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.

Share our journalism