December 1, 1997
Volume 50, No. 14
Former Trib reporter says 'golden age' wasn't so golden
Warm nostalgia and thoughtful reflection were the order of the evening when Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Company, inaugurated a series of conversations about movie portrayals of journalists in a Journalism Program lecture Nov. 18.
Fuller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked in several capacities for The Chicago Tribune, warmed his audience of mostly students with comments on the movie The Front Page, a pressroom comedy/drama first made in 1931 and remade in 1974. Fuller worked with several people in Chicago who were used as character models for the movie; Ghiglione's students had watched the film as part of their studies.
Through anecdotes of his early pressroom experiences, Fuller relayed how different journalism used to be and how those differences led to both subtle changes and massive overhauls in reporting and writing styles as years passed.
"Reflecting on The Front Page era made me feel terribly old," Fuller said jovially. "I found so much that was familiar to me-it really captured something about Chicago journalism that I've never seen before."
Fuller, who started his career as a 16-year-old copy boy at the Tribune largely under the shadow of his journalist father, was captured immediately by the romantic aspects of the newspaper business. At age 18, he went to work at the city news bureau in Chicago-the boot camp of journalism. It was there he met many of the characters depicted in The Front Page. "Not only did I know some of the figures, but when I started we lived by a lot of The Front Page rules," Fuller said. "That's what made it real."
Not only did the ambiance of the pressroom and the film's portrayal of slovenly habits fit Fuller's experiences, but he said a reporting style that seems appalling today-pretending to be a public official to get a source to reveal details of a story-was common practice. Chicago journalists would pretend to be deputy coroners and call the family of the deceased to get information on the death. Fuller's father had created a police persona, "Deputy O'Malley," for journalistic purposes. The alibi died when Fuller's father was arrested at a pay phone, reported by one family who didn't buy his story.
"Despite [these] cautionary tales and perhaps through some genetic flaw, I became Deputy O'Malley number two," Fuller said. Once, after using his alibi to spice up details on a mundane construction theft, the source called the detective station to check O'Malley's identity; Fuller was sitting in the police station at the time, waiting for reports to come in. The sergeant who had picked up the phone looked puzzled, then looked at Fuller: "Kid, are you O'Malley?" he asked. When Fuller indicated yes, the sergeant nodded his head slowly, then spoke into the phone: "One of our best men, O'Malley."
While some stories made for funny memories, the laws changed because people changed, Fuller said. "People woke up to the moral quality of what was being done-it can be terribly cruel," he said. Fuller's seminal moment of doubt: a Chicago reporter called the family of a 17-year old on the South Side who had just been killed in an auto accident. It was 4:30 a.m., and the reporter called the family, not knowing if they'd heard. It turned out they hadn't. The reporter identified himself as a police officer and, after asking a few questions, said, "Well, we just pulled him over, and we wanted to check a few things. He seems like a nice kid. We'll let him go."
The next call was from the real police, Fuller said. "It's appalling to be in a profession that upholds the truth then manipulates it for its own purposes," he said.
Fuller never impersonated anyone after leaving the city bureau. "You have to remember, as you look back, the dark side, the lying-it wasn't the 'golden age' of journalism before corporations took over," Fuller said.
Still, reporters knew how to attract a crowd, Fuller said. They understood human curiosity a little better than contemporary journalists do-they were less ashamed of it. There was a joie de vivre about what they were doing that some today lack, he said.
Fuller's speech was given in honor of Harry Wilensky '28J, whose 1947 reporting on an Illinois mine disaster won a Pulitzer Prize for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.