Political reporting the way it was
WASHINGTON — What was political writing like when I was getting into the business back in the early 1940s? I've often been asked that question. Well, journalism schools around the country had begun to graduate "professionals," journalists who adhered to the facts and made an effort to keep their own opinions out of their stories unless they were writing editorials.
But in the recently published 150th anniversary edition of the News-Gazette (of Champaign, Ill.) I'm reminded that the old-time, free-wheeling journalism was still around when I started. News-Gazette editor John Foreman, who put together this impressive special edition of his paper, tells about one of these old fashioned muckrakers Ed Borman who waged crusades for what he decided was right, with little regard to separating his opinion from fact. He was the paper's star reporter for years, starting back in 1935.
I knew him well; I'd been at the University of Illinois and worked on the Daily Illini with him before joining him on the News-Gazette in 1941. As a political writer Borman was a kingmaker. Writes Foreman: "Republican leaders in Congress and the governor's office sought his advice and counsel. Aspirants to high position in the party were paraded into the little glass cubicle for his approval. If he liked them, you'd read something about them in the next few days."
Journalists who also played this power game were still around when I was working for the Monitor in Chicago in the '50s. At the state house in Springfield, I knew a Chicago Tribune reporter who acted as an emissary between his paper's publisher and the legislature. As I traveled around the Midwest, covering governors and legislatures, I found that it wasn't at all unusual for the reporter representing the big-city newspaper to lobby legislators on what a publisher wanted done.
In that era, too, I was surprised to learn that politicians were still bribing reporters. The Monitor's Robert C. Nelson wrote several articles about the political activities of Paddy Bauler, a Mayor Curley-type character among the last of the old-time Chicago political ward bosses. Bauler had received a lot of local attention when the first Richard Daley became mayor. Daley had narrowly beaten his reform opponent after some city precincts, long in the Democratic machine's grip, came through with a nearly 100 percent vote for Daley. Bauler made Page 1 of local papers the next day when he was photographed dancing on top of a table in his political headquarters while shouting, "Chicago ain't ready for reform yet," over and over.
Well, as Nelson was putting his stories on Bauler together, the politician got to like the reporter (as everybody did). Bauler called him "Robby boy." When Nelson's first story was published, Bauler phoned Nelson, who was sitting at the next desk to me. "Robby boy, Robby boy," Bauler wailed, "those were awful things you wrote about me. But I got to hand it to you. It's da trut."
Later Bauler invited Rob to his annual Christmas party, where a number of Chicago political writers always attended. Rob went and he saw Bauler giving out envelopes to these reporters. When he got to Rob, he handed him an envelope that contained a sizable amount of cash. Rob, of course, gave it back. He told me that Bauler was thunderstruck as if this was a first.
That's the way it used to be. While covering national politics for many years since my days in Chicago, I've never known a reporter "on the take." Those who cover presidents or presidential politics are veteran professionals trying to do an honest job.
But Ed Borman would quote only those he approved of or opinions he approved of. Some other reporter would have to be dispatched to cover the other side of the story. I see nothing like that going on today.