Mike Royko knew.
Royko, for younger readers, was a legendary newspaper columnist in Chicago. I guess I also need to explain what it meant to be a “columnist.” A columnist was an opinion-writer, but more than that: At most newspapers, they were the stars, often (but not always) the best writers, and they were called “columnists” because they would fill up most of a “column” of type on the page.
There were other legendary newspaper columnists. San Francisco had Herb Caen, New York City had Jimmy Breslin, and Chicago had Royko. For a while, Royko’s columns were syndicated to hundreds of other newspapers all over the world.
Royko first made his mark in the early 1960s at the struggling Chicago Daily News, going after targets that other journalists were afraid to tackle, including Mayor Richard J. Daley. When that paper closed, he shifted to the morning paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, that was owned by the same publisher.
But in 1984, Royko quit the Sun-Times and went across the street to work for its mortal enemy, the Chicago Tribune. It would be like the Pittsburgh Pirates leaving the National League. People were stunned — including the people who ran the Sun-Times, which promptly filed a lawsuit to block the move.
Why did Royko walk? Because Rupert Murdoch had just bought the Sun-Times.
Keep in mind that this was more than 12 years before Fox News was created. In fact, it was more than a year before Murdoch even purchased a controlling interest in 20th Century Fox itself. Most Americans didn’t know who Rupert Murdoch was.
But Mike Royko knew.
“From what I’ve seen of Murdoch’s newspapers in this country, no self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in them,” he told a TV reporter after the sale of the newspaper was announced. “They’re very, very bad papers.”
Royko also was quoted as saying, “His goal is not quality journalism. His goal is vast power for Rupert Murdoch.”
Even as the Chicago Tribune itself was playing nice with Murdoch, calling him “urbane, charming, witty, courageous and kind to his mother … a paragon of the old-fashioned Puritan work ethic,” Royko was clobbering him on the other pages, referring to him as “The Alien.”
In a pattern that’s now familiar to anyone who knows that Fox News lies (constantly, about everything), the Chicago Sun-Times refused to admit that Royko had quit and was working for the competition now.
Instead, they kept reprinting old Royko columns and insisting that he was just “on vacation.”
Royko responded in his column at the Tribune:
Around here, if someone walks into the boss’ office and says something like, “You’re kind of a disreputable character and I don’t want to work for you, so I quit and here is my resignation,” the boss would surely understand.
And the boss would say something like, “Good riddance. Turn in your key to the underlings’ washroom.”
But apparently it doesn’t work that way in The Alien’s native land. There, I suspect, when a person quits and walks out, the boss smiles brightly and says: “Ah, he has gone on vacation.”
If so, they must have some really confused payroll departments.
Royko won. The courts ruled that the sale of the paper had voided any employment contracts, and that Royko was free to walk. He (and about 60 other reporters and editors) left just in time; looking back on the sale 10 years later, the weekly Chicago Reader said that under Murdoch’s ownership, the Chicago Sun-Times went into a tailspin from which it never quite recovered.
“The Sun-Times blew its civic credibility under Murdoch, because it was inky and ugly,” the Reader said. “Readers disappeared.” Murdoch unloaded the paper in 1986.
The question is, if Royko knew in 1984 that Murdoch was a sleaze-merchant whose “news” outlets spewed propaganda and lies, why do we still insist on treating Fox News with a modicum of respect?
I was thinking about Royko in the wake of Tucker Carlson’s firing by Fox News, following the network’s decision to settle for a reported $787.5 million a lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion sued for defamation after Fox News hosts and guests lied and claimed Dominion’s voting machines were rigged to steal the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Dominion originally asked for $1.6 billion.
Fox News did not admit fault, instead issuing a fatuous statement that the company would “acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” Acknowledging that the ruling exists is not the same as admitting the ruling is true. It’s one of those non-apology apologies: “We’re sorry you were offended.”
The statement further said that the settlement “reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”
On his late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel rightfully mocked the idea that Fox News has the “highest journalistic standards,” and also made the point that getting rid of Tucker Carlson will make little difference to the network’s main purpose, which (as Royko said in 1984) remains amassing vast power for Rupert Murdoch.
“Firing Tucker Carlson doesn’t make Fox News a real news outlet any more than firing Jared made Subway a real subway,” Kimmel said.
The only question about Carlson’s ouster, as Paul Harris noted this week, is “which right-wing extremist Fox will hire to replace him and continue poisoning the country.”
In a just society, if anyone cared about journalistic standards instead of profits, no legitimate news outlet would collaborate with Fox News or any Fox owned-and-operated TV stations. They would be shunned and ridiculed.
Instead, Fox News has been allowed to take on a veneer of respectability. I suppose Fox News is professional, and almost genteel, compared to foaming-at-the-mouth propaganda machines like OAN and Newsmax.
The thing that amuses me about Tucker Carlson’s firing is that he apparently didn’t see it coming. And yet that’s how Rupert Murdoch and his on-again off-again buddy Donald Trump operate: They have no loyalty to anyone except themselves. As soon as someone is no longer of use to them, they’re kicked to the curb. Why did Carlson think he would be any different than Megyn Kelly, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly or the many other people who have been used up and then thrown away by Rupert Murdoch (like, for instance, his wives) over the past 70 years?
Royko died in 1997, when Tucker Carlson was just starting his misbegotten career, writing for The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine. So I doubt the columnist had ever heard of Carlson.
I can’t find any evidence that he ever wrote about Fox News, either, which was barely out of its larval stage.
But Royko did inveigh against TV news commentators who spread lies and hate, and about the dangers they posed. In 1995, an anchorman at a Chicago TV station — yes, the Fox affiliate — broadcast a commentary encouraging viewers to call a county judge at his home to complain about a ruling in the so-called “Baby Richard” case.
“If a TV commentator tells a large audience that someone is ‘evil’ and ‘dangerous’ and is ‘destroying the lives of children,’ that could easily be taken as an invitation for some wacko to do something about it,” Royko wrote.
“The reason this isn’t done should be obvious in or out of the news business,” he wrote. “All you have to do is look at the headlines about doctors being shot outside of abortion clinics, judges who have been shot in the courtrooms, other public people being assassinated.”
Royko called the actions of the Fox TV station in Chicago “malicious” and “obvious harassment.”
That sounds to me an awful lot like Fox News and Tucker Carlson, who from 2020 to 2022 broadcast the names and identities of poll workers whom they accused of forging ballots for Joe Biden and destroying ballots for Trump. Those lies forced some of those poll workers to go into hiding to escape death threats.
Royko wasn’t perfect. For one thing, he may have stuck around too long. Toward the end, he seemed to long for a simpler time when white men ruled the world with little regard for anyone else; the great crusader who had once taken on big targets like U.S. presidents and “Boss” Richard J. Daley began poking fun at ordinary citizens (often minorities), and his columns too often were punching down instead of up.
But in 1995, he wrote with crystal-clarity about the irresponsibility of people like Tucker Carlson.
“More and more, TV news sets its own rules, which have little or nothing to do with fairness, decency or even common sense,” Royko said.
No one with any common sense would ever accuse Fox News of fairness or Tucker Carlson of decency.
Mike Royko knew how dangerous Rupert Murdoch was, almost 40 years ago. It took the rest of us way too long to catch up.