Man of the Third World
No, said Bill Mullen, I was never a seminarian. He's not Irish, it turns out, and he's not Catholic. Three generations ago in Norway, the family name was Mulen.
Well, anyway, we said to Mullen, you're one of those reporters, albeit a Lutheran, whose careers we have the feeling began with a set of vows. Witness. Austerity. Self-denial.
He'd heard fancy talk like this before. "It's not self-denial, exactly," said Mullen, then thought twice about his latest assignment. "Well, this one sort of was. Because by the time someone told me I could do it, I wasn't sure I wanted to. Because I was married and had a little baby and I didn't know if I wanted to be gone that long. That was real hard--being away from my kid."
By "this one" Mullen meant his latest immersion in the third world. Mullen was nine months on the road reporting "Caught in the Middle," his series on the world's political refugees that ran last week in the Tribune's Sunday magazine and Tempo section. "The refugee thing was always done piecemeal," Mullen explained. "Somebody would do a thing on the Palestinians, or something on the Eritreans, or the boat people, and to me it was a worldwide phenomenon and what everybody was ignoring was the sheer longevity of these camps and populations."
He'd started pitching the story at the Tribune in 1980, and finally gave up once he was married and not sure he wanted to do it any longer. But three years ago, Mullen said, the editor of Sunday, Mary Knoblauch, asked him if he had a wish book. Mullen dusted his off, and sure enough, there, still in it, was the plight of 13 million refugees.
The first leg was the hardest, three and a half months in Israel and then down into Africa. Sunday couldn't afford a photographer so Mullen went alone.
"I went into Uganda, and while I was there a couple of people from the Nairobi press corps showed up to do a couple of stories, and they couldn't believe that I was going to spend three weeks in Uganda by myself. Because nobody likes to go in there. Not that it's dangerous or anything. I mean, there were gunfights and that sort of thing going on, but you get used to it--I've been doing that most of my career. But so long as they don't come into your hotel--" and Mullen chuckled. "You lay low at night when they're wandering around.
"It's just very hard to get anything done there. But that's true of Africa--all those governments are so petty. They want you to go through several different ministries to get accreditation. That always takes several days. And then once you get all that done, logistically it's real expensive. There just isn't public transportation available, so you either catch rides from relief workers or you rent your own vehicles, and I was on a real low budget so I had to cadge rides everywhere. So that means going around and schmoozing different voluntary agencies . . . and, you know, generally they were glad to have somebody new in their presence. But it gets old real fast.
"In the Sudan I would spend like seven working days just getting credentials to get to a place, and finally I would get to a camp and it was like ten in the morning, and the camp commandant wanted to talk to me so I spent an hour just talking to him, and he says OK, go ahead, so I went over to the center of camp and these people had put up their own kind of market, so I started taking photos and this Sudanese policeman comes running after me telling me I couldn't do any work because I didn't have any papers. I just blew my stack. I only had--after seven days of doing this--effectively five hours in this camp, and I bodily [Mullen chuckled] threw him into the car to take him back to the camp commandant--who'd disappeared.
"It's a lot easier to work with a photographer, where each of you keeps the other guy going when he's down. So that three-and-a-half-month trip was real hard."
Mullen came home for Christmas and then went but again--this time with a photographer--to Pakistan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. His third trip, alone, was to Central America. Since June he's been home writing the series.
From 1968 to 1972, Mullen worked a nine-to-five shift at the Tribune. Nine PM to 5 AM, that is. Weekends too. "I'd been too blunt with one city editor whose name I won't go into," he explained. "When I got out it was like I'd been in a time machine. The whole world had changed. I didn't know how to talk to women, or anything."
He got out because George Bliss, the head of the Tribune's task force, had a chance to move a reporter in undercover at the Board of Elections. He needed someone good that no one at City Hall would recognize. Who else? Besides, Mullen has a doughy, everyman's face you wouldn't remember even if you had seen it before. He really does look like a file clerk.
The expose won the Pulitzer Prize.
"So I did that," said Mullen, "and you know the rumor mill was that Daley was going to try to have me indicted. So I bought an around-the-world ticket, to lay low, and I decided to stop in Vietnam for three days. Just to see it." This was the autumn of 1972, when Henry Kissinger was trying to nail down a peace treaty, and the Tribune asked Mullen to stay and help out their man in Saigon.
"And it was just so thrilling to be a journalist overseas. I mean I never had wanted to be an overseas reporter. I had run into a Paris correspondent a couple of years earlier and I felt sorry for him, because he could never watch the Bears or the Cubs. But after a couple of weeks of working in Vietnam, I decided that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
In 1975, Mullen and photographer Ovie Carter traveled to Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Their series on world famine was Mullen's idea. It won another Pulitzer. In 1978 the Tribune stationed him in London. "That wasn't what I--I don't like going to cover NATO meetings and OPEC meetings," Mullen said. He wanted to be back in the third world.
"I just like the stories more," said Mullen. "They're just--I don't know--it kind of cuts through the bullshit and gets down to the real human elements of the world. I can understand what's happening in Rwanda more than what's happening in a NATO disarmament conference--something about throw weights and missiles and stuff like that. And in the end, Rwanda probably has more significance as to where the world's going anyway. This might sound silly, I suppose, but there were a few reporters hanging around Vietnam in 1959 who would probably say the same thing."
("In the late 50s," Mullen wrote in "Caught in the Middle "when Rwanda was still a Belgian colony, the Belgians ruled the tiny, mountainous country through the Tutsis, though they made up only 10 percent of Rwanda's population. Just before granting Rwanda independence in 1959, however, Belgium switched its backing from the Tutsis to the numerically dominant Hutu tribe, liberally arming it with modern Belgian weapons. Immediately after independence, the Hutus went on a rampage against the Tutsis. The five-year massacre left 100,000 Tutsis murdered and forced 300,000 to flee to neighboring countries.")
Not many reporters make it to the Tutsi camps in southern Uganda.
"They were incredibly hard to work with because well, they were afraid," said Mullen. "They wouldn't let me photograph them. I remember going into the first camp there, and the camp director insisting that the elders come and look me over before they'd kind of decide whether to cooperate with me. And they were incredulous that not only didn't the rest of the world know what had happened in Rwanda in 1959 which forced them to leave, but they couldn't believe that I didn't know." Mullen chuckled.
"I was asking them for background information," Mullen went on, "and they just thought the whole world knew about them and their plight. And they got very angry with me, thinking that I was really--well, thinking that I was what I was."
Labor update at the Sun-Times, now that a 145-to-4 strike authorization has focused everyone's minds:
After concessions on both sides, management is asking Newspaper Guild employees to take an 8 percent pay cut. The Guild wants a 7 percent raise. Management still wants to eliminate the 10 percent night salary differential. So there's a lot of ground to cover and not much time to cover it in. The Guild leadership has made it pretty clear that the right time to walk out would be just before the elections.
A strange notice went up on the Guild bulletin board a couple of weeks ago. It said that acting publisher Charles Price had met with 20-some Guild-exempt editorial employees and told them not to worry about a strike. Management didn't want one, and both sides would back down at the last moment. Management's purpose in asking for pay cuts, Price reportedly explained, was to end up with a contract that maintained the status quo.
Obviously Price expected his remarks to be passed on. "We see this as part of a mind game," says Tom Gibbons, chairman of the Sun-Times Guild unit. "We see this as a psychological thing to get our guard down."
A reporter we've known for years told us, "The reaction was 'Aw shit! You don't realize how mad we are. How militant everyone is. How pissed off everyone is.' Actually, we're more disgusted than angry, and sort of resigned to strike. Most people expect it to go to strike. They expect the company to come in at the last moment with a zero-zero-zero offer [for three years] and the reaction will be 'Fuck you!' There are very few nervous Nellies, very few."
Another bulletin board update informed the rank and file that Victor Strimbu Jr., the lawyer who does most of the talking for management, had revealed at negotiations that the paper intends to "take apart the editorial unit." Strimbu then denied saying such a thing, although Gibbons tells us "four journalists on our side wrote it down." The pleasant remark was occasioned by a recent Forbes article on the competition that management negotiators handed across the bargaining table. Tribune Company profits have been increasing by 23 percent a year, although revenues have risen just 9 percent, said Forbes. At the Tribune proper, "the full-time equivalent work force is down 25 percent to 3,600. The goal: 3,000."
"Strimbu was saying they wanted to do that [too]," Gibbons told us. "We argued, you've reduced the editorial staff already by nearly 20 percent."
The next few days should be exciting ones at the Sun-Times. After a pause, negotiations were to resume Thursday. And Sunday's the company dinner dance on Navy Pier. It should be a lovely evening if everything's settled; since everything almost certainly won't be, the Guild will probably picket.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.