Sunday, July 3, 2022

Flashback 2008: Robert Feder: "a slave to fairness and factuality"

     When I saw Robert Feder's announcement on Twitter Friday that he is stepping away from his daily media column after 42 years, my immediate response was "No no no no no no no no no..." I typed that as a tweet, then deleted it. Denial won't change anything. We've trusted him for this long; we can't stop now. If he's doing this, it must be the right thing to do.
     Although honestly, how will we know if anything happens in the media world? Robert was invariably the first to report every significant development. There is no second place, never mind a competitor or equal. He is unique, and now the Chicago media is left to thrash about in the dark, in Feder-less cave of ignorance and uncertainty. 
     Still, there is comfort: the Chicago media world has been through this before. Maybe, as before, he will re-emerge in some new form. Let's hope so.
     And after the initial moment of shock, I immediately began to smile, imagining various scenarios of heinous wrongdoing to explain Robert's abrupt departure. "First R. Kelly, now Robert Feder. It was a bad week for..."
     Which reminded me of this column from 2008:

     "For how does any man keep straight with himself," Nelson Algren asks, in The Man with the Golden Arm, "if he has no one with whom to be straight?"
Robert Feder
     For me, that person at the Sun-Times has long been Robert Feder, retiring after 28 years at the paper, his last column running today. Robert is the straightest of the straight arrows, a man so honest and upright that it borders on becoming a personal flaw. I've always thought the man could use a little ethical turpitude.
     But that's me, and as Robert would happily point out, I dwell in the shadows, in the compromised, egocentric, corrupted, skewed, slanted netherworld of pals and politics, logrolling and back-scratching. The difference between Robert Feder and myself is that he's never accepted a free lunch, and I've never turned one down. He's trying to cover the news; I'm trying to enjoy myself.
     I like to think that my column is zesty and interesting anyway — my central moral value is to be funny — yet I've always appreciated Rob, chained to probity though he is, a slave to fairness and factuality. We all have flaws, and Rob's are redeemed, in my eyes, by his willingness to condemn me to my face. I mean that. Most people are too scared to say what they think, and it's just as well, because they have nothing much to add anyway. But little gets by Robert's keen eye, and he has no reluctance to illuminate my flaws in great detail, like a sodium vapor lamp. It's an education.
     That said, what I'll miss most is all the laughter I've had at his expense. His seriousness, his formality — he'd no sooner show up to work in a flannel shirt than I would in a sarong — combine to make him a cat's paw of humor, the offended Margaret Dumont to my Marx Brothers, and I adored writing unhinged imaginary scenarios based on something Rob had written, guffawing in my office before gleefully sending them to him, under the pretense of getting his approval since I planned to run them.
     One of these items — to his lingering horror — actually got into print, about four years ago, on Christmas Eve. I had just lampooned a few other colleagues, placing them into alarming situations, and, reflecting on this curious habit, couldn't resist adding:
     "Of course, the most fun of all is calm, quiet, dignified, self-contained and highly respected radio critic Rob Feder. You can't imagine the hours I've spent entertaining myself by placing him into the foulest debauches I can conceive.
     "Just this morning, I was walking along, cackling aloud, for some reason picturing Rob in a loosely tied yellow silk robe, slumped in one of the smoky wooden bins at his corner opium den, touching the end of a glowing stick to the tarry chunk of pen-yan in the bowl of his long pipe."
     He was aghast — doubly so since, playing along, he had told me to go ahead and print it, never imagining that I actually would.
     This shouldn't end on a happy note. There is a serious, even grim, aspect to Robert leaving. Not only will everybody miss his nonpareil media coverage, but I will miss him in the office, and as he delights in telling me, "It's all about you, Neil, isn't it?"
     Why yes, Rob, it is, at the moment. I feel like an actor who auditioned for some big, rollicking musical — think "Oklahoma" — that in the third act abruptly and inexplicably changes into a grim minimalist drama. All the boisterous dancing cowboys and leaping senoritas vanish into the wings, and I find myself, still in my fringed jacket, slumped miserably with a couple of tramps under a bare tree on an empty stage.
     "Nothing to be done," says Estragon.
     Once I viewed leaving a newspaper as a minor form of suicide — you survive, but as an animate corpse stumbling through a life devoid of meaning or savor.
     But when it's someone who loves this business and whose judgment is so trustworthy? My gut tells me if Robert Feder is leaving then the show must be over and it's time to get to my feet, mustering what dignity I can, place my oversized cowboy hat upon my head, straddle my broomstick pony and gallop off into the sunset.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 2008


  1. The only problem with Feder retiring is, who will cover local media now? I don't see anyone else doing it!

  2. Robert Feder is the youngest of four brothers. My sister and I went through grammar school and high school with the three older ones. We never knew Robert, though. He was too young. Not surprisingly, he looks just like the second-oldest brother, who was my age.

    1. His father and brother were podiatrists — excellent doctors, by the way, whom I patronized for years. I used to joke about Rob being the black sheep of the family.

    2. I knew his dad. One of the older brothers had a birthday party that I attended, and when I told a dirty joke, his father slapped me across the face. Nothing ever came of it...because nobody threatened or sued anybody for clocking their kids in the late Fifties. That was still the era of the "in loco parentis" doctrine. Any adult could administer "discipline" (including corporal punsihment) to any child at any time, for any reason...or for none at all. My mother was slightly pissed about it, but my father thought I got exactly what I deserved. It was a different world.

    3. Small world...Jewish geography time...I went to Niles East High School in Skokie with an older brother. Are you a Trojan, Grizz? Class of 69.

    4. My kid sister was also in that class.

  3. I've only read Mr. Feder's work when it bubbled up to my attention because he was discussing one of the handful of local media folk I pay any attention to. Which was not all that often. But I certainly realized what an outsized role he played in Chicago journalistic circles. Since his announcement Friday, it's been kind of remarkable to see the unqualified kudos come in from so many -- in a cutthroat market like Chicago, he seemed to be genuinely revered by almost all, if not, indeed, all. There's certainly a consensus that he's the rare person who's simply irreplaceable.

    Your 2008 column concludes: "... it's time to ... straddle my broomstick pony and gallop off into the sunset." Fortunately for your readers, Neil, that seems to have been one lethargic pony. While the sun is getting noticeably lower in the sky, you evidently made a different calculation and decided to see if you could stick around, perhaps until they struck the stage. I'd imagine Roger Ebert looking down from heaven with a look of satisfaction, and giving you a tip of the hat, but neither of you believed in that kinda thing!


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