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Trump mess recalls an old lesson

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
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Updated 19 hours ago

When I was a young reporter, in a climate full of great political change and anger and revenge and sniping from the shadows that was very much like the Washington of today, I learned a valuable lesson about sources.

In the hyperpartisan atmosphere of Washington, where President Trump threatens the establishment and the establishment fights back, and speculation and anger run wild, the political motivations of sources are kept secret from readers and viewers of news.

Reporters know the motivations of their sources. They can be noble whistleblowers or craven political operatives — or both at the same time. It doesn't matter.

Sources provide a valuable service in a free republic and offer what journalists live on: information.

And it was information that came to the Chicago Tribune in the early years of then-Mayor Harold Washington's first term.

Washington was the city's first black mayor, fighting with the established white Democrat power structure of Chicago led by Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, who is now, even at his advanced age, facing federal criminal tax charges.

Liberal historians call it a racial thing. Vrdolyak was the leader of the white bloc, the so called “Vrdolyak 29,” but there was more to it than race. It was about power.

Washington had a meeting with an ally, James “Skip” Burrell, asking him not to run for the office of 3rd Ward alderman, which was held by a ridiculous personality, Ald. Dorothy Tillman, who once reportedly waved a handgun at voters.

Her wild talk often embarrassed Washington and made it easy for his opponents to lampoon him.

In their conversation, Washington mocked Tillman, but he told Burrell that he needed her where she was. What Washington didn't know was that Burrell had a tape recorder in his pocket, and the recording made its way to Mike Sneed, now a columnist at the Sun-Times but then a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune's editor then was James Squires, who'd spent years in Washington. He was a mercurial personality who often terrified his deputies and thrived on what he called “creative tension.”

He had a thick Tennessee drawl when he wanted, and he used that drawl in a meeting of the political reporters when the Tribune was about to publish the transcript of the damning Washington tape.

He said we'd print it, but he also said that we'd say where it came from: the Vrdolyak camp.

I don't remember his exact words but I do remember the reactions of older reporters after we left the room.

They were furious. They snapped their suspenders. They stubbed out their smokes. They turned red.

It was a huge story in a city torn apart by politics, much as Washington is torn today. And the old-timers asked: How could we burn our sources? How would anyone talk to us again?

But Squires understood what was important. It wasn't the sources. And it certainly wasn't the feelings of politicians. It was all about our readers — and our credibility.

I'm certain that on occasion I haven't disclosed the motivation of every source I've used since then, but I haven't forgotten the lesson: On stories like that one about the mayor, or stories like those of today, involving intelligence leaks against the president, telling the consumer of news about the motivations of those doing the leaking wouldn't hurt. It wouldn't hurt at all.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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