The Journalist Roger Ebert

PulitzerEbertI grew up with Roger Ebert. He was on TV, yes, but even as a kid, I read him more than I watched him. He was, from 1967 until his death this week, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. We were a Sun-Times family, favoring the tabloid’s focus on what was going on in the city over the larger, more conservative Tribune’s coverage of the suburbs, the Board of Trade, and the hated, hated Cubs. The Sun-Times shaped my reading habits, starting with the comics, then the obituaries (placed near the comics and usually as short and repetitive, familiarizing me with words like “injuries,” “survived by,” and “visitation”), sports, entertainment, and the front page.

My timing was good. In the five years between the damp March day in 1978 when the late great afternoon Daily News was folded into the Sun-Times and Rupert Murdoch gutting the paper in 1983, it was home to a large stable of accomplished journalists. Some, like Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, and Ann Landers, were local and national celebrities. Others, like Pam Zekman, Zay Smith, Art Petacque, Robert Feder, and Lloyd Sachs, might have less familiar names, but no less impressive work under publisher James Hoge. Zekman and Smith collaborated on a series of articles in which the Sun-Times created a bar (the aptly-named Mirage) to reveal local corruption in the regulation of taverns. Eight-year-old me read each installment, fascinated by new words like “shakedown” and “graft.” Visiting the front page after reading Bill Gleason and John Schulian lament the fortunes of my beloved White Sox was as much of my education as anything I learned in third grade.

And every Friday, Roger Ebert published several movie reviews. By this point, Ebert had already won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, but I was too young to realize or appreciate this honor. I just liked his writing, clear, descriptive, prolific, comprehensive. I appreciated it all the more when John Belushi (who with his partner Dan Aykroyd, made a big-budget love letter to Chicago called The Blues Brothers that opened the doors to Hollywood productions in my home town) died of a drug overdose in 1982. The Sun-Times had plenty of capable writers, but Ebert wrote the succinct yet by no means detached obituary that ran hours after the body was found. (And followed up on Belushi after Bob Woodward’s Wired came out two years later with a thoughtful essay that was a hallmark of his work.) That obituary made me appreciate how Ebert could write so many good reviews each week. He was prolific, he was fast, but he was also literate.

And loyal to his paper. Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1983 and quickly set to work turning it into Chicago’s version of the New York Post with screaming headlines, Wingo games, and right-wing editorials. Many of the writers who earned the paper its Pulitzers fled, led by Mike Royko, who jumped to the rival Tribune. Ebert stayed, remarking: “It’s not Murdoch’s paper. It’s my paper. He only bought it.”

He outlasted Murdoch, who sold the paper a couple years later in order to purchase WFLD-TV and a string of other stations nationwide that would form the Fox Network. In Murdoch’s place came Canadian media baron Conrad Black, who would eventually go to prison for his personal reallocation of company funds. Before Black’s conviction came some high-profile labor squabbles with the employees he robbed; despite Ebert being a wealthy celebrity, the critic sided with his fellow workers. Black criticized him, which was about as smart an idea as a drunk in a bar taking a swing at Mike Tyson.

Ebert responded by summarizing the charges against Black and how they were related to the labor dispute: “You can imagine my dismay when I read auditor’s reports indicating the company was run as a ‘kleptocracy,’ and that, between you, you allegedly pocketed 97 percent of Hollinger’s profits. This while the escalators in the building were actually turned off to save on electricity and maintenance. It is hard to believe that the departing millions were not somehow related to compensation levels at the Sun-Times, since management pleaded poverty in its negotiations.”

Black went to prison. Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times. By this point, he had already started his fight with cancer, initially undergoing surgery in 2002. Four years later, he nearly bled to death when his carotid artery (weakened by radiation) burst. Resulting surgery removed his jaw and speaking voice.

But it did not silence him. Already a prolific blogger (in addition to reviewing hundreds of films each year), Ebert intensified his writing with longer essays on film, society, politics, and his personal history. Sometimes two or three long essays would come out in a week, joined by half a dozen film reviews. The volume was matched by the quality. As he approached his late sixties, Ebert was recognized by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences with a Webby Award.

The long form of his essays, including personal stories remembered with astonishingly acute recall for details, led to a memoir published in 2011. The work Ebert did after he lost his jaw is his finest writing, more than 40 years after he first joined the Sun-Times.

Ebert stayed at the paper to the end, 46 years in total. He broke his hip last December, which turned out to be due to a recurrence of cancer. This finally slowed his writing down, but did not stop it. In his final month, he stayed engaged in the events of the world, writing about the election of the new pope and the economic interests preventing action on climate change.

On March 18, he wrote:

I have watched with a kind of petrified fascination in recent years as the world creeps closer to what looks to me like disastrous climate change. The poles are melting. Ocean levels are rising. The face of the planet is torn by unprecedented natural disasters. States of emergency have become so routine that governors always seem to be proclaiming one. Do they have drafts of proclamations on file?

The political responses to this condition seem to fall along party lines. Democrats think legislation is needed Republicans don’t want the feds interfering with private enterprise. Vested interests weigh in. Pork barrel projects are protected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Washington fiddles. Earth burns.

I get stirred up more than many people, because I see so many documentaries. Yes, they’re “biased.” There’s much less motivation for an “unbiased” documentary. Docs are usually made by people who have something they think you should know. There is little motivation for objectivity, something people forget when yet another doc comes along. And there are so many causes! Genetically modified crops! Chemical fertilizers! Trademarked genomes! The downside to wind power! An explosive-blowing doc like Chasing Ice comes along, and hardly causes a stir.

I write an entry. It rounds up the usual comments. We’re stuck. Just today, however, a glimmer of hope shone on the political front. I read on Bloomberg: “President Barack Obama is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”

“Consider.” Not the most electrifying word I can imagine. Yet consider the response. I read on: “It’s got us very freaked out,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based group that represents 11,000 companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Southern Co. The standards, which constitute guidance for agencies and not new regulations, are set to be issued in the coming weeks, according to lawyers briefed by administration officials.

“Freaked out.” You know what has me freaked out? I consider it a real possibility that millions now living will die as a result of the interests of the National Association of Manufacturers and its 11,000 members….

This time the line has not been drawn on a map. This time the enemy, if we can use the word in this context, is an American lobbyist group. They seem focused on maximizing profits and shareholder benefits, at the cost of any environmental conscience. It seems possible that their policies will lead to a different kind of seasonal calendar. Instead of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, this new generation will know Blizzard, Flood, Heat and Fire. Month follows month as the seasons tear themselves apart….

Today, the Sun-Times is a skeleton of its former self, having had several rounds of layoffs and buyouts after Conrad Black raided its accounts and the 2008 economic collapse. The economic shocks of the transition to digital media have hurt many papers, and the Sun-Times is no exception. At the time of his death, Roger Ebert was the last great link to the paper’s 1970s prominence under Hoge and its brightest internet presence (measured both in terms of his popularity and his quality).

Roger Ebert was an old-school journalist, prolific and literary, yet unpretentious and accessible. In this way he reminded me of another legendary Chicagoan, Studs Terkel. As he got older, he became more prolific, and embraced new media to reach more and different people. In the near future, his massive archive of writings will be reorganized for accessibility, but no new essays will arrive. I will miss that. We were lucky to have him as long as we did.

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