Did you miss the Big Talk broadcast yesterday? Then click on over to this week’s podcast. My guest was Jack Dopp, the big cheese at Bloomington News. He and his crews have been bringing daily newspapers into the city — as well as surrounding areas — since the early 1970s. He goes back to the days when workers had to drive to Louisville and Indianapolis and Chicago and back all through the night to get the news to our town. He’s one of the last local figures who harken back to the glory days of newspapers.
Entire generations including people creeping up on middle age — those, for instance, who are 35 or so — have grown up without depending on the daily paper for news of the city, the state, and the world. The daily newspaper is fast becoming a relic.
Jack’s story is a sort of history of daily newspapers from 1970 onward.
Sadly, Jack will fetch his last batch of papers Sunday, May 31st. His contract with the Indy Star will not be renewed. The Gannett Co., the paper’s owner, will ship the Star as well as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal down this way from now on. I hesitate to predict how long Gannett will be willing to do that.
In January, 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times broke the Mirage story. The paper’s investigative team had concocted the wildest scheme to expose petty corruption in a town that was world-famous for it. They persuaded the paper, along with the Better Government Association, to buy a dive bar in an area of town that was, at the time, decayed. The bar was in a dilapidated building and its clientele was as broken down as the neighborhood and the structure. (The River North area now is among the most desirable locations in Chi. in which to live and run a business.)
Reporter Pam Zekman and BGA investigator William Recktenwald assumed aliases as a married couple and bought the saloon, using Sun-Times dough. Then reporter Zay Smith and another BGA investigator went to work as bartenders and a couple of the paper’s photographers posed as repairmen, setting up secret cameras to catch kinky building and safety inspectors, cops, lawyers, and accountants holding their hands out, looking for bribes. The reporters and investigators intentionally did not correct the bar’s structural or consumer safety violations and willingly participated in bribing the men whose job it was to enforce the city’s ordinances covering such things. The bribes usually were for piddling amounts — ten bucks here, 25 there — but the guys who took them had blocks and blocks of similar establishments from which they collected, making their weekly or monthly draws handsome indeed.
Reporter/bartender Smith then wrote a 25-part series detailing the whole dirty business. The upshot was the city pretty much cleaned up the petty restaurant, bar, and convenience store bribery that had gone on for decades in Chicago. Zekman, Smith, et al were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. They did not win the award.
Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who’d already been lionized and idolized in the book and film, All the President’s Men, was the most powerful voice on the Pulitzer committee at the time. A man who rubbed shoulders — and reveled in it — with the high and the mighty in the nation’s capital, convinced the committee to snub the Sun-Times because the paper’s investigation had been based on subterfuge. Apparently, Bradlee looked askance at reporters going undercover to get a story.
See, when Bradlee was hobnobbing with the likes of John F. Kennedy, he never disguised himself. He made sure The Beautiful People understood he was one of them. Nor did he go undercover when one of his reporters, Janet Cooke, came in with a 1980 story about a Washington, DC 8-year-old heroin addict for which she won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. When it was discovered Cooke had fabricated the story, Bradlee rode to rescue saying it’d never happen again — despite the fact that it had happened, under his watch.
As Mike Royko was to argue soon after, if he were the editor of a paper and his reporter came in with a story about adults helping a small child shoot up junk, his first instinct would not have been to run the piece and then nominate it for an award, but to demand the reporter reveal the precise names and locations of the participants and immediately drop a dime to the cops. Bradlee, of course, chose a different path.
Anyway, Zay Smith, the author of the 25-part Mirage series, died earlier this month of lung cancer. He was 71 years old. His obit rightly should have included the notation that he’d shared the 1979 Pulitzer Prize with his colleagues. It didn’t, though; one of The Beautiful People saw to that.