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The [Friday] Papers

It was perhaps the busiest day of the legislative session in Springfield yesterday, with lawmakers taking up issues ranging from the amount of out-of-state wine available to Illinoisans to legislation requiring cigarette companies to sell only self-extinguishing cigarettes, in the interest of reducing the number of homes burned down by smokers who fall asleep with their squares in their hands.

Everyday issues that connect with readers--I mean, we're talking wine and cigarettes. You don't need market research to tell you that folks might be interested. (You mean current law allows out-of-state wineries to ship only two cases to Illinois stores a year? And this isn't on the front page?)

You'd think the newspapers would be all over the goings-ons at the capitol. You'd think wrong.

True, the Chicago Tribune put a legislative story on its front page. It's just that it was the wrong one.

The Tribune chose to highlight the easy state senate approval of a bill that would limit the power of local governments to use eminent domain to grab private land. This action is similar to moves in state legislatures nationwide in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that endorsed the eminent domain powers of local governments.

The real story coming out of Springfield, though, was the defeat of a proposal to make accident records for used cars available to consumers. The used car dealer lobby does not want us to see those records.

Why is that a more important story than the eminent domain proposal? It might not be in the big picture, but it certainly is today. The eminent domain bill now moves to the House, and if passed there would go to the governor. There will be plenty of other days to report on its prospects and its potential impact. It also appears to face very little opposition.

The accident record bill, however, is dead. Now the story vanishes.

This was also a story of high political drama. According to the reporting, the bill was killed by the used car lobby, including the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association and the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. (Why not put photos of the executives of these fine organizations in the newspaper and submit them to questioning?)

But it did not go down without a helluva fight. The bill failed on a 28-26 roll call vote. The bill needed 30 votes for passage. (The eminent domain bill passed 44-2, with 10 senators voting present for unexplained reasons).

Chicago Sen. James Meeks, who sponsored the bill, said senators voting against it were intimidated by the auto dealers, who apparently are generous campaign contributors.

Republican Sen. Chris Lauzen, of Aurora, said the problem was about mistakes in the accident records that might mislead unwitting citizens, who apparently aren't smart enough to figure out for themselves what to believe. Perhaps Lauzen is projecting there.

"The problem with this bill is it creates a false sense of security when people rely on information that is late and inaccurate," Lauzen was quoted as saying by the Tribune.

Better to have the truer sense of security you get just by taking a used car dealer's word for it.

Over at the Bright One, they did better. But not better enough. The Chicago Sun-Times led its legislative roundup with the accident report proposal and went a little bit further than the Tribune in fleshing it out.

Reporter Tracy Swartz writes that opponents to the plan had concerns that inaccurate information might hurt vehicle sales. Accurate information, too.

Here's Fearless Frank Watson, the Republican from Greenville who is the Senate Minority Leader: "We can't talk about this being pro-consumer when actually the consumer is going to get wrong information potentially."

I'd like to propose a bill limiting citizens to access to information about candidates for public office because, you know, they might get the "wrong information." Potentially.

Of course, the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association and the Chicago Automobile Trade Association have contributed campaign cash to Watson, so he's not exactly an objective observer. I'm not saying he was bribed, just that the system works.

The only problem with the Sun-Times story is that it's too short, and it looks like its only purpose was to wedge something in back on Page 9 around a Nextel ad so there wasn't a thin blank strip across the top of the page.

All in all, our fair reporters and their editors just seem bored with the news. Perhaps wine, cigarettes, and used cars are just too declasse for them. Add that to the myriad reasons why newspapers are losing readers.

Hampton Hooey
The Sun-Times discovers at this late date that the Black Panthers actually did more than merely talk about killing police officers. The paper says the Panthers killed two Chicago cops in 1969.

Did the paper discover this digging through their archives, or researching police reports or court records?

No. Because the real axiom in Chicago journalism has been misquoted all these years. It isn't "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." It's "If your mother says she loves you, hack it out."

Hence, a story in which the paper merely reports on a thin summary posted on a Website dedicated to slain Chicago cops. The slain officers Website is severely short on facts about its cases, leaving all sorts of unanswered questions.

I'm not saying the incident didn't happen. But shouldn't the paper check it out? (And shouldn't the papers have been including this in their first-day stories, just by doing a simple clip search, aided by institutional memory?)

There are other problems with the site, insofar as using it as a news resource. For example, that Oakland police officer killed by a Black Panther during a traffic stop? I don't doubt that may have happened. But where are the all-important facts? Did the alleged killer's membership in the Black Panthers have anything to do with the killing? Did he claim self-defense? Was anyone arrested, much less convicted?

The site doesn't tell us.

One thing we do know, though, is which side of Fred Hampton Way Sun-Times reporters and editors are standing.

I Am Not Anti-Cop
In fact, I happen to think the Chicago police force is too small, and the mayor is too stubborn about his budget priorities to do anything about it. But if we're going to go in this direction . . . what about a Website dedicated to fallen blacks and minorities slain by cops?

This is not the path to understanding, and the press isn't helping.

Joke of a Venue
Jim DeRogatis reports that the Tweeter Center is changing its name again, this time to First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. The jokes should write themselves. Submit yours to the general topics category in the Beachwood Forums. The best one wins a modest prize.

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Stop talking about it and live the dream. Contact Steve Rhodes to see how. Business, editorial, tech . . . we have positions for you.

The Reporter in the News
While we didn't make his list of 50 best Websites, the Tribune's Steve Johnson gave us a nice write-up on his blog, Hypertext.

There is plenty more to come from The Beachwood Reporter, as we fill out the site and expand our offerings. So come back often and help us sustain this effort.

And thanks to everyone who has been reading and everyone who has sent us a kind note.

Don't forget our Tip Line: Do the right thing.


Posted on March 3, 2006

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