‘Where should I sit?" I asked the city editor, who could barely contain a sardonic laugh. • "Uh, anywhere you want," she finally said as I looked across a sea of empty desks in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom back in March 1984. • And thus began my time working for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who had purchased the paper a few months before only to have some 60 newsroom employees — including the famed columnist Mike Royko — quit their jobs rather than draw a paycheck from someone regarded as a pariah of print.
I had no such scruples. I needed a job. As it turned out, I was among the first reporters to be hired to rebuild the newsroom.
Murdoch has been in the news a bit lately, following disclosures his naughty and now shuttered News of the World British tabloid was caught illegally hacking into thousands of cell phone accounts, including those of murder and terrorism victims, politicians, movie stars and athletes to obtain … well, who the heck knows?
This was not exactly an All the President's Men moment.
The breadth of the News of the World's indefensible electronic snooping makes WikiLeaks look downright tight-lipped.
And now Murdoch has arrived in London in an effort at damage control with his $12 billion bid to acquire British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) at some risk. But the nagging question remains: Just how much did Murdoch and his confidant, Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World, know about the tawdry hacking?
Or as a News of the World headline might read: "Rupert and Gal Pal Becka: Cheeky Fleet Street Creeps."
Did they know? It's not a simple question to answer. More likely, Murdoch and Brooks knew that they didn't want to know what they probably suspected in the first place.
During my time as a Murdoch employee, his management style could be described this way: hire people who are on the same page as the boss; let them know what's expected of them; leave them alone unless they get into trouble. After all, when you are Rupert Murdoch and you're busy trying to buy Europe, you don't have time to fret over where to put the Ann Landers column.
It would be unfair to dismiss en masse reporters, photographers and editors who have worked for the Murdoch empire as unprofessional bottom feeders who will cross any ethical line to get a story.
During my years at the Sun-Times, I worked with some truly great journalists and editors, including a Murdoch hire, Frank Devine, widely regarded at the time as the greatest executive editor in American newspapering — before lunch.
There were times we probably went too far, as when Louis Farrakhan made some unfortunate complimentary comments about Adolf Hitler during the 1984 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and the Sun-Times ran a headline along the lines of: "Jesse's Pal Farrakhan: Hitler O.K." It did not go over well in the Jackson camp.
But it is also true that on occasion a little plausible deniability came into play. Which brings us to the late Art Petacque, who, aside from the guy in the newsroom who thought he was a reincarnated penguin, had to be one of the more interesting Front Page characters I've ever met in the scribbling racket.
Art was a Sun-Times crime reporter who wasn't allowed anywhere near a typewriter. He was scarcely allowed in the newsroom. There were rumors that from time to time he misrepresented himself as a doctor, or cop, or whatever it took to get a story. Art may have started them.
Art might get a phone call telling him to leave his car parked in front of the paper at a certain time with the window down so someone could drop a file in the back seat. No questions asked. He owned an exterminating business on the side, servicing many of Chicago's hotsy-tots, which gave him access to their homes and offices. So when Art broke a story, it is reasonable to suggest many editors weren't overly concerned with how he did it.
In the 1970s, Art and Hugh Hough won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the murder of Valerie Percy, the daughter of Sen. Charles Percy. Hugh did the typing.
Murdoch sold the Sun-Times in 1986. And by 1991, Art retired. He died in 2001. Somewhere, I think, in that vast city desk in the sky Art Petacque has watched the unfolding kerfuffle surrounding the News of the World scandal and thought to himself: "Imagine what I could have done with cell phones! If only I knew how to use one."