Ten Years of Raking Muck

“The common perception of Rob Warden,” someone who used to work for him was saying, “is that he’s abrasive, he’s arrogant, he flies off the handle, he’s unfair, he engages in yellow journalism.”

Yes, that perception is out there.

“The fact of the matter is,” Mark Rust went on, “no matter what his personality traits are that you find objectionable, his stories do not reflect that reputation. When he skewers someone with a story, they may feel hurt, they may feel the tack he takes is unfair. But no one can dispute those facts are facts.”

For the last ten years, Rob Warden has been editing Chicago Lawyer, a muckraking monthly tabloid brimming with aggression. Tireless young journalists fresh from college parade through Warden’s office, lured by his promise of poverty and incredible experience. A year or two later, the promise kept, they gladly move on, taking with them tales of Warden’s mania. The legend mounts.

Rust, who moved to Chicago Lawyer from Notre Dame in January 1982 and stayed 15 months, remembers Warden reacting to some typos by picking up one of the paper’s two $800 Selectric typewriters and throwing it at a wall. He remembers working 48 or 72 hours straight each month because of Warden’s “irrational quality” of tearing up the paper at the last minute.

But yellow journalism? Oh no. Arrogant? Not really. “I understand why people say that,” said Rust. “When he comes to a conclusion, he knows the particular facts and the way he’s arranged the particular facts amount to the sum total of the truth. He’s very sure of himself. But you only see that sort of attitude when it’s something he’s thoroughly looked into. He doesn’t go off half-cocked.”

Calling on Warden, we find him proud of his restraint. “Here’s an example,” he tells us, holding up a 1987 front page whose headline reads “Daley assistants called overzealous, counterproductive.” Warden laughs. “Prosecutorial misconduct! The Daley scandal!” That’s what it could have said.

“Prosecutors have no accountability,” he explains. “They can’t be sued. They have absolute immunity for the decisions they make as prosecutors. A prosecutor can indict or not indict anyone he wants to, but he’s effectively accountable to no one.”

And prosecutors cheat, Warden believes. “They convince themselves they’re right. They fudge things to move them along.” They enrich evidence–“the phenomenon I call framing the guilty.” And sometimes someone’s not guilty.

“Gary Dotson is a convicted rapist,” says Warden, citing a renowned felon whom Chicago Lawyer has championed. “He doesn’t have access to the media. He doesn’t have the access to the public that the prosecutors have.”

And he’s a mope. But after Cathy Webb recanted, Warden immersed himself in the mysteries of semen and DNA, rounded up new experts, debunked old ones, and in a series of articles pretty well shredded the case that Dotson had raped Webb.

“I think it’s a fair statement that Dotson would be nowhere without Chicago Lawyer,” Warden says. “The evidence is overwhelming that Gary Dotson is innocent.”

Warden’s reputation for arrogance turns on this capacity to review the record, find that judges, jurors, and attorneys were at best misguided, more likely incompetent or even corrupt, and report that truth and justice are not what the judicial process (or a posturing governor) settled on but what Rob Warden, having assembled his own evidence, now concludes. Without that arrogance he’d be useless at the job, so more power to him. Of course, he’s yet to gore our ox.

“Frankly, Rob’s extreme viewpoints on issues have been evident in the paper for a long time,” Matthew Piers, deputy corporation counsel of the city of Chicago, was telling us. “It never bothered me that Rob took a real advocacy stance in his journalism. Until I got on the receiving end I never understood there was something dishonest about what was going on.”

Piers was complaining about the cover story in the September issue: “Just What Is Jud Miner Doing?” It quotes various public-interest attorneys who argue that Chicago’s corporation counsel (no relation, but a terrific landlord of our wife’s store) has dashed hopes “of a city law department that would defend–not attack–civil rights.” Frankly, Warden’s run stronger articles; “it was not a story I’d put at the top of my list,” says John Schmidt, the Lawyer’s big bankroller these last ten years.

“I think it was a mean-spirited and dishonest hatchet job,” said Piers. He laid it to the “horrible, twisted expectation” on the part of the public-interest lawyers “that we’ll start taking dives on civil rights cases” and also to the “personal vendetta Rob has against Jud.” (Miner didn’t want to talk about Warden.)

Antipathy between Warden and Miner goes back at least as far as an April ’87 article on George Jones, a policeman’s son accused of murder who eventually sued the city for false-arrest and malicious prosecution and was awarded $800,000. Miner’s office defended the city, taking “an absolutely awful position” according to Warden. After Warden’s story ran, Miner complained that he was misquoted. Warden says Miner knows that’s ridiculous. He says Miner is hotheaded.

Maybe you both are, we offer.

Warden thinks about that. “There’s a difference between being a hotheaded journalist and a hotheaded lawyer,” he says carefully. “I can write words. That’s all I can do.” He recalls federal judge Marvin Aspen asking him how editorial decisions got made at Chicago Lawyer. I just make them, Warden said. And Aspen exclaimed, “That is an incredible amount of power!”

“I almost fell off my seat,” says Warden. “This is a federal judge with the power to stop strikes, power over people’s freedom. Genuine power. And the only power I have is the power to criticize judges.”

In 1978, the Chicago Daily News shut down, and reporter Rob Warden found himself out of a job. Lois Weisberg, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, and John Schmidt, the council’s past president, asked him to make something of the council’s newsletter. Warden cast the die immediately. John S. Boyle, chief judge of the circuit court, was up for retention. Warden’s otherwise innocuous first issue ran an editorial “Why Boyle Must Go.” (Boyle went.) The next issue exposed assignment fixing in the Illinois appellate court. A judge was forced to resign.

“I find it, as a citizen, invaluable,” says Tom Geoghegan, a member of the paper’s long-moribund, recently disbanded “editorial board.” “It’s hard to imagine it in any other town in the country. It sits here because . . . our certain kind of grand, machine-dominated, opaque judicial culture has to be brought into the light.”

The Council of Lawyers ran the paper for the first couple of years, and then a limited partnership was formed to take it over. Schmidt dominated the partnership because he kept reaching for his own wallet. We hear “he sank some $600,000 into the Lawyer before the partnership finally sold the Lawyer last month to a corporation created by Warden for a nominal $1,000. Warden thinks he can actually turn a profit.

As it happens, Jud Miner, a founder of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, was another of the partners who owned the newspaper. In January, Warden and Jim Tuohy are bringing out a book, Greylord: Justice Chicago Style, their saga of the ongoing federal investigation (which was helped along immensely by a 1981 Chicago Lawyer piece by Tuohy). The authors acknowledge the Lawyer’s “early financial and moral supporters,” among them Judson H. Miner.

“He and I have been friends for 20 years. We may someday be again,” says Warden. “But right now–” and he holds up the issue with the big page-one headline “Just What Is Jud Miner Doing?”

And he laughs.

Plodding Toward Peace

Art Dahl assigned himself one tough job. A Chicago schoolteacher handed a copy of The Fate of the Earth at a peace rally in 1982, Dahl read Jonathan Schell’s meditation on nuclear arms in three nights, and set out across the country to find, interview, and photograph peace workers.

His trek produced an impressive act of witness. But is it art?

We asked Dahl about that. The 60-photo exhibit, “Making Peace,” has just opened at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

“This is interesting,” said Dahl. “The show was in Boston before, and the reviewer for the Globe said he liked the exhibit and everything but he wished there was a little more edge. And maybe at some point in my life I’ll do pictures in the genre of Diane Arbus but I hope I don’t end up that way.”

Oddly, our first thought had been of Arbus when we looked at Dahl’s homey pictures. What a leg up a photographer has who revels in geeks! Dahl’s subjects have a serenity about them that doesn’t, at first glance, hook the viewer.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Dahl mused, “that the president of the country was saying these were kooks and freaks–if not in those words–and certainly misguided.”

He said, “They’re common people, just like you or me. There may be one exception, Jim Douglas, the guy out in Puget Sound, he’s written a number of books. But he’s not a household word. He’s plugging away. He’s there at the Trident sub base every Thursday. Every Thursday for the last 10 or 11 years handing out leaflets. That’s another thing I found out. These people are in it for the long haul.”

Dahl knew these remarks hadn’t settled the art question, and ten minutes after we hung up, he called back. He felt he’d just put his finger on the key to his exhibit. “If you go through these photographs–they have nothing to hide,” Dahl said. “There’s a real openness in the activities all these individuals are doing, and I guess in a way that speaks well for our country that we can do that.

“I’m not much of a TV viewer, but last night I saw something–they were analyzing the different political commercials, and they played this one that was created by the same guy [Roger Ailes] who did the Nixon stuff. It showed these convicts in a revolving door–it looked like a Humphrey Bogart movie–and I thought, what are they shooting here? They’re shooting fear. And I ask myself this all the time–what are we so afraid of? I think people are buying into this. I think there’s a concerted effort to sell fear in this country.

“So I think it really shows that these people in my pictures are not afraid.”

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