Roger Ebert, who died on Thursday, was more than just a legendary film critic. He was also a newspaperman who loved the journalism industry, and fiercely criticized those he thought were sullying it.
Ebert published his own (very hyperlocal) paper, called the Washington Street News, when he was, as he put it, barely old enough to write. From then on, journalism was in his blood.
Ebert got his first newspaper job when he was fifteen, working for a local paper in Illinois.
"To be hired as a real writer at a real newspaper was such good fortune that I could barely sleep," he wrote in his 2011 memoir, "Life Itself."
He also edited his high school paper. When he went to college, he edited the newspaper there, the Daily Illini.
But it was his nearly 50-year tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times that would make him an icon. Ebert started as a general writer before being offered the film critic's job relatively out of the blue. In "Life Itself," he wrote about the atmosphere of the Sun-Times in those early days:
The city room was a noisy place to work. Typewriters hammered at carbon-copy books that made an impatient slap-slap-slap. Phones rang the way phones used to ring in the movies. Reporters shouted into them. They called out “Boy!” and held up a story and a copykid ran to snatch it and deliver it to an editor. Reporters would shout out questions on deadline. “Quick! Who was governor before Walker?” There were no cubicles, except for Royko’s. We worked at desks democratically lined up next to one another, row after row. Ann Landers (actually Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere else in the building but insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos, next to the TV-radio critic, Paul Molloy.
Though he had not intended to become a film critic, Ebert stayed in that role for the rest of his life. He also stayed with the Sun-Times through thick and thin. He saw the paper bought by tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black; saw it teeter on financial precipice after financial precipice; and, through his partnership with Gene Siskel, became the most famous embodiment of its storied rivalry with the Chicago Tribune.
Though he would eventually become more famous and powerful than any of his colleagues, Ebert stuck with them when they battled management. In one memorable exchange, he emailed the Sun-Times publisher with a vow to join a potential strike:
It would be with a heavy heart that I would go on strike against my beloved Sun-Times, but strike I will if a strike is called.
The recent revelations about Hollinger mismanagement have left me feeling betrayed, and I know they did you, too. There were obviously millions of dollars winging away to the Radler and Black billfolds while we worked in a building where even basic maintenance was ignored.
I realize I am not underpaid. Far from it. I do not anticipate getting a raise under a new contract. But I have been a Guild member since 1967 and I will stand with my fellow Guild members if this comes to a crisis.
I hope a reasonable solution can be found that will prevent a strike at this crucial time in the paper’s history.
Best, Roger Ebert
When Rupert Murdoch, who owned the Sun-Times for several years, was facing the worst of the phone hacking scandal in 2011, Ebert unloaded:
It is therefore with a great deal of satisfaction that I observe the Alien's current troubles. This man has done more to harm journalism in America and Britain than any other person. I cannot speak for Australia. In the U.S., where his newspaper holdings are limited to the New York Post and the (actually good) Wall Street Journal, his damage has been done with Fox News, the first deliberately and unapologetically biased and partisan network in American history. You disagree? Be my guest.
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