Put hardened reporters in front of an audience of doting civilians, and they’ll shrug and say the thing about journalism is that what they write today lines tomorrow’s birdcage. Put the same bunch in front of a judge, and they’ll argue that their output is going to live forever on their papers’ Web sites so they ought to be paid extra for it.
Journalism legend Ben Hecht rhapsodized, “We know each other’s daydreams and the hopes that turn to grief, for we write each other’s obits. And they’re god-almighty brief.” But go ask an actuary what he or she’s leaving behind in the way of a life’s work for the kids to study and admire. Ask a bonds salesman.
Rudolph Unger was a journeyman reporter and rewrite man at the Chicago Tribune who didn’t buy into the myth of his trade’s evanescence. In fact, he’s just self-published a 500-page memoir. Writing it took him six months. He got out his clips, looked them over, and jotted down whatever he remembered about each story. He quotes his own old news copy at great length.
Unger, who retired in 1992 after 36 years at the Tribune, had a typical newspaper career: the job was one darned thing after another, but it went nowhere in particular and he felt underappreciated for most of it. His book is by no means vengeful; nevertheless, it allows him to nurse old hurts and set things straight. For example, he recalls that on June 24, 1977, the managing editor of the Tribune, Bill Jones, posted a memo praising five stories in that day’s paper but naming the authors of only four of them. Unger writes: “In the fifth one there was no reference to the author. He simply stated: ‘Our report on the Sanitary District and its contract award was excellent….’ Who was the author? Some unknown reporter who had been around Tribune Tower for 21 years. His name was Rudy Unger.”
Unger’s asking $25 a copy for his memoir. He’s surprised and disappointed that more people don’t want to buy it.
What’s impressive about One Man’s Journey: Faith–Family–Freedom, beyond its quotidian vastness, is its unabashed display of the author’s passions and idiosyncrasies. Journalists are famous–at least among other journalists–for their foibles, and Unger easily holds his own. He is, to begin with, the first Tribune person I’ve ever run into who deeply mourns the Colonel McCormick era. Mere businessmen run the Tribune today, he explains, and what McCormick understood that those profitmongers don’t “is the idea that a newspaper had to stand for certain principles, whether they were popular or not.” Unger grew up in Chicago devoted to the Tribune’s. He says, “Its philosophy was strong for the United States against anybody and against an overpowerful government in Washington, which is why McCormick did battle with FDR all those years.” Under McCormick, “the Tribune was as immune as any civil institution can be to pressure and critiques from outside.”
The Tribune from which he retired was but “a hollow echo,” and because it’s merely a “human institution,” Unger suspects its decay is irreversible. He’s more concerned about the Catholic Church, which must ultimately prevail but whose half century of mismanagement has, in “a broad, philosophical, overall” sense, resembled the Tribune’s.
“I think the morality of culture in the United States has deteriorated terribly over the last 50 or so years,” Unger says. “The parallel–it’s not exactly parallel–is that the church since Vatican II has desired much more to be outgoing. It wants to be more popular with the secular world and with the other, non-Catholic religious world. It doesn’t water down its principles, but it waters down the way it approaches other people. The Tribune thinks, as the church leadership thinks, that if it’s more moderate in the middle it’ll attract more people from outside. And that’s not true. Whether you’re a publisher or editor of a newspaper or a bishop or cardinal or pope, if you think your primary reason is to participate in a popularity contest you don’t know what your job is. You don’t know why you’re there.”
Unger doesn’t merely reminisce about archconservatism. He embodies it. In One Man’s Journey, every liberal is a “pseudo-liberal.” The ACLU is forever “the mis-named American Civil Liberties Union.” Because Father Theodore Hesburgh had his way at Unger’s alma mater, “today, 30 years later, half of Notre Dame’s roughly 9,000 enrollment is women, meaning each year more than 4,000 eligible young men, potential leaders, are denied the opportunity to matriculate at the university.”
Unger didn’t sit idly by as the church went astray. He writes, “For some 30 years I have sought, unfortunately greatly in vain, to counter the corrosive influences sapping the faith of so many Catholics.” In 1970 he began publishing “Counter-Reformation,” a monthly newsletter written “to counter the devastating damage done to The Church and her children.” A year later he added a second, more secular newsletter, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He continued these newsletters into 1977.
In the spirit of the paper that employed him, Unger wasn’t content merely to report the news. He wanted to make news happen. “Sure, a journalist is supposed to publish things,” he says. “And he’s also supposed to influence the public for the good.” Like Colonel McCormick, he never doubted what the good was. In addition to his pamphleteering, he wrote letters to the Tribune under false names. “It seemed to me,” he explains, “that I would not get a venue if I put them under my own name.” He wrote letters to public officials he was covering telling them what he thought they should be doing. “Government has the ability to accomplish things,” he says, “so you try to place the idea in their heads.”
Today a beat reporter with an agenda can ask permission to write an opinion piece. In his day, Unger had no choice but to work behind the scenes. “I wasn’t a columnist,” he says. “I didn’t carry that clout at the Tribune.”
Unger self-published a couple of other books, one of them a Tribune oral history made up of interviews with retired reporters, the other a history of Fuller Park, the neighborhood he and his wife, Theresa, grew up in. That was a pretty popular book around Fuller Park, selling about 800 copies, and it might have given Unger an unrealistic idea of how his memoir might do.
“I sent out flyers to newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, reviewing agencies, universities, high schools, whatever,” he says. “I published it in July.”
“The Southtown did a story,” says Unger, who lives in Tinley Park a block from the Daily Southtown offices.
Unger printed 300 copies and has moved 210 of them. “It hasn’t sold nearly as well as I’d hoped,” he says. “The interesting thing is that the people who responded are people who know me only fairly well. People who know me really well–from high school, college, the Tribune, my competitors–for the most part have ignored me. It’s a built-in defense mechanism. They say, ‘Who the hell is this guy? What the hell did he ever do that I didn’t do?'”
I suggest that Unger’s friends might think they already know the story of his life.
“They don’t really know the story unless they read it,” he replies. “It’s only $25. It won’t break any of them. I don’t know any poor old retired reporters.”
In its way, One Man’s Journey is an amazing document. It’s a relentless, uninflected procession of names, dates, and circumstances. Other retired reporters might think, “Been there, done that,” but the book would be a godsend to any researcher caring to sample the daily grind of journalism in Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century.
“I sent out my flyers,” Unger continues, “to the Chicago Historical Society, to the Newberry, the Chicago Public Library, to the University of Chicago library, and to various other schools.”
Did anyone respond?
What about the Tribune?
“I sent a flyer to several people at the Tribune. There was no response. That’s the norm. You don’t even get a card, a one-sentence response saying, ‘We’re not interested in what you’re offering us.’ And some of these people I know personally.”
Did you follow up with phone calls?
“That’s not the way I am,” says Unger. “My philosophy is, I show you my product, and if my product isn’t good enough I can’t do anything else. There’s no guarantee you’re supposed to succeed. Your obligation in life is to try.”
Thanks but No Thanks
Last year Bernie Lincicome quit after 16 years as a columnist and last month Skip Bayless quit after 3. They had issues with management. This week Michael Holley resigned after two months. He was homesick.
As a young, black front-page sports columnist, Holley was an important addition to the Tribune. He’d already been writing a column for the Boston Globe, but he was fourth in the pecking order there, and the Tribune came along and offered him more money, more travel, more circulaton, and more prestige. He said yes to the Tribune on September 5, and a week later he wanted nothing to do with it. “My sister lives in Boston. My brother lives in Boston. I have four beautiful nieces and nephews there,” he says. After September 11, “I just wanted to be with them.”
He did what he thought he was supposed to do and came to Chicago anyway.
He’s sure that if the Tribune had offered him the job after September 11 he’d never have taken it. If there’d never been a September 11, he thinks he would have wound up back in Boston anyway, though not with such ridiculous speed. “The only hesitation is the personal embarrassment of turning it around after eight weeks, and the embarrassment to the paper.
“They’d had so much turnover, and it’s not going to look good for them. It’s embarrassing as hell. In Boston I’m sure my friends will be all over me.”
Boston, of couse, being the place where his friends are.
“Part of writing is being comfortable with loneliness, and I am,” says Holley. “Being here and not knowing anybody was cool. Seeing somebody new around every corner was cool. And the night life was definitely cool.”
Nothing was so cool that it stopped him from wishing he was home. “Without disrespecting anybody, it was a mistake for me to take the job. If I’d just followed my heart to begin with, I’d have said it’s a great job but no thanks.” The Tribune bent over backward to be helpful. “They tried to work with me. They were going to give me time to go home, a lot of time at Christmas. But it wasn’t right. I’d made the wrong decision.
“A couple of people said, ‘How do you know after eight weeks?’ I said, ‘How do you know you’re in love?’ Columnists are paid for their opinions and their judgment, right? So I think I can trust my judgment on this. My judgment hasn’t really changed. My initial judgment was, you need to be in Boston.”
Holley’s old spot at the Globe hasn’t been filled and he’s been talking to sports editor Don Skwar about returning to it. Though Skwar didn’t want to say anything definite to me, Holley seems to have no doubt that he’s on his way back to his old paper.
The vote was 86 members in favor of taking these terms, 72 for bargaining on. “No one’s happy with it,” said a guild spokesman, “but the majority felt that in these economic times we had little choice but to approve it.”
Tribune, December 7: “The nation’s unemployment rate took another big leap upward in November to 5.7 percent, the highest level in six years, as 331,000 more Americans lost their jobs, the government reported today” (Associated Press).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.