John Madigan: Chicago’s sharp-tongued press critic

The first time I ever heard the word “curmudgeon,” it was used to describe John Madigan. I never knew him as a younger man, but by the 1980s in his glory at Newsradio Sssssseventy-eight (that was how he signed off his reports), the label seemed to fit.

Madigan’s death in Florida at 94 was reported Tuesday by the CBS-owned stations where he spent the second half of his 50-year career in Chicago journalism. Before he was news director at CBS 2 and political editor at all-news WBBM-AM (780), he’d been a reporter and editor for Chicago’s American and a Washington correspondent for Newsweek.

“John Madigan is one of the great men of American journalism,” his boss, Gregg Peterson, said when Madigan retired in 1988. “He is one of the very few reporters to have worked for newspapers, television, magazines and radio.”

Not many Chicago newsmen enjoyed such rich and full careers in their hometown. But the John Madigan I remembered Tuesday always seemed angry or perturbed about something or someone. That came through in his political commentaries and especially in his daily critiques on the media (or “the press,” as he generally called the Fourth Estate).

The only time I saw him turn on the charm was when he was asked about his famous daughter, actress Amy Madigan, or his son-in-law, actor Ed Harris. Otherwise it was all vinegar.

Two of his favorite targets were media people who park illegally (he once went after Robin Robinson with a vengeance) and those — especially newscasters from out of town — who mispronounce “Chicago” (he insisted it should be “Chi-CAW-go”). He waged both crusades with gusto for more than a decade.

When the city saluted movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert by naming the street adjacent to their old CBS studio on McClurg Court “Honorary Siskel & Ebert Way,” Madigan wrote an op ed piece in the Sun-Times objecting to the designation, calling it “an insult to Fahey Flynn, P.J. Hoff, John Harrington, Les Atlass and so many more who led CBS to greatness in Chicago, in both radio and television.”

As merciless as Madigan could be on his colleagues in the media, he was fiercely loyal to and protective of those in power — none more so than Mayor Richard J. Daley and John Cardinal Cody. He could always be counted on to rise to their defense no matter what criticism was leveled at them.

In his role as news director at CBS 2, Madigan was responsible for recruiting a young Walter Jacobson in 1963 (and also hiring Bill Kurtis, Harry Porterfield and Johnny Morris). But in his memoir to be published later this year, Jacobson recalls being pressured by Madigan to tone down his tough reporting on the first Mayor Daley.  “He’ll never admit it, and I’ll never prove it," Jacobson writes, “but I believe he receives mayor messages, delivered not by Daley himself, which would be a dumb thing for the mayor to do, and he doesn’t do dumb things, but by trusted insiders with whom Madigan, more often than other news executives, shares prime rib at quiet bars and chophouses.”

By the 1980s, his relationship with Jacobson had become less than cordial. “I haven’t talked to him in over 10 years,” Madigan said. “He’ll say hello to me in the halls [at CBS], and I’ll just ignore him.” Madigan apparently wasn’t much more fond of Kurtis, calling him “a bust since his return from New York.”

On the occasion of his 50th anniversary as a newsman and commentator in 1987, Madigan was honored at a testimonial dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton and Towers. No one thought it was odd that the 12 speakers that night included all of the top politicians in the city and state — from the mayor and the governor on down. And no one thought it was odd that not one journalist was on the program.

After he officially retired from CBS, Madigan became spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court. Despite taking on the government job, he continued to host the weekly At Issue newsmaker program on Newsradio 780 for the next nine years. The irony was not lost on those who recalled how he relished pointing out others’ conflicts of interest.

Whenever he was questioned about his own ethics (such as the time he accepted money from Teamsters Local 705 to narrate a promotional film and then delivered commentaries about press coverage of the Teamsters), he’d simply shrug it off. In the end, I don’t think he cared what his colleagues thought of him.

“The news business sits in judgment — as judge and jury — of every other phase of society,” Madigan once told me in an interview. “And yet they are so thin-skinned themselves. It’s hypocrisy for them to do stories of people leaning on their shovels or to criticize what others do and then ask special favors themselves. They’re the first to jump on labor leaders or entertainers or politicians when they want special treatment. The arrogance of it.

“I get exercised when I see or hear things that are unfair or sloppily done or are what I consider unfair attacks. All I hope they put on my tombstone is: ‘He was fair.’ That’s all I want.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)