By John Schulian
The world changed for everybody at the Sun-Times when the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. It was one of those things that I, forever blind to the realities of business, thought would never happen. I’d seen how he’d trashed the New York Post with his lowest-common-denominator journalism. I wasn’t wild about the Boston Herald, either. Then again, the Herald might have gone out of business if he hadn’t shown up. And it did provide a showcase for the stellar sportswriting of George Kimball, Charlie Pierce, and Michael Gee. But that was small consolation to those of us counting down the days until Murdoch took over in Chicago.
The Sun-Times had become a first-rate tabloid, solid from beginning to end and, on its best days, capable of driving the stolid, well-heeled Tribune into Lake Michigan. The newsroom was packed with aggressive young hard-news reporters–Jonathan Landman, now a ranking editor at the New York Times, was one–and they were always breaking big stories and doing great investigative work. There was plenty of good writing, too. My goal every day was to have the best-written piece in the paper, but I’m not sure how many times that happened, not when I was surrounded by Royko and Roger Simon, another fine city columnist, as well as a corps of lively feature writers that included my old friend Eliot Wald, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in the Eddie Murphy years.
And then there was Roger Ebert, who could out-write us all. I always thought Roger was too generous in his movie reviews, but his features were exquisite. It didn’t matter whether he was writing about John Wayne or a B-movie queen, his prose sang. And when a movie star died, Roger soared higher still. A copy clerk would fetch him clips from the paper’s library. He’d scan them and then write 1,200 of the most beautiful words you’ve ever read in 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it seemed like his fingers never touched the keyboard–he just waved them like a magic wand and, abra-ka-dabra, a masterpiece appeared.
It’s for someone else to say how many masterpieces appeared in our sports section. I just know we won more than our share of honors, that out-of-town writers regularly took the time to say how much they enjoyed what we were doing, and that I was proud to be part of it. I was in the company of pros who cared deeply about what they did for a living, guys like Jerome Holtzman, Ron Rapoport, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons, Kevin Lamb, and Brian Hewitt. If I was covering something with one of them, it was easy to divvy up the workload. We knew what the stories were, and one of us would look at the other and say, for example, “Smith or Jones?” There would be an answer, not a debate or a clash of egos, and then we’d get busy with what we were there for: the work.
Our era of good feeling lasted until Super Sunday 1984, the day Murdoch and his zombies took control of the paper. There must have been three or four of us in Tampa for the game – that’s the way we did things back then–and we gathered around the phone as Rapoport called the city desk and asked, “How bad is it?”
The answer came in a headline: “Rabbi held in sex slave ring.”
It ran on page three, which was prime tabloid real estate but hardly the place where the previous administration would have played the story if it had run at all. Looking back, I confess that the headline doesn’t seem that terrible. But I have to remind myself that it wasn’t so much that I was offended by the presence of the dirtbag rabbi in the paper. I was offended by what the story about him portended. Murdoch’s people were just getting warmed up. Overnight they had changed the look of the paper, turning its bright, lively design into something garish and cheap, the print equivalent of a streetwalker addicted to rouge and eyeliner. It stood to reason that the stories would be increasingly tarted up, too.
But when Murdoch tried to foist his trademark crap on them, the good people of Chicago just said no. The Sun-Times’ circulation dropped like a shot put in a goldfish bowl. Murdoch’s henchmen were forced to pull back on the cheap thrills and gaudy garbage. The paper would never be what it had been, nor would it lure back all of its readers, but at least it regained a modicum of respectability. The readers who refused to roll over and play dead were better than Murdoch deserved. The same was true of the editors, reporters, and columnists who didn’t abandon the sinking ship. They would endure, some would even prosper, but when you looked around, there was no ignoring the empty desks.
The biggest departure, of course, was Royko, who jumped to the Tribune, which he had hated and baited throughout his career. In sports, we lost our top two editors, Marty Kaiser and Michael Davis, plus Phil Hersh, who went to the Tribune by way of the Philadelpia Inquirer and became, with Randy Harvey of the L.A. Times and Mike Janofsky and Jere Longman of the New York Times, a reigning expert on Olympic sports. I like to think that Roger Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times because he truly loved the paper where he has spent his entire career.
Would that I could say the same about myself. Truth was, I wanted no part of the Murdoch regime. I would have gone anywhere that could afford me, but the columnist gigs at papers fitting that description were locked up. The editors who had looked out for me at Sports Illustrated were gone, Inside Sports had been taken over by nickel-and-dimers, and The National had yet to become a gleam in Frank Deford’s eye. Maybe I should have tried freelancing, maybe I should have gone to work on a screenplay or a novel. But I liked the idea of a steady paycheck. When the new regime offered me a contract that would pay me six figures a year for three years–big money in that era–I forsook my principles and misgivings and signed on the dotted line.
I would pay for it.