Journalists in Denial, Part One: Self-Interest/Journalists in Denial, Part Two: Self-Preservation | Media | Chicago Reader

Journalists in Denial, Part One: Self-Interest/Journalists in Denial, Part Two: Self-Preservation 

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By Michael Miner

Journalists in Denial, Part One: Self-Interest

Life sets up nicely for famous journalists like David Brinkley with corporate friends like ADM. They've worked a lifetime acquiring an image as someone whose word is gold. Now they can retire and cash it in.

Reporters not eminent enough for testimonials often drift into PR. They've made some contacts, they've seen how the world works, and they know a press release is put together a lot like a news story. Dennis Byrne has made this sort of new arrangement. What's odd is that he's trading on his credibility while he still needs it.

I've quarreled with Byrne over things he's said and how he's said them, but I've never doubted that he writes what he believes. Though he retired last year from the Sun-Times editorial board, he still freelances a couple of columns a week for the paper--and I'm sure he expects his readers to take them seriously. "I'm a commentator," he tells me, "not a reporter." But a commentator is a journalist who asks you to trust his convictions as well as his facts.

In the past year Byrne's journalism has become a sideline to the PR firm Dennis Byrne Ltd. "I'm 57, and this is kind of my transition into retirement, running my own business," he says. He thinks he's OK ethically. But an awful lot of ethics is about appearances.

The Suburban O'Hare Commission is now talking to Byrne about signing on to do some writing and offer some counsel. If SOC wants him, and it appears SOC does, Byrne wants the job. Up to a point it's a fit: SOC and Byrne both think O'Hare is too busy already, and both support a third regional airport. Byrne has said so in a stack of old Sun-Times columns.

They do come at the issue from different perspectives. SOC, composed of mayors of nearby suburbs, denounces O'Hare as a noisy nuisance. Byrne's concern is for Chicago's economic future, but he doesn't trust Chicago on O'Hare any more than SOC does. "I think I can speak honestly for them," he says.

Byrne has no intention of taking SOC's money to help it attack O'Hare while attacking it himself as a columnist in the Sun-Times. "I don't write about any clients," he tells me. "You hire me, you don't get mentioned in the column. I haven't written about the airport much at all this year. Maybe once since I left the paper. I don't think it's a problem."

He says he now has 20 clients--corporations, not-for-profits, some "governmental stuff"--and he doesn't write columns on any of them. The Sun-Times hasn't asked him for a client list, taking him at his word that he'll avoid all issues that make money for Dennis Byrne Ltd. If the client list keeps growing, "there may get to be a time I have to say good-bye to the column."

It isn't uncommon for an honest man to be blinded by his principles. If a topic is off-limits he avoids it, and whenever he wanders too close to the quicksand--offering a contrast or drawing a parallel to something that on second thought puts coins in his pocket--then he beats a hasty retreat. He can't see a problem.

But others can. By coincidence, the day I talked to Byrne a letter arrived containing the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. The code includes this: "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility."

The language is a little airy. Most journalists I know feel a serious obligation to their children's right to eat. But the drift is clear.

As a commentator friend of mine said years ago, your column becomes your best friend. It knows when you're sad and happy, angry and at peace, because you tell it everything. There are no secrets.

When you start hiding things from your column the friendship's over. And readers aren't dumb. They can tell when something's going on.

Journalists in Denial, Part Two: Self-Preservation

An arrest is a public record, and in a free society it had better be. But whether the public finds out you were pinched is usually up to local editors. In towns where they see their duty as letting everyone know of your troubles, putting your name in the paper serves roughly the same purpose as putting your head in the stocks. You're humiliated, and you might think twice before you stray from what's righteous again.

The Northwest Herald out in McHenry County publishes a police blotter. "If we get it we run it," says managing editor Cliff Ward. "I guess the bottom line is that we're not publishing any information that a person couldn't get by going down to the police station and saying, 'Hey, can I see the arrest records?'"

Which no one does, I reply.

"No, they're not apt to do that," Ward acknowledges. "That's right. I don't think people understand their right to information as ordinary citizens."

Maybe they don't. But that's not the main reason so few town folk drop by the station each morning to find out which neighbor spent the night in the drunk tank. If the paper wants to tell us we'll read avidly. But there's some information we don't need to know badly enough to shame ourselves by asking for it.

Last November 6 a Woodstock man named Kevin Lyons caught a break. He'd spent some time after work with people he knew from his job, and as he was driving home a state trooper who spotted a missing headlight pulled him over. Lyons wound up charged with driving under the influence and he also got citations for the headlight and for not wearing his seat belt.

If the Woodstock police had picked him up Lyons would have been a perfect candidate for the Northwest Herald blotter. But Herald reporters don't canvass state police the way they do the local cops and sheriff's department. His name stayed out of print, and Lyons thanked his lucky stars. If the Herald didn't know he'd been arrested, he didn't intend to tell it. Even though he works there. Even though he helps write the blotter.

Early this year I got a call from someone in McHenry County with a beef about a double standard. He identified himself only as a local lawyer who wanted justice done, but he sounded so vindictive I suspected his own name had once shown up in the Northwest Herald blotter. "This newspaper watches everybody," he said scornfully. "It's very quick to comment."

He told me he'd heard "through the rumor mill" that Lyons had been charged with DUI, but the Herald hadn't written a word. He said Lyons covered the cops and county court and wrote a law-and-order column, and he described him as "the self-appointed conscience of the community."

What's more, he said, Lyons was still on his beat. "He continues to cover the criminal court and the state's attorney. Here's a reporter who can make prosecutors look good or bad."

Unfortunately, this bitter citizen had his facts right. But the situation turned out to be even more awkward than he'd described. Some of the friends Lyons had been with that evening were state's attorneys--a group from the office that was now supposed to prosecute him.

It didn't. The county handed the case to a special prosecutor, and it limped along for nine months, with one continuance after another. My tipster would call occasionally for updates but eventually he disappeared, and I wondered if the delays had worn out even his interest. But the ultimate results wouldn't have surprised him. On August 17 the DUI charge was dismissed. Lyons pleaded guilty to the headlight and seat-belt violations and was fined $500. Again there was no word in the Herald.

Cliff Ward says the Herald didn't report the case simply because, unlikely as it might sound, the Herald didn't know there was one. "We've had other people, other newspaper employees, who have been arrested, and they routinely go in the police blotter," he says. "It's our policy that if we get it we run it." He adds, "I can understand how this looks bad."

Last week Lyons finally said something to his bosses. By then he'd talked to me, and I'd told him I'd wait a day or two but I was going to call his paper.

"We don't publish state police arrests," Lyons reminded me. "You want us to go out of the way to publish those arrests? They're based in Elgin. We don't go to Elgin for arrests."

Maybe you don't, I said. But if you found out about one would you print it?

"Yeah," he said. "It would depend on the level of its importance. I'm not Royko. I'm just a regular reporter."

On any scale but one, Lyons's arrest had no importance. But newspapers aren't supposed to treat the public one way and themselves another. The public doesn't like it, and they're the readers.

Should you have given up your beat when you were charged? I asked Lyons.

"I worked pretty hard to get this beat," he said. "And the case was handled by a private attorney and not a state's attorney. I don't cover anything the private attorney does. It's not like I was covering an office that was prosecuting me."

The special prosecutor, a McHenry attorney named Charles Reilly, told me he had no problem with the way Lyons's case turned out. The arrest had been videotaped, and Reilly didn't think a jury that watched it was likely to decide Lyons was drunk. "It was a very borderline case. Even the state trooper had questions about it."

Ward said local people sometimes call and ask him to keep their names out of the Herald. "I say, 'No, I can't do it. But if you go through the system and are adjudicated and you want that in the newspaper too, call me back and we'll be happy to print it.' It has happened where people do call back and we print it."

In the end it was Lyons's adjudication that made the Herald. Last Saturday the paper ran a four-paragraph story under the headline "Charge of DUI dropped against Woodstock man." A careful reader might surmise that there was more to this innocuous item than vindication. The story explained why the original arrest didn't make the paper and concluded opaquely, "However, when the newspaper learned of the matter this week, it decided to disclose it."

The Herald decided to do more than that apparently, but Ward wouldn't say what.

Lyons wouldn't either. But he told me, "Things are not going well."

News Bites

The reason the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics code showed up in my mailbox--with the language quoted above and a few other passages dealing with conflicts of interest underlined--had nothing to do with Dennis Byrne. Along with the code was an announcement that George Lazarus, "one of the most popular and respected journalists in the nation," would be roasted at a luncheon October 14 to benefit Youth Communication. On tap to emcee was Bud Frankel, founder and chairman of Frankel & Company.

Along with the code and the announcement was an item from Lazarus's September 13 column in the Tribune. The item begins: "Lining up for Frankel: Look for a number of the publicly held communications giants...to take a long, hard look at Frankel & Co. now that the Chicago-based marketing services firm is willing to entertain overtures for a merger or acquisition."

According to the on-line Tribune archives, it was the 16th time Lazarus's column had mentioned Frankel & Company this year.

Police blotters are a mainstay of a lot of Chicago papers, such as the Booster and Inside on the north side and the Daily Southtown and Hyde Park Herald on the south side. Reporters flip through the 24-hour sheets--"which are basically zero information," one reporter says--and if a crime looks promising they ask a review officer for the "pink," the report with enough info to satisfy the blotter. Some reporters at some district offices where everybody knows them have pulled the pinks themselves.

Last June a reporter at a blotter paper was working a shooting that paper had deemed worthy of a full-blown story. The reporter called the police news affairs office, which didn't know much about it. OK, said the reporter, I'll look at the pink tomorrow at the district.

You will? said news affairs. News affairs called the district commander, who called the reporter's editor. There's been a directive from Superintendent Hillard, said the commander, and they're cracking down all over the city. You can't see the pinks anymore. Sorry. We were making an exception for you, but they caught us.

I first surveyed the terrain in July. Enforcement of Hillard's decree varied by district. Some commanders ignored it, others toed the line. One district told the local blotter reporter that between noon and 1 PM a review officer would be available to read the pinks and answer questions about them.

One paper whose reporter for years had cracked open the file himself and riffled through the pinks has by now worked out a compromise: a list of cases is submitted to a neighborhood relations officer, who hands over the pinks.

But a south-side reporter (none of these reporters or papers want to call attention to themselves) says on her beat little has changed. In two of the three districts she covers, review officers still read her the reports. "They don't like it at all. One day a review officer said, 'Look, I don't have time for this,' and gave me the reports--and the commander walked in and bawled him out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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