She Loves It When They Act Dirty

Corruption is delicious and journalists in Chicago have been gorging themselves on it for generations. But there is always a new way to slice the shank, and in October of 1987 the Tribune served up what it would describe as something new: a City Council expose in the form of “a systematic investigation of the institution as a whole.”

“The Chicago City Council, the largest and most expensive in the country, is a corrupted and inefficient body that habitually puts aldermen’s personal concerns before the public good.” That’s how the five-part series began. It was journalism at its finest. The next spring reporters Dean Baquet, Ann Marie Lipinski, and William Gaines received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

The Tribune did not limit its series to corrupt conduct. It delved into the culture of the problem–the fatalism and indifference that permit corruption to thrive. This excursion permitted the Tribune some sallies at the expense of the media.

“In Chicago, a legendary haven for municipal corruption, even some segments of the press yawn at the newest scandal,” said the series. “Last week, following disclosures that aldermen have routinely diverted city money to themselves and their friends and often vote on measures that affect their business clients, one radio talk show host asked: ‘So is this news?’. . .

“And in the City Hall press room . . . a radio station recorded that the typical response was: We knew this all along, even though we’ve reported little about it.”

In its superbly thorough way, the Tribune then sought an expert explanation for this cynical behavior. It turned to an instructor of business ethics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Vivian Weil, who “said this sneering attitude may be the biggest stumbling block to reform in Chicago.” The Tribune quoted her as observing: “One of the things that is important to remember is that there is a long-entrenched way of doing things in the city. It’s very hard to get out from under such revered practices.”

We called Vivian Weil the other day and asked her to elaborate. “People think that they’ve got to be cynical in Chicago,” Weil reflected, “and so even when something that really is a step forward occurs, people are hesitant to describe it that way.”

We think we’ve found an example of this. Last February, two City Council committees–the Finance Committee and the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics–jointly approved a measure requiring aldermen to report how they spend the $23,000 or so they’re given each year for travel and expenses. This reform was for three years running a project of Alderman David Orr, who, according to the Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning series, had “won nothing but derision from his colleagues . . .”

But on February 14 the stars were in a rare alignment: candidates in an unexpected mayoral race were touting reform; citizens’ groups were threatening to sue aldermen over nondisclosure; Corporation Counsel Judson Miner had given an opinion that aldermen who used expense money for personal reasons were breaking the law; and referenda in four wards the previous fall had made it clear what the voters thought.

The morning of the day the committees met, the Tribune editorial page spoke. Predicting approval, the Tribune advised: “When aldermen become good-government converts, it’s wise to look at motives. . . . Some aldermen who normally wince at the mere mention of reform may be hoping to sidestep a lawsuit. . . . But let’s not be finicky. If the end result is a measure of accountability in the nation’s most irresponsible legislative body, why carry on about motives?”

We in no way condemn the tone of these remarks. The tone does, however, convey a certain insolence, a veneer of disrespect, a . . . well, “sneering attitude.” But you see, journalists like to sneer. Unmitigatedly sneerable misconduct opens our sinuses and clears our pores. The editorialist who gets to write grandly and confidently about “the nation’s most irresponsible legislative body” is envied by peers across the land.

This editorial ended by noting that under the proposed law, aldermen would have to tell how the money was spent, but not on whom. The Tribune asked for more: “Taxpayers also have a right to know who gets the payment,” it said. “If it’s not a trick, guys, let’s see both of your hands.”

Three days later the full council unanimously approved the reform. In its report on the council’s actions of that day, the Tribune gave passage less than one full sentence. The council had gone so far as to show the Tribune both hands–amending the bill to make aldermen identify the recipients of their expense money. But the paper did not mention this achievement at all.

Here are snatches of three 1988 editorials on the subject of City Council reform:

“It’s not true that Chicago government isn’t ready for reform. It’s been ready a long time–ready to take any alleged reform measure and twist it into a new and more intricate way to bilk the public.”

“Until aldermen are required to give an accounting of what they do with the [expense] money, there is no way of knowing if they are breaking the law. City taxpayers can only assume the probable.”

And from an editorial whose headline pleaded, “Don’t muzzle aldermanic stupidity”:

“Some Chicago aldermen are unhappy about a new city council resolution asking them to refrain in committee hearings from insulting witnesses because of gender, religion, race or ethnic background. Their feelings are understandable. Being offensive is as basic to their nature as the wink and the nod.”

These jaunty diatribes show us more of journalism at its finest. Lois Wille wrote them all, and each could be found in the portfolio that this spring earned the Tribune another Pulitzer Prize. Wille’s Pulitzer-winning editorials brandished a certain attitude, succeeding a Pulitzer-winning series that gestured at decrying it. So it goes. The Tribune can dish it out with either hand.

We asked Wille about the affection of muckrakers for their muck.

“You mean, would I want to write editorials in Minneapolis?” Wille replied. “I would retire first.”

She told us, “I do sincerely want things to get better . . . but in the meantime there’s plenty of muck I can have fun with.”

And she said, “I would not buy the idea you should treat aldermen like tiny babies and puppies. Editorials shouldn’t be like behavior reinforcement–give them a pat on the head and they’ll continue to be good.”

David Orr considers the Tribune an invaluable ally in his long march to reform the City Council. But he has a problem with it. He discerns a fundamental difference between the press, on the one hand, and himself and his community-group allies, on the other.

“It’s the difference between moderate-minded people who hate corruption, and progressives. They never get to why things get passed,” Orr told us. When the council is finagled into doing the right thing despite itself, he wishes this political coup were reported as civic progress, rather than as just another sort of shenanigan.

“It’s such a cynical tone,” said Orr, “it’s awfully hard to build a base.”

Journalists may indeed hate corruption, but they get to earn their fame and daily bread by reveling in their hatred. Poor David Orr, who works among the rascals and can’t accomplish much of anything without them, does not.

Although the Tribune gave just a fraction of a sentence to the City Council’s action last February approving disclosure, the paper’s coverage of the crucial vote by the two committees earlier in the week was more thorough. The account contained this intriguing passage [the italics are supplied by us]:

“Ald. David Orr (49th), one of the chief supporters of council reform, congratulated his colleagues for their action Tuesday but not before taking a parting shot at aldermen who ridiculed him in the past for his role in passing the city’s first ethics code and other reform measures.

“‘I tried to tell my cynical friends in the press that aldermen will do things they don’t want to do when the pressure is hot enough and when there is a competitive mayoral election,’ Orr said.”

The Tribune heard what it wanted to hear. This parting shot was not at other aldermen.

Two weeks ago, the City Council voted unanimously to slash $1.1 million from the boodle-ridden budgets of the council’s multitudinous committees. We’re waiting for the Tribune to deliver a few words on this patent act of sanctimonious duplicity. So far, not a peep. Apparently, if you can’t say anything choice . . .

What’s New in Newspapering

There’s a lot to concern watchers of the American newspaper industry: stagnant circulation, stagnant advertising, the challenge of trash news, cultural illiteracy, the expansion of the big chains. The worry is that publishers will stoop to conquer, or at least to hold their own.

The uneasy currents have swept into view a new trade magazine, News Inc. When we fretted to its editor, Gary Hoenig, he answered with a useful dash of historical perspective.

“We have a tendency to think of newspapers as a superior form of communication,” Hoenig told us. “But look at papers in 1955. You’ll find a lot of bad reporting, very little analysis, the assumption that whatever the government says is the truth, very little in-depth reporting. You’ll find just the kind of paper you’re afraid of today, a paper that panders to its readers or to the families that own those newspapers.”

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