AS THE TRIB TURNED . . . There are times when Chi Trib seems populated by graduates of politically correct campuses, editors and reporters who speak mostly to their own kind. Take Dawn Turner Trice, who as a fledgling "about 14 years ago," per her 5/3/04 column, almost got a Mike Royko column killed by complaining about his use of the N-word. "Just starting out" at the Trib while working "one Sunday evening," she "decided to read an electronic version" of the Royko column set to run the next day. "The column contained the N-word," she wrote. Royko had used it before, "often," she said, "mostly in quotes to disparage racists."
Mostly? She knows where he used it except to disparage racists? Or is she just writing sloppily?
"The tragedy," however, "was that even he couldn't understand fully how painful and demeaning it was to see it in print," wrote Turner Trice, who "honestly [did not] recall the exact point of Royko's column." Neither could she remember the name of the "white woman" editor who was not offended by the word because of its context and even after some "back and forth" between them did not kill the column.
A DIFFERENT TWIST . . . But Turner Trice apparently forgot elements of that story and maybe never knew yet others or never read F. Richard Ciccone's Mike Royko: A Life in Print (Public Affairs, 2001), in which he recounts apparently the same incident. Or she read it and forgot that too. Or Ciccone, veteran reporter and political editor and Trib managing editor, got it wrong. The odds, however, would not be with Turner Trice if she chose to enter the journalism-expertise ring with Ciccone.
The word was "monkeys," as used by cops in Los Angeles in conversation with a police dispatcher in 1991, according to a transcript which Royko obtained. "Were they monkeys?" one cop asked the dispatcher, meaning African Americans. Told they were not African Americans, he regretted the lost opportunity for some "monkey-slapping."
Royko finished the column at 6:30 Sunday night and went home, Ciccone writes. About eight o'clock "a young African American editor" discovered the column and "became incensed" over it. "She rounded up several colleagues and urged them to read it. All . . . were young; some were minorities." They complained to Carl Sotir, the news editor on duty, who agreed with them. The column was "offensive."
Sotir called Ciccone, the managing editor, who was not at home. Then he called the deputy managing editor, Howard Tyner, who ordered the column killed – the first to be killed in Royko's seven years at the Trib. Royko blew up. "I am resigning from that fucking newspaper," he told Ciccone when he reached him at home at 10:30. "Those fucking assholes killed my column. I quit."
Ciccone called the paper, listened to the column read by an assistant news editor, and said, "Put it back in the paper." This meant keeping trucks and drivers waiting, late arrivals at commuter stations, and putting a crimp in the day's sales, but presses were stopped and the column was restored. Ciccone called and told Royko, who said he quit anyway. But next day he came in as usual.
AFTERMATH . . . The column ran, and of 600,000 Trib readers none complained. The only complainers had been those staffers alerted apparently by Turner Trice, whom Ciccone does not name. The cause became celebre. Wash Post's media writer Howard Kurtz wrote it up. So did Editor & Publisher. Royko blamed "naive young staffers more interested in political correctness than good journalism" (Ciccone's words), not Tyner, who hadn't read the whole column. Which seems overly generous to Tyner: it's like the driver whose view of traffic was blocked but went ahead anyway.
It also seems overly generous of Trib managers to have given a column (years later) to a minor talent such as Turner Trice -- unable to get facts straight but willing to call up the incident, as her column lead, no less, to bolster her case against politically incorrect language. In which column she, neither sadder nor wiser, can vaguely, fecklessly recall her own inverted touch with greatness as an object lesson.