Former Chicago mayor blurs line for journalism as a ‘pol on hiatus’

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was known for his swagger and no-nonsense management style–and also for trying to control his own narrative. In the final weeks before he left City Hall and Lori Lightfoot became mayor after an historical election, Emanuel went on a media tour to sum up his two terms in his words, refusing to tell the New York Times what advice he’d give his successor or what plans had for the future.

He didn’t need to.

A few days after the Times published its interview, the Daily Beast reported that Emanuel would be a paid contributor and political analyst for ABC News, dispensing his advice to the city’s first African-American woman and openly gay mayor through national TV. The Atlantic magazine also announced the former mayor would be a contributing editor. Emanuel has been regularly contributing to the Atlantic since 2017, writing about how Democrats could take control of Congress and why President Donald Trump doesn’t want a chief of staff. On May 21, the day after Lightfoot was inaugurated, the Atlantic published an opinion piece from Emanuel advising Democrats how to seek justice.

Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is now a paid contributor for ABC and a contributing editor at Atlantic magazine. (Photo by Steven Nunez)

What’s wrong with that? He’s gotta’ work, right? At 59, he’s likely not ready for the recliner. Anyone who has followed him over the years likely finds it hard to imagine that ever happening.

But the problem is that the former mayor’s new jobs continue to blur the lines between journalists, cable commentators, bloggers, activists and former politicians with their shows on cable “news” channels.

I’m from one of the last generations to remember, though vaguely, the John F. Kennedy assassination when Walter Cronkite reported the news to the nation. I’m not suggesting we return to the days when the voice of news anchors from our black and white TVs boomed through homes like the voice of God. Even if that were possible, I’d have to remind myself that those were also the days when having a woman or someone other than a white man anchoring the network news was unthinkable.

There’s no doubt Emanuel has the right to sharpen, or in some case reinvent his image before his next career move — possibly another political office somewhere down the road. He’d by no means be the first to use the role of political contributor on shows run by television news departments to do. Former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, co-host of Morning Joe on MSNBC, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a contributor to ABC News and former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a contributor to CBS News, come to mind.

My worry is that these former pols, or simply pols on hiatus, will use the media to keep their names in the public domain while further contributing to the confusion of an audience already not quite sure what constitutes a journalist.

In some cases these politicians on ice will be commenting on legislation and policies they helped put in place. That’s their right, but should they be doing this on the payroll of the news division of ABC or while on contract with a magazine that prides itself on “honest reporting?” We don’t know how much Emanuel is getting paid, but since it’s been reported that that he’s being represented by the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, where his brother, Ari, is co-CEO, it’s likely not peanuts.

Emanuel, the former presidential aide to one president, chief of staff to another, and congressman, will be voicing his opinions on a national stage. So it’s hard to believe that viewers and readers will know that Chicago’s mayor for the past eight years is also remembered by many at home as the mayor who presided over the closing of nearly 50 schools and a half dozen mental health clinics. Those actions contributed to the moniker, Mayor 1%.

That makes him much more than a political observer and shapes his perspective, especially if Emanuel is commenting on education, healthcare or other related issues. It’s his opinion, but should he be paid handsomely for it as opposed to being invited on to a news program as a guest?

Looming over the recent election, and possibly the reason Emanuel decided not to seek a third term, was the shadow of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who in 2014 was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The former cop was convicted of second-degree murder and is now serving a sentence of just under seven years. Emanuel was heavily criticized when it took the city more than a year to release the dashcam video of the incident. His national audience should take this into consideration when he comments on police accountability matters.

As journalists, our profession is fighting for its life. Do we really want to muddy the waters by making it harder for our viewers and readers to determine who’s on what side – one who makes the news or one who delivers it? It’s a question both news providers and consumers should take a moment to ponder.

Curtis Lawrence is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

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