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UPI RIP/A Very Bad Idea/News Bites

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UPI RIP

When civil rights shifted in the late 1960s from integration to nationalism, UPI proposed a roundup story on the new militancy. Reporters in every urban bureau were instructed to go out and find the angriest black in town.

I got the assignment in Saint Louis. After asking around, I interviewed a graduate student at Washington University named Joyce Ladner. She was from Mississippi, and her rage ran deep. Unfortunately for the project, it also ran to moral, measured, nuanced expression. In the years ahead Ladner would publish several books on black family life and for a time in the 90s serve as interim president of Howard University.

Uneasily, I submitted her quotes. Sure enough, the rage UPI was looking for ran more along the lines of "Up against the wall, you fat-ass honkies." Find someone else, said headquarters.

Whenever I remember my two years at United Press International I think of this dubious project. Still, they were good years. I was so young and ignorant that I could be paid virtually nothing and think it a fortune. And if UPI journalism wasn't deep it was wide. Somewhere in almost every major city on earth a door opened onto a bureau full of chattering UPI teletypes, a door I was entitled to open.

Today former Unipressers are connected by the Downhold listserv. UPI was cheap, and there were standing orders to "downhold" everything--expenses, travel, overtime. Downhold is a pungent mix of the alums' recollections and commentary. These worldly old hands lost their illusions so long ago they wouldn't know where to look for them, and when they sound off on war or politics or celebrity, they strike me as possibly the sanest people on earth.

UPI never made any money, and in the early 90s, when it was clear the wire was doomed, a former managing editor, H.L. Stevenson, decided a history should be written. Stevenson would die after finishing an introduction, and his widow passed along the materials to Richard Harnett, who'd spent 36 years in the San Francisco bureau, published a newsletter for UPI veterans, and founded Downhold. Harnett's own health failed in the mid-90s, and in 1997 he asked Billy Ferguson to give him a hand. A Unipresser 40 years, Ferguson had run the national radio desk in Chicago before becoming a last-gasp managing editor in Washington. Today he teaches journalism at Columbia College.

"We completed the manuscript just before Dick died in 2001," Ferguson, now 77, says. "A former UPI person had a strong connection at Kinko's. They took the manuscript and made a dummy book out of it, and it was delivered to Dick in a VA hospital within a week of his death."

That manuscript was about 500 pages long. Ferguson cut it by a third, and Unipress: United Press International Covering the 20th Century has just come off the presses of Fulcrum Publishing in Golden, Colorado. (The house was touted to Ferguson by somebody on Downhold, and one way to buy the book is through its Web site, fulcrum-books.com.)

The book's story begins in 1907, when publisher E.W. Scripps founded United Press to compete with the Associated Press, which served only the papers that owned it. The other was Hearst's International News Service, launched in 1909. The two wires merged in 1958 to become United Press International. The book ends 40 years later. "In '99, the CEO of UPI at the time, Arnaud de Borchgrave, announced that the world no longer needed two redundant wire services," Ferguson explains. "Instead UPI would service markets on the Internet."

In name it still exists, as a sketchy, Internet-based news service with a few scattered bureaus and reporters working out of their homes. I ask Ferguson if the story after 1999 is too heartbreaking to tell. "The period from 1990 to 1999 was pretty heartbreaking too," he replies. "But in 1907 UP started as a wire service, and in '99 it ceased being a wire service. I think that's a logical span of life."

Reasonable people can disagree on when the heartbreak began. I'd pick 1982, when the Scripps-Howard chain, sick and tired of propping up a losing proposition, sold it off for one dollar, and UPI lost forever the quality it needed most (after money)--stability. The new owners, Douglas Ruhe and William Geissler, ran a few TV stations in Tennessee and were totally unknown to the staff they'd inherited. Both were Baha'is--not for the last time, Unipressers fretted about their service becoming the tool of a faith--and in over their heads. By 1984 UPI was in bankruptcy court.

It emerged in the hands of Mexican publisher Mario Vazquez-Rana, whose regime was complicated by the fact that, as Unipress notes, he "was spending his 18-hour days in Mexico City to avoid logging more than six months in the United States and paying U.S. taxes." By 1987 Vazquez had lost operating control to Earl Brian, a surgeon turned info-age entrepreneur who would be convicted of fraud a decade later. Between 1982 and 1987, Unipress says, the staff of UPI dropped from 1,800 to less than 900, the client base from 4,500 to less than 2,400.

In 1987 Ferguson was named managing editor, as Brian tried to right UPI by putting the old guard in top positions. In 1990 Brian ordered wholesale cost cutting, and Ferguson was fired. In 1991 UPI was back in bankruptcy court. For a time the only one interested in bidding on the assets was Pat Robertson, owner of the Christian Broadcasting Network, but after performing due diligence, his bid dropped from $6 million to $500,000. In the end, a Saudi outfit called the Middle East Broadcast Centre Ltd. of London bought the company.

In 1998 the Saudis hired Arnaud de Borchgrave, the former editor of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, as its CEO. De Borchgrave was an experienced foreign correspondent, but Unipress points out that his exclusive interview with Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic went almost unnoticed because by this point UPI had lost virtually all its newspaper clients. It had held on to some 400 radio clients, but in 1999 UPI sold these contracts to the AP. "It is time to move on," said de Borchgrave, explaining that UPI would from that day forth exist only on the Internet.

And so the book ends. Its last words are: "The day had finally arrived. Associated Press reporters no longer needed to hurry to the phone." This sentiment carries to a bitter conclusion the book's theme of UPI as doughty underdog, though AP reporters would have been astonished to learn they could now take it easy. The cover story of the April 21 Editor & Publisher describes a new boss, Thomas Curley, taking over the AP "in a media world that's changed dramatically over the last two decades. There's more competition, for one thing." Editor & Publisher lists some of it: Reuters, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images, Stats Inc., Pinnacor Inc., plus "the sprouting of nonstop news everywhere, from cable TV to personal digital assistants."

In 2000 the Saudis sold the remains of the service to the Reverend Moon's Unification Church. At that point UPI, by its own count, was down to 157 employees, and the only one of them anyone had heard of, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, promptly called it a day.

"After 1982," says Ferguson, "we didn't have any of the backing we really needed. Mario Vazquez was the only one with any financial resources, and he had a total misunderstanding of what American journalism was. He had a lot of money, and he thought he could make UPI profitable doing a lot of the stuff he'd done in Mexico, basically using his political clout and getting the kinds of contracts that paid big money. But when he came here he didn't have clout, he didn't speak English, and he basically didn't have any understanding of what American society was all about. He was totally out of his league."

Ferguson goes on, "I would assume that there's still some good journalists working in the company and they're trying to make a go of it. After Scripps-Howard sold it, until I was fired, I worked my butt off trying to see if we could save the company. There are still some people trying to do that, and it's good they get a chance as long as someone's paying them--and the Reverend Moon does make sure of that. They don't get paid much, and they don't have many creature comforts, but they do get paid."

He isn't sure what they're paid to do, since it isn't clear to him what today's UPI is. "Nobody can figure out where the hell it's going," he says. "Unfortunately, I don't think that's exclusive of the people at UPI. I don't think UPI's current management has drawn any kind of a battle plan that people understand."

The UPI Web site says the service offers a combination of "news, commentary, and in-depth analysis." I called the chief of UPI's Chicago bureau, one of the few that still exist, hoping she'd elaborate. She gave me the name of someone in Washington who had a handle on the operation. He was on vacation.

A Very Bad Idea

When Jim Edgar announced he wasn't going to run for the Senate, a talking head I came across during my channel surfing shrewdly explained why: "The Democrats were prepared to muddy his image."

This was the new conventional wisdom, superseding the old CW that Edgar could cakewalk to Washington. As Steve Neal wrote April 18 in the Sun-Times, "The Republican nomination is his for the asking and he would have a decisive edge over any prospective Democratic rival."

Neal had forgotten Edgar's health issues and the once-too-many-times-around-the-track issues that confront any politician who comes out of retirement for a last hurrah. Mainly he'd forgotten how muddy the track would be. And it wasn't Democrats but Thomas Roeser, a powerful moral voice among conservative Republicans, who posted the first signs announcing "quagmire here."

In an essay in the April 26 Sun-Times Roeser assured us that Edgar wouldn't look invincible once he came under fire. Edgar was secretary of state just before George Ryan, and Roeser found it hard to believe that the office was squeaky clean until Ryan took it over. Then there was Robert Hickman, the Illinois Tollway director who raised millions of dollars for Edgar's campaigns and was convicted of theft on Edgar's watch.

And what of Management Services of Illinois, Edgar's single most generous political benefactor? Roeser wrote that according to the Better Government Association, on whose board Roeser sits, MSI received "illegal, super lucrative 'no bid' government contracts that ended up defrauding Illinois taxpayers of more than $7 million." These contracts were negotiated "by the governor's closest aides."

Roeser wondered whether President Bush, who'd urged Edgar to run, really wanted another moderate Republican senator who supported abortion rights and might oppose Bush's tax cuts. The nomination was supposed to be Edgar's for the asking, but a lot of conservative Illinois Republicans weren't eager to elect him. When the conservative Web site www.illinoisleader.com asked "If socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative [Edgar] ran for US Senate against socially-conservative, fiscally-liberal Glenn Poshard (D), for whom would you vote?" the response was Poshard by a margin of almost two to one.

When Edgar announced on May 9 that he wasn't going to make the race, he called Illinois politics a "blood sport" he didn't want to play any longer. Crain's Chicago Business immediately linked his decision to yet another fetid issue: the collapse of Kemper Insurance, which for the last four years has paid Edgar more to sit on its board than he ever made as governor.

If Neal had overlooked all this baggage when Edgar was asked to run, he was damned if he'd acknowledge it after Edgar said no. If he'd made the race, Neal insisted this past Monday, "he would have been a solid favorite."

News Bites

Here's a letter to the Sun-Times. It was written by Rob Neufeld of Northfield:

"How quickly we forget. Remember that now-infamous picture of Michael Dukakis sitting atop a tank? He was criticized, humiliated and railroaded right out of the election. Now George W. Bush pulls an equally transparent public relations stunt by posing as a jet fighter/war hero. Not only was he not justifiably ridiculed, he was applauded and practically deified."

It was a copy editor's assignment to write a headline bringing this Bush-bashing outburst into line with the paper's fawning editorial policy. Aside from doing that, the headline didn't have to make sense.

The solution spotted in the May 9 Sun-Times:

"No tolerance for Dem antics."

Thanks to a perfect file photo and clever design work, the front page of RedEye on May 6 was dominated by a huge, dark twister that seemed to be sucking everything on the page into it. "When you see the logo askew and the bottom of the page askew, it's clear this isn't reality," said Patrick Olsen, RedEye's deputy editor.

What about the tornado itself? "We darkened it and gave it unnatural coloring," said Olsen. "We made it more like The Wizard of Oz than real life." Very tiny print in the bottom left corner said, "RedEye Photo Illustration." Olsen explained, "We want to be up-front with readers that this is not a picture of reality."

But student journalists at the University of Chicago Lab School thought that reality is always supposed to be the idea. Their instructor, Wayne Brasler, called and left a message. "My kids kept saying, 'Is this just a tornado from the files?' I said, 'Could be.' And they said, 'So this is what newspapers become--we use any tornado, not one that really happened in the news?' And I said, 'Could be.'"

Though some of his students might even grow up to work for the Tribune, Brasler doesn't see his job as knocking this naivete out of them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.

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