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Tribune Sleepwalking Into Journalistic Oblivion

Thomas F. Roeser 29 July 2009 6 Comments

What do you think of an institution which, having sold out its soul, now laughs at an early editor-publisher who built it virtually from the ground up into an international force? An institution that exists today because of what he did? Not much, I’d dare say. To stand by one’s forebears takes character-but there is no character whatever…save one columnist…at The Trib because it is a hollow rag with pretense but no depth. The Sun-Times is a slimy whore but at least does not pretend to be anything else…and it regularly outproduces its rival in city news 2 to 1. It has residual vestiges of what once made it a great newspaper: Fran Spielman, Abdon Pallasch, Lynn Sweet. But the Tribune: when I pick it up I wonder why I waste my time.

What brings this to the fore is the absurd little sketch of Col. Robert R. McCormick that occasionally appears in the paper that exists because of his prescience and courage. It is that of an old man in a paper warrior’s hat. McCormick, by the way, was not just editor and publisher of a middling paper who made it an international force: he made his newspaper stand for something…American nationalism…as a fortress of the Midwest. In addition he (and his cousin Joe Patterson) personally selected comic strips that became legend for years-Dick Tracy…Little Orphan Annie…Andy Gump which at one time ran in more papers than any other competitor whose character is honored with a stature in a Lake Geneva, Wis. park.

Not long ago, a Tribune story told of a grant by the DesPlaines city council to save the signboard of a desolated old ice cream parlor known as The Sugar Bowl. The guy who wrote the story…probably a 27-year-old as bereft of the history of the paper he writes for as they come… said those who wanted to save the signboard wished to do so because it had been a part of the suburb’s main street for years. End of story. See-that’s the Trib now. But The Sugar Bowl was the main gathering place for kids in the comic strip “Harold Teen,” which was introduced to the Trib’s circle of exclusive strips on May 4, 1919. The strip became an instant hit because lasting as it did for 30 years it dramatized the nutty Jazz Era of the United States through the largely innocent gaze of a teener-Harold Teen. He and his girlfriend Lillums would swig sodas at The Sugar Bowl run by friendly old Pop Jenks. Their sidekick was Shadow.

At its height Harold Teen was one of the greatest strips in the world ever launched by The Tribune. Its creator was Carl Ed…pronounced”eeed”. He thought that the phenomenon of roaring 20s youth should be characterized somewhere-and The Trib under McCormick did it. The strip lasted throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s…saw Harold Teen go to war and return. It died when its originator did-in 1959.

1919 to 1959 is a stretch of 40 years. Wouldn’t you think a feature writer directed to write a story on saving the Sugar Bowl signboard would have been able to research it enough to credit his own newspaper with the phenomenon of Harold Teen? You would-but the indolence, sloppiness, smart-guy insouciance with no understanding of his company’s history nor a willingness to learn…the same that led an editor to produce a caricature of the paper’s greatest editor…shows there is no pride whatsoever in that paper anymore. Its empty editorial wheelhouse has a tiller swinging to and fro undirected by a cipher employee who wouldn’t understand character if it rapped him in the nose who listens to the black woman who edited the paper’s cookbook.

Pray for one of two things: either that someone with conviction buys the paper from the bald red-rimmed motorcycling little man who is CEO…or that it goes under with a solid kerplunk.

By the way, the Colonel McCormick the paper has allowed its hirling cartoonist to hideously caricature was the founder of a major law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, leader of the Chicago Sanitary Commission and as editor fought strenuously against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal including our entrance into World War II joining with such far-right disreputables on the America First committee as John F. Kennedy (chairman, Massachusetts), Chester Bowles, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and other crazies the current Trib would want to be associated with.

If they had a sense of history…or a soul…of which they have neither. An institution can transcend greatness by living too long where it is consigned to a battalion of midgets.

**
Tom Roeser is the Chairman of the Editorial Board at the Chicago Daily Observer

6 Comments »

  • Dan Kelley said:

    Residents of Wilmette still routinely cross steel bridges built by Robert R. McCormick, when he served as president of the Metropolitan Sanitary District, which were opened to traffic in 1908.

    The Tribune still seems to serve one useful purpose inasmuch as its reporters gleefully publish scandalous stories planted by a former Tribune columnist named David Axelrod. Axelrod, who later penned a guest op-ed on the benefits of “one party rule” for the Tribune, has repeatedly denied promoting the publication of stories related to the sealed divorce files of several of Barack Obama’s prior political opponents (most notably failed US Senate candidates Blair Hull and Jack Ryan), but no one believes his protestations.

    As for McCormick’s paper hat, it would be more fitting if he were wearing a blocked paper cap preferred by press operators since he was a hands on publisher who routinely visited the printers.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Perhaps it should be the Chicago Trombone ( bwaaBWAAAAAH~!)?

  • Bill Baar said:

    So this is how we got the word “teenager”?

  • Francis said:

    Let’s face it newspapers evolved into this mess for, at least, one reason among many others: a lack of vision by old-school farts with bloated self-esteems. Back when the funnies were popular, should we be led to believe that journalism and creativity were at it’s peak and highest standard? A writer of today doesn’t have the time to peruse through decades of archives to add some “history” to the end of a story. Would he or she like too? We can only assume they would.

    Deadlines and demands for newspaper journalists are nightmarish these days. I’d like to see the old institution get thrown into this mess for one day. It ain’t the same, boys!

  • Mike Buck said:

    Wilmette also possesses another, more obscure relic of Col. McCormick’s legacy: waxed onto the front window of the Treasure Island at Ridge and Lake is Walter Trohan’s personal recipe for hamburger, “Hamburger a la Trohan.” Walter Trohan was The Tribune’s legendary Washington bureau chief, a superb reporter (first on the scene at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) and a confidant, of sorts, of the Colonel. His exploits are entertainingly documented in his autobiographical book “Political Animals,” which recounts such memorable events as the night Senator Alvin Barkely was pelted with dinner rolls by fellow members of Congress who believed that his after dinner speech had lasted a bit too long. Trohan took reporting seriously but eschewed the sanctimony of the contemporary press…and he was not above ghost-writing speeches for candidates for office of whom he approved. And, he enjoyed cooking for his professional colleagues and his political acquaintances.
    Hamburger a la Trohan is an interesting concotion. A large quantity of ground beef is mixed in with a can of Underwood Deviled Ham,blue cheese and a number of other ingrediants designed to create the kind of artery clogging delight that I won’t be eating any time soon. Apparently this delicacy had no ill-effect on the late Mr.Trohan who died in 2003 at the age of 100.
    I have no idea why this recipe is located on the store’s window. Its been there ever since I can remember, since 1979 when my late parents moved up to Wilmette. I doubt that Treasure Island has the institutional memory to recall how it got there and that it remains there by sheer entropy. I’m sure that almost no one who passes the store front and sees the recipe knows who Walter Trohan was or what he did. Nevertheless,Mr. Trohan’s handiwork,and by inference Col. Mc Cormick’s handiwork, peer out eastword from that window, across Ridge avenue, toward the little church yard cemetery of St. Joseph’s Parish which looks like the inspiration for Gray’s “Elegy”…….where “the rude forefather’s of the hamlet” lie in their “narrow cells.” At least those “rude forefathers” had a decent newspaper to read. Today,The Tribune is as dead as they are.

  • A UIS grad said:

    The Chicago Tribune is expensive and rapidly becoming irrelevant. While it’s still nice to have an actual newspaper to hold and read (especially on the train and when a passenger in a car) it’s best function is as bathroom reading material. Stories in the paper are, at best, flimsy and often, as Tom Roeser pointed out, light on the background a newspaper should provide. What happened to the principles that USED to be taught in journalism classes–who,what,where,when & how should be covered in a story–without bias or opinion provided???? Unfortunately the Tribune (like SO many other newspapers) fails to recognize those long established principles and allows content published that CLEARLY presents the political and social viewpoint of the author and the editorial board.

    And yes Mr. Roeser–the SunTimes USED to be a good paper, but it too has lost it. When I was young my dad and I would go out on Saturday night and get the Sunday Sun-Times. I have followed that tradition for most of my adult life, but not any longer. It’s a horrible waste of money now.

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