I have followed Jim Warren in his tenure as the Chicago Tribune's Bureau Chief in Washington. He consented to give me an interview even though several times during the interview he had to lie down on the floor to reduce the pain from a severe back problem. In deference to Jim's back problem, I didn't take pictures of him answering my questions from the floor of his office.
Al: Jim, I have been intrigued by your career on
television and in print and was surprised when you came back to Chicago. I
would like you to give my readers some background information on you.
I got a two-week tryout, and that went well. What ensued was a pretty interesting three years where I wasn't paid very much, worked like a dog, wrote a zillion stories, but really learned the business very well. I mean everything from garden parties to murders. The Newark Star Ledger, which is one of the big unknown papers in America, is the flagship of the Newhouse chain and the biggest paper in New Jersey. But, it has never won a Pulitzer.
After three years, it was time to work somewhere else, better pay, and better working conditions. I applied to the same ten places everybody would apply: the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. I got a couple of offers, one from the Miami Herald and one from the Chicago Sun-Times. That would have been the summer of 1977. I had a couple of college buddies, coincidentally who were in Chicago teaching public school. They told me good things about the place. I came and got a job in the financial section of the Sun-Times in 1977.
I was very lucky, because when I had originally applied to the Sun-Times, since the Sun-Times were owned by Marshall Field. The Field family also owned the Chicago Daily News. I had applied to the Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News, not having a clue as to what the difference was. I think, because I said Sun-Times first in the letter, I got put in the Sun-Times pile. I was very lucky because soon the Field family decided to close the Chicago Daily News. I was lucky to be kept on at the Sun-Times, because they had a consolidation of staff. I had a very pleasant seven years there. I was a business reporter, general assignment reporter, legal affairs reporter, and labor writer.
In 1983, surprisingly, the paper was put on the block. The two brothers who owned it, Marshall Field and his brother Teddy, decided to disagree about their own futures and their commitment to the paper. Despite the fact that they swore they would never ever sell to Rupert Murdock, they did. In January of 1984, I left for the Tribune. There was a small group of folks, most notably Mike Royko, who got job offers, and so I went over to the Tribune where none of us ever imagined we would ever work. We loved being at the Sun-Times, the scrappy #2 paper.
Al: What did you do for the Tribune?
Al: So, just what does a Deputy Managing Editor do?
Jim: Well, I decided to make a big change; it is as simple as that. Yes, I do miss reporting. I've got to figure out a way to get back to do more of that. I don't think that I'll be happy just doing managing 100% of the time. However, there's also the element of having an impact on the Tribune. I can have more impact on the paper than the Bureau Chief in Washington, who is high profile. Now, I am in the position where I can actually change things. My first target consideration was our main feature section, Tempo. My goal is to turn it into the best daily feature section in the country. We are on the way, and in a couple of months, it will be the single best general interest feature section in the nation. We are making a lot of changes.
I made the move back to Chicago because I was concerned about people in the journalism community viewing themselves with a sense of self-importance. There is the peril of believing your press clips. I just didn't want to succumb to that.
Al: I would like to talk a little about journalism. You have already indicated some of the concern you have about journalists. What are your concerns about journalism in our world?
Jim: I'm concerned on the newspaper side-concerned about not enough high quality young people being motivated to get into it. I think what has already been seen in the last twenty years or so, we turn first toward television. A lot of the younger folks are more interested in television. I think there has been a bit of a brain drain. You don't have the same numbers of high quality folks who are interested in getting into print journalism, so I think that is a big problem. Another problem is print journalism's inability to lure high quality minorities to create much greater diversity in the newsrooms around the country and to help do a better job in covering their communities. You also have financial pressures, but I don't think those are insurmountable problems.
Newspaper circulation continues to decline in a country. Fewer people see newspapers as an essential part of their lives, and that's unfortunate. They turn toward the TV and the Internet. I think it is both inevitable and fraught with certain perils when it comes to informing the populace in a democratic society.
Al: In twenty-five years, do you envision there not being papers?
Compare the broadcasts of the Olympics right now with what you are accustomed. Compare those jazzy graphics and the kind of hip tone as they explain what these events are. That is dramatically different than you would have even seen four years ago. It reflects a realization that you have got to change your rules slightly to get more people, the younger people, into the tent. That is another big problem. The average reader's age of our Sunday feature sections here is a white female who is fifty-five years old. You have an advertising department saying, "Is there any way you can turn out something to get me younger readers?" The younger groups look at the product and find it boring.
Al: You also have to face the other problem of turning
off the older readers.
Jim: Oh, very, very, very old. But it's tricky. I mean, you've got something that's worked for a long time and still works-what do you do?
Al: What are your thoughts about journalism and the war.
Jim: Well, the first thing that strikes me is still how little we know about the war and how little we know about what actually happened in Afghanistan. That's no surprise. We are now hearing months later claims of possible mistakes or atrocities. We don't really know, because we weren't allowed to report it. The Pentagon kept the media very far away from the action and despite a million words having been written and hundreds of hours of broadcast about it, we basically have what the government tells us. As a result, almost inescapably, the coverage will tend to be more sympathetic to the government's version of the events. The government has a monopoly on the relevant information. Throw in a little bit of nationalist passions post 9/11, and you have a recipe for something less than totally neutral coverage.
Al: What would be the number of reporters that are on the
scene vis a vis something like Vietnam?
Al: Give me a one-liner on Rumsfeld..
Jim: One of the obvious stars of the war who, before September 11th., was considered one of the least successful Cabinet members. His personality in dealing with Capitol Hill was most ineffective. I don't want to say a failure, but he had met tremendous resistance and had achieved very little other than alienating key constituencies in Washington. He profited from 9/11. He obviously is able to act very successfully, at least in the public realm, as a wartime Secretary of Defense far better than he had as a peacetime Secretary.
Al: Jim in five years from now, what do you want to be doing?
Jim: Hummm, I'd liked to be running something new. There are a ton of benefits working for a large, mature, sophisticated organization like the Tribune. There are also perils in that. It can be very slow to move.
Al: Will politics ever be in your future?
Jim: No way!
Al: When you kick
the bucket, what do you want to be your epitaph?
Al: What peril of wisdom would you like to leave society so that would not have to reinvent?
Jim: Remain at all times as skeptical as possible of conventional wisdom.
Al: I'd like to close with a couple of one-liners: Bush.
Jim: Through no act of his own, he has been thrust into a popularity and support by the American public. I think that his popularity and support is far more for the war effort than it is for him personally.
Al: Janet Reno?
Jim: Ballsy at times, naïve but ultimately someone of great integrity who is probably going to get her butt kicked in the Florida governor's race-I mean just kicked..
Jim: Oh, incredibly bright, incredibly successful and capable politician who screwed himself and the country. His Achilles' heel will obscure the power of his intellect. It will also obscure his magical political skills, his empathy toward people, and his command of a desperate array of issues. He had a very sophisticated sense of issues, but it is all going to be consumed by Monica Lewinsky.
Al: Bin Ladin?
Al: I really appreciate this opportunity of interviewing you. Whom would you like to interview?
Jim: Mohammed Ali and Mikhail Gorbachev.