The Reporters’ Rebellion

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

The staff of The Seed weren’t the only journalists radicalized by the events of 1968. In the course of the police riot that greeted demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention, cops beat or arrested some 75 reporters working for the city’s mainstream newspapers and broadcast news organizations. Nor was this a case of unfortunate individuals accidentally getting swept up in the general melee. The evidence reviewed by the official inquiry into the violence showed that members of the press had been “singled out for assault and their equipment deliberately damaged.”

During the convention, most of the city’s news outlets—with the notable exception of the staunchly right-wing Chicago Tribune—dutifully chronicled the atrocities being perpetrated by Daley’s police. But shortly after the convention was over, they changed their tune. As soon as the delegates and the national TV networks left town, the local news media began selectively rewriting the history of what had happened and retrospectively blamed the protestors for the bloodshed. The Daily News, for instance, gave prominent coverage to Mayor Daley’s side of the story in the days following the convention, including publishing the city’s self-serving 8-page white paper on the convention violence in full and without comment. The Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial that condemned police brutality against reporters while implying that the brutality directed against demonstrators was perfectly justified. WGN TV even aired a 60-minute propaganda film produced by the mayor’s office, entitled What Trees Do They Plant?, that indicted the protestors as lawless communists while eliciting sympathy for the beleaguered cops.

Rank and file reporters reacted to this backtracking with indignation. Within a week of the convention, nearly a hundred newspeople from every major paper in the city gathered in a room above Riccardo’s bar on Rush Street to discuss how best to respond. After two additional meetings, they settled on the idea of putting out a monthly magazine called The Chicago Journalism Review (CJR). In many ways, it was an entirely unprecedented publication: a journalism review with a local focus, published not by academics but by members of the working press, and devoted to candidly examining the constraints imposed on journalists by the corporate structure of the media. As its founders explained in the first issue, the magazine aimed to carry out a “continuing critique of media coverage in the city” and “to provide pressure from below for change.” They intended the magazine to be a forum where, as longtime editor Ron Dorfman put it, “we could tell stories that couldn’t be told in the establishment press and where we could tell non-journalists something about how media institutions operate.”

Though most of the reporters who became the staffers and writers of the CJR were young and relatively unknown, older established figures like Studs Terkel, columnist Mike Royko and editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin also lent their support to the project. The group behind the review decided early on against carrying advertising. As Dorfman explained in an interview, the staff felt the compromises that came with advertising were “the shit we put up with every day” and wanted the magazine to be uninhibited in its criticism. A wealthy patron put up the money to print the debut issue and a collection was taken up among friends to cover other expenses.

Understandably, CJR’s first issues focused on press coverage of the convention mayhem and its aftermath.

The first issue (Oct. 1968) skewered the anti-demonstrator bias of much of the convention coverage in the city’s four main dailies, Chicago’s American, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. It noted, for instance, that the Sun-Times buried an account of the repeated police use of tear gas and truncheons against demonstrators camped out in Lincoln Park on the inside pages of the paper. It attacked the Tribune for labeling all the protestors “hippies” and for reporting that the people protesting in front of the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Avenue had intentionally broken the window of the hotel bar when in fact they’d been shoved through the window by rampaging police. The liberal Daily News was criticized for playing up the demonstrator’s “provocation” of the cops without ever mentioning “the steady stream of obscenities from the police.”

The mere fact of CJR’s existence—the fact that a collection of junior reporters had dared to speak out publicly about the editorial policies and internal politics of their papers—sent ripples through the American media establishment. The New York Times and Newsweek both ran stories about its release; a little later, the review was covered in Time, The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation; it even made the national evening news on CBS. Thanks to all the free publicity, subscription requests and inquiries from bookstores and newsstands poured in. And money from sales, subscriptions and a few grants from foundations allowed the magazine to grow. In short order, circulation had reached almost 10,000 and in 1970 CJR was able to open its own office (on N. Clark Street) with Dorfman as editor and two other paid staff. Even more impressive, by 1972, the review had inspired some 18 imitators around the country, from the high profile MORE out of New York to less well known publications like The Hawaii Journalism Review and the Denver-based The Unsatisfied Man.

While the first few issues of CJR concentrated on exposing (and debunking) the Chicago media’s knee-jerk support of Daley’s actions during the ‘68 convention, the magazine’s contents quickly became more varied, featuring critiques of the major news media’s biased representations of the New Social Movements of the 60s, investigative stories killed by nervous editors, accounts of journalists fired for being too independent and polemics arguing for radical media reform.
CJR played an especially crucial role in documenting the factual omissions and errors that marred the mainstream media’s coverage of the notorious police murder of charismatic Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.

Early on the morning of December 4th 1969, 14 police officers descended on a West Monroe St apartment inhabited by several Panthers. Gunfire ensued. When the shooting was over, Hampton and another occupant of the apartment were dead. The cops claimed they were attempting to serve a warrant so they could search for illegal weapons when the Panthers fired on them and their story was backed by Cook Country State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Initially, all of the city’s newspapers accepted without question Hanrahan’s account of what had happened. Yet, as the Panthers and reporters associated with CJR probed the official story about the raid, it began to unravel: eyewitnesses said police fired on the Panthers first, the bullet holes in the walls indicated that virtually all of the shots fired had come from outside the apartment, and an independent autopsy showed Hampton had been shot from above, in his bed, while lying down—consistent with the theory that he was still asleep when he was killed.

Within days of the shooting, core members of CJR set to work on a special report about the incident and about the major media’s role in the cover up. Chris Chandler wrote a story summing up all the evidence contradicting the Hanrahan version of events. Dan Rottenberg did a piece on the misleadingly captioned photographs from the Black Panther apartment run by the Chicago Tribune. Another article disclosed that a Sun-Times reporter quit the paper “when editors buried his story—the first report that the location of the bullet holes did not square with the police version of the raid.” The special issue included a profile of Hampton, a historical sketch of Hanrahan’s efforts to target the Panthers over the years and a table showing the conflicting claims made by the various officers and witnesses present at the raid. Rounding out the issue was Bill Maudlin’s powerful cover illustration of bullets carving a swastika through an apartment door.

The special issue on the Fred Hampton murder was typical of CJR’s incisive criticism of the Chicago media’s hostility toward radical activist groups and social movements. The magazine regularly dissected local news coverage of the anti-war movement and the student left. It responded to the growth of the women’s liberation movement by printing a special issue on sexism in the Chicago dailies’ contents and hiring practices. It also analyzed their skewed reporting on the Attica prison uprising and exposed their casual indifference to government censorship of the underground press.

Just as important as CJR’s ongoing critique of the media’s anti-Movement bias was its printing of politically explosive stories that the mainstream news outlets simply wouldn’t touch. For example, the magazine routinely subjected the activities of the Chicago police department’s “anti-subversive” unit, the so-called Red Squad, to detailed scrutiny at a time when most major media outlets in town either ignored the unit’s existence or actively colluded with them.

The February 1969 issue of the magazine was devoted almost entirely to a lengthy exposé on the Red Squad co-authored by Lois Wille, the Pulitzer-prize winning urban affairs reporter for the Daily News, and the review editors. Among other things, the story revealed that the police were covertly spying on black alderman Sammy Rayner and other black politicians critical of the Daley regime. It also documented that Students for a Democratic Society, Citizens for a Democratic Society, and the Medical Committee on Human Rights (an organization of health professionals headed up by Dr. Quentin Young [also featured in Eric Triantafillou’s Between Lefts interview in this issue of AREA Chicago – ed.] had been infiltrated by police spies and agent provocateurs. The article went on to detail a long string of police-sponsored break-ins at the offices of Chicago area peace and New Left groups. Follow up stories in subsequent issues exposed the fact that Red Squad agents frequently monitored anti-war demonstrations while posing as journalists and that Tribune writer Ron Koziol routinely supplied information to Army intelligence officers spying on local activist groups.

CJR published its last issue in 1975. By then, most of the original staff had moved on to other ventures. The Vietnam War had ended; many of the radical movements born in the late 60s were winding down. As a consequence, some of the issues which the magazine had championed –like the need for balanced reporting on the student left and the Panthers—no longer seemed as urgent. Moreover, as former managing editor Dan Rottenberg points out, the new crop of young journalists coming on the scene at the time were more career-oriented and less idealistic than the “Kennedy Generation” reporters who started CJR.

Over the course of its seven-year run, The Chicago Journalism Review exercised an influence far beyond that indicated by its modest peak circulation. Media critic and onetime CJR editor, Micheal Miner, now of The Chicago Reader, credits the review with nudging the once reactionary Chicago Tribune in the direction of more honest, factual, ideologically balanced reporting. Rottenberg argues that pressure from CJR encouraged the Chicago dailies to hire more women and people of color (and to abandon sex-segregated want ads). And at least one of the local journalism reviews inspired by the magazine’s example—the St. Louis Journalism Review—is still publishing today.

But beyond these specific concrete accomplishments, by making it possible for reporters to talk openly about the foibles, blindspots and ideological agendas of the institutions that employed them, CJR helped to explode the then-popularly-accepted myth of journalistic objectivity. And this, in turn, paved the way for the sort of progressive press criticism currently practiced by organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Media Matters for America, and Project Censored.


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