Three Questions with a Bears Fan, Episode III: Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune

| March 16th, 2020

Reverend Dave and I first met Rick Pearson at the Billy Goat Tavern a bunch of years ago. Now, he’s family. He’s also one of the best political journalists in this country. He covers Chicago the way it demands to be covered. He’s dogged. He’s dubious. He’s one hell of a writer. But fuck all that. He introduced me to my favorite meal in the entire city: Nanna’s Gravy at Cafe Bionda in the South Loop. And that’s what matters.

Here’s Rick.

DBB: I’m surprised I’ve never asked you this during a Billy Goat session, but where did you watch the Bears win the Super Bowl? What was that experience like in Chicago?

Pearson: Ah, but I wasn’t in Chicago then. I was the political editor of the Rockford Register Star, a city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago and a place with a large number of Green Bay Packer fans, given its proximity to the Wisconsin border.

That, of course, gave me a chance to gloat about everything Bears, everything Chicago and I celebrated by hosting a chili party. For someone who grew up during the Gale Sayers, Jack Concannon and Bobby Douglass era (when under Douglass the Bears’ greatest offense threat was pass interference by the other team), I wasn’t sure that I would see such a glorious team, a team for the ages that could back up its swagger on the field. And it was finally a chance to enjoy the success that the friendly(???) neighbors up north often enjoyed.

DBB: You are one of the best political journalists in the country. (Yea, I said it.) But we’re entering a dangerous period for American journalism. Hedge fund takeovers of newspapers. The Athletic buying up sports writers. What do you tell the 22 year-old journalism major at Northwestern or Loyola when they ask you for career advice? Where should they go?

Pearson: I appreciate your confidence but there are several others in political journalism that I look up to and from whom I’ve learned and offered respect. But yes, we are in a tumultuous time for newspapers and journalism as a whole and I do not know where it will lead.

It was difficult attending a Bernie Sanders rally in Grant Park the other day when one of the earlier speakers, a local university professor, brought up the Chicago Tribune as endangered by hedge-fund ownership. I didn’t expect my paper to become part of a rally for a democratic socialist, especially with the long history of the Tribune and its editorial board support for Republicans.

So what do I tell the journalism major? It’s been something I’ve been doing for the last decade. First, the rules of journalism are the same no matter where you are—print, broadcast, photo, video, blog, Twitter, podcast, you name it. You write the truth, you write the facts, you write what you know, you don’t embellish and if you can, you provide the “why.”

The more platforms that someone can master the more marketable that they become. But along with being marketable comes the matter of being trustworthy. If people don’t feel they can trust you or your journalism, you’ve lost the game. I will say that in going to college campuses and speaking to j-students, I’m always refreshed by their optimistic view of the profession. It helps refuel my attitude about the future.

DBB: Those who know you know the Blackhawks are your true sports love. What do you feel differentiates the Hawks and Bears fan bases?

Pearson: All of Chicago is the Bears. It’s that simple. Chicago lives and dies by the Bears. In a city in which diversity can become disparity, everyone revolves around the Bears. There’s no North Side vs. South Side like the Cubs and White Sox (though as a Cub fan I’m telling everyone to keep an eye on the Sox this year).

The Blackhawks had always been kind of a niche team, playing in a niche sport, from when I started going to games in the 1960s. They had their stars, Hull, Mikita, Glen Hall (Mr. Goalie who played a record 502 consecutive games without a facemask and puked from nerves before every game).

But it was a six-team league then, which made it more like a club. Unfortunately, due to its ownership at the time, it became more and more of a small club in the 80’s and 90’s as the league expanded, the sport grew in fanbase and they still wouldn’t show Blackhawks home games on TV because the owners thought it would devalue season ticket sales.

The evolution with Rocky Wirtz, a continuation of the family ownership but with the brains to look beyond his predecessors’ superstitions, has made this a world class team with future hall of famers Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith and hockey’s become a world class sport.

It’s not the Bears, but winning is contagious. After they won the Stanley Cup last time in 2015, one of my favorite TV moments was when Marcus Leshock, a reporter from WGN-TV, spoke to an African-American man wearing a Blackhawks t-shirt. “You know how awesome the Hawks are?” the man asked. “It sounds messed up, but it’s true. They got black people lovin’ hockey.”

That having been said, despite three Stanley Cups in ’10, ’13 and ’15, the team is once again out of the playoffs for a third straight season. It’s been a tough winter—the Bears go blah and the Blackhawks go bust. But I’m still a fan. That’s what Chicago is.

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