In Defense of the Sun-Times | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

In Defense of the Sun-Times 

Reader's Year in Review 1984: The Press

I grant you, it is easy to laugh at Rupert Murdoch's Sun-Times. Before I defend it, I will laugh at it too, and then I will defend it without much enthusiasm.

There are the lives it has found worthy of chronicling, the lives (do you mind a list?) of Audrey Hepburn, Janet Leigh, Connie Francis, Rosalynn Carter, Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Princess Grace, and, of course, the Kennedys. This list is not complete.

There is the literature it has chosen to reprint; installments of such important books as: How to Marry a Good Man, and Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality, and The Superwoman Syndrome, Women Coming of Age, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (about child stars in Hollywood), and just this week, Invasion of Privacy: Notes From a Celebrity Journalist.

There are the headlines: the historic "Rabbi Hit in 'Sex-Slavery' Suit," of course, and others that are more typical for being incomprehensible, such a "THE BIG ONE" (the indictment of Judge LeFevor) and "WHAM! WHACK!" (the city budget).

And the editorials:

On the second presidential debate: "Reagan was poised, eloquent, philosophical, with an unmistakable presidential presence. Mondale was repetitive, whiny, with a forced grin, almost a study in comic relief."

Here is a better example: "In the 1960s, James L. Bevel was national prominent as a strategist for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. …  He now espouses the social programs of Ronal Reagan. However worthy his change of philosophy … " From the moral cesspool of racial justice and equal opportunity Bevel has clawed his way to the aerie of every man for himself.

Abundant evidence supports the judgment that the Sun-Times of Rupert Murdoch has been a fiasco. After a year with no editor, Murdoch, an Australian, is finally bringing in Frank Devine, a New Zealander; Wingo is a garish failure; and Crain's Chicago Business reports, on the questionable basis of a telephone survey, that the Bright One has suffered "an apparent loss of well-educated, affluent readers" of major proportions.

And yet the paper is not nearly as bad as all this.

The fascinating tension within the old Sun-Times, the one Jim Hoge put out as first editor and then publisher, was between the paper's moderate, blue-collar roots and the intellectual aspirations of Hoge and so many of the people he hired for his staff. Now the tension is between the same roots and Rupert Murdoch's lack of any shame.

But we mustn't overstate the heights the Sun-Times has fallen from. The Chicago press has always one most of its grazing halfway up the slope. Murdoch and Page's Sun-Times fawned no more over Ronald Reagan than Hoge's fawned over Richie Daley, when endorsing him for mayor in 1983. Murdoch's proctoscular embrace of Ronald Reagan was almost comical. But it was the Tribune that said Mondale "still acts like a wimp," the Tribune—which aspires to intellectual seriousness—that on the other hand accused Reagan of "threatening to bankrupt America," of being "a danger to world peace," of compiling a "sorry record of insensitivity to 1st Amendment concerns," and on balance preferred Reagan. The Tribune endorsement left the kind of bad taste that doesn't go away with a Cert.

Under Hoge, the Sun-Times was a paper without tradition. The paper was what it printed; it made itself up as it went along. But like the existential cowpokes Clint Eastwood got rich playing, it made itself steel. And now and then—running the Mirage or slamming Cardinal Cody—it shoved all its chips into the pot. Today, I get the feeling Murdoch's Sun-Times is willing to be whatever plays; at the core, where steel ought to be, it isn't serious. When the new Sun-Times runs a page-one editorial demanding a settlement of the teachers' strike, it's showboating. Who's speaking? The owner?—Murdoch's in New York. Robert Page, the irascible publisher? Kup? Ann Landers? Wingo?

But despite the meretricious odor, and even though Murdoch's purchase of it decimated the staff, the Sun-Times still connects with the city. "We've got the franchise on local news," Jim Squires, the Tribune editor, is quoted as telling Crain's, and he's deluding himself. The Sun-Times remains the looser, more street-smart of the two papers, the one that feels indigenous to the city. There is still plenty of craft and honor in the ranks. And the paper has sass—if Chicago were as bourgeois as the Tribune it would be Geneva. It was the Sun-Times that came out with an extra edition when Andropov died, the first this city had seen in decades. It was the Sun-Times that knew what to do when the Cubs got into the play-offs. The Tribune Company may own the Cubs but the Sun-Times ran off with them. Those wrap-around special sections displayed historic effrontery.

What I miss most from Hoge's Sun-Times is its gumption, its probes, which—large or small—seemed to roll off the presses about one a week. The Tribune doesn't do them anymore̬a loss of will?—and for a long time Murdoch's Sun-Times wasn't doing them either. I figured the new Sun-Times preferred diddling public officials to pose for Wingo cards and kick off Jimmy funds to the expensive and risky toil of shaking their trees. But then I'd be assured the detective work was coming, once the elections were over and the staff replenished, and now we've seen the Sun-Times looking into the CTA (an easy target) and Triton College (one that's worthy but untraumatic.)

So we'll see. Its attitude toward investigative journalism will tell us better than anything else what kind of paper Robert Page is running.

I miss Garry Wills in the Sun-Times, but Alan Dershowitz is a good read and I don't mind Pat Buchanan. That is, I mind him, he pisses me off, but that's sort of the point isn't it? I'll tell you something else I miss from the Sun-Times and the Tribune both and from Chicago journalism. It's the kind of writing Tom Fitzpatrick used to do in the early 70s when he was a columnist at the Sun-Times.

Fitz covered things. Mike Royko doesn't, Roger Simon sometimes did, Bob Greene doesn't. But Fitz would come in and look at the city desk log and take the story that interested him most and go out and do it—his way. When Ben Wilson was shot it occurred to me that no one does what Fitz did any longer.

Fitz would have gone down to Simeon High School—or maybe to the game the basketball team had to play in Rockford the next night— and (if he was on) written a story that didn't waste a world. There was the usual competent journalism about Ben Wilson, but from no one the kind of limpid witness Fitz used to turn in.

Fitz, Roger Simon, Bob Greene, Mike Royko … all have in their ways and times carried on the tradition of Ben Hecht's milestone column "1001 Afternoons in Chicago," for which, to quote a biographer, "Hecht would immerse himself totally in the city, prowling the streets, haunting the speaks and riding the owl cars."

And some energetic young reporters do that still. And nice work turns up, such as, the other day, Barbara Brotman made more of a Salvation Army bell ringer than you'd guess was there to be made. But on any given morning after, there's no one we turn to, the way we once turned to Fitz, counting on him to be our eyes and ears. The Sun-Times has turned its back so violently on Hoge's star system it might be a study in self-mutilation. Its columnist have no pictures and the front part of the paper has no columnists. But it remains the one paper on comfortable speaking terms with the city, and it ought to feature a writer such as Fitz used to be as the emblem of the attention it still pays.

There are more newspaper boxes than ever before on Chicago's corner—the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Crain's Chicago Business, and now the Moonies' Washington Times—but where's Chicago? The city is vanishing inside the Tribune as merely that paper's largest bureau, the one new kids cut their teeth on before being sent out into the world that is the Tribune's true concern. The Tribune is fat, gray, frequently splendid, and without conspicuous courage. Royko is an anomaly there, and do not expect the next Royko to be rising in its ranks.

The Tribune is back in an imperialistic mode, opening new bureaus hither and yon, including some (such as in Nairobi) that it had closed just a few years ago. It hungers to be thought great. But look once, and count the columnists who used to write for the Sun-Times: Royko, Simon, Greene, Granger. Why can't it grow on its own? Look twice, and you discover you are rereading an article you saw a week ago in the New York Times. The Tribune doesn't quite stand on its own two feet.

Jim Squires and Robert Page are alike in that each has a way of sounding bad. I saw John Callaway interview Page on Channel 11 and Page got pretty pugnacious defending the Murdoch record. When Callaway asked Page to defend the Sun-Times against the loss of so many stars (Royko, Simon, John Schulian), Page gave a rendition of Roger Simon's departure that was ridiculous. According to Page, Simon was interested in staying, but the Sun-Times didn't want to keep him. Apparently Simon has talent but he's inconsistent. Yet Simon had said privately all along that he intended to leave when his contract was up in October.

But as Page said good riddance, the Tribune began ballyhooing its new twice-weekly columnist, Roger Simon. The Tribune had picked the column up from Simon's syndicate. This reportedly infuriated Page, who had wanted it for himself.

The Crain's piece has Squires gloating at his coup. "'I think it's a pretty good investment for about $75 a week … if it pulls in some of Roger's fans,' chuckles Mr. Squires. 'But I don't think I would have hired Roger.'"

Both solons would gladly run Simon's column, yet he isn't good enough to work for either paper. Anyway, Simon's in Baltimore now and they both sound like nincompoops.

But because Squire's Tribune is so fat, profitable, and self-satisfied, it's Page I wish well. The Sun-Times is not the obscenity I half-expected it to be, and when people tell me that of course they never read the Sun-Times anymore, I get annoyed. It's only a newspaper and it's only a quarter and believe me, the day the Tribune is the only paper left in Chicago something healthy about this city will die.

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