This used to be Ben Hecht's town, and the spirit of the freewheeling, slam-bang style of journalism he and his colleague Charlie MacArthur depicted in the "The Front Page" still lives.
One of the ironies about the cynical, gin-soaked, ill-educated reporters they portrayed, with their press passes displayed from the bands of their pushed-back fedoras and their do-anything-for-a-story mentality, even if it meant breaking and entering or obstructing justice, is that their breed of journalist was beloved by the American public. Or at least they were indulged with somewhat tolerant affection. Well, let's just say they were regarded as attractive reportorial rogues.
Paradoxically today's journalists, far better educated and possessing greater expertise and sophistication in so many complicated fields on which they report, appear to be viewed with increasing suspicion, distrust and outright dislike by contemporary Americans. And I'm not talking about the conventional accusations of ideological bias leveled so often at the press in recent years. I'm talking about a deeper, more generally held attitude that keeps cropping up in conversations with citizens everywhere you travel. Sometimes they come from the least likely sorts of people, those with a long and sincerely held conviction--and often a public record to back up their belief--that a free press stands as one of the greatest guardians of liberty in a democratic society.
It isn't political bias that disturbs them so. What angers them are the common attitudes they believe they see in the press. Their brief against us is that we are arrogant, uncaring, snide, smug, disturbers of privacy and destroyers of reputations, among other things. Most of all, I keep hearing another criticism. It seems to be associated with growing uncertainty about what our long-term economic future will be like after the recession finally gives way to recovery. They don't think we report the reality of the lives they lead or the concerns they feel. We are out of touch. We don't write for them.
I am generalizing, of course, but recent experience tells me the emotions extend beyond the usual political press-haters who see liberal bias lurking behind every well-turned phrase or critical statement. They tell me that we in the press have a real problem.
What prompts these thoughts is an annual gathering of Chicago journalists. They meet to pay tribute to those of their craft whose work has been judged the most noteworthy of the past year. Fittingly, this occasion falls at the time of the Memorial Day holiday and is itself a memorial to the spirit of one the greatest of their tribe, Peter Lisagor, who died in 1976.
For years Lisagor was the Washington bureau chief of the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and a familiar figure to millions of Americans through his television appearances on such programs as "Washington Week in Review" and "Agronsky & Company." Although he remains a fresh and vivid figure among his many friends and colleagues in the Washington press corps and the innumerable public figures he covered there so long, it comes as a shock to discover that many of the present crop of Chicago journalists don't know who he was. Worse, they don't know what he stood for or why he continues to be regarded with unceasing admiration as a reporter's reporter.
Lisagor had a breezy, irreverent, no-nonsense approach that I somehow associate with Chicago, and an earthy humor and humanity that I think of, probably jingoistically, as especially American. He could spot a phony a mile away, and would never let a public official, from president down, get away with the kinds of blatant misstatements of fact that are endemic in Washington today. But although he could be critical, he was never caustic or cruel. He didn't have a supercilious, smart-aleck bone in him. He knew he didn't know it all, and never would. And he didn't try to pretend otherwise.
I believe he retained the respect of virtually everyone with whom he was associated, whether among his reportorial colleagues or among the high public officials he confronted in his role as press adversary. He didn't think the worst of people, including politicians as a class. On the contrary, he genuinely liked and understood them. That didn't mean he allowed himself to be used by them, let them off, or pulled his punches. His straight-to-the-body style of persistent questioning is grievously missed at what passes for presidential press conferences these days. Most important, he never fell into a common trap of thinking himself superior to the people he wrote about. He had a strong empathy for ordinary people to the end. He was their advocate, and he didn't mind getting his shoes dirty for a story in their behalf.
For those journalists who don't remember him, I offer an example of the Lisagor style. It comes from extemporaneous remarks he made on a memorable Washington Week show in 1974 at the time Richard M. Nixon resigned and was replaced by Gerald R. Ford. He had covered those events at the White House, and a few hours later reported on TV, without text, what he had witnessed. After brilliantly describing the scene in which Nixon gave his valedictory to his staff, Cabinet and official family, during which, as he put it, all of the bitterness Nixon contained came pouring out, he turned to the next act. A transcript made of Lisagor's remarks reads:
"In the same room two hours later, it's almost as if the second feature of a double feature was taking place, an altogether different scene in the same room. Vice President Ford was being sworn in as the 38th president. He looked out over a sea of friendly faces from Congress, from all over the city, from all over the country--family, friends, congressmen that he'd worked with for 25 years. And the atmosphere was so very different. It was just striking. It was almost electric, an atmosphere here of hope.
"There was kind of a therapy in the air as Mr. Ford, with a sure sense of instinct, I thought, hit upon those points that trouble the country and have troubled the Congress, have troubled the people about the Nixon administration.
"First he talked about truth being the glue of our government, and he talked about the fact that he was going to conduct a government of candor and openness. Later he told us in the press room that he can't change his nature after 61 years and he is a man of some openness and candor, as he said.
"There would be an end to the PR strategems, to the razzle-dazzle, and he then, of course, made that memorable line about the long nightmare being over, meaning Watergate.
"And in conclusion, it was as though someone had opened the windows in the White House."
Peter Lisagor opened a lot of windows in Washington. To me, he remains the best of models for the press to follow.
NOTE: In last Sunday's column about the growing bipartisan coalition emerging on Capitol Hill over the budget battle and the rising federal deficits, the word "not" was inadvertently dropped from the following sentence: "Certainly, Congress has not showed its willingness to cut adequately both defense and domestic spending." Congress has been getting a bum rap in many respects of late, but it does not deserve credit for what it so far obviously has failed to accomplish: adequately cutting both sides of the ledger in defense and domestic spending. If further demonstration of that fact were necessary, last week's congressional vote on the MX missile should show how difficult lawmakers of both parties find it to cut defense spending as opposed to money for social needs.