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An ‘enemy of the people’ reflects on his career and the country he lives in

“My country has changed in ways I could never have imagined when I was a young reporter.”

Sun-Times columnist Phil Kadner
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

I love this country. I love being a newspaperman. I always thought that by doing my job and doing it well I was making America a better place to live. Instead, I was told I was becoming an “enemy of the people.”

That’s how Donald Trump referred to the news media repeatedly during his presidency, and his supporters take pride in branding as “fake news” anything reported in the traditional news media. There are many who refuse to believe that Joe Biden won the last presidential election.

For most of my 45-year career I was what people refer to as a community journalist. I wrote about the suburbs south of Chicago that almost no other reporter bothered to visit: Robbins, Dixmoor, Sauk Village, Ford Heights, to name just a few.

I wrote about minority communities, poor communities, white suburbs and upper middle-class suburbs.

Dixmoor had a park district that collected property taxes for a field house, offered no park programs but had issued more than 100 badges to park district police officers and had a full-time park district police chief. It’s one postage stamp-sized park had rusted monkey bars and a swing set with no swings.

Ford Heights had undrinkable water coming out of its taps and a police department that committed most of the crime in the community.

As a young reporter I wrote about the neo-Nazi Party headquartered near Marquette Park in Chicago and often interviewed Frank Collin, its leader, who was seated in front of a flag with a swastika on it. I covered riots where advocates of white power threw bricks and bottles at Black people marching in favor of open housing.

I was a news reporter, columnist and editor but many of my colleagues focused on other things. They wrote stories about homemade foods, vegetables people grew in their gardens and high school sports teams (boys and girls). There were movie and local play reviews. The newspaper carried obituaries, a police blotter and classified advertisements, probably the most popular things in the newspaper.

The pay was poor. The hours long. There wasn’t much glory. Some years I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

I woke up screaming in the middle of the night because I thought I may have incorrectly spelled someone’s name or gotten a date wrong.

Our newspaper was repeatedly sold and over time most of my colleagues, my friends, lost their jobs.

“Good!” the woman who owned the bagel store I frequented every morning for 10 years shouted at me one day. “I hope all you people lose your jobs.”

As I was leaving, she shouted something about “fake news” at my back.

I thought of Lorraine Cook, a woman I helped launch one of the largest charity organizations in the southwest suburbs.

I thought about Alice Green, the grandmother in Dixmoor, who enlisted me in her crusade to send corrupt park board members to prison.

I thought about Frances, a 76-year-old woman, who just walked into the newspaper office one day and asked for help. She had no family. No money. But she told me she trusted the newspaper to help her because that’s what newspapers did.

And I thought about a mayor in Palos Heights who stood up to his community when they opposed the creation of a mosque. He quoted the Constitution. He quoted Christian scripture. He quoted the Pledge of Allegiance, the part about “freedom and justice for all.” He was jeered and booed by his neighbors.

I told him he would lose his bid for re-election. He didn’t believe it. He believed in the people of his community. He received a prestigious Profile in Courage Award from the Kennedy Center … after he lost that election.

I still love my country. But when I see American flags flying from the windows of automobiles that pass me on the highway or on mailboxes in my community, I wince. Those flags seem to symbolize a threat, not a promise of freedom.

My country has changed in ways I could never have imagined when I was a young reporter interviewing Frank Collin in his Nazi headquarters. And I think he would feel far more comfortable here today than I do.

After a long, storied, award-winning journalism career for the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere, Phil Kadner is retiring from writing for the Sun-Times. This is his last column.

Email: philkadner@comcast.net