Now a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, journalist Clarence Page has covered the news for over 50 years, beginning his career in his high school newsroom and working for local Ohio publications including the Middletown Journal.
Landing at the Tribune, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist’s coverage is now a staple in households across America.
Though he refers to himself as an “old timer,” Page speaks with a chipper, youthful energy as he indulges in his “anecdotage,” his description of the tendency of sage journalists such as himself to answer questions with one of many recollections gained over a rich and lengthy career.
This long view of the profession, including living through the Civil Rights movement and being the first Black journalist in the newsroom, allows him to offer astute insights as to how radically the profession has changed over the decades. And, in some cases, how it hasn’t changed much at all.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was one of your most memorable assignments?
Today I feel like telling you about the summer of ’76 and my first overseas assignment, when I raised an impudent question. I said “Excuse me, sir, but I was just curious about how there’s an uprising going on in South Africa right now and in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] and I noticed that we have three reporters and a photographer covering the Middle East and we don’t have anybody covering Africa.” We had reporters staffing bureaus all around the planet, yet we had nobody below Cairo covering Africa. At that time in Rhodesia, South Africa, Mozambique and Angola there were civil wars going on. The managing editor was completely caught off guard. The whole room was silent and everyone was giving me side-eye. He said “Clarence, that’s a very good question and I don’t have a direct answer for you right now but I assure you I’m going to get back to you by tomorrow.”
Well, the next day I came to work and somebody said, “The managing editor wants to speak to you,” and I came to the managing editor’s office where all of the top editors were having a meeting. He said, “Oh, Clarence, good to see you. Please come on in! You’re going to be going to South Africa next week; we’re preparing your visa now.”
And you went?
That was my first overseas assignment and I was sent with the late Jim Younger for whom this was like the 49th country he had covered, and also Ernie Cox, a terrific Black photographer from Chicago. The three of us went over there like the Mod Squad! Another reporter who had been to South Africa told me that after you’ve been there for a week, you’re going to be ready to write a book. He was right. I’ve been back since and I’m ready to write two books.
How do you toggle your approach when writing about local news as compared to national news coverage?
I have to toggle constantly because my column is syndicated. When I write about Chicago affairs, I will pick a topic or an angle that is of a broader interest than just Chicago. I just did a column about a blow-up over alleged critical race theory [at Loyola Academy]. This is the same kind of red baiting that I grew up with back in the ’50s and ’60s. Other media had picked it up and nobody in Chicago was covering it except for the Evanston Township High School newspaper! Those kids did a bang-up job, too; I gave them a shout out in my column. Here is a story that as far as I’m concerned is a great local community story, but is being blown up into a national headline simply because there is a fear out there once again being generated against Black folks who want some recognition, who want some equity, who want some fairness.
Is that fear getting worse?
I have been a professional journalist since 1984 — ironically enough — and I’ve seen the public’s tastes go toward the more and more demagogic and the more and more angry. I have joined in some of this cacophony to make myself and my views more marketable, but I have found that I’m just not good at it. I tend to keep getting pulled back by my conscience or something, or somebody says, “What’s gotten into you, Clarence?” But I find that you know you can’t talk through anger without picking up some of that anger, too. And shouting matches just don’t work. So I am going the other way to try to be the voice of reason my grandmother always said I should be. Actually, I’m surprised how people really respond well to that.
Lori Lightfoot recently caused a stir in the larger Chicago press community by prioritizing Black journalists. What are your thoughts?
I reacted with a column pointing out that this was very convenient. First of all, she hadn’t brought it up during her meeting with our editorial board where we eventually endorsed her. Her concerns happened to come at her second anniversary. Indeed, it was well timed when the city is wracked with a variety of problems: its notoriously high homicide rate, disenchantment inside the police department, disenchantment with the police department, the schools — of course always the schools — unions, uprisings of different sorts around town, the COVID crisis, etc. I found it to be curiously convenient that at a time when she would love to change the subject away from these other big problems, she suddenly finds this problem with the media. A lot of us old-timers said, “Et tu, Lori?” I don’t want to say the last refuge of a scoundrel, but media bashing is certainly an early refuge.
How about the larger issue of representation in media?
We need to seriously talk about these things, because even though we have a lot more representation by people of color and women at every level of the media in Chicago, there’s still the question of equity. Not just fairness to the communities of color, but fairness to the public, as well. It is unfair to rob the public of as broad and balanced of a portrait of the city and the world that they deserve to have. And in order to do that you need to have that kind of balance inside the newsrooms, so it’s an ongoing problem. They’re not as bad as it was when I came into the business, but it hasn’t gone away.
What was it like when you came on the scene?
When I came into the business in the late ’60s, it was a time of what I call the biggest affirmative action program for Black journalists — which was urban riots. When I was in college, we had riots — the later commission reports said somewhere around 400 civil disturbances — across the country between ’65 and ’69. And most of the papers in this country didn’t have any journalists of color in their newsrooms.
I was the third Black journalist the Tribune hired in their newsroom and that was in ’69, and the Tribune was founded in 1847, so this was not exactly a new innovation. The Tribune was founded on free trade and abolition and literally sponsored the rise of Abraham Lincoln, so for the time they were a progressive newspaper, and the entire industry is like that. You had a very active Black press and when I decided back in high school that I wanted to go into journalism, I was thinking of Lewis Lomax, a great Black journalist. His notion was that he would go find stories that were too good for the white press to turn down. He even got an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro while he was still up in the hills, and Life magazine bought the story!
I was at home in Middletown, Ohio, watching TV — I used to like to watch Jack Parr at night. The late-night talk shows had Black guests on to sing and dance, but not to sit down and discuss world affairs. But Parr invited Louis Lomax to sit down on the couch and talk about stories he was working on and my attention really arched up. That was the first role model I had as far as crossing over into the mainstream press. My grandmother always said, “Just prepare yourself, because the doors of opportunity are opening up,” and I really felt like that. Years later, I looked back upon that as a key moment in my development.
I say all this to say that I’ve been the “first Black” at just about every place I’ve worked, and that was true of my generation. The same thing happened with a number of Hispanic journalists I know.
What are your thoughts on this post-truth era?
I’ve always had the idea that my job is not to cover the truth: my job is to cover facts and deliver those facts. And from those, people develop their concept of truth. In other words, I can make some statement about “you ought to go and get your vaccination” and I think that, as a fact, it’s good for you to do it. But it’s a fact backed by scientific evidence that is questioned by large chunks of people nowadays, so we have to really look at what is “credibility.”
For we in the media, our most valuable resource is our credibility. You either have it or you don’t. That’s why it’s important that we are judged by various folks. And I constantly get mail from folks who don’t believe the media, yet they are also some of my most loyal readers.
One day I was away from work longer than usual, and I was amazed how some of my biggest haters — who I thought were haters — were sending me notes asking where I was and hoping I was okay. I thought, this has taken loyal opposition to a new level!
What do you think the journalist’s role is in trying to unify our divided society?
We at the Tribune — I’ve noticed other papers, too, are doing this now — are inserting lines into their op-ed pages and opinion pieces saying “this is an opinion piece.” We’ve been doing this for the last six months at least and the reason we do it is because people don’t know the difference, or they have a fuzzy idea of the difference, or they get confused as to what’s opinion and what is news. I understand that is confusing, as I began to see this in the late ’80s. Back in the ’88 campaign, Maureen Dowd was a reporter — and a very good one. She was what we call “color reporter” in the newsroom, a feature writer you send out to give you a sense of the atmosphere at the event. She was covering Bush and some of her snarkiest comments were in her coverage. I was disturbed because I noticed that her pieces would run alongside the hard news coverage of the day, but there was no tag on it, no labeling that this is opinion and not news. And I said, you know, the last thing we ought to do is to confuse the reader.
Do you have an opinion on the incessant cancel culture debate?
I’m deeply amused by the folks on the right who still ballyhoo the cancel culture on the left, but they don’t talk about the cancel culture on the right. I’ve talked to professors who complain about being censored about their conservative views not being welcomed on campus but look at Nikole Hannah-Jones of the “1619 Project.” I’m part of a project called 1776 Unite, which some Black conservatives initiated in order to give a more positive view of Black American history focusing on our resilience and what we have done even in the days of slavery. But I don’t think she ought to be canceled or that the “1619 Project” ought to be cancelled.
So, short story long, I think cancel culture is the same old version of criticizing or trying to silence your opposition rather than to have an open dialogue and discussion, and that hasn’t changed even when the labels change. There’s nothing new about it and it’s not going to go away by itself by any means.
Panicked articles proclaiming the imminent demise of journalism have been the standard for decades. Is journalism dead?
Local journalism is under tremendous economic pressures, including my own newspaper. Even so, I can’t help but still feel, well, just fascinated. I’m not gonna project success or failure, but journalism is not dead. I’ve got way more readers now than I ever had before in my career because of the new technologies. You can reach millions of eyeballs with remarkable ease nowadays, and the question is what do you do with it?
And this is why I think how I look at journalism has been raised to a new level. Young people have a lot more control over the direction of it than we did when I was young. We wish we had that much of an ability to get our message out. But there’s also a greater responsibility than ever.
Back in my day my dad and others would say: “You can’t trust what you read in the newspapers,” so there’s nothing new about media criticism. The difference is now that more people can connect with each other, people who are disgruntled, people who don’t want to get vaccinated and believe all kinds of myths, can communicate instantly with each other. Disgruntled people can all communicate by Twitter, etc., and connect up in Washington and storm the Capitol. I predicted that kind of possibility years back. Sometimes you really hate to have your prediction come true.
Sheri Flanders work has been featured in McSweeney’s, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, Newcity, Windy City Times and more. Invited to cover the 2020 Sundance Film Festival as part of their Press Inclusion Initiative, she was also the recipient of an Author’s Fellowship at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Co-owner of Flanders Consulting, she is also an improv instructor on the faculty of the Second City Training Center.
Feature photo: Clarence Page attends the 10th Annual American Institute For Stuttering Freeing Voices Changing Lives Gala in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage)