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American Dream Betrayed

Burris Media Attacks An Old Story

Beleaguered Roland Burris now says he will no longer take questions from the media, whom he accuses of misreporting the facts of his pursuit of a United States senate seat. He has not, to my knowledge, asked for a correction from anyone, nor specified what exactly has been misreported. But then, this is an old game that Roland is playing.

In April 1995, Cate Plys wrote a terrific 4,300-word story for the Reader about Roland's relationship with media during his mayoral campaign that year. The piece is behind the Reader's firewall can be found here; I will excerpt from it here generously. It was called "Biting The Hand," and asked: "Did candidate Roland Burris deliberately dodge coverage just so he could complain he wasn't getting any?"

Here we go.

*

"By now it's traditional for politicians to knock around the press like Mike Tyson's sparring partners. Yet even Nixon waited to be kicked around before he complained about it. As a mayoral candidate, Roland Burris may have begun a new trend when he started attacking his media coverage before it was possible for him to have any media coverage - namely, at his very first press conference."

*

"He spent his entire campaign bashing the press. 'It got more good-natured as the campaign went on,' allows the Sun-Times's Scott Fornek. But it never stopped, and at one point Burris supporters picketed Channel Two and Channel Seven over coverage of a Burris march and rally in Roseland."

*

"An analysis of the major print coverage - the Sun-Times and Tribune - shows a total of 41 articles for Burris and 46 articles for Daley during the short Burris campaign. That's counting every single story that included the name 'Daley' in a headline for whatever reason. And 14 of Daley's 46 articles depicted a squirming mayor dealing with the police lieutenant's exam, hardly the kind of story Daley's press team would have planted. Clearly, Burris wasn't stiffed on the amount of coverage he received.

"He didn't suffer from antagonistic reporting, either. In classifying the articles as positive, negative, or neutral, we've given Burris every benefit of the doubt. Anything slightly questionable for Burris became neutral or negative; anything slightly questionable for Daley became neutral or positive. Under this Burris-friendly system, Burris finished with 27 positive stories to Daley's 15. Burris received only 7 negative stories to Daley's 23, and of the remaining neutral stories, Burris had 7 and Daley had 8.

"If anyone should have been squawking, it was Republican Ray Wardingley and Harold Washington Party candidate Lawrence Redmond. Wardingley garnered a paltry ten stories, many of them noting his former life as a clown. The last few articles only appeared due to the brief controversy over whether the Republicans had tried to dump him for Ed Vrdolyak. Redmond saw his name in the Tribune and Sun-Times a total of four times."

*

"Something worth remembering too is that the Burris campaign was perennially, chronically, 'catching fire'," Channel 2's Mike Flannery told Plys. "We were constantly being told the wildfire of political support was about to explode. Every day. It was only just around the corner, it was a few hours away. Like the weekend before the election in Daley Plaza, a car caravan which they hoped was going to be the largest rally of the campaign. They wanted thousands of people at Daley Plaza. Guess what? There were not 200. There may not have been 120. There were a number of times I could cite you that we were given a big buildup, and nothing was there."

COMMENT: Shame on you, Mike Flannery, for relying on a candidate to tell you if support was "about to explode." I mean, really.

*

"Burris's coverage was, in fact, downright kind. Only one negative story cropped up on Burris's past, and it didn't originate with reporters. On March 16 the Chicago Council of Lawyers released a report blasting the Illinois attorney general's office for, among other sins, a payroll so bloated with political hires that there isn't enough money left to attract and retain top-notch attorneys. Far from exploiting the report, the Tribune and Sun-Times each ran only one article on it. The Sun-Times account was on the bottom of page 18, and didn't use Burris's name in the headline. The Tribune story was in the middle of page 8 of the Chicagoland section. Both articles noted the possible political intentions in the timing of the report's release, and both concentrated heavily on the fact that the report's findings applied to every attorney general going back to Republican Tyrone Fahner in 1983."

COMMENT: And the coverage has continued to be kind when it comes to looking at Burris's record, whether it's USA Today writing a story under the headline "Burris Has Been Free Of Controversy" to the local media's forgetfulness - as a general narrative, with a few exceptions - of Burris's clownish and controversial ways.

*

"Is Burris's past so unblemished that a malicious press, try as it might, just couldn't root out any dirt on him? Hardly.

"'There were any number of controversies that you could've brought up from his period in state government, like you can with any politician,' says Rob Karwath, the Tribune's assistant metropolitan editor in charge of local political coverage. 'The thing with Carol Moseley-Braun and the medicaid reimbursements for her mother that she made to the state, the decision not to open a criminal investigation into that, that was an issue'."

"Burris also got a pass on his involvement with the Rolando Cruz case. Cruz has been on death row for the last decade but is widely believed to be innocent of the 1983 sexual assault and murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. He is currently awaiting a third trial after his second conviction was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a string of 15 columns examining the questionable evidence used to convict Cruz and the suppression of the fact that child rapist and murderer Brian Dugan had confessed to the Nicarico murder after Cruz's first conviction. In 1992 Assistant Attorney General Mary Brigid Kenney resigned from Burris's office rather than write a brief supporting Cruz's conviction for his second hearing before the Illinois Supreme Court. 'I was being asked to help execute an innocent man,' Zorn quoted her letter to Burris. 'Unfortunately, you have seen fit to ignore evidence in this case.' Burris refused to reconsider, telling reporters, 'It's not for me to place my judgment over a jury, regardless of what I think'."

*

"Rehashing the Cruz case would not have made Burris happy. 'You know what that would've done for him with the Hispanics?' says Sun-Times reporter Jorge Oclander. 'We knew about it all along. And in the interest of being fair to the man and not making a political point about something that hadn't [been brought up by another candidate or interest group], it stayed out there'."

COMMENT: This refers to the curious notion many journalists have that they themselves can't bring up an issue; that it's up to the candidates or opposition party to raise an issue. This is nonsense, of course. You don't let your subjects edit your papers and determine your agenda. But this is the same excuse many national reporters gave for their sorry coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war - that if the Democrats didn't question the intelligence and rationale, it wasn't their place to do so. Of course, it is exactly the place of a journalist to do so.

*

"Don't forget that all-new black militant image Burris adopted for the mayoral campaign. 'We let him get away with that,' says Andy Shaw."

COMMENT: Why?

*

"Reporters also agree they were extremely lenient with Burris when pressing him for details on his policy positions, which is apparent from reviewing his clippings. 'Remember he never put out a platform,' says Shaw. 'He laid out a few specifics on plans without financial components of how to pay for them. We didn't press him on that because we didn't think he was viable enough to do the kind of vetting we do of serious candidates'."

COMMENT: Your job is to vet, not determine how viable a candidate is. A lot of folks didn't think Obama was viable; in fact, like the sports world, the political world is littered with non-viable candidates who have won office - or at least made an impact. And as we're seeing now, it's important to vet who parties put forward and why (especially in Chicago, where many candidates are stooges) and to keep an eye on folks who may turn up later in, ahem, appointed positions or future races. In other words, just do your job.

*

"According to Flannery, 'He got more coverage and was taken more seriously by the news media than any other politician I can recall - and I've been in this for 22 years - who raised as little money as he did, whatever the final number is, and who in the end made as poor a showing as he did'."

COMMENT: I'm not sure how this squares with what Shaw said, but the media should spend less time deciding who to take seriously and more time taking their job seriously.

*

"At that first first press conference, Burris claimed reporters were 'covering up' for Mayor Daley. 'We demand fair reporting. You all have been praising [Daley]. You all anointed him the King Richard,' said Burris, quoted by Scott Fornek in the Sun-Times.

"'He launched into a big thing, We're going to hold your feet to the fire,' singled out Andy Shaw, said Andy Shaw had been painting Mayor Daley as invincible, and so on,' says Fornek. Burris supporters actually booed Shaw, says Kirby.

"Burris held a second first press conference for the missing reporters sometime later, now seated at a table in a different room. He wouldn't repeat his opening speech, and Fornek wrote that Burris was 'visibly irritated' when reporters dared to ask questions. In one exchange, Burris said he wanted to get out his message, not the message the press wanted to put out. Bernie Tafoya of WBBM Newsradio asked what message Burris thought the press wanted to put out.

"'Don't be smart,' Burris shot back, as quoted by Fornek. 'I am trying to be serious. And I hope you all will respect me'."

*

"Later Burris went after Jim Allen, Chicago bureau chief of the Daily Herald. 'I had leaned my head on my arm at one point in the news conference,' says Allen, 'and [Burris] turned to me and said, Are you tired or are you just disgusted with the way I answered your question? And I said, No, neither, I'm resting my head on my hand'."

*

"Reporters generally take issues raised by candidates and 'get to the bottom of it,' says Fornek. The Sun-Times tried to do that with education after Burris's criticism of the public schools, he says. 'But [Burris] never really spelled out enough what he was gonna do . . . He talked about this five-point plan for how he was gonna improve funding for schools, and never really laid it out. And when you would ask him for platform papers, he said at one point, Well if you mean am I gonna write this stuff down for you, no!'

"You just kind of had to follow him around and get what he said. When he finally issued a press release on education, it talked about the five-point plan but there was no detail on what the five-point plan was. 'You don't expect a candidate to spoon-feed you everything, but they're the one running the campaign,' says Fornek. 'If they're not gonna give you a platform or position papers or tell you ahead of time where they're gonna be, it limits what you can do'."

*

"Besides attacking the press, the Burris campaign displayed one other consistent strategy: bringing up charges against Daley, offering no evidence, and challenging reporters to investigate. 'I'm sure you've heard his slogan could've been, You check it out,' says Fornek wryly. 'With this kind of anti-media pose, he'd challenge us all to check it out. He'd say, I don't know if it's true, I'm just wondering here, it's up to you all to check it out, I want you to please, please check it out. Obviously, who has time to make a full court press on every charge that he let loose?'

"At the first first press conference, Burris charged that Daley had only 10,000 police officers on city streets rather than the budgeted 13,000 officers. Next, Burris charged that a Daley associate had offered him two jobs with a salary totaling $250,000 a year to drop out of the race. He charged that another Daley associate had told him, 'It will be very difficult for you to make a living in this city after you lose this election.' He charged that past campaign contributors had been told they would never get another city contract if they contributed to Burris again. He accused Daley of harassing a restaurant where a Burris fund-raiser was held by having a city inspector demand that the restaurant obtain a banquet license.
Burris also accused Daley of having a police academy graduation date changed to provide Daley with an election photo opportunity. 'Now please check it out,' Burris asked reporters at a press conference. 'So don't attribute it to me if it doesn't check out.' It didn't.

"Of all these charges, Burris offered a source for only one - the restaurant that needed a banquet license.
Finally, the day before the election, Burris picked up on an earlier Channel Five investigation by Dave Savini that reported O'Hare Airport director of vehicle services Dominic Longo, a Daley campaign worker, was forcing employees to do political work for Daley. 'Burris held a news conference and said, I've got more workers, and they say Longo is hiring inexperienced workers, and they're causing safety hazards at O'Hare,' recalls Channel Five's Dick Kay. 'Well, it's the day before the election at three in the afternoon. I mean, nobody's gonna go do that story that night. You're not gonna do it that way because it's a major investigative piece and you've gotta make sure you can substantiate these charges.'

"The Sun-Times's Fornek did put a full court press on Burris's first charge that only 10,000 police officers are on Chicago streets. Fornek obtained statistics from city budget director Paul Vallas showing 13,187 employed police officers. The only Burris charge regarding the officers that couldn't be entirely disproved was his contention that the city deploys fewer police in high-crime areas. Revealing such deployment information, police officials told Fornek, would also reveal the best time and place to commit crimes.

"'We found a lot of his facts to be of questionable use or purpose, so what do you do?' asks Don Hayner, Sun-Times assistant metropolitan editor and political coordinator."

COMMENT: You write a story saying Burris has a habit of making charges that don't check out.

*

"The Sun-Times's Jorge Oclander is less charitable. While covering Burris's endorsement by the IVI-IPO, Oclander asked Burris how he kept going while the polls showed him trailing Daley three to one. 'And he says, Well, I don't believe the polls, and starts complaining again about not getting coverage in the press,' Oclander recalls. 'And I said to him, Well, perhaps if you say you don't believe these polls, you must have some other polls that show you differently, and he says, I do, and I said, Great, why don't you share those numbers with us, and he said, Well, I'm not going to share the numbers, and breaks into this politician's smile that says, hehehe, I've got a secret you don't know.

"'What are we supposed to report?' asks Oclander. 'Their fantasies? I'm not interested in his fantasies. I am interested in some hard data that will make a good news story . . . We do not have an obligation to lie to our readers.'

"Burris's allegation about the $250,000 job offer rankles Oclander. 'I don't have an obligation to be your research staff,' he says. 'I have an obligation to be the researcher for my readers, but there's gotta be a basis for something. I mean, so he's gonna say he has definite proof that Mayor Daley has fixed it so that the sun rotates around the earth? I'm not going to investigate that. I mean there's gotta be something there other than Roland Burris saying it.'

"The Daily Herald's Allen also found the job accusation frustrating. '[Burris's] suggestion was, you should be able to find these people,' he says. 'And who these people were we had no idea. We were supposed to ask around and find them among 2.8 million people'."

*

"Fornek says, 'I was questioning him on the [alleged $250,000 job offer] again a couple of weeks ago on John Madigan's show, and I was saying, Why don't you name this person who you say offered you this job, because if you really want to root out this kind of corruption shouldn't you name names? Are you shielding this guy? He kind of cut me off on my question and said, Are you saying I'm lying? Are you calling me a liar? . . . But this'll give you some insight. The first words he says after it's over, he looks at me and he laughs and he points and he says, Scott, I really got you there, huh? And we walked out, and he's slapping me on the back, we're kidding as we walk out. So this is why I say it was a strategy.

"'And he routinely would even tell me that he liked the stories I did,' says Fornek. 'You know, he liked the profile I did of him.'

"Soon Burris switched his strategy from simply haranguing reporters to telling them that their lousy coverage was due to a conspiracy among their bosses to keep him out of the papers.

"'Boy, I think he gives us way too much credit,' says Karwath. 'It's just so far beyond the realm of what's reasonable, and what actually happens in a newsroom, to think we sit around plotting conspiracies. Sometimes we don't have time to think through things as much as we'd like to, and to think we have time to get into that elaborate plot-making is just really farfetched.'

*

"Does he blame the media for Burris's loss?

"'I'll just say it didn't help,' says [Burris's media man Don] Rashid. 'I think the media bears a great responsibility, particularly in voter turnout across the board, in that the priority of the media could be better served if they really got into the race, and it seemed like they do the minimum'."

*

We should note that a frequent refrain from these reporters was that they actually like Burris. Most still sound bewildered.

"'Just to give you some perspective, Roland is one of the first statewide officials I covered in college,' says Allen. 'I have a lot of respect for this guy. What happened this time out, I don't know. I don't know if he was in over his head or just lacked money or organization. Whatever it was, it wasn't a pretty sight.'

"'I think the press was very kind to Mr. Burris,' says Jorge Oclander. 'Mr. Burris wasn't very kind to Mr. Burris'."



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Posted on February 19, 2009


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