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Alumni Spotlight: Bernie Judge, Class of 1957

February 5, 2018

In the wake of his 60th Fenwick Reunion, the newsman reflects on a storied career during the ‘Golden Age of Print Journalism’

By Mark Vruno

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Veteran newsman Bernard BernieJudge ’57 returned to Oak Park for his 60th class reunion this past September, and he was back again for a school visit in mid-December to speak with students in Mr. Rick O’Connor’s Journalism III – Broadcasting class.

Fenwick was esteemed even in his day, he told the young Friars. “About 97% of my graduating class went to college,” said Judge, who was City Editor of the Chicago Tribune from 1974 until 1983. (Later he was Editor and General Manager of the City News Bureau, Associate Editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and, until his retirement, Editor and Publisher of the Law Bulletin Publishing Company.)

The use of pens was not allowed at Fenwick in the mid-1950s, he said, because homework was to be done in ink at night. “If you were caught with a pen in school, it was a JUG demerit and a $5 fine, which was a lot of money back then!” Sure, there was a generation gap and some blank stares in the classroom when Mr. Judge referenced teletype wire services and the AP. Most of the Wick reporters also in attendance probably thought Judge was referring to Advanced Placement courses, not the Associated Press news agency. Still, the heart of his message wasn’t lost on the teenagers. After all, the esteemed journalist is highly credible.

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Bernie Judge in 1957.

Some students stayed after class to present him with a “Wick is Lit” T-Shirt and heard some fascinating accounts of investigative stories that Judge oversaw, “things that are no longer undertaken today, involving placing reporters undercover into prisons or government offices to investigate corruption,” recalled The Wick Moderator and English Teacher Gerard Sullivan. “Our editors told him about their top story of the current issue on the topic of VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] being banned by the school. He was just as surprised and confused by the new technological realities of their world as they were by the reporting of old,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Judge grew up on the South Side of Chicago and, as a 15-year-old, transferred to Fenwick from Leo High his sophomore year: “My dad’s job moved to Oak Park, so the family moved to Westchester.” He worked part time at National Tea grocery store to pay his $200 annual tuition. “Fenwick was the most expensive Catholic high school in Chicago then,” he laughed, “even more than St. Ignatius’ tuition, which was $175.”

For sophomore English in 1954, he had Fr. Dymek. “I remember him as creative, fun and demanding – an extremely good teacher,” Judge noted. “He challenged me to become a better thinker, and I learned that I had better-than-average observation skills.

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His junior and senior years, Judge had Fr. Whalen for English. “He was a tactician who made us diagram sentences and wouldn’t allow any grammatical or spelling errors,” the former student recalled, adding that he left high school with a solid understanding of language. “Fenwick made me strong in the basics,” he asserted. “I understood punctuation and knew what a subordinate clause was.”

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Attending college in Ohio at the University of Dayton and John Carroll University, then at the University of Illinois, Judge joked that his undergraduate English major “prepared me for nothing practical as far as the work world is concerned.” In ’62 he was drafted into the Army and sent to a Nike Missile site in Pennsylvania, “where I wasn’t doing much that was adventurous. I was the battery clerk, the security clerk, the mail clerk and I ran the PX [Post Exchange]. I was ordered to Viet Nam in 1963, but the orders were canceled days later because I didn’t have enough time left in the service to be sent overseas.” He added that Fenwick’s educational demands taught him some basic organizational skills that helped develop his ability to manage people, a skill that would come in handy a decade later when his newsroom staff of reporters and editors numbered 190.

VIDEO: Judge's Influencers at Fenwick

Fact-checking vs. fact-twisting

What famous writer/humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) said about newspapers in 1873 could be said of the far-reaching Internet 145 years later:

“It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people -- who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations -- do believe and are molded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.”

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In 2016 more than 80 million U.S. citizens consumed fake news -- one-quarter of the nation’s total population -- according to research results released this January by political professors Andrew Guess of Princeton University, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter. Has the content quality of most modern media regressed to what it was some 125 years ago, when Census Data reveals there were fewer than 70 million Americans?

“The media continues to plumb new depths of bad journalism,” observed Judge, “but the journalism in this country was lousy for a couple of centuries until the 20th.” The seasoned reporter is correct: Sensational journalism or “fake news” is not a 21st-century phenomenon. As far back as the mid-1890s the term yellow journalism, or the “yellow press,” was used in the United States to characterize a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news, instead using eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.

“Maybe this is just a phase,” Judge added. At least he hopes so. Today’s so-called experts are making farcical, often idiotic claims, such as: “The Atlantic Ocean is 75% too wet.” Depending on their sources, some readers even might believe that “Pole Dancing [has been] reclassified as an Olympic sport” for the 2020 Summer Games. Are such incredible, tabloid-like headlines really believable? Apparently so at times, to Judge’s chagrin for his formerly fact-based profession, leaving the scrupulous former editor to scratch his head in amazement.

Judge takes tremendous pride in the editorial content that he and his teams produced in the 1970s, ’80s and 90s. When it came to deeming stories newsworthy, there was nothing non-factual or fake about their standards. And when he retired almost 11 years ago, he never dreamed that the terms fake news and post-truth would be dictionary “words” of the year. (Oxford defines post-truth, an adjective, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”)

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Judge "holding court" in the Tribune newsroom when he was City Editor.

To him, the use of such terms as “reality-based press” and “disinformation” seems silly because news should be based on facts, not fiction. “What we published had value,” he said. Of course, news stories scoops were important to the competitor in Judge, but he says he never abused his power as the city editor of the nation’s second largest local news department.

Fake news “is a disservice to the public,” Judge told radio personality Dan Proft a year ago during an Against the Current video interview. “And, it’s threatening to our freedoms,” said the newsman who was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2000 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Headline Club two years later. (Judge also received the James C. Craven Freedom of the Press Award from the Illinois Press Association in 2007.) In Judge’s day, commentary was reserved for the op-ed pages in newspapers. “You weren’t allowed to have an opinion in a news story,” he said, “and the only way you could refute something [was] you had to have the proof. Now it’s just somebody else saying so-and-so is wrong. They have opposing viewpoints, and the story’s done. But neither viewpoint may be worth a nickel!”

The media landscape began to change with the advent of 24-hour television news networks such as CNN, which media mogul Ted Turner launched in mid-1980, Judge said. A decade later the station gained reputation significantly with its coverage of the first Gulf War. Fox News Channel became an alternative to CNN in 2002.

The public wants to get news and information it thinks is reliable, no matter the medium, but “it’s impossible to fill 24/7,” Judge critically commented. “If it isn’t an actual fact that is absolute, it becomes a controversy if somebody wants to make it into one. And in a 24-hour news cycle, controversy is the only thing that feeds the news hole.”

In our fast-paced world of 2018, “everything is confined to15 minutes of attention. There’s information overload – and it’s filled with only what you want to read: [on] the Internet, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,” he said. “I think it’s bad for the country and unfortunate for the individual when important information and news are not paid attention to. There are some really good blogs, etc., out there, but there are a helluva lot more bad ones than good ones.”

Furthermore, he said, online advertising represented the death knell for newspapers as we knew them. “Around 50 cents of every dollar we made at the Tribune was from [selling] Classified Ads,” Judge said. The Internet took away that revenue. Sustaining profitability has proved to be difficult with half the publishers’ revenue stream evaporating in a few years. The bottom line always comes down to money – or a lack of it. When margins are thin, staffs get cut, resulting in less people to check facts.

Social-justice journalism

During Judge’s Tribune newspaper tenure, members of his staffs won two Pulitzer Prizes for uncovering widespread abuses in federal housing programs in Chicago and exposing shocking conditions at two private hospitals. He directed series and projects that won more than 40 state and national awards, including the mid-1980s’ Sun-Times series by investigative reporter Charles “Nic” Nicodemus that squelched the plan to establish a new central library in Chicago and set the stage for the construction of the city’s Harold Washington Library. They were interesting times in print journalism, featuring headlines about Chicago’s riots in the spring of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation in 1974, to the arrest of serial killer John Wayne Gacy on the city’s far Northwest Side in late 1978.

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Judge developed a keen sense for sniffing out wrongdoings, especially those committed by public officials. He began his career in 1965 at City News Bureau, the longtime Chicago wire service once called “a bastion of double-checked facts.” A wire service, also referred to as a newswire cooperative or news service agency, is an organization that gathers news reports and sells them to subscribing news organizations, such as newspapers, magazines and radio and television broadcasters.

Founded as the City Press Association in 1890, the City News Bureau was a fixture in American journalism. In the days before journalism schools (Judge taught at Northwestern’s journalism school), the Bureau funneled reporters into the city's major dailies, functioning as a journalism boot camp. From its bustling offices, stories were sent through pneumatic tubes that circled Chicago’s underground to the many daily newspapers that subscribed to the bureau’s service. After 108 years of continuous operation, City News closed in 1999.

Judge started there as a “copy boy:” a junior worker who did menial tasks while learning the fundamentals of the craft. “I took a 50% cut in salary from the job I had at the 89th Street steel mill [U.S. Steel's South Works on the Southeast Side],” he recalled with a laugh. The copy boy position, rendered virtually extinct with the advent of modern publishing and printing technologies, once was an important entry point for many aspiring journalists.

One of his first jobs as an inexperienced “cub” reporter was covering a sit-in protest at Madison and State streets downtown. “Traffic was blocked, so I literally ran to the scene because I had to report on it,” he recalled to students at his alma mater. He pumped dimes into a pay telephone to relay his account to a rewrite man in the newsroom. “Rewrite men only wanted the facts,” he pointed out. “Our copy editors could be very demanding, too.” This fixation on accuracy was hammered into Judge and his youthful cohorts:

  • “Don’t tell me what you think! Tell me what you know.”
  • “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!”

The latter quotation, hence posted in newsrooms and journalism schools around the country, was uttered by the bureau’s legendary Night City Editor, Arnold “Dornie” Dornfeld, who worked there for 44 years. Dornfeld established the City News standards of double-checking everything, insisting that all facts be verified by at least two independent sources. Judge is quoted in Dornie’s 1991 obituary by Joe Kirby: “He [Dornfeld] was very special, but you were definitely afraid of him. He had no patience for excuses or silliness or stupidity.”

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Dornfeld wrote a book in 1983 about Chicago's City News Bureau.

Kirby wrote: “Mr. Dornfeld`s penchant for precision apparently stemmed from an incident early in his reporting career, in which he confused the names of two doctors. He was suspended for a week without pay. After that, former employees said, no fact was too small or unimportant on the night shift, where many of the reporters were fresh out of college and inexperienced.”

After a year of grooming, the Tribune hired Judge. He stayed at the venerable newspaper for 17 years, paying his proverbial dues and ascending up the editing ranks: promoted to Assistant City Editor and, eventually, to City Editor.

Seven editions per diem!

Daily newspapers were the kings of media, 20 and even 10 years prior to the Internet going mainstream in the mid-1990s. The nearly eight million humans of New York City could choose from among 10 significant titles on newsstands every day, plus a range of national news magazines. Chicago’s reading public sustained four major dailies: The Daily News, the Sun-Times, Chicago Today and the Tribune. At its peak, before the dot.com boom and bust, the Trib sold more than 1 million copies on Sundays and between 850,000 and 950,000 per day, according to Judge. As many as 650,000 or so newspapers were home-delivered; the rest were bought at newsstands.

In its heyday the Chicago Tribune published as many as seven daily editions, Judge reported matter of factly. “In 1974 the deadline for the late morning ‘Seven Star’ edition was 7:30 a.m. and the paper was on the street by 9 o’clock. Then there was an all-new three o’clock afternoon ‘Greenstreak’ edition, an early evening downstate edition, the first of two home-delivered editions at 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., the Sports Final and then the Sports Final Turf edition that came out about 2 a.m. and included all the scores from games on the West Coast.”

Ed Asner, the actor who played gruff-but-honorable newspaper editor Lou Grant on TV, made a surprise visit to Chicago in 1978 to observe longtime Day City Editor Don Agrella in action. The actor also sought Judge’s seasoned advice about the nuances of running a newsroom.

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Judge shakes hands with actor Ed Asner (center) in 1979.

In 1983 Judge left the Tribune to become Editor and General Manager of the City News Bureau. “I hired 36 young reporters in 18 months,” he recalls. “I promised to get them good newspaper jobs if they worked hard. Many of them went to work at newspapers all over the country – Gannett [publisher of USA Today] hired a number of them. Papers knew that City News was such a great training ground.”

In the mid-1980s Judge was hired by News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media “king,” as part of a turnaround effort at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he spent three years as Associate Editor. (Murdoch had bought the rival newspaper in 1984 and sold it two years later.)

Tim McNulty, a Tribune reporter and later an editor hired by Judge in the 1970s, remembered his old boss this way: “To me he was the quintessential City Editor, who was aggressive and eager, knew the city and loved having stories in the paper and beating the competition.”

Plain English, please -- not legalese!

Judge spent the last 19 years of his professional career at the Law Bulletin, which has served the legal profession since 1854. “The law can be complicated and filled with jargon,” he said. But his nights as a police reporter and covering legal beats in the Federal Building, criminal courts and the Daley Center helped to prepare him, as did one high-school teacher: John Spatafora, who taught a Business Law course at Fenwick in the 1950s. “That class was my only elective as a senior,” remembered Judge. “Mr. Spatafora was a great teacher who gave a general introduction into civil law – arguing for and against a legal position. We would argue, kind of like debating. But the law prevailed in the end.”

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Forty years later, his contributions to the legal field earned Judge recognition as the first recipient of Fenwick’s Annual Accipiter Award in 1997. Accipiter is a Latin word meaning “hawk.” The award is named in honor of Fr. Joseph Hren, O.P., longtime teacher of Latin at Fenwick who was known among students as “The Hawk” for his devotion to detail and accuracy and his love for Latin, the language of the Law. Several years after that Judge was inducted into Fenwick’s Hall of Fame.

Upon Judge’s retirement from the Law Bulletin, former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice, the late Thomas Fitzgerald, said, “He has endeared himself to hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyers because of his integrity. He understood it wasn’t only getting the story, it was getting it right.” The two men had known each other since the late 1960s, when Fitzgerald was a prosecutor in Cook County State’s Attorney office.

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The press does good work, Judge said, despite what U.S. President Donald Trump may say and how the “intrusive” media often is portrayed in movies. “The press exposed the Mỹ Lai [the massacre] in Vietnam” in the late ’60s,” he said. The church/priest scandal in Boston 16 years ago “would’ve never come out if not for the Boston Globe’s coverage of pedophiles.

The general public has never been a super fan of free press,” admits Judge. “People always point to shortcomings and … think it’s not done well enough or as good as it should be. But a free press is part of the [U.S.] Constitution, part of the establishment and part of our capitalist society.”

Excellent news coverage is not a product from a bygone era. “‘Frontline’ is marvelous journalism,” he told Proft last year, speaking of the PBS television documentary series. “It’s very expensive to do what they do,” he added.

 “There are some small operations that are going back to the old City News model – just nothing but facts, minutiae,” Judge noted. “Those people who are doing that are being trained under old formulas of ‘just the facts, ma’am.’ And if they can stay in and find a way to make a living, they can move us back into stronger coverage. But I don’t see that happening for a long time.”

In the meantime he urges Fenwick students, past and present, to vet the sources of what they are researching. “I challenge you to use those critical-thinking skills they teach so well at Fenwick,” he says with a smirk, eyebrows raised.

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Tom Hanks portays late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the new motion picture "The Post."

Watch it: Steven Spielberg’s journalism thriller “The Post” began playing in theaters a few weeks ago. Set in 1971, the movie stars Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, her editor at the Washington Post. Together, the duo helps to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents.

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