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Mike Royko: How Journalism Was Done

by Robert Gelfand

Writers and newspapers and what they can accomplish at their best
(AR) CHICAGO -- Any place where Mike Royko drank ought to be a good place to think about journalism, so I went down to Billy Goat's Tavern Friday night and had a beer and thought about outrage and wit and the appropriate function of the news media.

From his debut on September 6, 1963, through his last column on March 21, 1997, Royko wrote about things that matter -- the way the rich and powerful mistreat the poor and the weak, baseball, racial sensitivities, insensitive bureaucracies, drinking and war. In those 34 years, he managed to bring to public attention the little outrages that needed to be made public.

Those wishing a sample can read One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko (University of Chicago Press, 1999). It includes biographical sketches, an appreciation by Studs Terkel, and 110 of the best columns, selected by his family and colleagues after his untimely death.

An example from December 10, 1973: The subject was Leroy Bailey, a former soldier who, one month into his tour of duty in Viet Nam, was injured by a rocket. Here's how Royko described it: "He was alive when the medics pulled him out. But he was blind. And his face was gone. It's the simplest way to describe it: He no longer had a face." Royko went on:

"Because of his terrible wound, most of the goals and pleasures of men his age will always be denied him. But there is one thing he would like to be able to do someday. It isn't much, because most of us take it for granted. He would like to eat solid foods. Since 1968, he has eaten nothing but liquids. He uses a large syringe to squirt liquid foods down his throat."

Horrible enough so far, but the story continues. Bailey was referred to a surgeon who began a series of reconstructions at a local Chicago hospital, and when the surgeon and the hospital sent their bills to the Veterans Administration, the VA refused to pay. Royko summed up: "In some bureaucrat's file cabinet is Bailey's appeal. It has been there for many months. Every day that it sits there, Bailey takes his syringe and squirts liquid nourishment down his throat. If his appeal is turned down, he will spend the rest of his life doing that."

This was vintage Mike Royko: the victim, the bureaucracy, the outrage. The next day's column was also vintage Royko: "A year after giving the brush-off to blind, faceless, Leroy Bailey, the Veterans Administration has reversed itself in almost a matter of minutes. Monday, after I wrote about Bailey's case, the VA bureaucrats suddenly found new energy, compassion, and ability to make a decision."

The VA had announced it would pay the bills after all. Royko went on to quote a series of conversations with VA administrators as each excused or evaded, and finally got to the bottom of it all: a public relations man admitted that a clerk made a mistake in categorizing the injury as not being war related, hence not payable under VA regulations.

Finally, the organization had admitted to making a mistake, and Royko remarked, "Just like that. It shows how efficient a government agency can be -- a year late -- if its inefficiency is suddenly splashed across a newspaper."

And there we have it. The media can be effective, can be a stimulus for reform, at least on occasion, at least under some circumstances. It helps to have someone who can communicate the outrage with that subtle understatement that brings us, the readers, to feel outraged ourselves. It helps to have it come from someone who can be trusted to have his facts right. Then once in a while, some wrong will be righted.

Even the most optimistic of us understand this is only a sometime thing. Actually, Mike Royko wrote a lot of columns about the bad things that happened to ordinary people and the lame answers he got from politicians and administrators. Royko wrote of a seventy-eight year old immigrant who had worked and saved in order to buy a building in order to provide for his old age. When gangs invaded the neighborhood, he appealed to the police for help but to no avail. When the gangs burned his building, the city ordered the building demolished and sent him a bill for completing the job.

Most of the time there was no happy ending. But that didn't stop Royko from chronicling the big and little injustices week after week. They included a series of columns detailing a seriously abused infant girl and the judge who refused to order her removed from her home, the eventual reversal of that ruling due to the pressure the newspaper columns had engendered, and Royko's less than triumphant summation: "And the whole juvenile protective system needs more than a tune-up."

Mike Royko's career offers us some clues as to how activist journalism can work, what it can accomplish, and what its limits are. Political patronage didn't go away because he exposed it, racial animosities didn't miraculously disappear in Chicago or anywhere else, and there is still a Mayor Richard Daley (the son now) in charge in Chicago. But the wounded soldier got his medical bills paid, the beaten infant got placed in foster care, and hundreds of thousands of us became sensitized to such issues.

Royko considered the question of how effective the media can be in regard to the large issues and came to a disturbing but arguably realistic position. In his column of November 1, 1972, he raised the question of blame for the Viet Nam debacle and concluded, "Instead of pointing the finger of blame at this politician, or that general, or those think-tank policy makers, the finger should return to where it was during the many years of death and debate -- up our collective nose. Then it might be pointing in roughly the right direction."

He continued, "During all those years, we weren't kept in darkness. We were lied to and much was kept secret. But we don't have a government-controlled press. And Big Brother hasn't taken over the tube yet." And this: "To the contrary, more information flowed out of this war than probably any in history. Despite its great unpopularity, the press -- in the form of papers, magazines, books, and electronics -- did possibly the finest job of covering and explaining a war as has ever been done."

In short, the power of the press is only to communicate, to expose, to explain. After that it is up to the rest of us to take note and to act. It doesn't always happen.

Still, Royko's record shows that it is possible to have an effect on things. He did this by exposing the petty tyrannies and injustices in detail. His strong suit is described by Studs Terkel in the introduction to One More Time: "Let people hang themselves with their own words. Nail every irony and hypocrisy, every vicious stupidity."

Perhaps his approach is catching on. About a month ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a news article describing a series of fund-raisers for Mayor James Hahn being held by the very same developers who stand to profit from a proposed $9 billion expansion of the Los Angeles International Airport. Taking an approach that seemed novel for the Times, the writer quoted the developers and a representative of the mayor as each claimed that there was no relation at all between the fund-raisers and the potential for lucrative contracts. It was a Royko touch. Maybe not as witty, and lacking the rhetorical punch that comes from skillful follow up questions, but a good start.

Mike Royko died in 1997 at the age of 64. The bartender at Billy Goat's talks a little about Royko and how he used to come in three, four times a week to drink and chat. It is as good a place as any to think about writers and newspapers and what they can accomplish at their best.

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Albion Monitor August 21, 2003 (

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