Will She or Won’t She?

Roger Simon

Roger Simon

At first, this was all taken very seriously. Tribune Managing Editor William Jones said in Monday’s Tribune:

There is no vendetta and the mayor knows it. The Tribune will continue to publish the news without first seeking approval from the city administration. Mayor Byrne is saying in effect that when she disagrees with what is published in the Chicago Tribune, she will take action to impede the free flow of information from City Hall to the people of Chicago. That’s a frightening point of view on the part of any public official. It’s particularly chilling when it becomes the publicly stated policy of the Mayor of the City of Chicago. The issue is not a free desk at City Hall. The issue is freedom of the press.

Sun Times Vendetta Frontpage

Roger Simon’s Take

At the Sun-Times, Byrne’s attack on the Tribune carried over to its own front page on Monday, when the paper’s headline read, “Byrne blames ‘vendetta’ on failure to OK land deal.” The related article by Sun-Times reporter Michael Zielenziger reported that Mayor Byrne believed that the Chicago Tribune’s “vendetta” against her administration stemmed partly from her failure to quickly approve a 54-acre real estate development along the Chicago River east of Tribune Tower. The land being referred to was owned by in part by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Dock and Canal Company. The latter concern was a 123-year-old company started by Chicago’s first mayor, William B. Ogden. Byrne said she was offended because detailed plans for the proposed development had been presented to her by an officer of the Dock and Canal Company the preceding Thursday, without first being presented to the city Planning Commissioner.

Left unreported was the fact that the mayor’s occasional spokesman and husband Jay McMullen was currently on leave from his job as a Sun-Times reporter on the real estate beat.

With Byrne having thrown down the gauntlet by repeatedly saying the Tribune would be banned from City Hall, the question on everyone’s mind was whether the mayor would actually carry through by kicking the Tribune’s City Hall correspondent out of the building and keep her promise to “never again respond to reports in the Chicago Tribune.”

Fortunately, at the time Roger Simon was making his chops as a reporter at the Sun-Times. Simon was given the assignment to freely ponder the seeming seriousness of the whole Byrne ban on the paper’s front page. In a series of straight-faced pinpricks, he successfully punctured the dirigible of hot air hanging over the city that morning.

The headline of Simon’s story read, “Trib-ulations make the mayor erupt.” The lead that followed gave more than a hint that everyone should relax and take a deep breath:

Mt. St. Byrne erupted over the weekend, spewing forth steam, hot air and volcanic anger. Mt. St. Byrne, otherwise known as Jane Byrne, mayor of Chicago, was angered when the Chicago Tribune printed a year old report stating that past mayors often were influenced by politics in running the city…The real question, however, was why Byrne was so mad at the printing of the report, since the report did not attack her, but her predecessor, Michael Bilandic, a man the mayor has often compared unfavorably to a sea bass….The mayor’s husband, press secretary and chief enforcer, Jay McMullen, immediately sought to calm the situation by announcing that the Tribune would also be barred from speaking to City Hall officials and examining public records. When persons pointed out this might violate the Bill of Rights, Jay was momentarily silenced as he tried to find out if City Hall owned a copy.

Simon concluded his observations with suggestions on how the Tribune might better have responded to the mayor’s attacks and expressed the depressing thought that the city would remain captive to the chaos for the foreseeable future:

But the Tribune is being really dumb about this whole thing. Instead of issuing swell sounding statements about a free press, here’s what I would do: I’d get my five fattest reporters and have them sit on the desk in City Hall. I’d force McMullen to cart it out with a forklift. Then I’d sell the picture to Life Magazine for $10,000.

Or I’d get all my editors and have them sit down on the floor of the City Hall press room and go limp. Then when the mayor ordered the cops to move in with cattle prods, I’d have all the editors sing “We Shall Overcome” and sell the soundtrack to “Deadline U.S.A.”

I think the whole affair has been terrific. It’s the most fun the press has had since the Democratic Convention of 1968. During most June days, other newspapers around the country have to write stories about kids frying eggs on sidewalks and flying saucers landing in swamps. But not in Chicago. We have daily eruptions to keep us busy. I say: “Keep it up, Mayor!” Who cares if those drab little men on Wall Street keep getting upset with all the crises on this city and keep lowering our bond ratings? Those guys have no sense of fun.

As for the rest of you citizens, I realize it sometimes depresses you that Jane Byrne has created all this chaos in just over 14 months. But what can you do about it? That’s the way it is, on the 434th day of captivity for the hostages in Chicago.