A Conversation with Roger Simon

 /  Jan. 29, 2015, 6:23 p.m.


POLITICO’s chief political correspondent and IOP Spring Fellow Roger Simon sat down with Staff Writer Liz Stark last spring. Simon opened up to The Gate about what he learned as a crime reporter in Chicago, how the journalism industry is evolving, and why it is important to “write beyond the moment.”

Gate: What were your first experiences with journalism as a crime reporter?

Simon: I worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago first, which no longer exists, but it was a great training ground for reporters. It was designed for reporters who didn't go to college - there were not many journalism schools at the time in the 1940s and 50s. People like Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, Kurt Vonnegut, and others started at the City News Bureau. It was owned by The Chicago Tribune and The Sun-Times. There were four newspapers owned by two families, and it was a news service for local media in Chicago. It was like the Associated Press, but it went out to the newspapers and all of the TV stations, all the radio stations. You never got bylines, so you just had to write stuff on your own. There was an office downtown by the Loop, but you didn't start there. The beginning job paid $125 a week, and as a police reporter, you would go out to the local police stations and find a kindly desk sergeant who would let you use a desk.

I'm not sure if it's still the same, but the police department had these old private phone lines, as well as an ordinary telephone, and that line was for police officers calling other police officers for information. You had to get access through the old police station and work at a desk that had that telephone. That way, you could call all the different precincts on your list that you were responsible for. Or you could catch a bus at 6:30 in the morning and go to the worst neighborhoods because that's where the crime was and that's where the stories were.

Gate: What beats did you follow as a crime reporter?

Simon: I got police, and then I got criminal courts. Courts were really fascinating - that's where I got interested in legal reporting, and I did an investigative series with another reporter at The Sun-Times on the criminal justice system in Cook County. I got my interest in that by going to “nothing” cases that no one ever covered in the major newspapers. You learned an awful lot about the law and jury, how lawyers argued. I talked to an awful lot of public defenders.

It turns out, many criminals didn't want public defenders because they thought they were no good, so they would try to get enough money to hire private attorneys. We had to hand-enter the outcome of every trial in Cook County for a year, including the person's age, race, profession if he or she had one, length of sentence for the crime he or she was convicted of, whether they had a private attorney or public defender - all sorts of things. And they were all written by hand on these little cards. There was a very good criminal court judge at the time named Dick Fitzgerald, who said that we could take the cards and make them public. So we took them. There were all sorts of very interesting results, one of which was that public defenders did slightly better than private attorneys because they were there every day doing the same cases. They don't get one murder, they get a hundred murders, while private attorneys might do one or two murders in a year. They also knew the judges because they were assigned to the same four courtrooms every day, so they knew what would appeal to each judge.

Gate: How did your career progress from a working as a crime reporter to being the chief political correspondent for POLITICO?

Simon: I didn't stay in City News long because I didn't do that much writing. I got a job in Waukegan, a factory town and a working class suburb of Chicago, and it had a newspaper owned by the Just family. The father died, and the son, Ward Just, devoted one issue of The Atlantic Monthly to one subject, one topic (such as Vietnam, which was very hot at the time). And I read it and it was just fantastic. There are little italics at the end of the piece which identify the writer - in journalism that's called a "shirttail" - and I read Just’s shirttail one day which said that he was a former Newsweek correspondent in Vietnam, and he had just inherited his family's newspaper in Waukegan, Illinois. I had never been to Waukegan, but I sent him a letter, just begging him for a job. I can cover a fire. I can cover a dead body in a river. I know how to question a fireman or a policeman. I can cover a court trial. He wrote back and told me to interview with the editors, who approved the hire.

So that was my first job, and I continued being a police reporter there because that's where everyone starts. I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. again and cover calls at home from the local towns in Illinois. Luckily, there wasn't much crime in Waukegan. Then I would have to go to the county sheriff's headquarters, and look at the traffic accident reports from the previous twenty-four hours. Every traffic accident with more than twenty-five dollars in damages, I had to write up as a story. Finally, I went to the editors and said that you can't get in an accident and not have more than twenty-five dollars in damages, so they bumped it up to fifty dollars in damages. It was that kind of job. Then from there I covered local community college news and everything else - mosquito abatement control force, I mean seriously, everything. I had clips of people going out and putting oil on the ponds to keep the mosquitoes down.

Gate: How did you shift to covering larger stories in the field?

Simon: I boldly wrote a letter to the editor saying I thought he needed to let me do a column. He said okay, as long as I kept covering the mosquito abatement control story.

So I wrote a column. I didn't know this at the time, but Roger Ebert received a copy of the paper every day. One day, I received a letter from him saying that he had been reading my columns for the past two or three months. He put them on the desk of Jim Hoge, the editor of The Sun-Times, because he thought they should hire me. To shorten a long tale, I was told I would be hired. I sold my car for three hundred dollars, and I bought a round-trip ticket. For reference, this was 1970, so Nixon was president at the time, and when he imposed wage price controls, which were of course a disaster, it meant that nobody could hire anyone. I then got a call from James Hoge saying that they couldn't hire me, but that he'll get me a job back at City News Bureau.

Gate: What happened next?

Simon: Well, I then went back to The Sun-Times from Waukegan. I covered education for a while, the school board, and then I did criminal justice reporting. Jim Hoge, who later became the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, was very interested in foreign affairs, so he sent me to marvelous places - South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon. I did foreign reporting at a very young age. I'm amazed that he let me do this kind of stuff. He gave me a column, and the rest is history. And now I write for POLITICO.

Gate: Given the hard work and dedication to research that you showed as a young reporter, what do you think of how nowadays, people take photos on their cellphones and suddenly declare themselves journalists?

Simon: I’m not bothered by the fact that everyone with a cellphone or equivalent device can call themselves journalists. Two of the biggest events of the last two elections were influenced by citizen journalists. Mitt Romney's 47% statement was captured by a bartender secretly filming it, so I guess you could call him a citizen journalist. President Obama's comments at what he thought was a private fundraiser in San Francisco, where he said that people in small towns, when they are afraid, fall back on the Bible and their guns, were recorded by a woman who was freelancing for The Huffington Post. She was another citizen journalist, and she waited three or four days because she liked Obama, and she knew it would hurt him. Her editors said it would be a good story, but they needed the audio for proof. So she released the audio and it became a big story.

Campaigns, in particular, have opened up opportunities for citizen journalists to make an impact. Stuart Stevens, who was the chief aide to Mitt Romney's campaign, told me that they were going to start doing what Obama was doing, which was that the Secret Service made people put their cell devices in a plastic bag to cut them off from outside. Some people would give them one device, but the Secret Service would then know to confiscate their additional devices. Technically, the Secret Service's function is to protect the president. I don't know whether the Romney campaign’s Secret Service would be willing to do the same. Stevens said that Romney did not want to do that. But I'm guessing that in the next cycle, in 2016, they will confiscate cell phones at the door of private fundraisers to try to deal with it.

Gate: How do you see citizen journalists interacting with a standard code of media ethics?

Simon: I would like everyone to be honest and have some basic ethics. However, I have to admit, there is no rulebook for mainstream journalists. People think there is, and that we go to page twenty-five which says this is what “off-the-record” means, and this is what “background” means, and you can't make up stuff, et cetera. There is no rulebook. There is an Associated Press stylebook, but most papers don't even follow that, in terms of whether you say "President Obama" or "President Barack Obama" in first reference. That is more grammar than anything else. So I have to admit, the rules of mainstream journalism that have existed for some decades now aren't really written down, but are sort of generally agreed upon. There is nothing to stop a person from saying that he was at an Obama rally, and he said this outrageous quote and just make it up. Of course, other journalists would get on Twitter and counter his claims, so eventually it will correct. But there is no way to stop that.

Gate: What are your thoughts on the “self-correcting” function of social media?

Simon: I don't like this self-correcting function. For example, on Twitter, people might say that there's an explosion at LAX, and the airport is shut down, with ambulances on their way. This causes a major impact if you live in Los Angeles and are about to head out for a plane. And then, twenty minutes later, you'll find out that this was a false report. So then you ask these "reporters," "Well, did you confirm the story before you went with it?" And the answer is, "No I don't have to confirm things because Twitter is self-correcting." There's this sense that if I did it wrong, then someone will tell me it's wrong, and therefore that's the way things are supposed to work. Well, I think that will just add to a general sense of chaos, and there's no way to control that. As soon as the Internet grew, there were some attempts to put controls on the information. Otherwise, it would be freedom, or anarchy, choose whichever word you want.

Gate: How is mainstream media changing?

Simon: It's still evolving. What is the mainstream media now? Some people call POLITICO mainstream media; we're seven years old. We started with five people, and I was one of them. What makes us mainstream? We do follow conventional rules of journalism: we don't make things up; we don't accuse people of things unless it's true and has been checked; if there are terrible things written about you in a newspaper, we will generally call you and ask for your comment and you're free to give your response; if we get something wrong, we'll correct it. You don't have to do that if you're running your own website or if you are a blogger.  Many people put in an asterisk to show that some information was corrected. But nothing is forcing you to do that. There was somewhat of a decision made that just because a story was on the web didn't mean that it couldn't be held to the same standards that are in the paper and vice versa.

Gate: How do you envision yourself as a journalist?

Simon: Sometimes as a crusader, sometimes as a quixotic crusader… not really expecting things to change, but hoping they will. I have written about gun control forever, and there was a time when things were looking up. Bill Clinton got a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons (that ban now is expired and Congress refuses to pass the ban again), so you don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged, but I'll keep writing about it. Sometimes things just sort of magically work. Many, many years ago, when there wasn't even a term for spousal abuse (it was called "wife-beating"), I would get calls from these women who were abused by their husbands, and they had no place to go. Shelters would hide their addresses to protect the women from husbands who came looking for them, so I would call those places. The crusade was to get the police to stop treating the calls as "domestic incidents." These were initially not treated as a crime; nobody was arrested, and they didn't take the guy into the station. They didn't want to do the paperwork, and honestly, they were probably half-sympathetic to the guy anyway. Meanwhile, the phone companies employed a majority of women as phone operators, and they were surprisingly very progressive in the late 1970s about taking their employees away from spousal abuse. And so, that's how I got in contact with a lot of women who were seeking shelter.

One thing you have to be, if you're a columnist, is relentless. Even though the public may be bored by your fifteenth column on gun control or your twelfth column on spousal abuse, you really have to stick to it. In the end, I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. I wrote about this woman, and even though she was under an alias in my article, I told her that her husband and her friends may recognize the details of her story and that she should prepare for that. In the end, she wanted to tell the story to help other women. Because what everyone asked and asks now in today's society is the same question: "Why do these women stay?" There are various answers, such as that they don't have anywhere else to go or that they have small children.  The biggest answer is that they feel guilty and responsible. It's hard, even today, for me to wrap my head around this logic, even though I've heard it fifty times from women. But it really is a factor. A lot of women who I helped get to shelters would go back to their husbands. Some I would never hear from again, others came back beaten up again. But anyway, we finally got the police to change the violence to a crime, although just a misdemeanor. But at least the police could take these guys and book them and detain them overnight. So sometimes I see myself as wanting to change things. I also did a piece from South Africa about the old days of apartheid, and my mind was blown by what I was witnessing. I wrote my book about this experience to change things and to share a story.

Gate:  In your column about the White House Correspondents' Dinner, you wrote that "Power fades and fame is fleeting". What does that mean to you?

Simon: It's very true. There are ups and downs in this profession. I was a columnist in Chicago with my picture on the sides of trucks, and I had pictures of my nieces and nephews who would point to pictures of me in the street. So I was on top of the world. And then Rupert Murdoch buys your paper, and my wife was working at the Chicago Daily News and I was working at The Sun-Times. We uprooted - she went to The Washington Post and I went to The Baltimore Sun. So you just start all over. You don't know the city, the people in the city don't know you, and you're not on top of the world anymore. Fame is fleeting. The one thing that I've tried to remember, and probably failed at part of the time, is that this is the worst thing about how people in Washington act. They believe that you don't have to be nice to people going up the ladder, as long as you don't intend to come back down the ladder. They think that they'll always be climbing up the ladder. They won't be. Those people whom they've stepped on getting up the ladder will remember that. It's a slightly more compelling way of saying that what goes around, comes around. But it's true. I'm in a good job now and I'm very happy at POLITICO, where a lot more eyeballs are on it than at a traditional political newspaper. But that could change tomorrow and anything can happen. I tell young journalists who "write for the front page" or, nowadays, "write for clicks," to write something that you're going to be proud of. Not just something you'll be proud of for twenty-four hours, but for twenty-four months and twenty-four years even. What you need to be proud of is your work and content, because your work stays with you down the line. It doesn't have to be dull, it just has to be truthful and insightful. I think that's very important - you have to write for more than just the moment. You have to look at journalism as a profession and a craft.  We are serving an important purpose. The cause of democracy, as corny as that sounds. If you can't bring information to people and people can't make choices based on judgments informed by news, then democracy really doesn't work.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Liz Stark