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The [Thursday] Papers

In a couple simple paragraphs this morning, the Tribune reminded readers of the lessons we keep hearing about that the city learned from the 1995 heat wave. "Over the last few days, agencies in the city have conducted thousands of well-being checks on senior citizens and public-housing tenants, and hundreds of residents visited the cooling facilities throughout the city. About 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of heat-related concerns or because their homes lost power. ComEd put up many of those people in area hotels," the paper reports.

"The city also used its automated call-back system to send phone messages to elderly residents advising them to take whatever precautions necessary to maintain their safety. Reminders also were posted on message boards around the city.

"Experts agree that these measures have had a considerable effect on the number of heat-related deaths recorded each year since 1995."

I'm sure that is true. The corollary, then, is that the city monumentally and lethally screwed up in 1995, when more than 700 Chicagoans died in a heat wave that Mayor Richard M. Daley refused to acknowledge.

"My commissioners, my performance and city employees were excellent. I've got no criticism whatsoever," Daley said back then.

I am not aware of the mayor in the 11 years since admitting his mistakes. But the city's improved new state of readiness is evidence on its face that the administration was not just unprepared in 1995, but, given its reaction to the crisis, stubbornly unprepared and willfully unwilling to face reality.

As Eric Klinenberg points out in Heat Wave, the mayor's after-report on the tragedy was called "Final Report: The Mayor's Commission On Extreme Weather Conditions"; note the lack of reference to, um, the heat wave. The cover of the report contained graphics of both a sun and a snowflake.

The report, controlled and edited by the mayor's office, was of course a whitewash. "The executive summary offered by the Mayor's Office, for example, reports that 'the numbers of African-American and white victims were almost identical,' even though the death ratio and age-adjusted death ratio - which are included in a less prominent section of the document - show that African-Americans experienced substantially higher death rates than whites. Similarly, the only neighborhood-level analysis presented in the summary explains that 'nearly all community areas in Chicago were affected,' which is analagous to saying that nearly all areas in the city are affected by poverty or crime, because it conceals the enormous variation in neighborhood mortality levels," Klinenberg wrote.

The Tribune also says today that the city "came under severe scrutiny" for its handling of the 1995 heat wave. Really? Not by the local media, according to Klinenberg's exhaustively researched book, published in 2002. It was Klinenberg, not the local press, who reported nauseating nuggets like this one from a "key member" of the Department of Health:

"When Daley denied the Chief Medical Examiner's reports, he defined everything that the city would do on this for the next six months. You have to understand, there were nine refrigerated trucks holding bodies in the parking lot of the morgue, a long line of police cars delivering more, and there is the mayor - mayor of the third-largest city in the United States - denying that people were dying, or later denying that the deaths had anything to do with the heat. Imagine what the mayor's position on the heat wave did for the morale of other city employees and city agencies, or how it limited their capacity to do their work. Once the mayor took the position that the death rates were overstated it became impossible for city employees to say anything else. We were forced to find all sorts of ways to reframe the issue or to talk around what was happening. We couldn't contest his position, and in this case that meant we couldn't be fully explicit about what we were finding."

Daley's position also successfully framed the media's coverage, Klinenberg shows. At the Tribune, "the situation provoked a conflict among the editors, with some of them sympathetic to Mayor Daley's initial claims that the mortality figures were overstated, while others were convinced that the city was experiencing a genuine catastrophe."

Of course, it doesn't matter what editors think; what matters is going out and getting the story. But the mayor's statements - which we now know we're part of a concentrated public relations effort - put doubts in the minds of local editors, reporters, and even hard-boiled columnists such as Mike Royko, who wrote a front-page column titled "Killer Heat Wave Or Media Event?"

Daley managed to frame the media coverage for editors who were not strong-minded enough to do it themselves, and Klinenberg details in his book that skepticism toward the statements of the Chief Medical Examiner Edward Donoghue, not Daley, framed the after-coverage that looked back on the tragedy as well.

Of course, local television news outlets performed even worse than the prints. Consider the plight of Paul Douglas, then the meteorologist at Channel 2: "I'll never forget [the executive producer] kept coming over to us, she kept asking, she wanted to do a live shot with some place in the United States that would be hotter than Chicago. She kept talking about wanting to do a live shot with a meteorologist in Phoenix . . . You know, basically making it more of a featurey, lifestyle kind of cutesy - 'Hey, let's have the dueling meteorologists try to figure out who's hotter' - story . . . And I kept pleading with her and telling her, 'You're missing the point. We should have people at the hospitals, we should have people at City Hall.' And it degenerated into a shouting match in the newsroom. She started screaming, 'You don't get it, you don't get it! This is television!' And I said, 'I do get it. I understand. This is a dangerous situation for Chicago. We are the hottest spot. People will be dying later today. That's your story."

Earlier this week, Channel 2 set out to see if it could actually fry an egg on the sidewalk.


The 1995 heat wave was, as far as I can tell, the worst natural disaster in the history of the city. More than twice as many died as did in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which arguably wasn't a "natural" disaster anyway. The city's willful mismanagement of the disaster ranks among the greatest urban botches of all time. The media was equally as lost, perhaps because newsrooms are filled with people relatively unaffected by deadly heat waves. By the time the Tribune finished about two months of reporting out a systematic examination of who died in the 1995 heat wave, in an effort to rectify what some in the newsroom thought was inadequate real-time coverage, the newspaper's editors changed course. They didn't think publishing the story that September was a good idea. The heat wave was "a summer story." No one would be interested anymore. The 1995 heat wave was among the greatest urban reporting botches of all time as well.


"Mayor Richard Daley contended Wednesday that city service requests never have been filled at election time to curry favor with voters for candidates he has supported," the Tribune reports today.

"Anyone running for office can claim to have had potholes filled or street lights repaired, Daley said. But asked if service ever has been provided as a political favor, he replied, 'No. None whatsoever.'"

Meanwhile, the mayor has hired a personal lawyer to defend himself in the ongoing civil court action regulating the patronage system in the city that Daley wants to expand because it is supposed to provide better city services for residents because votes for officeholders are at stake.


"[A]fter four years and somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, a new set of depositions released by the [Burge] special prosecutor's office Wednesday gives no clearer picture of who dropped the ball," the Sun-Times reports today.

There is no pattern in Richard M. Daley's public career, of course, that would suggest he considered the political consequences of the torture allegations against Jon Burge and his midnight crew, either back in 1982 when they first surfaced and Daley was the Cook County State's Attorney, or in the 24 years since. In that time, and continuing today, Daley has vigorously pushed for a full accounting, believing the public deserves the truth, and thus is as disappointed with the inadequacies of the special prosecutor's report as everybody else.



But the city looks great. Those flowers sure are pretty.

The Beachwood Tip Line: We'll be here all week.


Posted on August 3, 2006

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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