Three Careers, No Illusions/A Voice in the Crowd | Media | Chicago Reader

Three Careers, No Illusions/A Voice in the Crowd 

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Three Careers, No Illusions

If you're a free-lance writer who feels aggrieved, the name of Peter Deuel belongs in your Rolodex. Out of "some sense of Protestant guilt," as Deuel puts it, he's on your side. He likes to think you tell the truth, and after a lifetime in journalism, politics, and now the law, he knows the ways the world's arranged against you. Deuel understands aggrievement. There's plenty in his own business. For example, earlier this year the trade monthly Chicago Lawyer announced a short-story contest. Editor Bernie Judge expected six to ten entries; in came 32. This told Judge there might be even more frustrated lawyers out there than he'd supposed.

Deuel can explain the type and up to a point he fits the profile--he's 58, isn't getting rich, and won't be joining the Supreme Court in this lifetime. "The malaise among lawyers in midlife is caused by the fact many of them don't feel proud of what they're doing," he told us. "I think in part they're embarrassed about some of the excesses of their business. They're embarrassed about having to compromise their principles on behalf of their clients. There are terrible pressures on lawyers from clients, ranging from asking you to commit felonies to trying to live up to the tenets of your profession when your client's an obvious liar.

"Lawyers who work for big firms hate the anonymity. They hate the time pressure, the billing time. At the big firms they're asking you to bill 2,200 hours a year. That's 50 45-hour weeks. That's billable hours! What do you do about the hours you work that aren't billable? Well, you have to work those for nothing."

And if you're a lawyer you have to live with everyone despising you. Deuel edified us with a joke. "How can you tell if it's a lawyer or a skunk who's dead road kill in the middle of the road? The answer is, if it's a skunk there'd be skid marks."

Yet the misery of the bar rolls off Deuel's back. He doesn't work for a big firm; he works for himself. And he knew what he was getting into. He didn't go to law school until he was 50 and didn't start practicing until he was 53.

Deuel went through the process of losing his illusions long before he found the law. The son of a former Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent, he grew up never imagining he'd be anything but a newspaperman. From 1957 to '64 he was a reporter for the Sun-Times. And after two years as information director of Chicago's antipoverty program, Deuel joined the Chicago Daily News--"they were thinking if you hired people with experience it might help save the paper." He stayed two years.

Deuel was already beginning to have his doubts about the business. "The Daily News, like most afternoon papers, was more a victim of television than the mornings. The mornings had more years to adjust their roles. The Daily News tried to go to interpretive reporting without telling people first what the facts were. And the results were that people could look at it and say, 'Well, that's very interesting, your interpretation of this story, but I never saw the story in your paper.'"

A reader could sit down in his easy chair after work and choose between an evening paper written that morning that speculated on what would happen during the day, and a TV newscast that reported what did. Some choice. "The reader began to distrust us as a purveyer of news," Deuel said.

It's a story that's been told by almost every newspaperman whose roots go back to the days when either the papers told you or you didn't know. "TV came along and took away from newspapers the function of reporting facts," Deuel lamented. "Newspapers became presenters of opinion, and the fact part of the paper became increasingly smaller. The packaging became almost as important as the product. They were now selling something other than a newspaper. They were selling entertainment. I likened it to watching your favorite aunt turn into a hooker. So I left the business without any regret at all, and I haven't regretted it since."

For 21 years, serving two notables who made their mark in Chicago history, Deuel was associate clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court. His friend Matthew Danaher gave him the job in 1968. ("My feeling was if he played his cards right Danaher could be the next mayor.") Six years later Danaher was found dead in a hotel suite, which spared him an impending trial on federal charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to defraud. Deuel says he died of drink.

In 1989 Danaher's successor, Morgan Finley, went to prison. He'd been brought down by Operation Incubator, a federal probe of a bribery scheme that involved a New York bill-collection firm angling for Chicago city business.

"For several of those years I ran the office day by day," Deuel told us. "I was the chief labor negotiator and troubleshooter. I handled all the stuff that required your ability to dance. And the office never suffered a single bad rap. That's because the office ran straight. It wasn't the office that caved in--it was human frailty."

The only contact his office had with most lawyers, he said, was when "they were doing something funny," such as slipping a court clerk a couple of dollars to get their cases called first. "Finally I said, considering the lawyers that came to me, I said, 'My God! If these idiots can be a lawyer surely you can be a lawyer.'"

But even though he strayed, Deuel neither left journalism entirely nor has journalism left him. "You come into a situation where you don't know any of the facts," he reflected. "You may know some of the consequences because you see them, but you have to gather the facts on the spot and immediately convert them into intelligent questions." Deuel was describing a reporter reporting of course, but also the critical nub of a cross-examination. "Reporting teaches you to be anticipatory," he went on. "You can look at an event as it's unfolding and you can ask questions about what's going to happen next because you learn how things work. The other guy's witness says something and something in your brain goes 'click.' So when you get a chance to cross-examine you nail the guy.

"I love to cross-examine. You can question with a bite, and you can question benignly, and sometimes you have to do both in the same question. I remember, there was a girl whose boyfriend stabbed her to death in Villa Park. Sandy Smith [another reporter] and I showed up at the press conference where the police chief announced the arrest of the perpetrator. The counselor from the high school they went to was also present. Sandy Smith says to the counselor, 'You didn't know he was a Jekyll and Hyde, did you?' It was one of the best beat-your-wife questions I ever heard. Sandy had a story no matter which way he answered."

We are not certain whether Deuel misses an era of journalistic probity or simply his youth. At any rate, he teaches investigative reporting at Loyola University and for 22 years has published one of America's most arcane magazines, Broadcast Cable Financial Journal. Because he lost his group health insurance when he left county government and was quoted a price of $1,200 a month to convert to a single membership, and because the National Writers Union now belongs to the United Auto Workers, Deuel joined the NWU for the medical coverage.

"I felt I owed them something," Deuel told us. So he joined the Chicago unit's grievance committee, which just made him its chair. This means that when free-lance writers feel jerked around Deuel steps in. "Free-lance writers are victimized just routinely by the people for whom they do their work," he observed. "Because I'm a lawyer I'm able to negotiate from a position of a little more strength."

He told us, "Free-lance writers are wonderfully creative people who are just dedicated to the fact they've got to write. It's something in their systems. It's a heartbreaking mistress. But as an abstract principle, telling the truth about something is so much fun you keep coming back for more."

A Voice in the Crowd

Even though winning a championship leaves fans feeling completely empty, the road to victory is as involving as any crusade. This makes the role of the chronicler central to the total experience, and Chicago, fortunately, is a city of silver-tongued troubadours. We've worked up a quiz. Match the vivid language, culled from recent newspaper columns, with the columnists who composed it:

(1) "The Knicks, set to music, sound appropriately like a chainsaw in a bathtub." "Horace Grant is so much damp laundry to Charles Oakley." "You can take the mugger out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the mugger." "Starks was ready to pose for Jordan's place on the Wheaties box. I suppose you can use the same picture on a bag of Kibbles 'n Bits."

(2) "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" "The stripes weren't as influential as the stars, and Michael was one." "Too many of the other Bulls weren't home to answer the call on the road." "They posted a score of 83 Saturday afternoon. That's not bad for Medinah No. 3 . . ."

(3) "Everyone knows if Jordan's off the Bulls are road pizza." "Someone will see B.J. Armstrong's picture on a milk carton and return him." "Jillson and Omarr have had the zodiac mojo working in this series." "Your serve, New York. Your city, your arena, your floor, your fans, maybe even your referees."

(4) "They are spooked. You detect it in their interaction." "Champs should behave like champs, not like desperate souls looking for edges." "Waiting for his famous, tormented son to finish practice, James Jordan draws a long nicotine drag and ponders the day ahead." "For a team that can't give itself relief in this psychotic sort of series, now there is the problem of keeping everyone happy-happy."

The columnists are Bob Verdi, Jay Mariotti, Bernie Lincicome, and Steve Rosenbloom--match 'em up. And here's the essay question: Whose one-liners don't sound like everybody else's, and is it a good thing or bad that there's only one of him?

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

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