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The [Tuesday] Papers

One of my favorite reads every election season is the the one where Cornelia Grumman, of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, dishes on the weird and disheartening responses candidates give to questions from the board in live appearances and to the board's questionnaires that it sends out as part of its endorsement process.

This year's version is once again a gem. The only problem with it is that it leaves me wanting more. I'm sure Grumman could fill a whole page with this stuff--and she should be allowed to.

I don't know how painstaking it would be to put all the questionnaires online, but I wish the paper would do it, searchable by district and so on. You can at least find the questionnaires filled out by the candidates for governor on the Tribune's comprehensive election guide, which also includes a collection of stories from the paper as well as all manner of voting information.

Election Guidance: Last week, Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner assailed the media's performance this election season. "Sometimes the media can breathe life into an election," Miner wrote. "This year they seemed to suck it out."

He goes on to mock in particular the Chicago Sun-Times's candidate profiles, at least the edition that included Republicans Judy Baar Topinka and Ron Gidwitz, and issued a call for "old-fashioned horse race journalism that ignores platforms, trivializes issues, and marginalizes talented but underfunded underdogs while slavering over billionaire nincompoops."

Geez, I guess the press can't win either way.

I didn't find myself particularly distressed with this year's primary campaign coverage, though I think frontrunners Topinka and Gov. Rod Blagojevich could have been grilled more aggressively and the congressional races fleshed out more.

At times it seemed like the nuttiness of Jim Oberweis and the jockeying between Topinka's challengers perfectly distracted the press from more closely examining Topinka's issueless campaign. And in the absence of a stronger challenger than Edwin Eisendrath, there's nothing wrong with the press playing the part of the governor's debate partner.

Still, I found the Sun-Times's candidate profiles much better than the standard, dutiful, check-it-off-the-list variety that the papers tend to put out, particularly the Tribune.

As I put together A Beachwood Guide to the Primaries, I found myself leaning heavily on the Sun-Times's coverage. Scott Fornek's piece on Republican fringe candidate Andy Martin is an instant classic in my book.

Lynn Sweet's coverage of the state's congressional delegation once again surpassed the competition, at least at the Tribune. (I didn't read the Daily Southtown, the Daily Herald, or any other papers closely enough to include in the comparison.)

The Chicago Defender and WVON-AM enlightened me about the loyalty the black community feels toward John Stroger. Perhaps Forrest Claypool's campaign (or the reporting of it) should have focused more on how cleaning up Cook County government will better serve the medical care of the poor under its purview instead of just cleaning up the books. (N'Digo also carried a strong endorsement of Stroger, though I couldn't find a link to it this morning.)

Why Is Daley Smiling?
The best media story in the Reader last week was Martha Bayne's look at the Chicago-based Stop Smiling magazine, which somehow claims 60,000 readers. (Bayne's story is apparently only available online as a PDF; you can find a link on the right rail of the Reader's home page under Our Town.)

Bayne reports that the magazine's recent 10th anniversary party drew city cultural affairs czarina Lois Weisberg, the Tribune's Rick Kogan, and folks from Lumpen magazine and the Thrill Jockey record label. Ira Glass emceed.

The Stop Smiling editors "idolize the giants of New Journalism," Bayne writes. Except for the journalism part.

Consider the recent cover story interview with Mayor Richard M. Daley. The interview "took several months of wrangling," editor and publisher JC Gabel told Bayne, "and when they sat down the parameters were predetermined and strict. So Gabel didn't quiz the mayor about the hired truck scandal, or the water department heroin ring, or the Millennium Park budget debacle, or the smoking ban. He asked instead how that ticker-tape parade for the Sox got put together so fast."

"It's not our job, really, to be busting him up for machine politics or corruption," Gabel told Bayne.

Bayne also reports that "The magazine lets subjects vet articles and request changes before they're published. 'Sometimes it's such an accomplishment to just be able to be speaking to some of these people, that we know that, obviously, they're going to be looking at the piece later,' says [Gabel's partner James] Hughes. "Where we're at, it's just better to be more symbiotic than adversarial. We'd never try to out someone on something that they're hiding from. We're not looking for scoops. If we're going to spend this much time on something, then the people on the cover who gave us an awful lot of their time [had] better be happy with it too.'"

Just so Weisberg, Kogan, the Lumpen folks, the Thrill Jockey people, and Ira Glass know what kind of "journalism" they are supporting.

The Daley Rules
Does Daley ever give sit-down interviews without rules? I mean, he must, right? Because Chicago is home to that tough, City News-style bare-knuckles kind of journalism.

The Daley Schools
The Los Angeles Times reports a story about Daley's performance with Chicago's schools that's a little different than the one you get here in the local press: "Chicago, the nation's third-largest school system, can hardly be seen as an advertisement for mayoral control of schools," the paper says. "After a decade with Daley in charge, the Chicago district has failed to distinguish itself from other major urban school districts. Many of its schools remain subpar and, overall, Chicago's students continue to score poorly on reading and math exams used to compare big-city districts."

- Via Alexander Russo's District 299 Chicago Public Schools Blog.

Explaining Englewood
The Sun-Times's Mary Mitchell picks up on yesterday's front page New York Times story about the plight of the young black male.

We can talk about guns, drugs, and gangs until we're blue in the face. Isn't the real issue poverty? And isn't the real answer jobs? (And isn't this also the only way we're really going to improve city schools as well--by improving the conditions of our poorest neighborhoods?)

Otherwise it seems like we're asking justifiably alienated young people growing up impovershed to show more moral character to overcome their circumstances than I see shown in the world of the privileged every day.

Barack's Bromides
At an anti-violence rally last night on the South Side, Barack Obama said this, as reported in the Sun-Times: "Neither the government, nor the politicians nor Jesse Jackson nor Barack Obama are going to save us--we have to save ourselves. I'll fight for programs. I'll sit down with Mayor Daley and Governor Blagojevich. But money and programs will make no difference unless we have a change of heart."

Self-reliance and responsibility and accountability are words and concepts that sound good, but they simply don't correspond to what I see around me in the people I know of all economic classes.

I see spoiled brats from rich families, many of whom simply aren't very bright and whose futures would have been very different had they grown up in the 'hood. I see a political and corporate system built on who you know, not what you know. I see networking and office politics and backstabbing and jockeying for position. I don't see a whole lot of moral character. Those who do have moral character tend to get left out of the mix.

But we want poor, disaffected teenagers to have a change of heart? I think we're asking the right thing of the wrong people. Let's ask for a change of heart the next time the Federal Reserve rushes to raise interest rates because unemployment is falling (and don't tell me about inflation, which hasn't been a serious threat in more than a decade). Let's ask for a change of heart the next time we find money to subsidize a football team's new stadium downtown (and don't tell me about economic development, because the research is in and there isn't any), but we're told we have to be realistic about money for social programs. And let's ask for a change of heart the next time the stupendously rich companies that own our media explain to us why they can't devote more resources to covering the whole of the city, instead of just those parts that are demographically appealing to luxury advertisers.

Let's not ask those in the worst of all possible situations in America to show more heart and character than the rest of us are able to muster. Their burden is great enough. Let's ask more from ourselves.

Dennis Decoded
Continuing our series stolen from the Columbia Journalism Review, which calls Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons "the media world's most embattled CEO." The magazine, in its latest edition, goes on to parse FitzSimons's recent pitch to Wall Street analysts. The first installment can be found here. The second installment here (at the bottom). Once again, "Said" is FitzSimons, "Unsaid" is CJR's comment. "BR" is The Beachwood Reporter adding value.

Said: We'll continue looking to serve our readers in ways that deliver the most value to them, so we'll be investing more in research to determine what's important to our readers."

Unsaid: The debate over how to balance what readers want with what they need to be educated participants in a democracy is real, and FitzSimons may actually believe, as he told The New Yorker last year, that 'journalists make "too many fake arguments"' about how newspaper companies are trying to "dumb down."' But solving the declining readership puzzle need not--and must not--mean wholesale surrender to the entertainment/diversion aspect of journalism.

BR: FitzSimons is right - the argument about whether newspaper companies are dumbing down is fake, because there is no argument. No one is saying it isn't happening. And FitzSimons is going to keep investing in research to learn how to do it even better.

Our Tip Line: Better than a questionnaire.



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Posted on March 21, 2006


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