Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Flashback 1998—Sun-Times: Digging and delivering for 50 years


     My first thought, stumbling upon this, was to save it for the paper's 75th anniversary, in 2023. But nothing is guaranteed in journalism, and I figure, better post it now, if only to clue in young people at the paper who might be interested in the storied past of the organization they've joined.
   Kidding. I know young people don't care about that kind of thing.
   And second, if we make it to 2023, and I do too, then I'll take a new crack at our history, telling it in a different way. 
    Yes, the actual date was Monday. I thought about pushing my Roman senate column to today. But it seemed odd to hold a current commentary so that a chestnut can stick the actual date, and I doubt many readers care about that kind of thing. Assuming they care at all. This is very long—3370 words—so the less preface the better. It makes me nostalgic, both for the colleagues lost—I remember Harry Golden Jr., striding into the newsroom in his Guys & Dolls double-breasted suit. And for the tone of optimism and enthusiasm, though I believe both are still warranted.

     Happy birthday to us!
     The Chicago Sun-Times is 50 years old today. Every day for the last half-century, without fail, the Sun-Times has been a vital part of the dynamic life of Chicago. 

     What changes we've seen. When the Chicago Daily Sun and Times published Vol. 1, No. 1, there were about six computers in the world. The United States had only 48 states. Just one household in 40 had a TV. The Dow Jones industrial average was 175. 
     For 50 years, the Sun-Times has not only reported the news but helped make it by digging deep and exposing corruption, a hallmark of the paper. The headline on the final edition that first day, "MAJCZEK TELLS OF $5,000 `GIFT' TO ILL. LEGISLATOR," referred to one of the most famous stories in newspaper history, the "Call Northside 777" murder case, in which Joe Majczek, a wrongly convicted man, was freed from a life sentence thanks to an intrepid Times reporter. Fresh from jail, Majczek was being shaken down by a state legislator for a share of the money awarded him as compensation for his years in prison.
     What took place Feb. 2, 1948, was really more of a marriage than a birth, so in a sense today we're also marking our golden anniversary. Marshall Field III had founded the morning Chicago Sun in 1941, three days before Pearl Harbor, as an alternative to the isolationist, anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune. 
     In 1947, he bought the afternoon Chicago Times, a scrappy tabloid begun at the tail end of the Roaring '20s. The two papers combined their Sunday editions in autumn, 1947 (Field, of course, preferring the newspaper he created to the one he bought, which is why you are reading the Sun-Times and not the Times-Sun), and were sharing the same building when a labor strike, affecting all five Chicago daily papers, made combining the two staffs a necessity. 
     The hybrid made for a powerful paper that was immediately noticed at the highest levels. Asked at a 1947 news conference what newspapers he read, President Harry Truman said he was "always very fond of the little afternoon Chicago daily consolidated with the Chicago Sun. I never thought much of the rest of the Chicago papers"—a dig at the Tribune, which Truman called one of the "two worst papers" in America. 
     The Sun-Times (the "and" was replaced with a hyphen in March, 1948) was from the start at the forefront uncovering Chicago corruption. When the New Yorker's famed press critic, A. J. Liebling, lived in Chicago during the winter of 1949-50, he was struck by the infant newspaper's aggressive approach.
     "It sometimes raises a great row with stories about local political graft," he wrote in his classic essay, "Chicago: The Second City." "Although Chicago municipal graft is necessarily Democratic, since the city's government is Democratic, it is the Sun-Times, rather than the Tribune, that gets indignant." 
     The 1950s were a boom time for the paper. In 1955, the Sun-Times was looking for a replacement for the woman who wrote the "Your Troubles" column under the pseudonym "Ann Landers." The paper hired a 37-year-old housewife named Eppie Lederer, who never had held a paying job or written a published word but who possessed a quick wit and compassion that made Ann Landers, under her guidance, one of the most familiar and respected names in the country and a force for social change. 
     In early 1958, the Sun-Times took up residence in its current home, 401 N. Wabash, on land along the Chicago River. The original idea was to bring the rolls of newsprint in on barges. For 40 years, the Sun-Times has been printed on 10 thundering Goss presses, which do their work while passersby watch from a long glass and marble gallery off the building's lobby, a tradition that will end late next year when the paper's modern $100 million presses go into operation. The Sun-Times wasn't alone in its new home. The venerable Chicago Daily News, purchased by the Field family in 1959, published from the same building. 
     A factor contributing to the Sun-Times' national image has always been that it just looks the way a big-city newspaper should. Many TV shows have used the hectic fourth-floor newsroom as a backdrop, featuring hosts from Herman Kogan to Bill Kurtis, who leaned against the last manual typewriter in the newsroom while taping introductions to his A&E specials. 
     The Sun-Times is the only newspaper in the country featured in a TV drama, "Early Edition," built around a fantasy, day-early delivery of the paper. Hollywood has included the Sun-Times in movies for decades. John Belushi filmed "Continental Divide" at the newspaper. In Harrison Ford's hit "The Fugitive," when a newspaper is shown headlining "Kimble in Chicago," that newspaper, of course, is the Sun-Times. 
     Speaking of movies, one of the greatest impacts the Sun-Times has had on American life was its promoting a young feature writer named Roger Ebert to film critic in 1967. Ebert revolutionized the art of movie reviewing, winning the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded a movie critic while becoming an international celebrity. 
     Another longtime Sun-Times star was Bill Mauldin, who in 1962 joined the newspaper to great fanfare—he was chauffeured to his first day on the job in an Army Jeep, a nod to his World War II "Willy and Joe" cartoons, which won him the first of two Pulitzers. 
     Mauldin did not rest on his considerable laurels after joining the paper, however. Instead he traveled the globe for the Sun-Times. When James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, backed by federal troops, Mauldin was at the riot. When John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "I am a Berliner" speech, Mauldin was at the Berlin Wall. He went to Israel in time for the Six-Day War in 1967, toured South America and saw combat in Vietnam, the only reporter on the scene when the Viet Cong hit the U.S. air base at Pleiku. His battle scene stories and sketches were carried all over the country.     
     Mauldin's most famous cartoon for the Sun-Times—and among the most famous editorial cartoons of all time—was dashed off that awful afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. The drawing shows the Abraham Lincoln statue from the Lincoln Memorial, bowed forward in its chair, face buried in its hands in grief. The Sun-Times bumped sports off the back cover to run the cartoon there, filling the entire page, without any text whatsoever. Many vendors sold the newspaper back page up, to display Mauldin's haunting work. More than 250,000 requests for reprints flooded into the paper. Jackie Kennedy asked for the original and placed it in the Kennedy Library at Harvard. 
     As the 1960s grew increasingly turbulent, the Sun-Times followed Chicago on its wild ride as, to paraphrase the protesters, the whole world was watching. Photographer Jack Lenahan was beaten by 14 cops outside the Conrad Hilton when he tried to snap a picture of a shopper knocked down during a police skirmish. Columnist Tom Fitzpatrick ran with the Weathermen as they rampaged through the city one October night in 1969, returned to the newsroom 20 minutes before deadline and cranked out a Pulitzer Prize-winning column with editor Jim Hoge looking over his shoulder. It was the Sun-Times' first Pulitzer, one of seven the paper would win, the most recent to cartoonist Jack Higgins in 1989. 
     One of the biggest Sun-Times scoops of that era came after police raided a West Side apartment and gunned down Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark. The Tribune dutifully reported the police version—that the Panthers had fired at them—and printed a photo purporting to show bullet holes from their guns. The Sun-Times went back to the apartment and took a closer look at the holes. They were in reality unplastered nail heads. The two militants had been killed in their beds. 
     Photos always have been important at the Sun-Times—if you look at the 1948 masthead, you'll see a drawing of a Speed Graphic camera and the slogan "The Picture Newspaper." In 1971, Jack Dykinga won a Pulitzer for his disturbing photographic essay "Children in Purgatory," depicting the deplorable conditions under which retarded children were warehoused in state institutions. In 1982, photographer John H. White won another Pulitzer. 
     On March 4, 1978, Marshall Field V shut down the Daily News. That dark day in Chicago journalism was a bittersweet boon for the Sun-Times, which inherited the stars from the Daily News. Columnist Mike Royko joined the paper, as did Carl Rowan, whose syndicated column is carried in newspapers nationwide today, investigative ace Charles Nicodemus, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist John Fischetti and book editor Henry Kisor. 
     The same year the Daily News was put to sleep, the Sun-Times printed a series that is studied to this day in journalistic ethics courses in America: the Mirage Tavern. The idea, ironically, was first pitched to the Tribune by Pam Zekman, then a reporter there. But it didn't go anywhere, and Zekman moved to the Sun-Times. 
     In 1977, the newspaper bought a decrepit neighborhood bar, created hidden crawl spaces in the walls and ceiling for photographers, and waited for the city inspectors to come by and accept their payoffs for ignoring code violations. "60 Minutes" filmed the proceedings. 
     A wave of indictments, firings and reform measures followed the Mirage, and while some argued the paper had entrapped the corrupt officials, it had done no more than answer Mayor Richard J. Daley's perennial chant: "Where's your proof?" 
     The Mirage was just one of several noteworthy exposes at the time. "The Abortion Profiteers" revealed horrifying abuses at clinics. "The Accident Swindlers" told of shady lawyers cheating insurance companies. 
     The 1980s saw Harry Golden Jr. strut his way for the last time through City Hall, where he was the dean of the press corps. He had an uncanny ability to dictate a straight story from notes all the way down to the "period, graf." He died in 1988. And it was the last decade that fabled reporter and columnist Sydney J. Harris would have his words set in print in the Sun-Times. He died in 1986. 
     While the 1980s began in glory, the middle of the decade was a trying time for the Sun-Times, during two years of ownership by Rupert Murdoch, from 1984-86. Investigative pieces continued, however. In 1986, the Sun-Times scuttled a city effort to stick the new public library in the shuttered State Street Goldblatt's store by showing that, among many deficiencies, the floors at the old store were too weak to support the weight of books. The paper's stories are credited with leading to the construction of the Harold Washington Library. 
     The "Bitter Lessons" series of 1987 exposed for-profit business and trade schools that were ripping off students and the federal Treasury for millions of dollars in student loan fraud. It resulted in the closing of more than a dozen schools and brought reforms in state law governing the schools and changes in the federal student loan program. 
     In the 1990s, the Sun-Times still digs for news as it always has. In-depth series such as "The Slum Brokers" and "Schools in Ruins" shook up complacent officials. The U.S. Postal Service was jolted into cleaning up its act after Nicodemus cataloged its dismal record of mail service in Chicago. Congressional power broker Dan Rostenkowski ended up in a federal prison after Chuck Neubauer, Mark Brown and Michael Briggs turned a bright light on his shady scams. Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet broke the story of how the Democratic National Committee sold access to President Clinton and other high officials in the White House. 
     The Sun-Times continues to blow the lid off big stories. Last October, City Council power broker Pat Huels was forced out after the Sun-Times exposed his financial dealings. Not all of the Sun-Times is about uncovering corruption, of course. There is political commentary and reporting by Washington insider Robert Novak. The sports section is the perennial favorite of Chicago sports fans. Richard Roeper's view on modern life has become so popular that it is syndicated to newspapers nationwide. Gossip of all shades is dished by the triumvirate of Bill Zwecker, Mike Sneed and, the king of Chicago, Irv Kupcinet, whose landmark column just turned 55. 
    During the early 1990s, some questioned the future of the Sun-Times, saddled as it was with debt after its purchase by New York investors. That question was answered in 1994, when the newspaper was bought by Hollinger International, a multibillion-dollar empire of approximately 85 paid dailies, including such famed mastheads as the London Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post, and 400 non-dailies. The purchase solidified the future of the Sun-Times, particularly with the commitment to new presses. Under Hollinger's direction, the Sun-Times went online in 1995, preparing a cyber-edition to mark its place in the burgeoning and uncertain universe of the World Wide Web.
    —First published in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 2, 1998


  1. We could use Nicodemus again for the rotten mail service in Rogers park right now!

  2. Some nice nostalgia here, although considering what happened under Hollinger's stewardship, that bit at the end is touchingly naive. Or bitterly ironic, whatever. May the paper survive another 25 years.

  3. My God, the memories that image brings back. Oh, the nostalgia!

    Decades ago, when I was still fairly young, the advertising campaign for the Sun-Times called it "The Bright One" (SUN-Times, get it?). But when I hear the words "Sun" and "Times" together, your image is exactly what pops into my head, one of neither sun nor brightness. All those shades of gray. "Chicago sky gray." Gray streets, gray river, towering gray buildings, and the gray facade of 401 N. Wabash, as it appeared in the late 1970s, when both papers had their names on that building. And, oh, the irony of what replaced it! The less said about that, the better.

    The fourth-floor newsrooms, and the wire room between them, had the big-city-newspaper's grime and grit that no Hollywood set could ever duplicate. They looked scuzzy because they were. People still put out their cigarettes on the floor. Everything was grungy...and gray. And through those big windows was the ice-choked river, and across it, Lake and Wabash, where I will forever see the 'L' cars upended or lying in the street, and the emergency lighting. All that could easily seen through those same windows.

    I grew up with the Daily News. Sydney Harris, John Justin Smith, John P. Carmichael's Barber Shop column on the sports page. Saw the photographers (and a good friend) get clocked on Michigan Avenue in '68. So many of the same names, Never knew Ebert, but I knew Bill Mauldin, who signed my copy of the "Crying Lincoln" one gray day. And Tim Weigel. And the dapper Harry Golden Jr. And the not-so-dapper Mr. Greene.

    A thirtysomething Pam Zekman neither looked at me nor spoke to me. Ever. The Mirage was just another neighborhood dive bar on the way to and from the Grand Ave.subway stop, in what later became River North. In the '70s, it was just another blighted area north of the Loop. Nobody I knew ever drank there, not when we had the wonderful Billy Goat, where I once took a leak next to God, AKA Mike Royko.

    I was still there on the Day the Daily News Died, after a century, and I attended the "wake" in a nearby hotel, where enormous amounts of alcohol were consumed and fisticuffs settled old scores and feuds. It all happened half-a-lifetime ago, but the memories are still incredibly clear. Thanks for the buggy ride in way-back machine, Mr S.

  4. Thank you for the walk down memory lane. So many familiar names and events. I forgot about a couple of them — Kup’s column for example. I actually spoke with Irv Kupcinet when I worked at Material Service Corporation on Washington St. in the Loop. He wanted to speak with the president of the company at the time, Pat Hoy. I was told to hold all his calls and when I told Kup that, he was indignant and said, “Do you know who I am?!” I didn’t mind — he was a big deal in Chicago so I apologized and put him through!

  5. I know Neil usually tries to refrain from tooting his own horn but only passing reference to Sydney Harris is a disservice to both Sydney and Neil. Sydney for his brilliance and insights and Neil who comfortably filled his shoes.


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