Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Mike Royko: A Life in Print

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, April 28, 2005

“He gave me great advice,” Stork said. “He told me, ‘You have got to remember you are doing what you are doing because you love to do it and you are good at it and doing it makes a difference in your life. And one more thing, never go beyond noon without an idea.’”
Stork also sought advice from Jimmy Breslin, who told her, “Ask for more money. Take one word out of every sentence you write. Only write about money, murder, and cats. Don’t drink booze until you finish.”

Mike Royko, according to author and fellow newsman F. Richard Ciccone, was the heir to the Mencken responsibility of satirizing the powerful and protecting the weak. I believe he came close, but Ciccone’s book doesn’t show it.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorF. Richard Ciccone
Length480 pages
Book Rating5

Writing satire is hard work. Good satire grabs you. It catches you into thinking, “this could be real”, and then it slowly builds up, each step not that much more unbelievable than the previous step, until finally at the end you think about it and it dawns on you that this is not real, it is hyper-real. It’s satire.

But this requires that the reader think about what they’ve read. For a long time, we’ve been becoming a nation that doesn’t think about what we read. On the Walkerville Weekly Reader, I’ve had people read and believe “news reports” that claimed John Walters was going to end prohibition to cut funding for terrorists; that quoted the CIA saying that they wanted to hire convicted criminals because “We feel that the CIA can play a rehabilative role in American society”, and that the Ku Klux Klan was joining forces with the NAACP.

Partially because of the wider reach of modern media, there is little we can write today in satire without somebody, somewhere, believing it.

The rise of political correctness

F. Richard Ciccone frames his Mike Royko biography with one of the most controversial episodes in Royko’s writing career. In 1996 a satirical piece about presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s anti-immigration platform was taken seriously by several Hispanic politicians and commentators. Quotes from Royko’s satire were replayed out of context. People claimed to truly believe that Royko was serious when he suggested that Mexico would be better off letting Americans like Buchanan have their way and turn it into “the world’s greatest golf resort.”

Royko was no stranger to controversy, but this time the newspapers reacted to the complaints.

Royko got hit by early versions of Michael Moore: taking satire or parody out of context and presenting it as if it were real (as Moore did with the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner) in order to score political air-time. If there is any theme in Ciccone’s book, it is this: that Royko’s career spanned two ages, one in which readers were intelligent and newspapers forced them to be, and one in which newspapers were dumb and readers forced them to dumb themselves down.

Ciccone writes that Royko “had come into the newspaper business when police reporters were on the take from mobsters, and editors paid more attention to advertisers than readers.”

Even the writers at the Tribune were suspect. Ciccone says that these younger reporters and editors “were practicing a different kind of journalism, one that he [Royko] openly attacked and ridiculed. Political correctness was as disgusting to him as the racist attitudes he had found in newsrooms forty years earlier.”

Those attitudes were related. Because of political correctness, it had become difficult for Royko to ridicule racist attitudes. Royko was a satirist, but even writing satirically in order to point out the utter stupidity of racism had come to be seen as racist. He’d already had one column almost killed at the Tribune because he wrote a fake police log targeted at the insanely racist comments made by officers in the Rodney King beatings. “The problem,” said Ciccone, “was with the naive young staffers more interested in political correctness than good journalism.”

Political correctness was an at least temporary death for satire, because the form of political correctness of the time was an obsession with finding inappropriate things wherever possible. In that earlier case, schoolteacher Jon Leonard found it necessary to teach his students about the history and necessity of political satire before they understood what satire was. People had moved from looking for inappropriate behavior in order to stop it, to wanting to find it so that they could enjoy being offended.

Thus, satire became fair game to be taken seriously, to the detriment of journalism and political commentary. Royko, of course, responded with further satire about the controversy that itself was misunderstood.

The soul of journalism

This book isn’t always as insightful. After talking about the problems of Chicago residents Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren, Ciccone writes that Royko had become “the funny, fearless, and hard-nosed sage of a city that suffered a great shortage of them.”

It sounded more to me as though Chicago had several hard-nosed sages, funny and fearless. But they didn’t want them until Royko came along. Why? By momentarily pretending they didn’t matter, Ciccone doesn’t have to answer that obvious question. This is repeated throughout the book: only towards the middle does Ciccone start addressing the results of Royko’s columns.

But Royko was important. He helped drag journalism out of its myopic post-war period. If seeing racism when it isn’t there is bad, ignoring racism when it is there is even worse. After the war, when Royko was starting out, newspapers had fallen from watchdogs to lapdogs. He helped turn that around.

“He was the soul of journalism,” said James D. Squires. “He inherited from H. L. Mencken the mantle of reminding all of us all the time of our responsibilities to seek out the truth and represent all the people. It was Mencken, and then Royko, who took the load on their shoulders and defined peer review; who made us all watchdogs of one another and in doing so made newspapers their very best. There is no one out there today like him.”

Sometimes the mainstream media today resembles the mainstream media of Royko’s youth. There is an apparent unwillingness, for whatever reason, to take the time to go beyond press releases and sound bites. Sometimes newspapers appear to be once again doing little more than regurgitating press releases. Today it appears to be more out of laziness than any bias. They’ll print anything from any side as long as it is pre-written.

Yet this spirit that Squires praises in Royko is among a few of the best bloggers today. Reading Ciccone’s description of the great clout debate between Royko, David Broder, and William Safire, it looks exactly like a blogger dispute. Royko’s revival of legwork resembles the work bloggers did examining Dan Rather’s dubious documentation. And satire again abounds, on the web.

Bloggers are restoring satire, and are providing a public review of media reports, just as Royko and people like him once did.

On the other hand, Royko is also an example of what the news media could do if they wanted to, that bloggers can’t, really. But even for commercial news sources he’s the kind of resource that is becoming more and more difficult to maintain in today’s mobile world.

Royko stayed in one place pretty much forever. He started at Chicago’s City News Bureau in 1956 covering everything remotely newsworthy in Chicago. Ciccone’s description of City News Bureau training makes it sound like the Chinese Opera training of journalism: grueling, detail-oriented, hyper-factual coverage.

From the Bureau, Royko moved to the Chicago Daily News in 1959 doing rewrites, then police reporting, then the county building, and on to columns and “the usual Chicago mayhem.” It was a long, deep course in Chicago politics that would be hard for anyone today to match.

When the Daily News was folded into the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978, Royko stayed onboard. It was only when the Sun-Times was bought out by Rupert Murdoch in 1984 that Royko moved across the street to the Chicago Tribune.

He would likely never have left the Daily News had it not folded, nor would he have left the Sun-Times had it not been purchased by a non-Chicagoan whom he loathed.

Royko knew how Chicago worked; he spent his life studying it. Chicago, its workings, and its people were important to him and his job allowed him a perspective that few part-time bloggers will ever be able to match. Unfortunately, it’s a perspective and depth of understanding that few journalists today are likely to want to match, either.

Royko’s faults

On the one hand, Ciccone seems to want to underplay Royko’s faults, decrying the political correctness that resulted in news stories about Royko apparently brandishing a broken ketchup bottle in a Chicago bar/restaurant.

Over the course of the years, Royko had been involved in a variety of bar scuffles, which were de rigueur for Chicago’s hard-drinking newsmen. Drinking and brawling were part of the culture that included long hours, low pay, and obsession with finding an exclusive story. It wasn’t until the 1980 corporatization that newsroom culture changed to prize sobriety and political correctness more than imagination and newsbeats.

Political correctness and sobriety go together for Ciccone.

But on the other hand, Ciccone continually hammers at Royko’s “hate”. Royko hated all rivals except... and then the exceptions are long. Most of the examples he gives appear more readily explainable by Royko targeting hypocrisy. The same could be said for the “inconsistencies” that Ciccone keeps bringing up. Royko targeted hypocrisy, both among friends and enemies.

Ciccone’s equivocation makes the book sound like a friend with a grudge. Sometimes it comes close to making me almost dislike Royko, as when Ciccone tries to justify Royko’s comparison between being supportive of gays with AIDS and supporting John Wayne Gacy.

The satirist next door

When I think about my own influences as a writer, I think of George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson, and maybe Douglas Adams. Mike Royko was just the guy I looked forward to reading whenever he showed up in the Muskegon Chronicle, and had looked forward to for as long as I could remember reading.

Growing up in rural Michigan, Mike Royko was the satirist-next-door. I never saw his columns as satire. They were just funny and close to home. It was Royko who first turned me on to banning firearms. I still remember his committee for the ownership of everything that goes boom (he had a better name for it, of course). He was why I supported gun control up to and into the early days of the Internet, when I began to read more diverse opinions.

Ciccone at least twice mentions Royko’s courageous stand in favor of gun control, but never mentions his equally courageous turnabout. Royko’s slow realization that gun control was not helpful mirrored my own. In 1993 he wrote “Anti-gun leadership keeps firing blanks” and wrote about his ambivalence towards gun control. On the one hand, “the Congress of the United States has no guts; presidents have no guts; and most of our state legislatures have no guts” when it comes to enacting gun control. But on the other hand:

Strict gun laws are about as effective as strict drug laws. The drugs flow and so does the supply of weapons. It pains me to say this, but the NRA seems to be right: The cities and states that have the toughest gun laws have the most murder and mayhem.

While a sea change, this was hardly a ringing endorsement for self-defense. That had to wait until 1996, when his “Women should gun for equality” looked at the utterly silly--and patronizing--arguments against women using firearms against rapists.

This was pure Royko. His preferred stand on the issues didn’t matter as much as skewering obvious hypocrisy. When a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote in favor of women carrying firearms, the reaction from gun control advocates must have pegged his hypocrisy meter. They cried about how few rapes actually occur, without any regard for the women behind those statistics.

It was interesting to me, especially at the time, because I’d just recently started questioning the effectiveness--or even desirability--of gun control. This was also the same period that the United States as a whole was liberalizing self-defense laws state by state. Royko’s change tracked that of the United States as a whole. But there’s no indication of this evolution of Royko’s views in “A Life in Print”.

That’s a personal example, but the same sort of thing happens throughout the book: Ciccone writes about events, how Royko personalized them. But then Ciccone ignores the aftermath. When Royko writes about a black soldier shuffled out of a “white” funeral home to a “black” funeral home, and how Royko sarcastically volunteered to forward to the soldier’s mother any answers to her question “what did he give his life for?”, Ciccone ends the anecdote there. Were there any answers? Did anything happen because of that column? Even if there were no answers, I want to know.

Ciccone doesn’t seem to care. The book is very much like that throughout. It is an interesting book if you are a fan of Mike Royko; but if not, this book probably doesn’t have enough meat in it to interest you on its own. He throws snippets of Royko’s column in for flavor, not for illumination.

The history of newspapers

As a book about Royko it is still interesting despite its flaws. However, it also advertises that it “explores the dramatic developments in journalism and in American society over the course of the twentieth century”.

Its analysis is mostly a few lines of the type “When Royko became a newspaperman, newspapers said what their private owners wanted to say, regardless of the reader; now it was a time of corporate ownership and corporate sensitivity.” As an analysis, that falls flat. Even the political machinations behind the sale of the Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch get only a few lines and that focused about as much on fishing as anything else.

The book covers little of the “dramatic developments in journalism” before the eighties, and most of that, again, is but a few paragraphs at most dedicated to Vietnam and Nixon’s resignation.

This isn’t necessarily a problem with a book, mind you, just with the cover flap.

It is not so much a history of newspapers as a statement about the failing of newspapers, or its readers, in our time. Readers have failed newspapers by preferring dumbed-down copy, and newspapers have failed readers by dumbing down their copy. There is no discussion of why or even of the history of how this came to be; only a few examples of how this affected one very good writer.

Even his big framing story, with its emphasis on the rise of political correctness and the inability of the public to understand satire, goes no further than Mike Royko. Were other satirists affected? Were there any other satirists besides Royko, or was he the only one left? Were there ever more than just him in his lifetime? I would have liked to see Jon Leonard’s history of satire if Ciccone himself had nothing else to say on the subject.

In the end, I enjoyed parts of the book, but found many other parts and omissions annoying. Stories disappeared as he moved on to the next anecdote and never came back. He has two stories running through the book, Mike Royko’s life and the effects of political correctness on journalism. But he never really goes anywhere with either one. Still, if you’re a fan of Mike Royko’s work, you might find it an interesting book. As managing editor at the Tribune, Ciccone has a unique perspective on Royko’s life as a journalist, especially his later life. Hopefully, however, there are better Royko biographies out there.

Mike Royko: A Life in Print

F. Richard Ciccone

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed Mike Royko: A Life in Print…

For more about journalism, you might also be interested in Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series), All the President’s Men, Call Northside 777, The President’s freelancers, Confirmation journalism and the death penalty, Fighting for the American Dream, The World of Mike Royko, Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, A Reporter’s Life, Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, Letters to a Young Journalist, The Elements of Journalism, All the President’s Men, The First Casualty, Scoop, Release: The Dream of Poor Bazin, and Are these stories true?.

For more about Mike Royko, you might also be interested in Mike Royko’s Opinions, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, The World of Mike Royko, and Boss.

For more about Mike Royko, you might also be interested in Mike Royko’s Opinions, Dr. Kookie, You’re Right!, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, The World of Mike Royko, Mike Royko on firearms, and How to Cut Crime.

For more about satire, you might also be interested in Being There, Dark Star, Fahrenheit 451, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, South Park Volume 1 through 6, Wag the Dog, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Team America, Fuck Yeah!, Thank You For Smoking, Florence Foster Jenkins is Hillary Clinton, Better Than Sex, Doonesbury, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, Generation of Swine, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Mike Royko’s Opinions, Songs of the Doomed, The Complete Lewis Carroll, The Desert Peach, The Futurological Congress, The Great Shark Hunt, The Siege of Harlem, Satire isn’t comedy, Satire in the vineyard: The parable of Lolita and the sheep, The definitional war on satire, Gamergate spreads to tabletop gaming?, DriveThruRPG: satire not appropriate for current events?, and The Walkerville Weekly Reader.