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The [Sunday] Papers

The Tribune on Sunday managed to publish a 3,000-word front page profile of Jacquelyn Heard, longtime press secretary to Mayor Richard M. Daley, without answering (or apparently even asking) the key questions such a story would raise.

The paper chose to focus on Heard's rise from the Henry Horner Homes on the West Side to mayoral confidante - with a stop as a Chicago Tribune reporter - instead of examining her role in shaping Daley's media strategy and the ways she manipulates the press to control what the public knows.

Heard's personal story isn't uninteresting, but it's also not unfamiliar.

What makes Heard a compelling profile subject at the moment is that the mayor is drowning in a sea of bad news, from the conviction of his former patronage chief and three other aides for their role in fradulent city hiring schemes designed to further the mayor's political machine, to festering questions surrounding his inaction toward police torture allegations while he was Cook County state's attorney.

Then again, this mayor is always in the midst of one scandal or another. Heard is the one who helps him navigate the resulting coverage, and just how she does that is the central question any profile of her should seek to answer.

On that count, the Tribune fails miserably.

The paper notes that recent events have "put a premium on damage control and image preservation," but does not explain just how Heard has gone about either (much less ask how a former newspaper reporter feels about participating in the deceit implicit in those tasks.)

Reporters Bob Secter and Gary Washburn do write that "Favorable stories are selectively planted with pliant media outlets, while press attempts to obtain information that could prove unflattering to the administration can be stonewalled."

No examples are given, however, and the sentence is tucked in between approving descriptions of Heard as an unflappable mayoral counselor who keeps her contributions to policy decisions to herself (and thus we never learn what they are) and how she is a "classic working parent."

There is no evidence, for example, that the Tribune asked Heard about her recent refusal to pass along to the mayor written questions from Sun-Times reporters regarding the Roti family, whose extended ties to city business (and organized crime) earned them the moniker The First Family of Clout in a recent Sun-Times series.

Heard told Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin that the questions were too "insulting" and "upsetting" to give to the mayor.

Maybe the Tribune didn't want to get into the Sun-Times's business. But then, it could have asked about its own lawsuit against the city, filed in 2000 and settled three years later, alleging that the city routinely violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Maybe the Tribune decided that's just too much inside baseball for readers.

So how about asking the mayor's press secretary why the mayor refuses to honestly answer questions? And if it was her idea to limit questioning to daily gang-bang press conferences which are counter-productive to reporters actually learning anything of value? Or how she decides which interview requests to grant? How often does she meet with David Axelrod or Dana Herring to shape the mayor's message?

Well, maybe the Tribune thought those questions would be too insulting and upsetting.

So how about asking how her views of the press have changed in her job - after all, she was once a reporter devoted to digging out the truth, right? So does she now believe that reporters ought not have the truth?

Heard worked for a time on the City Hall beat for the Tribune. Still, Daley didn't know who she was when she was recommended for the press secretary's job. What was it about Heard's work that led the mayor's inner circle to believe she would be good in public relations, and faithful to the mayor? Was she one of the compliant outlets? After all, the mayor wouldn't have offered the job to Heard's colleague on the beat at the time, John Kass.

"Race was surely part of the equation," the Tribune reports. (Heard is African-American.) "Daley has had three chief spokesmen. They have been the public face of his tenure, and all have been African-American."

I would hardly call Heard the public face of the Administration - as the Tribune report says elsewhere, she stays out of the limelight. But isn't it an offensive exploitation of race to make sure that your press secretary is always black, as opposed to, say, something more genuine such as making sure the city's minority contracting program serves minorities, not your white pals?

Near the end of the story, the Tribune quotes an anonymous source who says that Heard understands "the minimum requirements of the press, and also how to run a story to ground - either by not giving access to information or to give so much of it, it is not clear."

Reporters and average citizens who seek public records through the Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune says, "routinely are slowed by foot-dragging or stymied altogether."

That seems like a fruitful line of inquiry. Was Heard asked about this? Apparently not. The paper takes it no further. Instead, we move on to Heard's special "chemistry" with the mayor.

"That he has come to depend on her is obvious," the Tribune says. "Daley insisted she sit in while he was being interviewed about her for this story."

What if the paper insisted she didn't? The mayor can't answer questions by himself?

That too would be a fruitful line of inquiry.

While Heard would likely not cooperate with a story that asked all the right questions, look what cooperation gets you. Better to write around a subject and get the story you want. The irony in this case is that nobody knows better how Heard operates than reporters. Yet none are quoted in the story, and observations of media strategy that reporters are subjected to every day are absent.

The impulse to do a profile like this is often to show the human side of public people who are often otherwise depicted as one-dimensional caricatures. But human-interest profiles rarely go beyond caricature and cliche themselves. Besides, usually what's most important about a profile subject is what they do, not who they are.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Go Twins!


Posted on July 24, 2006

MUSIC - Lyric Opera Strike An Old Story.
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BOOKS - Conway Barbour & The Black Middle Class.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Recall! Malone's Pork Head Cheese.

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