulto: “For your information, the area of our operations [is] to the north of Havana today. So we will be in your area in contact with you. Give him cordial greetings from Brothers to the Rescue, from its president, Jose Basulto, who is talking.”

Air traffic control in Havana: “Sir, be informed that the zone north of Havana is activated [garble] you, danger behind 24 north parallel.”

Basulto: “We are aware that we are in danger each time we cross the area to the south of the 24th, but we are willing to do it as free Cubans.”

A profile of Basulto carried in last Sunday’s Tribune makes it easy to imagine how Havana might react to word that he’s overhead. An intelligence officer during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Basulto later shelled a crowded Havana hotel from the city’s harbor and, according to a former FBI agent, went on to advise Argentine officers training Nicaraguan contras in torture techniques.

The 24th parallel is about 60 miles north of the Cuban coast, but the Cessnas flew much closer than that. According to a transcription of Basulto’s own tape that was published in the Miami Herald, he was soon saying to Havana, “Cordial greeting. We report 12 miles north of Havana continuing our course of search and rescue eastward at this moment. A beautiful day and Havana looks very good from where we are. A cordial greeting to you, to all the people of Cuba, on behalf of Brothers to the Rescue.”

Twelve miles off the coast is Cuba’s territorial limit.

“Havana received,” was the response from the ground.

A few minutes later Basulto noticed the two MiGs. A portion of the U.S. mission’s transcript that neither Chicago paper touched conveys one pilot’s ecstasy when the second Cessna went down.

MiG-29 to ground control: “We are now going to destroy it.”

Ground control: “Do you have it in sight?”

MiG-29: “We have it. We have it. We’re working. Let us work.”

Ground control: “What’s going on?”

MiG-29: “Keep calm. Keep calm.”

Ground control: “Tell us.”

MiG-29: “The other is destroyed. The other is destroyed, Fatherland or death. Shit. The other is down also. [Shouts].”

When he wasn’t insulting Mexico and Mexicans last week Mike Royko found time to insult Cuba as “a puny island with a tired government and a feeble economy that isn’t a threat to us or anyone else” and exiled Cubans like Basulto as “crazies” nostalgic for the days when “you, or your elders, prospered as part of the wealthy class that supported Fulgencio Batista the tinhorn dictator who ran the country.”

Says George de Lama, a Cuban-American, “I thought that was well within the bounds of political commentary without disparaging Cubans per se.”

So for the week Royko broke even.

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