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The [Thursday] Papers

Let's break down a few stories that appear in today's papers and fail, in my view, to meet minimum standards of publication.

1. Lottery Death.

"The father-in-law of Urooj Khan - the million-dollar lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning weeks later - allegedly owed more than $120,000 in back taxes, a debt that led the Internal Revenue Service to place liens on Khan's Far North Side house almost two years ago, according to records obtained by the Tribune," the paper reports.

This troubles me. Not the father-in-law, but including this information in an article to show that he may have had a motive to commit murder. So?

Maybe he did it. Maybe he didn't. But the man hasn't been charged. Is this really fair?

Additionally, the Tribune reports that he allegedly owed more than $120,000 in back taxes. Is this in dispute? Wouldn't the man's lawyer, whom the paper talked to, say?

The paper also reports that the alleged debt led to liens being placed on his house two years ago. What's happened in those two years? Has he been fighting the IRS? Are the liens still there? Has he been working?

It's a lead worth pursuing but not one yet worthy of publishing. I dislike the premature publishing of reporting on open, ongoing investigations, which almost always happens in tabloid cases in which the media's misguided competitive juices trump whatever harm they may do to those unfortunate souls whose tragedies can be exploited for page views, newsstand sales and twisted egos.

The time to report this kind of background is when someone is charged as well as when additional context can be provided - or when a reporter can convincingly show that the police have missed the boat on a suspect right before their eyes. This is not that time.

2. Debt Collection Ordinance.

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to protect consumers against financial scams ran into a buzzsaw of opposition Wednesday from retailers and debt collectors fearful they could lose their licenses for mere technical violations," the Sun-Times reports.

"The City Council's Committee on License and Consumer Protection - under pressure from a hearing room full of critics led by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association - put off a vote on Emanuel's plan to license and regulate debt collectors. The critics essentially accused the mayor of attacking a fly with a sledgehammer and dictating an ordinance that goes too far without consulting impacted parties."

The hearing room was full of even more supporters of the ordinance, brought there by Arise Chicago. That fact is conveniently left out - as is the fact that the vote was deferred without any previous notice. A lot of people went to a lot of trouble to show up. Critics and supporters of the ordinance alike were there to testify. The committee punted.

Presumably industry lobbyists will now try to rewrite the ordinance more to its satisfaction, and who knows, maybe they have some valid points. Here's what they told Fran Spielman, who dutifully wrote their words down and passed them along to readers without any further reporting:

"It's a lot broader than debt collection. If you have a wage violation anywhere in the last five years - for not getting checks out on time, not paying vacation pay on time or underpaying - they can take your license away or deny you a license," said David Vite, president of the merchants association.

"Let's say I have 6,000 stores. I could have made a mistake in Idaho. Does that mean I should lose my license in Chicago?"

Debt collectors also accused the mayor of going too far in his crackdown against an industry that's already heavily regulated by the state and federal governments.

"If you send out a letter to a consumer and inadvertently had the wrong font [print] size, you could lose your license for something that was innocent and done to a consumer in Texas or California," said Todd J. Lansky, president of the Resurgence Legal Group, a debt-buying company based in Chicago.

"Any innocent clerical error - something that's not necessarily intentional to harm a consumer but a violation done by mistake - you can essentially lose your license for four years."

Is any of that true? It would be nice to know, but Spielman neither quotes the language of the ordinance or includes any comments from either its proponents or the mayor's office.

*

The Tribune account is also goofy.

"Aldermen on Wednesday put the brakes on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to toughen debt collection and wage payment standards in Chicago amid concerns from business groups that the new rules would make it tricky for them to collect unpaid bills and get them in trouble for accidentally breaking wage rules," the paper reports.

"The City Council Committee on License and Consumer Protection put off a vote on two Emanuel-backed ordinances. One would add new rules for debt collectors, and the other would allow the city to deny or revoke business licenses for people who have broken state or federal wage laws.

"Last month, Emanuel touted the regulations as key parts of a package to fight consumer fraud he unveiled during a news conference with Richard Cordray, director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"Representatives of various business lobbying groups are trying to negotiate with the administration on the proposals. They declined to comment Wednesday about their specific problems with one of the mayor's signature ideas."

They commented to Spielman! And in this case, it doesn't make sense that they did so knowing they'd get a free ride.

"But Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th, the committee chairwoman, said officials from hospitals and other companies worry they would unintentionally run afoul of the debt collection ordinance while trying to compel people to pay for medical procedures and other services. The mayor's plan would require anyone trying to collect a business debt to keep detailed records of contact with the debtor and any payments made, and would allow for cash penalties and up to six months in jail for violations.

"In addition, business owners think they could be in line to lose their licenses under the mayor's wage protection plan if they inadvertently miscalculated overtime or vacation pay for workers and one of their employees filed a complaint, according to Mitts."

Okay. So just when did Mitts decide to defer the issue? It was on the agenda. And did the Emanuel administration not consult with the appropriate business groups when crafting the ordinance? That seems very un-Rahmlike.

Also, no mention of the Arise contingent.

*

Finally, neither article mentions this.

3. CPD Survey.

"When some Chicagoans think of the police department, disgraced cops like Anthony Abbate or Jon Burge might come to mind," the Sun-Times reports.

"Or last year's rising gun violence.

"But a University of Illinois at Chicago survey of more than 4,000 people showed a mostly positive public opinion of the men and women in blue.

"More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they were somewhat satisfied - or very satisfied - about their recent encounters with officers."

Okay, first problem. The headline says "Survey: More Than Eight Of Ten People Satisfied With Treatment By Chicago Cops." But really, more than eight of 10 said they were at least "somewhat" satisfied with their treatment by Chicago cops. I wonder what "somewhat satisfied" means in people's minds, because it indicates to me a certain level of dissatisfaction. Further, I wonder why the researchers chose this particularly methodology instead of choosing a more specific range of responses or even using a 10-point scale.

"The level of satisfaction was slightly higher among whites than blacks and Latinos - and far lower among people under 30 years old."

Well, that probably correlates to who has the most contact with police, as well as the obvious socioeconomic correlation.

"And those involved in traffic stops didn't feel as warm and fuzzy about the police as those involved in car crashes or those who reported a crime."

So simply reporting a crime is lumped in with being, say, a suspect in this survey?

"But the average person - what we call the 'silent majority' - is pleased with the performance of the police department," said Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which conducted the study.

"Too often, individual incidents and extreme cases get more attention in the media," he said.

I'm not sure what that means. Too often cases like Burge (which went virtually unreported by the entire local media complex for years besides John Conroy's work at the Reader) and Abbate get too much attention instead of warm and fuzzy stories about officers helping little old ladies across the street, which by the way litter our media landscape?

"In November 2011, police Supt. Garry McCarthy asked the university to measure the quality of police encounters with the public. Nine police districts - a cross-section of the city - were involved in the survey, Rosenbaum said."

Which ones, please.

"Anyone who reported a crime or was in an accident or a traffic stop received a letter from McCarthy asking them to participate in a satisfaction survey over the phone or online."

So this survey had nothing to do at all with those whose encounters with police were adversarial, or potentially so, which is the crux of the issue when it comes to police relations with the community. This is about how well the cops act in traffic stops.

"The department didn't know who participated in the study and officers' identities were protected, Rosenbaum said. Those surveyed were told it wasn't part of the department's 'complaint process,' he added."

Which kind of says: Don't complain.

"Between 5 and 10 percent of those who received letters took part in the survey."

Five percent of 4,000 is 200. "160 People Satisfied With Chicago Police!"

And did the responses come from a cross-section of the city or were they all from Lincoln Park?

"Drivers' satisfaction with how they were treated declined dramatically when a ticket was issued - from 83 percent to 48 percent. Still, an officer's 'car-side manners' made a difference in a driver's view of the officer, Rosenbaum said."

Not by much!

Finally, how much did CPD pay for this study and what are they going to do with the results?

Or was getting that headline the result that was intended?

4. Tammy Duckworth.

"With a military background and coming from a family of marksmen, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth has plenty of experience with firearms," the Sun-Times reports.

"My husband and I certainly enjoy target practice," she said. "I'm a very good shot."

Still, Duckworth plans on being a "calm voice" in her role in the gun rights debate that's raging in Congress.

What does that mean? She won't speak up? Apparently, yes. She goes on to say that we won't see her pushing gun legislation on the Sunday morning talk shows. Really? You'll turn down any invites?

But here's the real problem with this article:

"In an interview from her new Schaumburg congressional office on Wednesday, the Hoffman Estates Democrat talked about the big issues facing Congress and set the agenda for her first term. It includes setting up health care workshops for seniors, slashing waste on a government oversight panel and ensuring the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension happens without any kinks."

That's a pretty unambitious agenda. And an unambitious, one-source, content-free article.

"Duckworth laid out some of her target issues in the midst of her first full week on the job. Duckworth, 44, was elected in November after a contentious campaign against incumbent Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh.

"Sitting in the new office with few chairs and bare walls and still-boxed up computers and phones, Duckworth said she knows what tops her list.

"I think what I am going to do first and foremost is to support our local communities and make sure that the funding for Elgin-O'Hare does get carried through and a lot of infrastructure projects stay on schedule," she said.

First and foremost, she's going to support local communities.

"This week, Duckworth announced that one of the committees on which she will serve is the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. There she said she plans to carefully look at waste in federal spending."

Because no one has ever done that before.

"Duckworth said she plans to release a schedule of workshops to walk seniors in her district through how the Affordable Health Care Act will affect them."

That's nice. But at the top of her agenda?

"On the gun issue, Duckworth said there's no doubt it's of white-hot importance right now in Washington. 'I think we did reach somewhat of a watershed moment,' she said, refering to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

"Duckworth, who has a FOID card but does not have a weapon, said she supports a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"'I come from a family of marksmen. . . . This is where I hope to be a calm voice on the issue. You're not going to see me on all the Sunday talk-shows pushing for something,' Duckworth said. 'But I'm going to be that calm voice and say, look, if you are a hunter and you need 30 rounds to hunt, you have a really bad shot.'"

So . . . the assault weapons ban. We can count you as a Yes. And you're against hunters who are bad shots. Anything else you want to do over the next two years?

I understand that if this is all she is saying, it's hard to report anything more, but there are a few things a reporter can do. First, press her. (Are those the issues she campaigned on? Does she really think she'll ferret out waste others haven't? What about other gun control measures being considered, like extending waiting times and new restrictions on gun show purchases and so on?) Second, write up the story with a tone reflecting her emptiness low-key approach. ("While ambitious new congressmen around the country are eager to tackle the great national issue of our times, from gun control to the nation's deficit, new Illinois representative Tammy Duckworth has a more modest ambition: making sure the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway gets done without any kinks.") Third, add at least a second frickin' source to the story. Maybe even a third! What do officials of her local communities have to say? Have they presented wish lists yet? Do party leaders have any particular plans for her? Anyone think the Elgin-O'Hare is in trouble?

"A wounded Iraq War veteran, Duckworth said she'll continue her visits to Walter Reed as a peer, essentially a former patient trained to talk to those in similar situations.

"Mostly it's listening to their fears," Duckworth said."Mostly it's walking in on the artificial legs and they realize, '[Duckworth's] amputations are so much worse than mine are going to be, so if she can do it, I can too.'"

Uh-huh. We get it. Any particular veteran's issues you intend to pursue, though, now that you're in office? She's a United States congressman. Let's start questioning her like one.

*

Look, I realize not every story can be the end-all, be-all. And that reporters are under severe time constraints and pressures from their editors. I know. I've been there. But you can still make every story count. They exist for actual readers to be informed. Would it have been too much to fill out the reporting? Or provide links to, say, the license ordinance under consideration as well as previous stories about the issue? Or to challenge an elected official to say something of consequence?

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Bonus Beachwood Feature: What Rahm Saw In Vietnam.

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Bonus Video: Kids Upset They Are Going To Disney World Instead Of Chicago.

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The Beachwood Tip Line: Indebted.



Permalink

Posted on January 10, 2013


MUSIC - Fan Note: Malcolm Young's AC/DC.
TV - FCC Wraps New Gift For Sinclair.
POLITICS - FCC About To Ruin The Internet.
SPORTS - The Connor Barf Game.

BOOKS - Inside The Book Of The Dead.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Safe Stuffing.


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