Author Archives: John McCarron

Soeteber Remembered

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 2, 2002 - Ellen Soeteber, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. PHOTO BY JERRY NAUNHEIM JR.

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 2, 2002 – Ellen Soeteber, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Newspapering was still a man’s world in the 1980s so I didn’t know what to make of my first female boss.

But a few things became obvious. She knew as much as I knew about how the city-that-works really works … and a lot more about the internal workings of the Chicago Tribune.

I was the younger by a few months, yet she had more energy, especially when making assignments. Her ideas could seem prosaic to a mid-career reporter, but she knew what had front page potential if aggressively and creatively pursued.

Most of all I remember her mastery of detail. Her election night staffing memoranda ran page after page, advising dozens of reporters and photographers where they needed to be, and by what exact minute they had to file so as to clear the copy desk in time to make our “final” edition.

Doping stories with her – the process by which reporters tell editors what they’ve got and editors tell reporters what they still need – was a game of 20 questions. But if you had the goods, she’d sell it hard at the 5 o’clock meeting where section editors offer their best stories for Page 1.

Ellen Soeteber had the goods. She moved up Tribune ranks as Metro editor, associate managing editor and deputy of the editorial page. The company sent her to South Florida to help run its newspaper there, yet none of us were surprised when later she was hired away as editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was a homecoming of sorts, Ellen having graduated from East St. Louis High … a fact that gave her “street cred” in our city room … and one that helps explain her lifelong support of minority as well as female journalists.

Ellen Soeteber died last June on the same day as the passing of former Tribune editor and publisher Jack Fuller, one of her mentors. She would have appreciated the irony … and, were she running the news desk, would have risen to the challenge from an editor’s perspective. Run the obits the same day, giving bigger play to Fuller? Nah. Best to hold the Soeteber RIP for a day and give both the measured play they deserve. She was canny that way.

How canny? Back in ’83 she walked up to my desk and asked if I’d go to an old-time saloon near Comiskey Park – Schaller’s Pump to be exact – for a color piece on what locals thought of the White Sox finally making the playoffs. I groaned and eye-rolled … but agreed. Whereupon she asked if I’d also go to Baltimore that weekend for a feature on their stadium’s neighborhood. Had I turned her down on Schallers, another reporter would have enjoyed those expense account crab cakes and playoff tickets.

Then there were all those Saturday mornings, 7 a.m. shift, chasing stories for the Sunday final. Often the big whoop was arrival around 9 a.m. of a stack of the Chicago Sun-Times “bulldog” Sunday edition. Almost always the competition bannered a Page 1 screamer about some investigation or revelation the Trib didn’t have. So Ellen always bought coffee for the copy kid who distributed those papers, and in return he or she agreed to delay delivering a copy to the office of Sunday Editor Bill Jones. She used those precious minutes to evaluate the competition’s story and outline a strategy to either “knock-down” or “recover” the S-T bombshell. I don’t think Jones, another fine editor who died too soon, ever caught on.

In such ways were trails blazed for women in the newsroom. Yet she paid a price, as all pioneers do. There were those damnable cigarettes and other nervous ticks. Of course there were. She asked herself to be twice-as-good and, more often than not, she pulled it off. Not long after Ellen moved on, one of her mentees, Anne Marie Lipinski, became the Tribune’s first female editor-in-chief.

Newspapering has its problems, sure, but thanks to Ellen and her professional sisters, it is no longer a man’s world … and much the better for it.


Author’s note:  Following 27 years at the Trib, John McCarron now teachers, consults and writes on urban affairs.


Postscript:  A number of Ellen’s colleagues and friends from the Trib, Sun-Sentinal and Post-Dispatch are making gifts in her memory to the Alfred Friendly Foundation, which brings aspiring third-world journalists to the U.S. to see how we do it here. Ellen was a board member and brought lots of Friendly fellows into the newsrooms she led. You can donate online at or send a check to: Alfred Friendly Press Partners; 310C Reynolds Journalism Institute, Columbia, MO  65211.

Questions?   Email

Chicago murder coverage isn’t stopping the bullets

CHICAGO – Back in the early ’70s, as a cub working off the overnight city desk at the Chicago Tribune, you learned fast that all murders were not equal.

Sure, all were listed methodically on the deputy superintendent’s logbook at the old police headquarters at 11th and State streets. But while killings on the city’s predominantly white North Side were almost always pursued by our small band of nocturnal newsmen, the more numerous homicides in the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides most often were ignored.

There was even a winking code word for the latter category. They were “blue.” Blue, as in “cheap domestic,” where a drunken live-in boyfriend kills his common-law mate. Blue, as in someone shot in the face after a street-corner dice game gone awry.

Judging by how the other four daily newspapers (yes, four!) covered and displayed their homicides, it’s safe to assume the same double standard applied.

This practice was, of course, racially and morally indefensible. And by the end of that decade – a decade of enormous change in newsroom cultures across the country—a more race-neutral standard applied. Oh, sure, a juicy society murder on the city’s Gold Coast still got top billing. But space was made for everyone in those ubiquitous Monday roundups of weekend mayhem, especially if the victim was a sympathetic innocent.

The reasoning behind this sea change was, and still is, altogether sound. All lives have value, and only by recording the circumstances of each tragedy do we begin to understand the patterns of neglect that underlay the violence … and potential ways the killing might be stopped.

Fast forward to 2013 and, I would argue, a very different set of ethical questions now confronting editors.

Last year there were 506 homicides in Chicago, more than the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in Afghanistan. This past January’s toll of 43 does not bode well for 2013.

Most of the murdered were under age 24, shot with handguns, nearly within a handful of black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Fully a third of the victims were determined by police to be not the intended target of the shooter. They were simply in the wrong place – a car, a front porch, a gathering of friends – at the wrong time and unluckily close to the intended target.

A pattern has developed in which Chicago media focus on these innocent victims, on their grief-stricken families, on friends building curbside memorials, on their wakes and on their funerals. In January the full front-page, top-of-the-newscast treatment was given, day-after-day, to the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an innocent who the week before was a majorette in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade. In March it was baby Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old shot in the front seat of a parked minivan while in the lap of her father, an alleged gang-banger with a lengthy police rap sheet.

News columnists and editorial writers daily pile on their outrage, and almost daily stories with headlines such as “Bloodbath in Chicago” circle the globe via the Huffington Post, New York Times, BBC and others.

All of which begs – or should beg – the question of whether this approach to covering lethal urban violence is doing any good … or even doing more harm than good.

No responsible journalist seeks a return to the days of spiking “blue” murders from the wrong side of town. But consider the following:

  • Blanket coverage of lethal violence in minority neighborhoods is not balanced by an equal number of prominently played stories of good things achieved in those neighborhoods by the many good people who live there.
  • Negative perceptions about violence and personal safety are a major driver of the “white flight,” racial resegregation and neighborhood decay that have plagued U.S. metropolitan areas over the past half-century. Chicago has fared better than most but still has lost a quarter of its population since 1960 as middle-class families of all races continue to move out, albeit for many reasons.
  • Despite all the ink and airtime devoted to the killings, next to nothing has been accomplished – nationally or locally – in the way of more effective gun control, police tactics or provision of social services capable of solving the problem.

Then again, veteran Chicago editors and journalists who have struggled with these issues argue it’s not the amount of coverage that’s the problem … but the type.

Jack Fuller, a former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune who has written extensively on newsroom ethics, complains too much coverage focuses on weeping and wailing and not enough on root causes and criminal logistics.

Instead of bombarding the public with “isn’t that awful” stories, Fuller argues, “we need to go deeper into what’s behind it – the social pathologies, the illegal purchase of guns. Maybe it means our war on drugs has got to end. Take profit out of the system.”

Frank Main, a Pulitzer-winning police reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, agrees there ought to be less hand-wringing and more exposure of what’s behind the shooting.

“The problem is that those stories can be boring,” Main admits. “Anytime the words ‘program’ or ‘social services’ or ‘community involvement’ are anywhere near the top of the story, many readers flip to the sports section.

“The challenge is to ratchet down the coverage of murder victims’ memorials and funerals, and spend more time in neighborhoods, police stations, courts and universities to give context to all this tragedy.”

Laura Washington, a veteran observer of Chicago’s racial dynamic and an op-ed contributor to the Sun-Times, also complains about maudlin stories focusing on grieving relatives and open caskets.

“We should spend more time, space and bytes talking to experts, community leaders and residents about why these murders are occurring, and what can be done to stop them,” she says. “Our reporting is too often one-dimensional and simplistic. The problems are multilayered and complex.”

That sentiment is echoed by William Recktenwald, a journalism instructor at Southern Illinois University and former top investigative reporter at the Tribune. In 1993, he and a team of reporters chronicled in detail every shooting death of a Chicago-area child below the age of 15 in a yearlong series called “Killing Our Children.”

People forget, Recktenwald says, that 20 years ago, when crack cocaine and automatic pistols first appeared on the streets, there were even more killings – a record 932 just during 1992. So is this progress? His police sources tell Recktenwald the numbers would be just as bad now but for advances in trauma medicine.

But the fact that several gunshot victims survive for every one killed points to another reason people ought to care, no matter where they live. Gunshot wounds and deaths cost Americans at least $12 billion a year in court proceedings, insurance costs and hospitalizations paid for by government health programs, according to one recent study. Then there’s the cost of incarcerating a single young murderer – well over $50,000 a year, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“That’s the kind of thing people need to understand.” Recktenwald says. “Reporting about all the memorial candles and teddy bears, that doesn’t change anything.”

As for damage to Chicago’s civic reputation, thoughtful journalists such as Recktenwald, Main, Washington and Fuller seem less concerned.

“I’m still a believer in basic newspapering,” Fuller says. “When something happens, you report it. You cover the hell out of it … that’s how we begin to change the reality.”

Maybe so. But with so little progress achieved and so little in sight, one wonders if the old “publish and be damned” spirit still serves our troubled cities and the people who live in them.

Good riddance to “blue” homicides. But our journalism still needs a better approach.


Beat reporters step up in Chicago strike

There’s nothing like a bitter teachers’ strike – and one chockablock with national ideo-politico implications – to bring out the best, and not-so-best, in the newsrooms of the Midwest’s largest media market.

Initial coverage of the seven-day Chicago teachers strike largely consisted of by-the-numbers spot news and predictable sidebars of the kind assistant city editors reflexively assign.

“STRIKE” screamed the tab Sun-Times in 18-pica bold Sept.10, the morning after Chicago Teachers Union negotiators rejected the school board’s last offer, sending 26,000 teachers to the picket lines and 350,000 students to – where?

That was one staple of Day 1 strike coverage: Where to send the kids if you’re a working mother? Others included the potential impact on prep football schedules, and whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel should have stayed in Chicago negotiating during the previous week instead of preening before party faithful at the Democratic National Committee convention in Charlotte.

These first stories were done capably enough, though it wasn’t until the next day’s print editions, and that night’s public radio and TV panel discussions, that the rest of us got some real insight into what really was going on behind closed doors.

It likely took those 48 hours for editors to stop acting like firehouse dogs – Hat! Coat! Talk to parents! – and start listening closely to their beat reporters.

Beat reporters. Remember them? Big newsrooms used to have rows of them, plus those stationed remotely at “building beats,” such as police headquarters and criminal courts. They were tasked with developing real sources and mastering the details of complex urban systems.

But with the collapse of print’s business model and consequent downsizing of staff, too many of these beats have disappeared or been telescoped into broad catch-alls such as “women’s issues” or “politics.”

Fortunately, Chicago’s two metro dailies still have genuine education writers – Diane Rado and Noreen Ahmed-Ullah at the Tribune, Rosalind Rossi at the Sun-Times – who managed, after the initial “Oh, my God!” din, to point out that, ta-dah: Money was not the main issue. The school board was ready early on to come through with 4 percent annual raises, though it remains to be seen how they’ll pay for it.

It turned out the strike primarily was about impending layoffs. Specifically, it was about which teachers would be losing their jobs as more and more underperforming and half-empty inner-city public schools are closed – and as more and more non-union charter schools are opened.

If there was a true scoop during two weeks of breathless blanket coverage, it was the Trib’s front-page revelation – a triple byline affair led by Ahmed-Ullah – that the Emanuel administration is quietly planning to close up to 120 of the system’s 600 schools and open 60 additional publicly funded (but privately managed) non-union charter schools over the next five years.

Much of the story was based on an obscure but finely detailed grant application that Chicago Public Schools submitted recently to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It was this revelation – that the strike was really about the rapid advance of charter schools, and how the shrinking public system intended to evaluate which teachers would stay and which go – that gave the story true national sweep.

Most big-city public school systems, after all, are dealing with similar dilemmas. Business and civic leaders are constantly calling for reform. Of course they are: Nearly half of Chicago public school students are dropping out of high school before graduation – and many of those who do graduate are unable to read an instructional manual, much less navigate a mechanical blueprint or enterprise software.

Business and civic reformers have been quick to blame incompetent but union-protected teachers. In Chicago they’ve been loudly supported by the Tribune’s editorial page, which has long thundered against the impossibly complex rules governing the firing of teachers and a pay system that rewards longevity rather than educational results.

Adding to the story’s national scope is the fact that President Obama has supported expansion of charters, which tap about two-thirds of their funding from public school budgets but need not abide by union work rules and pay scales. The president’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, pushed the idea while serving as chief executive officer of Chicago schools under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. And the Obama administration’s signature school reform initiative, “Race to the Top,” counts charters among the innovations local districts can implement to win competitively awarded federal grants.

Then again, public employee unions, of which teachers’ unions are a huge faction, have been reliable supporters of the Democratic Party. Yet here was Emanuel, a former White House chief-of-staff and national Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire, going toe-to-toe with the CTU and its hard-line leader Karen Lewis.

It’s little wonder that Stephanie Banchero, a former Tribune education writer, had no trouble winning front-page play, day after day, for her insightful coverage of the strike for the Wall Street Journal. The lede of her end-of-strike story Sept. 19 called the Chicago dispute emblematic of “the intensifying national debate over how teachers are evaluated, hired and fired.”

On the jump page she even squeezed in details of the key compromise on teacher evaluations. A teacher’s students’ scores on standardized tests will be weighted at 25 percent, 30 percent and 35 percent in successive years of the new four-year contract. Moreover, when a school is closed, even teachers with so-so evaluations will be given advanced standing for rehiring by principals at surviving schools. This was a win for the union because Emanuel and the school board, led by banker David Vitale, had insisted that school principals, who are to be held accountable for academic results, be given near-total control over hiring.

Few media outlets delved so deeply into the arcana of teacher evaluation formulas, hiring criterion and pay scales. The television O-and-Os relied mainly on fresh daily video of boisterous, red-shirted teachers on the picket lines carrying “Shame on Rahm” signs. (And, of course, news-you-can-use mini-features on temporary daycare opportunities.)

Leave it to Chicago’s WBEZ (91.5 FM) public radio to organize several more-than-you-ever-thought-you-wanted-to-know seminars on teacher evaluation, test scores and – importantly in a system where four of five students come from low-income minority families – the poverty/achievement link. Not everyone wants to spend afternoons listening to radio host Steve Edwards interview national experts on the nexus between poverty, test results and the proposition that better teachers can significantly move the needle.

But it’s good to know Chicago’s media milieu is rich enough that folks interested in root causes can get insights such as those offered by one of Edwards’ expert guests. Education researcher and author Paul Tough explained that “chaotic, unstable, violent and difficult” home environments tend to produce in children a “toxic stress” that stunts formation of the “executive function skills” crucial for success in school.

Good schools and better teachers are important, sure. But the educational crisis afflicting Chicago and America’s other major cities won’t be solved by jiggering teacher evaluations, or even by opening more charter schools.

Good beat reporters doubtless get this. Let’s hope they’re still around to explain it to the rest of us.

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Rahm confounds Chicago media

Is he a hyper-efficient reformer using corporate management techniques to shape up a city grown lazy and weak from decades of old-fashioned patronage politics? Or is Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel a calculating maestro of Beltway spin and the dark art of “controlling the narrative” … if not the reality?

News media here in the Midwest’s largest city agonize daily over those two questions.  Nobody wants to be too cynical, or, worse in the journalism profession, even a bit naïve. But after a half-year of covering this wiry whirlwind of a mayor, the answer for some is turning out to be “yes” on both counts.

Yes, he is backing down labor unions, for instance, by adding 90 minutes to the school day without a commensurate pay-raise for teachers; or by pitting city garbage crews in “managed competition” against private-sector waste haulers to see who wins the job.  Managed competition — it doesn’t get more corporate than that.

But Mayor Emanuel also is an accomplished spin-meister. His daily schedule often tracks more like a carefully plotted campaign than a day of routine governance. Most weekdays the press corps is treated to at least one conference or “availability” at which the mayor is flanked by business leaders with expansion plans or neighborhood leaders hailing a new program to cut down on gang shootings or home foreclosures.

Last June, to mark his first 30 days in office, Emanuel staged a press conference to boast how many items on his 100-day “to do” list had been accomplished. Behind him was a super-sized status board with huge checks in front of  “early completion” items.  TV always gets a snappy visual … just as they do it in Washington.  And each new announcement is none-too-subtly fitted into a larger narrative arc — the story of an energetic young reformer out to move an inefficient and frequently corrupt city into the 21st Century.

“The story line he’s promoting,” observed Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman in her analysis of Emanuel’s first 100 days, “is turning the page from Chicago’s corrupt, mismanaged, deficit-spending past to a refreshing, energetic new era of ‘transparency’ and reform.”

The Tribune’s 100-day piece described “a keen and cocksure strategist with sharp elbows and intense personal discipline.”   On a typical weekday, by the time most morning-paper reporters straggle into their newsroom, the mayor they call “Rahmbo” has already swum dozens of laps at a college pool, eaten a heart-healthy breakfast at a neighborhood café and met with corporate executives about bringing more jobs to Chicago. Mayor Emanuel, observed Spielman, “considers ‘rest’ a four-letter word.”

This same mayor, of course, also has a reputation for using saltier four-letter words, according to those who worked for President Bill Clinton’s chief-of-staff or negotiated with Emanuel during his years in Congress.  So far his notorious temper has been held in check, an exception being a snippy exchange with NBC-TV reporter Mary Ann Ahern when she pressed him about sending his kids to a private school while presenting himself as an advocate for better public schools.

There is wide suspicion, however, that the other Rahm still lurks beneath the cool and controlled persona. Teachers’ union chief Karen Lewis complained after a closed-door meeting over longer school days that the mayor clobbered her with F-bombs. “My father never talked to me like that,” Lewis debriefed to reporters about what she called “enormous disrespect.” “My husband’s never talked to me like that.”

On substantive matters, however, Emanuel has encountered little second-guessing from the media. As might be expected, the conservative Tribune’s editorial page has cheered the mayor’s efforts to reign in “abuses” by public-sector labor unions.  “Let the competition begin,” headlined a recent Tribune news analysis of Emanuel’s plan to rationalize sanitation services. There would be a handful of computer-generated service zones instead of 50 separate ward operations. And Waste Management will handle one or two zones to determine whether or not their one-man recycling trucks are more efficient than are city crews.

So far union leaders — aside from Lewis — have taken a wait-and-see stance, perhaps because the rank-and-file have been surprisingly mum on Emanuel’s moves.  Many city workers, including police and fire, have bridled under City Hall’s informal system of political sponsorship. If a person wanted to get light duty, or go on disability leave, or even get promoted to lieutenant, it helped to have a sponsor with clout in one of the Regular Democratic Organization’s favored wards, especially one of the Southwest Side wards led by a Daley, Burke or Madigan.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley didn’t invent this system — it even predates his father, Richard J. — nor did Alderman Edward Burke or Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.  But it’s there, and hundreds, if not thousands, of city workers with lesser sponsorship are tired of working short-handed or getting passed over for promotion.  Emanuel’s pronouncements about “right-sizing” are pointedly accompanied by statistics showing that, for instance, about a third of the city’s unionized workforce is “missing” on Mondays and Fridays, for one reason or another, be it a “sick day” or an extended disability leave. Taxpayers get mad. But city workers who do show up on Mondays and Fridays are even madder.

So has Emanuel been able to work similar magic on the media? That depends.

John Kass, the Tribune’s Mike Royko-styled news columnist, regularly scalded Mayor Daley and started out skeptical of the man he called Daley’s “handpicked” successor. But in recent months Kass has avoided direct criticism, and even delivered a compliment or two. “Finally, a mayor who gets it,” Kass exuded about Emanuel’s bid to lengthen the school day.

Mark Brown, Kass’s counterpart at the Sun-Times, started out neutral, but lately has shown uneasiness with Emanuel’s pre-packaged news-as-narrative. Recently Brown chastised Emanuel for claiming to put another 1,000 police “on the street” when half the new beat cops are transferring from disbanded tactical units that already were “on the street.”   Brown complained Emanuel sometimes puts out “just a little too much b.s. to have to swallow whole.”

But in general, and with the city staring at an impending $635 million budget shortfall, Emanuel-the-Efficient seems to have tamed a press corps that, during the Daley years, was known for its cynicism. Ben Joravsky, political writer for the weekly Chicago Reader, probably goes too far in asserting: “I haven’t seen as much love between the mainstream media and a political boss since Mayor Daley tried to bring the Olympics to town.”

All honeymoons inevitably end, though.  And sooner or later one suspects Chicago’s news media will live up to their skeptical reputation by jumping from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s narrative arc.

John McCarron is a freelance urban affairs writer with 40 years of experience writing about Chicago government.  


Investigate This

Some of my best friends are investigative reporters, so what follows is argued with no small amount of trepidation.

My friends are a bit thin-skinned, you see, because their work is constantly criticized by those they investigate. But they are the stars of our profession, so they almost never get criticized by those of us stationed elsewhere along journalism’s far-flung ranks.

But here goes:  My friends, you are being played.

Most of your investigations are aimed at and focused upon the foibles of government — all levels of government — so effectively that most Americans now harbor a deep distrust of the public sector. You have prepared the garden, my friends, from which now sprouts the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and any number of Libertarians out to free America from the tyranny of Washington and Big Government.

This is no small achievement. And for this service your publisher or your station owner or your holding company’s board of directors ought to thank you. But they never will, for that would give the game away. You are idealists, after all, and you can’t stand being played.

I’m amazed you haven’t figured this out on your own. I’m talking about you hard-eyed nerds who comb through the classifieds every morning looking for public notices — of  prospective zoning changes, say, or  liquor license applications — that might signal some conflict-of-interest at City Hall. I’m talking about wily wonks who every three months, like clockwork, race to the county clerk’s
office or the state board of elections to grab those precious D-2 filings listing campaign contributors to elected officials and wannabes.

You don’t miss much, my investigative friends. Except, that is, the widespread and growing public cynicism about government that you have worked so diligently, if unwittingly, to create.

Mind you, I allege no conspiracy here, only a convergence of forces and circumstances that comfortably suit the powers that really be.

Forces? For one thing, investigating the public sector has become much easier than investigating the private. The federal government and virtually all the states now have on their books some version of an Open Meetings Act and a Freedom of Information Act.  This is good. Public dealings should be transparent.

Then again, one unintended consequence of open meetings laws has been to turn most official gatherings into stage-managed productions, the actual give-and-take of decision-making having been removed to cloakrooms or in camera one-to-ones or phone calls.

Among public officials there is now widespread distaste for making decisions in front of gotcha-obsessed journalists — journalists who may not understand the difference between a revenue bond and a general-obligation bond, or between a tax rate and tax levy, but who are more than willing to assign the worst possible motives to whatever is decided.

All those FOIA requests, meanwhile, have largely replaced the development of actual live sources as the basic tool of investigative reporting.  Today’s newsroom ethos is such that the cultivation of person-to-person relationships with public officials is generally considered a questionable practice. Gone is the “backgrounder” lunch or cup-of-coffee at which Mr. or Ms. Official explains what the real issues and influences are.

Better instead to stand off and dun public agencies with FOIA requests seeking expense accounts, or contract bids,
or consultancy agreements or whatever.  Even a green reporter can find something in the return mail that will spark public indignation.

As an indirect result of these conveniences, press coverage of our most complex societal issues — the problems of public education, say, or the construction and maintenance of public infra-structure — is increasingly crowded out by stories listing the names of school district superintendents earning six-figure salaries or of construction executives donating money to certain campaign funds.

All of this is fair game.  But the reader or viewer is left inevitably with the jaded view that school superintendents responsible for the education and safety of thousands of kids don’t deserve that $200,000, or that the main purpose of public works “pork” is to pad the political war chests of public officials.

If the news stories don’t sufficiently drive home these points, news columnists and editorial writers are sure to follow up — in the tradition of Chicago’s late Mike Royko — with even darker insinuations.

Another reason the public sector gets hammered by the press more than the private sector, (a reason almost never discussed at academic media conferences or panels) is the double standard that is U.S. law governing libel.

The average media consumer doesn’t understand, though virtually all media owners, publishers and senior editors assuredly do, that it’s almost impossible to libel a public official or public servant.  Ever since the landmark United States Supreme Court ruling of 1964 (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) and lesser subsequent decisions, any public official claiming libel and seeking damages must first prove the journalist and/or publisher knew in advance  the libelous information was false. In First Amendment law, this is called “actual malice.”

In reality it is virtually impossible to prove.

Not so when journalists report on the private sector, whether

it’s a giant utility that cooks its books to get a rate increase or a surgeon who bills Medicare for more procedures than are humanly possible. Private plaintiffs can win judgments and collect damages — sometimes enough to bankrupt a reporter’s employer — if they merely show the reporting was untrue and that it cost them dearly.

This sets up a pernicious but seldom-mentioned choice made every day, at least subliminally, by city editors and assignment desks in newsrooms across America: Should I assign my scarce investigative resources to, say, verify consumer complaints about out-of-date perishables being sold at our local chain supermarket?  Or should I have them go once again to City Hall and pull this month’s files on who’s getting the juicy consulting contracts?

When cautious editors consider the grief that could come from going after the private sector, the choice is a no-brainer.  Witness the ABC-TV editors who in 1992 okayed a couple of reporters hiring on at a North Carolina supermarket . . . only to see the network hit later by a $5.5 million verdict from a jury that decided such an undercover maneuver constitutes fraud. It’s true the mega-bucks award in Food Lion v. Capital Cities/ABC was struck down on appeal.

But who needs the annoyance, especially if readers or viewers would be just as entertained by the standard photo-spread about city workers loafing on the job. Even when a private company’s misdeeds can no longer be ignored, journalistic heat is more apt to be aimed at the government agency that was supposed to regulate them. Plane crashes and near-misses are laid at the feet of the FAA; fatal mining accidents are traced to lax inspection by OSHA or the Bureau of Mines; unsafe car brakes should have been detected and ordered fixed by the NHTSA.

Add it all up and it’s easy to understand why a large and growing segment of the voting public now thinks government is both stealing us blind and laying down on the job. We live now an Age of Anger. People are mad-as-hell about the way things are, about why gas costs $4-a-gallon and why their kids can’t find a decent job. And from what they’ve been reading in the papers and watching on TV, there’s little doubt about who’s to blame. Those anti-government zealots on talk radio surely must have it right.  And to some extent, they are right.

Public sector employee benefits have, in many cases, gotten out of line with those available on the private side. There are too many surly, clock-watching clerks at the DMV and not enough police when you need them. Taxes are too high on working families and too many folks on food stamps are buying stuff the rest of us can’t afford.

But does this mean the private sector – the sector led by those “free men and free markets” the Libertarians swear by – ought to be trusted to call more of the shots?  Should government back off and simply allow “the market” to decide where to drill for oil, where to move the factories and the jobs, where to book their equipment sales and record their stock options so as to minimize taxes?

There is no shortage of politicians now ascending who argue this, indeed, is the way America must go.  And they can point to scandal-after-public-sector-scandal, dutifully reported by the media to make their case (And all the while, with straight faces, also complain the country suffers at the hands of a “liberal” media.) Then again, I offer no hard proof that this is what’s going on. It’s not an organized conspiracy. There is no paper trail.

But as an urban affairs writer I watched the sub-prime mortgage crisis unfold over the past decade. I saw inner-city neighborhoods all-but-destroyed by fast-buck mortgage brokers and the Wall Street debt re-packagers. And I  watch now as the revisionist Right tries to blame the entire catastrophe on Fannie, Freddie, the FHA and even the federal Community Reinvestment Act.

There is a grain of truth to these assertions, but only a grain. If our mainstream journalism were better, such charges would be shown to be as crazy as Roswell UFOs or cold fusion. For that matter, if our journalism were as it should be, the entire sub-prime scam would have been exposed and stopped before collapsing of its own weight in the fall of 2008 with the failure of Lehman Brothers and bail-outs of the rest.  But that didn’t happen. That kind of journalism, especially that kind of investigative journalism, was too hard and too risky. So the scam went on and on until the crash, and only now, after it’s too late, are the best-seller lists filling with quasi-investigative post-mortems — stories based largely on the work of state attorneys general and a blue-ribbon Congressional commission.

Duped bond investors, meanwhile, are seeking billions in compensation from the big Wall Street investment houses via civil litigation. But the debt-busted families and foreclosure-ravaged neighborhoods, where do they go?

These are the people and the places our investigators are supposed to protect.  And yet, too many of the sub-prime “perps” are back in business, collecting their commissions and year-end bonuses . . . even as too many reporters are back to making their lists of overpaid school superintendents.

John McCarron is a freelance urban affairs writer and adjunct lecturer at DePaul University’s School of Communication. Previously he worked 27 years for the Chicago Tribune as reporter, financial editor and member of the editorial board.     


News media also “guilty” in Blago trial

Guilty as charged!

That’s the ultimate news Illinois voters and news media need to take away from the big federal corruption trial in Chicago this summer.

No, not the fact that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was found guilty. That wasn’t news,

really. Anyone who followed the interminable trial and re-trial, and who listened to the FBI wiretaps of Blago attempting to auction off the “F—ing golden” U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, knew he was going down.

Blago’s only shot at acquittal would have been if the jurors, after listening to him testify for hours about what a great guy he is, would have concluded the man is a delusional egomaniac capable of saying just about anything to just about anybody. Delusional egomania, after all, is not a federal offense.

But on Monday, June 27, a federal criminal jury in Chicago decided, on 17 of 20 counts, that Blago really was trying to auction off Obama’s seat … and shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for a campaign contribution, and likewise milk racetrack owners in return for signing legislation to subsidize the ponies.

Rod Blagojevich lives in his own make-believe world and likely will never admit to himself that he did anything wrong.

But how about the rest of us? How about the 1,847,040 Illinois voters who elected this hopelessly self-absorbed creature as their governor in 2002? Or worse, the 1,620,429 who did it again in 2006, long after it should have been obvious that the guy was too busy starring in his own movie to deal with the mounting problems facing the state?

And more pointedly for readers of this fine journalism review: How about the news media? How could it be that this mop-headed Howdy Doody—this rank poseur who carefully studied, and modeled himself after the rhetorical mannerisms of Ronald Reagan, right down to the “Aw shucks” lateral head movements—how could it be that the news media did not expose Blago for what he was, and is, before he was able to lure so many voters, not to mention the entire State of Illinois, into eight lost years of governmental stagnation?

The answer to that last one is, of course, highly complex. But an investigator looking for clues might start at the very end – at the grossly overdone, circus-like attention the Chicago media paid to the trial itself. Like Madame DeFarge in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, journalists proved a lot more interested in a noisy public execution than the root rot that brought on the Revolution. Or in our case, the boring details behind Illinois’s devolution into a debtor state with $4.5 billion in unpaid bills, over $40 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and four—count ’em, 4.0—former governors convicted of financial crimes over the last 44 years.

During our just-past and all-too-brief Chicago spring, while the Illinois legislature down in Springfield whiffed again on pension reform and negotiated a fiscal 2012 budget that holds-the-line at the expense of education and human services, the media’s best and brightest were up in Chicago, all but camped out around our Miesean federal courthouse at 219 S. Dearborn St. There they jockeyed for precious courtroom admission chits, gang-banged the trial’s principals as they arrived and exited the building, and delivered at noon, 5 and 10 the kind of breathless pre- and post-event commentary worthy of ESPN’s GameDay.

Too bad nobody keeps track of how many broadcast minutes and print column inches were devoted to Mrs. And Mrs. Blagojevich’s wardrobe and demeanor versus, say, the pros and cons of selling state bonds to pay down those overdue bills rather than incur late-payment fees. Apparently our metro media audience doesn’t have that many inquiring minds who want to know the latter.

One can excuse the ratings-driven network O&O shops for playing up the circus aspects, though I did think it was a bit much to dispatch helicopters on judgment day so as to video the movements of Blago’s SUV from the family’s Ravenswood Manor home to and from the courthouse. (The chopper shots likely were inspired by, yet somehow lacked the drama of, O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase.)

What can’t be forgiven was slavish coverage by those who: a) should know better; and b) we rely upon, by default, to provide more detailed coverage of the things that really do matter. Night after night one public television reporter debriefed us on what she saw and heard inside her courtroom bubble, no matter how inconsequential the day’s proceedings.

Meanwhile, the Chicago News Cooperative, a Web service launched a few years ago by mainstream newsies fed up with their former employers’ trivial pursuits, headlined a dozen stories the morning after the verdict, including “Blagojevich’s brother was devastated” and a video “Watch Blago’s uncharacteristically brief reaction to the verdict:” So much for our on-line alternative.

It’s not as though there weren’t warning signs. It wasn’t so much that back in 1996 he won his Congressional seat by virtue of an adroit marriage and a stroke of good luck. Lots of successful politicians hereabouts have powerful fathers or fathers-in-law, in this case, former Ald. Richard Mell. And lots have advanced due to the misfortunes of predecessors, in this case the indictment and subsequent electoral defeat—by a Republican nobody—of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois 5th District.)

But what should have alerted people to Blagojevich was his napalm stunt. As I described in my then-weekly Chicago Tribune op-ed, Congressman Blagojevich was looking for a way to raise his visibility as a freshman back-bencher He discovered that the U.S. Navy planned to ship an outdated load of the jellied gasoline across northeastern Illinois and the South Side of Chicago to a disposal facility in northwest Indiana. So he holds an outdoor press conference on a South Side railroad overpass to declare that, as long as he’s in Congress, nobody is going to ship dangerously lethal explosives across our great city and state. The Navy caved. Rod exulted.

Turns out you can throw a lighted match into a gob of napalm and if won’t go off. Turns out it needs to be sprayed into a fine mist and ignited by a super-hot explosive. Turns out regular gasoline is a lot more flammable, and that regular gasoline is trucked and railed across the city in mass quantities every day.

I wrote a column or two warning readers about this up-and-comer who would rather make dishonest, self-aggrandizing headlines, than do the hard work—the research, the issue analysis, the inevitable compromises—of solving the real problems that confront the state and nation.

This was well before he won his governorships—without my vote—by beating far more accomplished candidates from both parties. He did this by promising “no new taxes” and to balance the state budget with stunts like selling off state office buildings and taking away pool cars from “bureaucrats.”

By and large the press didn’t call him on these preposterous claims. And so, by and large, the people of Illinois didn’t know any better. Twice.

Who, then, is really guilty in the case of Rod Blagojevich? I say if the shoe fits we all need to put it on … and promise to do better next time.

Emanuel’s battle-of-the-ballot trumps all issues in Chicago mayoral race

Just when it looked like the Chicago news media were fixing to focus on the issues – wham! – the Illinois Appellate Court tossed the frontrunner in Chicago’s mayoral race off the Feb. 22 primary ballot.

True, that appellate decision only laste

d for three days—on Jan. 27 the state Supreme Court restored Rahm Emanuel to the ballot. But the off-again, on-again battle of the ballot has made it hard for everyone—press and public—to re-focus on the stuff that really matters.

So much for sober-sided stories about the worrisome city budget deficit, needed pension reforms, the imperiled expansion of O’Hare International Airport or the abuse of tax increment financing.

Which is too bad, because until the surprise Appelate Court decision on Jan. 24 the Chicago dailies had been doing some quality interpretive pieces on the real issues and where the four major candidates stand. The question now, after the fire drill, is whether teacher can settle down the class and get back to the math lesson.

That’s a tough assignment because Emanuel’s struggles have been nothing if not entertaining. Beginning last fall the big running story on the race to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring after 22 years in office, had been whether Emanuel is a legal resident of Chicago. His residency, and hence his standing to run for the elective office, had been challenged in that Emanuel has been living in Washington for the past two years where he served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Late last year the press pack had a field day—make that a field week—covering public hearings held by the city’s Board of Elections to go over the facts of the case. Emanuel had rented his house on the Northwest Side to an odd fellow who not only refused to move out upon Emanuel’s return but circulated his own petitions to get on the mayoral ballot. How bizarre is that?

Next, platoons of election lawyers for and against Emanuel made their case to the Election Board’s puffed-up, bow-tied hearing officer who moonlights as a conservative talk-radio pundit. At one point testimony centered on what, exactly, was inside the storage boxes the Emanuel family left in a basement of their North Side house. Was it trash or family heirlooms? Did not the contents, including Mrs. Emanuel’s wedding gown, speak to intent-to-return? Just how is a candidate’s stand on pension reform supposed to compete with that?

Then it was the public’s turn to testify, whereupon a parade of civic cranks, including a homeless lady calling herself “Queen Sister” and wearing a crown described in one story as a “golden donut,” tore into Emanuel for transgressions less real than imagined, from complicity in the Waco, Texas, conflagration to being a secret agent for Israel.

It all made for titillating television and colorful print sidebars, but after all was said and done the hearing officer ruled for Emanuel on Dec. 23 … and a Cook County Circuit judge affirmed that finding on January 4. Finally it was time to get back to the things that mattered. And the focus was made even clearer that first week in January when another major candidate—Congressman Danny Davis—opted out of the race, leaving ex-U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun as the only substantial African-American still in the running.

Substantial? This time around the media has pretty much ignored the “marginals”—political amateurs who collected sufficient signatures to get their names on the ballot but have few followers and fewer campaign funds. Several were “challenged off” due to deficient signatures. At this writing there are four majors—Emanuel, Moseley Braun, former schools and parks board president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle—plus two marginals: perennial candidate William “Doc” Walls III and community activist Patricia Van Pelt Watkins.

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell reasonably complained that the exclusion of any on-the-ballot candidate from civic- and media-sponsored debates “smacks of elitism. Even the most qualified candidate can’t get very far if their campaign is marginalized by the media.” Mitchell has a point. The Chicago media need some sensible, transparent guidelines about how such decisions will be made in the future.

That issue aside, news coverage of the race improved substantially once it was generally presumed Emanuel would be on the ballot. Perhaps editors and news directors took to heart an unusual op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by former Fox News Chicago political editor Jack Conaty. Under the headline “Are we ever going to get to the issues?” Conaty complained the ballot brouhaha was getting so much press that “Rahm” has “already been branded as a one-name sensation, like Cher or Madonna or Sting.”

So as if observing a New Year’s resolution, the Tribune and Sun-Times began in January to produced full-page, issue-oriented profiles of the four majors. Even daily stories off the campaign trail focused on this issue or that. Then again, what is considered an important issue by political reporters isn’t necessarily all that important. There’s a tendency to keep hitting the hot buttons. Example: Newspaper stories and TV field reports slavishly echo the candidates’ bashing of the privatization of city parking meters. In truth, the only serious problem with the meter deal was that the Daley administration did not get full value from the investor group that leased all 36,000 curbside spaces for 75 years … and then began charging $5-an-hour (downtown) and $1.50 (neighborhoods) using hi-tech meters that accept all major credit cards. People are outraged at the higher rates and the candidates have taken up the cry. But the concepts behind the meters – privatization and market-driven user fees—are sound, which is why enlightened governments around the country are leasing away everything from toll bridges to airports.

Then there’s the ever-present issue of race. One of the biggest challenges covering politics in Chicago is not to be naïve about race while not over-emphasizing the city’s enduring racial and ethnic divides. Chicago’s population breaks down roughly one third white (non-Hispanic), one third African-American and one third Hispanic. But Hispanic voter turnout lags, so the voting breakdown is more like 45 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.

A mid-January Tribune poll showed Emanuel running well ahead with 44 percent. Carol Moseley Braun was running second at 21 percent with Chico at 16 and Del Valle 7 percent. This surprised many because Moseley Braun failed to impress as a one-term U.S. Senator and more recently has had well-publicized personal financial problems.

But her strong showing doesn’t surprise Don Rose, dean of the city’s political consultants, who says virtually any black candidate can depend on 20 percent of the vote when matched against any combination of whites or Hispanics. Same goes vice-versa, with whites having an even larger racial “base” vote. So much for post-racial politics in the Age of Obama.

What this means is that Emanuel may well fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election on April 5 against the second-place finisher. That portends a likely Emanuel versus Moseley Braun runoff , with Emanuel expected to win handily. Why? Because a majority of Chico and Del Valle voters are expected to shift to Emanuel in the runoff.

Then there’s the sympathy factor. He may have a reputation as a hard-nosed politician—a guy who once sent a dead fish to an opponent and who tosses around the “F” bomb at staff meetings—but three months of “will-he-or-won’t-he” be allowed on the ballot has made Emanuel seem more victim than Visigoth.

This was especially true during the orgy of front-page headlines triggered by the appellate decision to throw him off the ballot. Turns out a key supporter of Gery Chico is Alderman Edward Burke, longtime boss of the South Side’s 14th Ward and chair of the city council’s powerful finance committee. Burke is also longtime chair of the county Democratic Party’s judicial slating committee. That means hundreds of judges in the state’s court system—including the two Appellate jurists who ruled against Emanuel in the 2-1 decision—owe their black robes, however indirectly, to “Eddy” Burke.

So as the city waited for the Supremes to affirm or overturn, news analysts wondered aloud whether Burke would dare lean on a sitting judge for a ruling favorable to Chico? Meanwhile, reporters flocked to the Supreme Court chambers of Justice Anne Burke, who happens to be the alderman’s wife, to ask whether she would recuse herself from deliberations. (She didn’t, siding with the 7-0 majority for Emanuel.)

But all that’s history. The campaigns now can get back to the issues … although, even this policy wonk must admit this has been more interesting than tax increment financing.

Best Chicago media coverage of 2010 Illinois races

With so much sloganeering and mud-slinging leading up to the Nov. 2 mid-term elections, the challenge for Chicago’s news media—print, broadcast, online—was whether to echo the races’ shallow bombast … or cut through to the issues.

By and large, the metropolitan press held to the latter, more difficult course. Which is saying something, given the staff cutbacks and news hole shrinkage of late.

The problem for readers and viewers was finding the good stuff. It’s not easy to navigate today’s choppy, changing sea of hard news, personal opinion and outright propaganda.  Readers and viewers face their own challenges: Was that a TV anchorman going over polling data or a political party operative doing some wishful thinking?  And on those election night panels of pundits, how much credibility ought one accord a news columnist, like the Sun-Times Esther Cepeda, when paired against an outright partisan like Dan Proft, the glib libertarian who ran and lost in the GOP primary? And what, exactly, are we to make of that menacing rat logo/cartoon that the Tribune runs, sometimes on the front page, when its editorialists go off on the performance of Chicago Democrats?

In other words, how’s a thoughtful reader, viewer, or Web surfer supposed to weigh what’s being put out there by an increasingly indistinguishable mix of straight-leg journalists, seasoned op-ed commentators/editorial writers, and clever political operatives or axe-grinding ideologues?

The answer, of course, is “LOL.”  It’s almost impossible to divine who’s telling it straight and who’s rep-ing some special interest.  Are we hearing from an employee of the host media outlet?  Or a respected newspaper op-ed writer or academician?  Or is he or she from the tea party?  Or the SEIU?

That criticism notwithstanding, this last electoral go-round produced some of the best reporting and analysis in memory. What follows are my very personal—and perforce incomplete—awards for the best of the best:

Grand Prize: Phil Ponce and Carol Marin’s series of live, in-studio debate-style interviews with the major candidates on WTTW/Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight.  The traditional League of Women Voters’ forums were never like this. Ponce and Marin cut off candidates when they digressed into talking points, shushed pols who talked over or interrupted, and demanded specific answers to specific questions about tax increases and spending cuts. This is how political debates should be run, with well-informed journalists empowered to cross-examine candidates and get at the real differences … not simply keep time and count platitudes.

Best issue coverage:  The Tribune’s News Focus series cleared out entire front-section pages for detailed comparisons’ of the major U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates’ positions on taxes, spending, health care, immigration and more. It was the Sun-Times, however, that better pinned down specifics, especially in the Sunday-before-the-election roundups. On taxes, for example, the Trib’s thumbnail said Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady “favors an audit of state programs and cutting 10 percent of spending.”  Hmmm. The Sun-Times blurbed that Brady “opposes every tax increase; favors eliminating state sales tax on motor fuel and the state’s estate tax. He proposes requiring a supermajority in the legislature to raise taxes.”  That’s saying something.

Best election night TV coverage: A graybeard like me can’t help but favor Bill & Walter’s color commentary on WBBM/Channel 2.  The highlight for me occurred shortly after 1 a.m., when Jacobsen turned to Kurtis, as soon as it looked like Democrat Pat Quinn would hold on to the governor’s mansion, and observed that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan might now reconsider and run for mayor of Chicago … rather than challenge an incumbent Democrat in the 2014 primary. That’s pretty sage for the wee hours.

Best online coverage: The Jim Kirk-edited Early and Often an adjunct of the Chicago News Cooperative site, especially its daily “Morning Palm Card” e-alerts, were a newsy mix of inside baseball, savvy analysis and deft aggregation.  This is what this talent-rich CNC, funded by subscriptions and philanthropy, ought to be doing … not slavishly covering Blago’s corruption trial. Or mailing FOIA letters to public agencies to obtain embarrassing expense accounts. We get that elsewhere.

Best column: Hard to beat Greg Hinz’ election eve primal scream in Crain’s Chicago Business. “At a time when Illinois is ethically and financially bankrupt,” Hinz wrote, “when voters are desperate for officials who will stand up, tell it like it is and do what’s needed … we instead get this year’s sad crop” nearly all of whom ran attack ads featuring an “unending stream of ominous music, doctored photos, screaming headlines and distortions (that) would make Mother Theresa wince.”

Then again, Greg, Mother Theresa ain’t registered to vote in Illinois.

A 40-year veteran of Chicago media, John McCarron now teaches, consults and writes freelance on urban affairs.