Ospreys in Chicago, anyone?

As someone who still, inexplicably, loves newspapers, and who has enough remaining ink coursing through my veins even 10 years after leaving the trade (or is it all the fumes from the presses I inhaled?), seeing what has become of the Tribune properties in the last few years has been enough to make you want to cry. But after reading David Carr’s excellent article in the New York Times alleging management’s failings, harassment, indulgence, bullying, and culture of entitlement under Tribune owner Sam Zell and his cronies, I feel like the men-children responsible should be, in the words of the National Gonzo Press Club, lashed to an oceanside cliff so that ospreys could feast on their eyes. You think that ad executives of the ’60s Mad Men behaved badly? You think the ’86 “Scum Bunch” Mets behaved badly? These pigs can go spit for what they did to great newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles, and for all the lives they ruined of toiling reporters and editors (with no other journalism job prospects).

Newspapers may have always encouraged a culture of controlled insanity (see, Thompson, Dr. Hunter S.). It’s been something that’s been missed (or muted, at least) for a generation or more in the era of the J-School-trained Master’s of Journalism Journalists (don’t demean them by calling them “reporters”) or the MBA-holding Managing Editors (or Directors of Content and Audience Developments, or whatever they’re called now).

As Pete Hamill, in News is a Verb, wrote:

“Reporters in those days were not as well educated as they are now. Some were degenerate gamblers. Some had left wives and children in distant towns, or told husbands they were going for a bottle of milk and ended up back on night rewrite on a different coast. Some of them were itinerant boomers who worked brilliantly for six months and then got drunk, threw a typewriter out a window, and moved on. Some were tough veterans of the depression and World War II and were sour on the whole damned human race. But all of them were serious about the craft. And oh, Lord — were they fun.”

Sure, there were drinkers like Hamill and Jimmy Breslin and Steve Dunleavy, gonzo writers like Dr. Thomson. But those old-time reporters produced (and, admittedly, the new school reporters sometimes do, too, as soulless as that production might often be).

But had the old-timers behaved as the Tribune management is alleged to have behaved, particularly in the new century, production would mean nothing.

There is Gonzo journalism, and then there is using journalism as an excuse, a crutch, and an entrée to contemptible behavior.

And then, on top of it, there is rewarding yourselves financially as Rome burns, as Carr reports.

Dr. Thompson once said: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”

Back to the zoo-cage, eh?

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Algren, Hemingway, outrage and not writing

Happy post-holidays, happy new year.

Mrs. Icepick got me the best Christmas gift this year — the 50th anniversary critical edition of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. I was mooning about missing a talk this fall at one of the local universities on one of my favorite writers (in honor of Algren’s 100th birthday), so Mrs. Icepick bought me the novel, which of course I already owned and haven’t fully read since college. But the gem of this anniversary edition is the critical notes about post-war Chicago’s bard (even a Chicago that apparently dismissed him for so long, until it didn’t any longer, sort of) with essays from writers like Vonnegut, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and others. Russell Banks, who was one of the panelists at the talk I missed, is sadly not included here in this edition — Banks was mentored at one time by Algren and was positively influenced by him.

I was introduced to Algren’s writing by an English professor who had no use for the typical dead-white-male cauldron of Twentieth Century Writers (the first half of the century, anyway). Though she introduced us to some great works not authored by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, et al., I missed out on reading those “classic” works. Seems like there should have been two separate courses, because it turned out to be rather easy to graduate with an undergrad English degree with a concentration in American Lit without reading a lick of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and so on.

But I digress. Because the happy by-product of this was an introduction to Algren, and for that, I am eternally grateful (plus, I picked up and read from the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner nexis on my own, though it would have been nice to have some professorial guidance).

So, where was I?

It may be impolitic, I’ve found, to admit to being both an Algren and Hemingway fan, but there you have me. Hemingway was certainly an Algren fan, perhaps to the bemusement of some Algren scholars, and Algren of course visited then wrote about Hemingway.

(Digression: I loved my gift so much, but I am a piss-poor caretaker. We keep many of our opened Christmas gifts under our tree for the ensuing weeks, partly for reasons of laziness, partly to fill up the space under the slowly dying tree, partly to keep the cat from drinking the water from the damn tree stand (fail). One night, somehow, I managed to over-water the tree stand and not realize it, and the next day I was crushed to find my new book soaked. Serves me right for not putting it away, and the back pages are now all stiff and crinkly from my drying the book on a radiator.)

Anyway, geek that I am, I’m going through the essays in the new book first, rather than the novel proper. I’ve become a sucker for critical analysis in recent years. As soon as I got home well after midnight from a 10:40 p.m. showing of Avatar last weekend (awesome, by the way) I looked up movie reviews online. I do that after watching flicks on cable for the first time, too. With novels, well, who has the time to re-read the whole thing, eh, so I just jumped into the essays. So it goes.

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Front page sale

Look out, dear readers, for this post may soon be appearing on the front page of a Tribune newspaper, just as soon as I save up enough cash to approach Sam Zell.

For it seems only cash, or a few of my dear (two) readers packed on a focus group, or waiting for a key editor to take a vacation is the only thing preventing me from grabbing some front page space on the L.A. Times or the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper industry never fails to surprise me in finding ways to kill off its already dying industry more rapidly. While Gannett and especially the execrable Journal Register Co. top the list in treating its workers worse than rats, the Tribune company bears special mention for consistently failing its readers.

To wit, the Chicago Tribune’s grand idea to have its readers essentially write and edit the paper through the ol’ focus group model:

“Reporters at the Chicago Tribune say they believe the marketing department in recent weeks solicited subscribers’ opinions on stories before they were published, a practice they said raises ethical questions, as well as legal and competitive issues.”

But that’s OK. At least the Chicago Trib wasn’t printing a “Southland” story on its front page, like its sister paper.

It’s no wonder the ex-Governor Blagojevich thought he could get some Chicago Tribune writers fired. Because the Trib company seems to have lost its moral compass, it must have seemed a plausible idea to Blago’s people.

And nevermind that focus groups helped bring down Gannett with its McNugget journalism ways. When you consistently demonstrate to your readers that you don’t trust your own professionals to make news decisions, how does that make your product a worthwhile purchase? Sorry, but I’m not going to a doctor who tells me he asked 10 patients yesterday for advice on what to prescribe me.

The long, protrated death of newspapers makes me very sad. If this continues to be part of the industry’s death throes, however, its time to sign the DNR order.


‘That’s the Chicago way’

I’ve been to Chicago twice in my life, but I’ve always had a fascination with the Second City. Eight Men Out is one of my favorite non-fiction books, The Man With the Golden Arm was one of my faves from college (that and Paradise Lost — how’s that for a literary double feature?), and Hemingway came from its suburbs. Did I mention Studs Terkel? Plus I was a huge fan of The Untouchables as a kid (the 1987 Kevin Costner-Sean Connery flick, not the Robert Stack TV series), to say nothing of The Sportswriters on TV. Oh, yeah — I heard about some community organizer from there who’s moving to Pennsylvania Avenue next month, or am I mistaken?

In fact, despite the Bulls and their pizza, Chicago seems, to copy a phrase, like my kind of town.

That said, I can’t even come close to topping this perfectly succinct post about the current state of Chi-town politics from Whiskey Fire. Happy new year.


Newspapers: Good night and bad luck

Apropos of nothing but my own post-Christmas crankiness … The failing economy has given self-flagellating newspaper corporations the very thing they’ve seemed long destined to do: scavenge, and then destroy, their own business.

The Journal Register Company has perfected this with increasingly little camouflage. Its business model seems to essentially consist of buying a furnished house so that they can sell off the few useful pieces of furniture, while allowing (and, in many ways, facilitating through neglect) the plumbing, wiring, roof, and structure to deteriorate to a point where it will be more profitable to raze rather than sell as even a “fixer-upper.”

Gannett, meanwhile, seemed to work mighty hard to find new and innovative ways to accelerate its decline. Its philosophy of getting its readers involved might have presaged blogs and “citizen journalism” — but that philosophy has helped to destroy it.

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Alter: Passing the torch

Jonathan Alter (erstwhile Baby Boomer columnist; it’s OK, I’m a fan) writes recently in Newsweek on the positive legacy of the Boomers, the next generations, new technology, Chicago, and the election of Barack Obama. Here’s a good sample:

For all of their narcissism, these baby boomers proved good at one thing—raising children. Their offspring, on balance, turned out to be more politically practical and socially responsible.

I’d argue that our latch-key childhood might disprove Alter’s initial observation, but his argument in essentially in the right place: the initial enthusiasm and then disillusionment of the politically active Baby Boomers did, finally, lead to the next generations to become as politically active — even if perhaps history shows it was the Millennials, and not my fellow cynical and practical Generation X’ers, who were more responsible for Obama’s rise and victory. Read the rest of this entry »


RIP Studs Terkel — ‘Take it easy, but take it’

People who thought they were middle class began to accept middle-class values as their values. They accepted someone else’s ideas about what they are. In my book, you find steel workers and farmers out of work, but still liking Ronald Reagan. During the Depression, people who lived in shacks called them Hoovervilles, but I never heard anyone call them Reaganvilles.

—Studs Terkel, 1988 interview in The New York Times

Studs Terkel, a real champion of working-class Americans, died Friday at age 96. The writer and prolific interviewer was best known for chronicling the struggles of working Americans in books like Division Street: America.

Terkel was not afraid to stand up for his liberal causes, including civil rights (yes, one of those dastardly lefties who dared to demand equality for blacks and for all “average” working-class Americans). He had some interesting things to say in his final days.

“I’d ask Obama, do you plan to follow up on the program of the New Deal of FDR?” he told Edward Lifson at the Huffington Post in an article posted eight days before Terkel died. “I’d tell him, ‘don’t fool around on a few issues, such as health care. We’ve got bigger work to do! Read FDR’s second inaugural address!'”

Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert said:

Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city.

Terkel also knew what it meant to defend and promote working class Americans, and paid a price for his convictions, getting blacklisted because of the atmosphere spawned by the future Gov. Sarah Palin, er, the past Senator Joe McCarthy, for daring to sign liberal petitions and standing firm for his political beliefs. In his work, he championed the rights of all Americans.

“Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko,” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said in a statement (via Bloomberg.com).

And for all those mocking the Senator from Chicago for his tag-line of “hope,” here’s what Terkel had to say to Amy Goodman after his 95th birthday:

One of my books is Hope Dies Last. Without hope, forget it. It’s hope and thought …. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I hope I’m about.

As Studs Terkel said in his radio sign-offs on Chicago’s WFMT: “Take it easy, but take it.”

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