Averting his gaze from the wreckage

Robert Feder, trusted chronicler of Chicago media, calls it a day.

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Robert Feder, media critic at the Sun-Times for 28 years.

Robert Feder, media critic at the Sun-Times for 28 years, went on to work at WBEZ, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald and Crain’s. He retired this week.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-TImes

“Did you ever give interviews?” Eric Zorn asked our lunch guest. “Did you ever appear on panel shows?”

No, of course not. He didn’t want to be beholden to them.

“So this is an opportunity ... ”

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An opportunity to Zorn, the former Chicago Tribune columnist. Me, I thought we were having lunch with our old friend, Robert Feder, to celebrate his retirement after 42 years as the unblinking eye chronicling Chicago media.

If anything significant happened in TV, radio or print, Feder typically had it first. “Hustle, tenacity and humility,” said the Daily Herald’s editor, summing him up well.

Zorn, a keener judge of news than I, suggested we conduct a kind of exit interview. That sounded like work, but OK. We both turned on our digital recorders after we settled into a booth at L. Woods Tap in Lincolnwood on Tuesday.

“We are all working in isolation, we’re all working at home,” Feder began. “The newsroom is all a myth. It’s an idea in the past. And so you decide how long can you keep your sanity and keep pretending you’re part of a larger thing.”

Sounds right. Why retire now?

“For every reason. Everything came together at once,” he said. “Within the last five or six years, I lost both my parents and my wife. If that doesn’t start you to think about how short life is, what happens when the last day comes, and there’s no tomorrow ...”

He has nothing lined up. No plans.

“That’s the only way to know what’s really out there,” he said. “And to take a real break. You go from one thing to another.”

Feder, 66, attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. After graduation, he went to work for the Lerner chain of suburban newspapers. Then in 1980, he was tapped to be assistant to Gary Deeb, the caustic syndicated TV columnist the Sun-Times had poached from the Trib. Two years later, he was given his own column.

“You didn’t try to imitate Deeb,” said Zorn. “Why?”

“I liked to think I learned as much about what not to do as what to do,” said Feder. “It was invaluable to learn how to write a column, how to read a ratings book, how to develop sources. All that, I owe him. But I also saw some of the things around me, I said to myself, if I was ever in that position, how to do that differently.”

Feder strove to focus on the story instead of focusing on himself.

“I never wanted to make it about me,” he said. “I was conscious about that.”

If Deeb’s stuff was illuminating, his work also was lit by the glow of burning bridges.

“It was great to read,” said Feder. “It was very entertaining if it wasn’t about you. But every time you do that you narrow the opportunity for that organization to trust you and want to share that truth with you.”

Alas, I can’t relate most of our nearly two-hour conversation — Zorn posted an edited transcript online. The crux is that Feder grew weary of being the zookeeper responsible for a fading menagerie of dying animals.

“All the businesses I’m covering are in decline,” he said. “All three business models are broken, for television, radio and newspapers. Everything’s changing, and unless I really want to devote myself to learn about it and learn the people and learn where things are going, I think I would be doing a disservice by continuing. So it just all seemed like it was time.”

The Highland Park Fourth of July parade massacre had been the day before. What was it like to sit on the sidelines?

“That was the first time in 42 years that I’m not on the clock, thinking that it’s a media story I’m going to have to write tomorrow,” said Feder, who nevertheless kept track of the coverage. “How the B team had to give way to the A team. How radio rose to the occasion. And how WGN Radio didn’t have a single journalist on that story yesterday. They relied entirely on WGN-TV and NewsNation. WGN Radio — they’re completely out of the game. I could absorb it as a civilian for the first time in my life.”

That’s what Chicago is losing — a keen, experienced eye, watching the watchmen.

“What happens now to the media beat in Chicago?” Zorn asked. “Who’s going to follow this stuff?”

I’ll field that one, Eric: Nobody.

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