What three Chicago journalists pimped for William Cellini?

Little noted yesterday was the news that three "prominent" Chicago journalists were among the hundreds who wrote letters to U.S. District Judge James Zagel in support of convicted Illinois grafter William Cellini.

Zagel did not disclose the names of the journalists when sentencing Cellini to a year and a day in federal prison for conspiring with other political insiders, including Rod Blagojevich's closest advisers,  to extort a Hollywood producer for a campaign contribution for the felonious former governor.

The journalists' letters were among 364 submitted to Zagel testifying to Cellini's good character and seeking leniency. In this, Zagel said, the three joined former high-ranking Illinois politicians, including former Gov. Jim Edgar. As the Tribune reported:

Before handing down his sentence, Zagel said he considered every letter, noting he personally knew six or seven of the authors. He also pointed out that "three prominent journalists" were among the letter-writers. The judge said he considered Cellini's willingness to help others a mitigating factor.

Tribune columnist John Kass also mentioned the three journalists:

The judge said he'd never received so many letters. Then Zagel really shocked me, and a few other reporters in the courtroom, when he talked about a few of the pro-Cellini letters. Among these, Zagel said, were "letters from three prominent journalists."

Prominent journalists? Is that why he was able to fly under the radar for so long?

Those names are sealed in the court file per Zagel's orders, I'm told, but whoever they are, the three prominent journalists and the others and Mrs. Cellini got what they asked for. They wanted mercy from Zagel. And that's what he gave them.

Shocked, Chicago journalists should be. What would possess three journalists--prominent or otherwise--to step (not quite) forward to extend a helping hand to not just a prominent and powerful pol but a convicted one at that?

Perhaps my headline is unfair. Perhaps the Chicago Three all knew Cellini from childhood. Or their knowledge of him had nothing to do with their being in the news business. Perhaps he saved the life of a relative with his largesse.

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe there was a quid pro quo. Maybe, as Kass suggests, a close personal relationship between Cellini and the Chicago Three, accounted for Cellini escaping the kind of close journalistic examination that he so long deserved. Perhaps that's why Kass' nearly one-person campaign against Illinois' corrupt combine of Democratic and Republican power brokers was little followed-up by the Chicago news business. Did the bosses of the Chicago Three know of the letters? Are the Chicago Three letter writers themselves. Are they newspaper publishers and owners or broadcast general managers? If so, their elevated rank should not exclude them from the practice of journalism ethics.

I don't expect to get any answers. There is no agency that investigates journalism ethics as practiced in Chicago or nationally. Nor should there be. There's something called the First Amendment that protects freedom of the press.

But the revelation should require some news shops to do some serious self-examination.  It's one more arrow piercing the public's already deflated opinion of the media's trustworthiness.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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