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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

The Not-all-that Good Olí Days   


By William J. Eaton
William J. Eaton is a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former curator of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

The City News Bureau of Chicago, which expired March 1 awash in nostalgia, was legendary for its hard-nosed approach, epitomized by the saying: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." But there was another, less admirable and more common phrase used 40 years ago that does not reflect as well on the training ground for so many Chicago journalists: "Cheap it out."

One meaning of this phrase was that a story offered by a rookie reporter did not meet the standard for publication in any of the Chicago newspapers that supported the bureau. But "cheap it out" also had a racial connotation. If a story involved African Americans, the typical response of the desk editors to reporters was to ignore it, or "cheap it out." Anyone aware of Chicago's rigid housing segregation, which confined black people to the city's near South Side, could make a racial identification by address alone. But even the local governments often used racial tags.

Basil Talbott, an experienced Chicago newspaperman who worked at City News Bureau in the early 1960s, recalls that his CNB day began with a list issued by the Cook County coroner of people who died without a doctor in attendance. Talbott says reporters were told to call and find out how each person died and whether he or she deserved an obit, except, of course, for those designated "colored." In that case, he says, the instruction was: "Cheap 'em out."

The same pattern was evident when Ben Holman, now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, worked at the City News Bureau for a few months in 1952. Holman, who was sent to the bureau for training by the Chicago Daily News, was among the first African Americans to cover police, fire and courts for CNB. When he was walking on the overwhelmingly white North Side, Holman says, police often stopped to question his presence. "They didn't believe I worked for City News," Holman says. "In the early 1950s, it was like apartheid in South Africa. It wasn't only in the South."

The attitude toward race at that time resulted in little coverage of news involving the black people of Chicago unless they were accused of crimes against whites.

The theory of news executives was that publicizing racial protests would be like pouring fuel onto a fire, possibly triggering riots. Eventually, when demonstrations against de facto segregation in the early '60s became too big to ignore, CNB began to cover this news. It was no longer possible to "cheap it out."