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Is This Column Politically Correct?

The unthinkable almost happened at the Tribune. A Mike Royko column that some other Tribune writers considered offensive narrowly avoided the spike.

The July 12 column wasn’t the most artfully constructed thing Royko’s ever written, as we’d discovered when we tried to read it. Thumbing through the paper that morning, we started the column and couldn’t get a handle on its premise–it had something to do with Sergeant Joe Friday and the LA cops. So we skipped down to the middle of the column. And suddenly we didn’t know where we were.

The stuff there was riveting–but what was it? Had Royko gone off the deep end?

“9:45 a.m. Arrived at home of complainant. Asked her, ‘Ma’am, did you see the perpetrators?’ She said she got a glimpse of two men running through her back yard. Asked her: ‘Be’s ‘dey Naugahyde?’ She said: ‘What?’ I said: ‘You know, be’s ‘dey Negrohide.’ She asked if I meant African-Americans. I asked my partner if African-American meant the same as monkeys. He said he believed so. I said: ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said: ‘No, they did not appear to be African-Americans.’ I said, ‘Too bad, I was in the mood for some monkey-slapping . . .'”

There’s no law against reading something twice if you don’t get it the first time, not even if it’s in a newspaper. So we started over from the top, read very carefully, and saw what Royko was up to. He was supposing how Joe Friday, the straight-arrow LA cop of 50s television, might sound if Friday worked for Police Chief Daryl Gates in the 1990s.

The language of Royko’s column was outrageous, but Royko gave its source: “transcripts of L.A. cops talking to each other on the police radio about their latest adventures and offering their social insights.” These transcripts had been released three days earlier, in conjunction with a commission’s report that a “significant number” of LA cops “repetitively misuse force.”

The night before it appeared, that column became an issue in the Tribune newsroom. Reporters with time on their hands called it up on the “public” queue of their computer terminals to find out what Royko would be saying tomorrow. And distress spread.

How widely it spread we’re not sure. At least three writers–all of them women, two of them black–went to Carl Sotir, the editor laying out the paper, and beefed. The three were Karen Thomas, the education writer; A. Dahleen Glanton, an assistant city editor who writes a weekly “About the Town” column; and Jean Latz Griffin, who writes extensively on gay issues.

They made Sotir feel uncomfortable enough to pick up the phone. On another night Sotir might have spoken to editor Jack Fuller or managing editor Richard Ciccone. But Fuller was on vacation, and Ciccone was at Ravinia. So Sotir wound up with deputy managing editor Howard Tyner. Sotir read him some of Royko’s column.

Hold it out, said Tyner.

Tyner called Royko and gave him the bad news. Have you read the column? asked Royko, who must have been as astonished as he was furious, and Tyner was obliged to admit that he hadn’t. Royko called Ciccone, who had just gotten home.

“They’re killing my column and goddamnit all the offensive language is from the transcripts of the LAPD,” Ciccone told us Royko yelled at him. “They’ve killed my column. It’s not in the paper. I’m not going to write for this paper anymore!”

Ciccone hadn’t read the column either. But as he told us, he decided, “I’ve got to trust that Mike Royko, as he has for 25 years, was using satire.” He told Royko, “Let me call downtown.” Ciccone resurrected the Royko column just in time for it to make the first edition.

Royko (and Tyner and Sotir) wouldn’t discuss the matter with us. But he told the Washington Post, “What disturbs me about it is it was an attempt at censorship by newspaper people.” He said Tyner was “stampeded” by “some younger reporters.” Ciccone told the Post, “My own philosophy is, we don’t censor columnists.”

And as a practical matter, when the columnist is Mike Royko you don’t drive him back to the Sun-Times either.

All this didn’t happen just because grousing journeymen missed Royko’s satire. Royko wasn’t actually using satire. The language of the LA cops was raw and ugly, and Royko did no more than jury-rig a way to lay it on his readers. The same material would have been clearer and even more powerful offered absolutely straight. But though the New York Times and the Washington Post (as well as the Los Angeles Times, of course) ran portions of the transcripts, the Tribune hadn’t. So Royko wasn’t merely commenting on the news; he also had to provide it–and doing this double duty often makes for ungainly journalism.

Jean Latz Griffin–describing herself as a “middle-aged white reporter”–told us it was the ungainliness that bothered her. “I think it’s important to put in the paper what the LA cops were saying to each other,” she said. “I would defend that totally. But many people here in reading the column couldn’t tell for sure whether these were direct quotes or whether it was made up, and thinking it might have been made up were very upset and very offended. . . . I could see what Royko was trying to do, and I think it was a good thing to try to do, but I don’t think he pulled it off. I didn’t have a specific action I wanted taken, but I went back to Sotir and said, ‘I’m offended by this. I don’t think it works in this form.'”

Glanton told us that she thought the column would be misunderstood, and she said so. “What I did is I went in and talked to an editor. I think I was following rules. Once I made my concerns known to the editors, then it was up to them. And I want to stress too that there was no organized effort to go in and have this column censored.” After the column ran she told Ciccone she still didn’t think it worked.

At Royko’s insistence, his column from now on will be filed in a queue that reporters can’t read. “Younger reporters” will have to read him in the paper before they grumble. Meanwhile, some older reporters are deploring the episode as evidence that Tribune office culture has gone a little haywire. As they like to put it, the thought police very nearly silenced the city’s only untouchable columnist. If anyone else had written that column–anyone–it would have stayed dead. At the Tribune, they say, the humorless doctrines of the politically correct are thriving.

“I think the Tribune has a long way to go before it worries about being politically correct,” said Griffin in response.

If so, the paper is striving to close the gap. Earlier this year the Tribune actually established a task force on diversity, to bring the paper into closer harmony with the community it serves. Diversity in all its forms is being considered, Ciccone told us–racial, ethnic, gender, age . . .

And Howard Tyner is on the task force. Did his quest for enlightenment disorient him? So experienced a journalist must have believed that by yanking Royko’s column he was defending some fundamental Tribune value. “I think Tyner was being sensitive to what he thought might be offensive to a certain segment of our readership,” Ciccone offered. “We’re all so much more sensitive than we once were. Not a bad thing–sensitivity.”

Fer sure. As a conciliator, Tyner acted sensitively and boldly. But a column that belonged in the paper almost got taken out of it.

People v. Habeas Corpus

Stephen Chapman wrote a column in last Sunday’s Tribune that we appreciate too much to stay quiet about. The subject was a bill passed recently by the Senate and now before the House that would greatly limit habeas corpus, the legal device that allows someone who believes he was unconstitutionally convicted in a state court to ask the federal courts to review the conviction.

“It is most often invoked in capital cases, where the mistake can be the difference between life and death,” Chapman observed. And he explained that most of the convictions that are eventually overturned are attributable to “incompetent or poorly paid lawyers [appointed by state courts] who do a terrible job of defending their clients. . . . If states want federal courts to stop overturning their convictions, they might stop giving them so many excellent reasons to do so.”

Chapman didn’t bring the Supreme Court into his column, but he might have; the court has been striving more assiduously than Congress to limit habeas corpus, the better to hasten the executions of the condemned. We wonder if he wonders where Clarence Thomas stands on that. Much has been written lately about Thomas’s belief in “natural law”–moral principles that transcend even the Constitution. The problem–which Chapman in another column didn’t seem to think was a serious one–is that jurists are as apt to disagree on natural-law principles as they are to disagree on the Constitution itself. Even so, natural law was the only legal argument the abolitionists could mount against slavery, and it’s not surprising to see a dirt-poor southern black boy grow up to honor it. There’s even some spiritual logic at work if that same man rejects rulings that decree the fetus to have no rights that its mother is bound to respect.

But what does Clarence Thomas think of habeas corpus?–something we’d expect an educated black southerner to viscerally appreciate. Thomas has written cryptically on the limits of federal jurisdiction. Does he, like some conservative jurists already on the Supreme Court, feel more deeply the “hurt” done to states whose sovereignty is abridged than the hurt done to the innocent condemned in those states’ courts? If so, then his black critics are right when they call him someone on the run from who he is.