Daley departure tells us a lot about the media

The Chicago Tribune’s banner headline on Tuesday, September 7, the day Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he would not seek a record seventh term, read: “City wants $1 billion more for O’Hare Plan.”

This signaled two things, one obvious, the other less so . . . but worth exploring, for it helps explain why Daley is calling it quits after 21 years in office.

First and obvious, it shows the Trib didn’t have a clue Daley was about to pull the plug. No embarrassment there. Neither did the Chicago Sun-Times nor any of the TV or radio news shops that cover City Hall day-to-day. There were no leaks, no exclusives, not even an unattributed hint in a gossip column. Of course there weren’t. Relations between Rich Daley and the Chicago media have grown testy, bordering on antagonistic. By the time he and his family decided “It’s time,” the mayor and his staff literally had no favorite scribes with whom to dish.

Even Michael Sneed, the Sun-Times’ in-the-know columnist who can charm pearls from an oyster was so unaware as to be starting an out-of-town vacation on that post-Labor Day Tuesday. She later admitted hearing the news from a bellman at an Arizona resort hotel.

At his press conference that morning, after making his formal announcement, Daley grinned in seeming delight that he put one over on the press corps, several of whom were caught by surprise, arriving late, scrambling to catch up.

Which brings up the other telling aspect of that Tribune banner story, the one about the mayor seeking more city bonds to continue expansion of the Midwest’s busiest airport.

“Like a poker player who has gone all in on a bet that is too big to lose,” it began, the Daley administration needs $1 billion in bonds to “buy time and keep the project going” while it tries “to persuade the airport’s two largest tenants, American and United airlines, to sign on.”

It was a well-reported story, to be sure, but it had that hide-your-wallet-here-comes-Daley tone now typical of most City Hall news coverage.

“We the taxpayers may end up having to foot the bill if the airlines don’t want the extra capacity,” one dependably anti-Daley alderman was quoted as saying, neatly summarizing the story’s skeptical bent.

There are several reasons Daley is hanging it up. But among them, surely, is the mayor no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. That says something about our journalism, not just in Chicago, but across a nation where taxpayers are rattling tea cups about the dumb or venal stuff their governments are reportedly doing.

Fact is, Chicago under Mayor Richard Michael Daley has performed considerably better than most big northern cities. The dramatic population losses of the 70s and 80s have been stanched; major corporate headquarters have been recruited (Boeing) to all but offset those lost to consolidation (Amoco) or flight (Sears Roebuck); downtown is revitalized and so many college kids, yuppies and empty-nesters have moved in that, by itself, it would rank among the state’s largest cities.

Out-of-town media, not surprisingly, have been wowed by Daley’s performance. A few years ago Time magazine rated him the best of the “best” big city mayors; the conservative and internationally circulated Economist, in a lengthy evaluation, found Daley’s city “has succeeded better in reversing decline than anyone else.”

The local prints, however, have waxed cynical in their evaluations of “Mayor Short Shanks” – a derision coined by the most cynical of all – Tribune columnist John Kass.

Columnists will be columnists, but even the news desks now approach stories about City Hall as though it’s mainly about patronage and self-interest, who’s getting the fat contracts and cushy city jobs. Example: All the while Daley’s most successful city beautification project — Millennium Park — was rising on the lakefront where once was a dormant rail yard, the big running story was about cracks discovered in concrete support pylons . . . and that the project was running well in excess of its original $150 million cost estimate.

(The cracks were fixed, and the park’s ultimate cost, though double early estimates, were more than offset by corporate contributions — such as the Frank Gehry designed stage and the reflective kidney bean — as well as by the jolt the spectacular new park gave to downtown property values and tourism.)

This isn’t to say Daley should be beyond criticism.  It’s good the newspapers exposed sweetheart city deals for hired trucks and wrought iron fencing.  It’s good they exposed an illegally rigged patronage hiring system and questionable loans by city pension funds to real estate development involving Daley relatives and friends.

It’s a problem, though, when young reporters assigned to cover the vast and complex workings of local government approach the task like so many wannabe Mike Roykos, the wonderfully wry columnist who argued the city’s Latin motto should be changed from “Urbs in horto” to “Ubi est mea?” . . . as in where’s mine?

No journalist wants to come across as naïve. But just as people need to understand the complexities of public issues to function intelligently as citizens, so must journalists understand that cynicism is no substitute for understanding.

Chicago needs to expand O’Hare. The project is key to the city’s—and maybe even the Midwest’s—aspirations as a global economic player. Rich Daley isn’t perfect, but he “gets” such big stuff . . . stuff like O’Hare’s potential to be our region’s over-the-Pole gateway to China.

Pray his departure inspires Chicago journalists to get the big stuff also, rather than just getting Daley.

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

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