Welcome to Chicago Newsroom

Welcome to the Chicago Newsroom home page and archive.

Scroll down to see this week’s show and all previous shows.

The big idea behind Chicago Newsroom is that we assemble a small group of involved, knowledgeable people around the table and we yak about the week’s local news. Most often we tap journalists, but you’ll also find historians, political activists, academicians and newsmakers in the mix, too.

Now you can subscribe in iTunes. Just visit the right column and choose the link for either the video or audio only version of Chicago Newsroom. You can watch the show as a stream, download individual shows, or – best of all – subscribe. As a subscriber, the show will automatically download every Thursday right into your iPod or mp3 player. Join up today!

And don’t forget – you can watch the show every Thursday night at 6:30 on CAN TV 19.

It’s repeated on Fridays at 1:30 PM on CAN TV 19, and again on Saturdays at 7 PM on CAN TV 21. CAN TV is available to all Chicago subscribers of Comcast, WOW and RCN.

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CN Nov. 26, 2015

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a conversation about what it’s like to have spent a professional lifetime in local television news.

To camp out for three days at the site of a horrific plane crash or rush to a major rail crossing accident. The insanity of getting an assignment at 9:30 and knowing that in just a few hours you are to have raced to the scene or coerced people into being interviewed, often against their will,  gathered as many facts as you can and be prepared to report at 4, 4:30, 6 and 10, most likely live and each time with a new top on the story.

“And I’ve been asked – people say, I see you on the news at the end of the day, what do you do the rest of the day?” laments Channel 5’s Phil Rogers.

“Do you write your own stuff? Who writes that?”  adds Channel 7’s Paul Meinke.

They’re competitors, but good friends. “We call this the media conspiracy,” Rogers reveals.  “The much-talked- about Fox News Media Conspiracy? Well this is where it’s hatched.” They’ve been to so many stories together that we kid them that the cost-cutters at their stations could save money by sending them both in one truck.

They joke about how often their newscasts, begun every morning by completely different managers and crews end up creating remarkably similar shows. “It’s a cookie-cutter mentality,” Meinke kids. “I call him up and tell him what we’ve got, he calls me up…” And Rogers adds, “We get our marching orders from the Trilateral Commission, whoever they are…”

Meincke has just retired after 30 years of full-time reporting, but now works on a part-time basis. You may have seen him in the last couple of days working the Laquan McDonald story for Channel 7. Rogers still has a few years to go, but he’s worked 25 years at Channel 5.

They both worked at their stations during the heyday of the so-called “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy and have done their share of live-shots-in-the-middle-of-nowhere. “The emphasis was to do live. And then you’re standing at the scene of the cable guy who was shot in the alley six hours after it happened,” Meincke explains. “But for logistics and also because there may be an event forthcoming that’s gonna add a new top to the story,  you can’t not go. You have to be there.”

Both men cite examples of laws or policies that have been changed because of the vivid reporting of tragic events on television. Meincke says a gruesome plane crash he covered in Indiana was so badly mishandled by the airline that his and other TV reports resulted in the NTSB changing air crash protocols. “They have an emissary now. They have a whole division that deals with people, and the relatives. Because we were getting information before the families were, and that’s not right,” Meincke explains.

We talk about journalism.

“Journalism drives the middle,” asserts Rogers. “Journalism looks at the facts from both sides, presents them to the viewer, and says you make up your own mind. I’ve always believed my job is to sit in the back of the room, take notes, and then go back and write a story. My job is not to tell people what to think. Now, there is interpretive reporting. There is a responsibility to call nonsense on things. Mayor, I’m sorry, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s nonsense.”

But Meincke  says TV news needs to evolve from the traditional model, and perhaps do more of that interpretive reporting.

“We don’t do that internally enough. Because we don’t  have the ability to change the direction of the ship that’s sailing, whose mission is dictated quite often by what the weather is, or what’s being said on social media. A lot of what comes out on social media is fabulous. It now takes us in a direction we wouldn’t ordinarily have done. We’ve gotta get down off of our perch.”

(And one side note, Paul Meincke maintains a fascinating Facebook page covering a historical event for each day. It’s worth putting it on your list of daily check-ins. Here’s yesterday’s, which reminds some of us older folk of a very different time in Chicago.)Screenshot 2015-11-26 12.13.00

Also on this Thanksgiving day, we offer our sincere thanks to Allison, Carrie, Chris, Greg, Kenny, Luis and Rob  for all of their great work getting our show on the air and on-line every week. Thanks, CAN TV!

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Karen lewis speech at CTU rally



Karen Lewis spoke to thousands of CTU members on Monday night, Nov. 23. Here’s a recording of her speech:


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CN Nov. 19, 2015

If Mayor Emanuel was right when he said so often in the past that his red-light and speed cameras were just there to protect our children, then our children are even safer that we imagined.  Because according to a series running right now in the Tribune, David Kidwell reveals that at least two million dollars in erroneous tickets have been spit out by these cameras recently. Tens of thousands of incorrect citations, in fact.

Our guest, City Hall reporter Hal Dardick says Kidwell looked at a representative sample of the most recent tickets. “You can’t look at all the million-something tickets, but it was 90-million in revenue,” Dardick says. “And when he did a sample he found at least $2.3-million that were questionable tickets. They’re not within the proper distance. It wasn’t the right signage. The state law reads you’re supposed to have a image of a child near the school and in a lot of cases there’s no child image in there.

We ask Dardick if the Mayor, after years of being tweaked by the Tribune for shortcomings – and outright criminal activity – in the program, is embarrassed by it.

“It doesn’t seem that way,” he reports. “It was really interesting yesterday. At the press conference following the City Council meeting David got a question in and he said, “You can’t seem to run these programs correctly. What do you say to that?” And the Mayor said, “Well I think the question is how do we use these cameras to protect children?” And David said, “No, that wasn’t the question Mayor.” And he said, “Well the floor is mine now and this is the answer I’m going to give you.”

Dardick reported this week on a very important hearing before the Illinois Supreme Court regarding Mayor Emanuel’s legislation to make solvent two of the City’s pension funds. (These are the funds for City laborers and other municipal workers, not the police and fire, who were covered by Emanuel’s recent half-billion dollar property tax increase).

Dardick says  City Corporation Counsel Steve Patton wasn’t exactly treated warmly by the Justices. His argument, Dardick says, was “‘No, we’re not diminishing or impairing the benefits even though we are reducing them in the future, or making the current employees pay more into them. We are preserving and protecting them’ was the language he used. Because they’re going to go broke if we don’t do this, is his argument.”

“Justice Bob Thomas had an interesting question almost in disbelief at the argument that Steve Patton was making,” Dardick continues. “He said, Well okay, so you’re saying that you’re… and I’m paraphrasing here, “You’re saying that you’re making sure they get a benefit that they were already entitled to and you’re reducing that benefit and somehow there’s a gain. What’s the gain?”

There won’t be a ruling for a few months, but if it’s ultimately against the City it will have serious implications for every taxpayer.

“If it gets overturned the City could end up owing hundreds of millions more dollars a year than it’s paying,” explains Dardick. “And as you know we already had a record of $543-million tax increase for the police and fire pensions. These pensions are almost the same size. Does that mean that there’s another huge tax increase down the line? It’s possible.”

As Dardick explains, Mayor Emanuel’s law allows a forty-year period for bringing the pension funds back to full strength, as opposed to the 30 years in the previous law. Had that law been obeyed and the City and State made their legally-required contributions, “The benefits would have been higher.”

And, perhaps more importantly, the taxpayers would have paid a lot less.

“And some people say 40 years is too long and by lengthening what they call that ramp to get there, the taxpayers in the end wound up paying more money than they would have in the first place,” he explains. “It was interesting; I think it was Moody’s Investor Service said the best thing that could happen in terms of the City over the long-term, and they are looking at bonds and stability over time, is for the City to lose that case and have to pay more money.

Nevertheless, the City pressed on, arguing that the alternative is watching the funds simply go bankrupt.

“Well, the argument is that nothing in the law says that they have to pay this, that the funds themselves are responsible for making the payments. Well what happens is in ten to 13 years these two funds will become insolvent. And that means that only what they’re getting from the City every year, now 30% of the benefits, would be paid out. But the people that are…the attorneys that are representing the laborers and the municipal workers say no, because the intent of the 1970 Constitution that said ‘shall not be diminished or impaired’ is that the municipal government or state government was responsible. Someone will have to right this ship and make sure that those are paid.”

The City Council met yesterday, and among their more urgent business was an  ordinance re-asserting that Chicago is a Sanctuary City, and one that welcomes Syrian refugees. Dardick says the vote held no great significance other that symbolism.

“Beneath it all it’s all about politics to show where you stand on an issue currying favor with certain constituencies,” he claims. “Because they are powerless. The federal government makes the rules. Once someone is in this country they have the freedoms of anyone else in this country and they can go wherever they like. Governor Rauner can’t do much about it. The City Council can’t do much about it.”

The Council also passed new legislation laying out extensive procedures for consideration of any motion to privatize or sell City assets.

“It does require, the new ordinance that passed yesterday, hearings, a lot of time to consider – months to consider any proposal to privatize something over a certain level, over $400-million sale of an asset,” he reports.

But there’s an interesting weakness that makes the ordinance almost pointless.

“The thing that is weak in this ordinance is it says only 10% of the proceeds have to be set aside and not spent right away, Dardick says. “If you look at what happened with the parking meters, the biggest criticism was how they got $1.15-billion and proceeded to spend nearly all of it right away. Well guess what? They always had at least 10% of it that they didn’t spend, so that standard is incredibly low.”

We ask Dardick if Governor Rauner, by peeling away Ken Dunkin’s votes from the Democratic coalition, has shown long-term strength, and whether he may be winning the war against Mike Madigan. Dardick doubts it, because in order to get Dunkin’s vote Rauner had to change his position on key budget cuts, such as to early childhood education. “Did he get what he wanted or did he capitulate?” Dardick asks. “And I would argue that to some extent he capitulated on this because he saw that it was a losing battle and it was terrible perception. I’m sure he wasn’t pleased by the whole thing. I don’t know that anyone is winning that battle. I would argue that they are all losing it, you know.”

We didn’t get to it on this show, but Dardick wrote a very interesting piece this week comparing Chicago’s property taxes with the suburbs – even after the recent record tax increase. You can find it HERE. 

And finally, did Clerk Dorothy Brown need a $37,000 photographer following her around to official functions? (The County Board voted to remove this item from her office budget this week.)

“But what I find interesting is they had approved it twice before in years previously. And now that she’s on the outs with the Democratic Party and they are supporting Alderman Michelle Harris to replace her – oh, that’s no good anymore.”

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CN Nov. 12, 2015


On this week’s show – the voices of experience. Between them Paul Meincke and Phil Rogers have more than 55 years of accomplishment as Chicago TV reporters.

Meincke recently went into semi-retirement at Channel 7, and Rogers still has a few years to go. But they both took time to visit us, to talk a bit about the week’s news and to look back on decades of the TV news business. It’s a fascinating conversation.

Meincke told us that the recent unraveling of the Lt. Gliniewicz story in Fox Lake was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed.

“…to have been rational in committing an irrational act,” he explains, “to have planned it out like that, to have perpetuated a really evil hoax on his family, his community and the country. I’ve never seen anything turn 180 as fast as that.”

Rogers revealed some interesting insight into his newsroom during the early period after Gliniewicz died. He said it took about a day for the phone to start ringing.

“Let’s get through day 1, okay. Day 1 we have a police shooter,” he explains. “But day 2 is when the calls started to the newsroom.” “Something ain’t right,” he says the leads were telling him. “Something ain’t right. I’m a cop. Trust me, something ain’t right there”

Meincke had the same experience over at Channel 7.

“Yeah. We got calls – I got a call from a long-time experienced Chicago retired officer, a big picture guy. He says, ‘They’re not doing… they didn’t do the grid search. I’m watching your helicopter. Where’s the grid search? What’s going on here?’ I got a Facebook message from someone anonymous who said, ‘You guys are perpetuating a hoax. This guy committed suicide.’”

“The coroner was the first person to use the word ‘suicide’ on the record…did that with me,” Rogers explains. “So in other words we’ve been batting suicide around for a long time, and then I get done with the coroner and I walked in and I said, “We’ve got to have a meeting here, because we’re about to say suicide on the air for the first time and how are we going to do that?” And I mean we had a sit-down.  3 or 4 management people, where we decided yeah, the coroner said it. But I mean this was a very very big discussion because we have this hero that’s now – he’s pretty much been chiseled on Mt. Rushmore.  And now we are going to be the first ones to use the ‘s’ word on television, and that was a big deal.

Both reporters said the pressure on Fox Lake City officials was enormous, because Gliniewicz was to have appeared before them the next day to answer questions about his finances. So they knew he was in trouble. But they had to put on a brave face as the media stirred up a frenzy about the”war on cops”, and four thousand police officers poured into town for the funeral.

Rogers says he wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes. “Because there is nothing on this planet holier than an honor funeral for a fallen police officer.”

You can see Phil’s Friday story on Gliniewicz here, in which he reveals that the disgraced cop stockpiled all sorts of military equipment and was training teens in the art of military assault.


We ask them how they’re seeing Governor Rauner these days.

“This is not your Jim Thompson kind of governor,” explains Rogers. “This is not even a George Ryan kind of governor or a Jim Edgar kind of governor, or even a Rod Blagojevich kind of governor, a guy who loved being governor.  Bruce Rauner doesn’t really want to be governor. He doesn’t have any interest in the governor stuff. He came here for only two reasons – he wants to fix the finances and he wants to pull kind of a Scott Walker type revolution with the Unions.”

“Other than that I don’t think he cares. Paul and I saw him in Fairdale, and in Rochelle, is that where he came to visit?” asks Rogers.

“Right,” Meincke confirms. “In both places. It was a tornado…”

“Yeah, tornado aftermath and here’s where I really formed my view on this, and that was he was walking through the damage down there and was bored and was looking at his watch,” Rogers claims.

“It was like do I really have to do this, because I really just want to go back to Springfield and take on Madigan again. I mean to me that’s his deal, and all this other stuff of state government I think he’s really not very interested in. So, what you’re seeing unfold down there, this war with Madigan is his full-time gig.”

But, in the long game, is Rauner winning the war, we ask? Both say it’s possible, because the citizenry’s getting tired of the fighting.

“Once you get past the fringes of the edges that make news, so you’ve got this bunch on the left and this bunch on the right, you’ve got this giant thing in the middle and they just want these guys to stop it, okay. They just want them to come to some kind of accommodation,” Rogers asserts.

And Meincke offers a sobering prediction.

“But there’s not going to be a return to collegiality. That’s just not going to happen. There’s too much in your face, too many stands. That’s not going to happen.”

Both Meincke and Rogers began their careers when commercial television news was at its zenith. Today’s media landscape is much different, as we know. And the role of local television news operations – even dominant ones like theirs – is changing every day. Of particular concern to them is the rise of partisan broadcasting.

And Rogers says Fox News got it started.

“I used to say and I really believed this, I used to say that Fox News was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. I’m starting to think the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fox News. Because now the politicians are pandering to the network. It used to be the other way around, and there is absolutely nothing healthy about that.”


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CN Nov. 5, 2015


Does Kim Foxx present a formidable challenge to Anita Alvarez? She wants her job. The candidate and challenger for Cook County State’s Attorney is our guest on today’s show.

An excerpt:

“No one wants to see nine-year-olds murdered near their grandmother’s house. But to suggest that the issues around violence are solely related to guns – without dealing with the issues of concentrated poverty, without dealing with the issues of high unemployment, without looking at the divestment in the neighborhoods where the violence is at its highest, is to suggest that once we lock up all the people who have guns, that all of a sudden we’ll have thriving communities that don’t have other issues.”

“So when you say I’m going to just throw you in jail and not deal with the issues that got you there,” she continues, “if you have a mental health issue or a drug addiction issue I’m just going to house you somewhere and then let you out. There’s a strong probability that I’m going to see you again because we’ve not dealt with the issues that got you there in the first place.”

Foxx wants to make the State’s Attorney’s office into a more “holistic” operation. “…criminal justice is not just about the individual incident and the individual defendant or victim,” she tells us. “It’s about what happens when the case is over and that victim goes back into the community. Do they trust their surroundings anymore? Do they feel like they’ve had their time to be heard? And for the defendant, what’s going to happen with their sentence and what happens when they come back? And I feel like the office had very much been isolated into this one moment in time and we hadn’t looked at the ripple effects…”

She came to these realizations after years in the State’s Attorney’s youth division. She gradually began to think that she could run the office more thoughtfully, and decided to seek election. “I think in my time in the State’s Attorney’s Office and under this current State’s Attorney, what I realized was  that when you look at the bigger picture we weren’t necessarily being very thoughtful or strategic about the bigger picture. And what happens when you don’t do that is you keep chasing individual cases, but you’re not really stopping new crimes from happening, because you’re not thinking broadly enough,” she says.

But many of the changes she advocates could require legislative action.  “So then are you saying,” we ask, ” that if you became our next State’s Attorney that you would take a more proactive public role in attempting to get laws changed or modified?

“Yes,” she says. ” Absolutely and across the board.  I absolutely think that’s the role.”

“I need to be in Springfield telling the legislature listen, when you cut mental health services, when we don’t have a place for them to go they come to our jails,” she explains. “That’s real, and as your chief law enforcement officer I have to be thoughtful about that. Going to Springfield just for penalty enhancements is not thoughtful law enforcement. Going to Springfield and saying when you cut school resources, when we don’t have social workers in the classroom and we have students with behavioral or educational issues acting out and not the right people equipped to deal with them in a schoolhouse – they are coming to the jailhouse.”

Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent McCarthy have been adamant in their advocacy for stricter gun laws and for mandatory-minimum sentences for the possession of illegal firearms.  Foxx calls the mandatory-minimum approach “short-sighted”. But perhaps more importantly, she asserts that taking sentencing discretion away from judges simply hands that responsibility to prosecutors. “Because the prosecutor has the ability to make charges,’ she explains. “They charge high, they charge low, they don’t charge at all. And so all of the discretion is housed with the prosecutor when you remove it from the judges.”

We talk briefly about Bond Court, which has been criticized in various  news accounts as “medieval” She credits Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle – who hired her onto her staff and shortly thereafter promoted her to Chief of Staff, and has endorsed Foxx’s campaign – with initiating some big reforms. “We have come a long way in just two years from 2013 where we had less than 20% of the people who came through bond court were given alternative releases, to now 66%,” she tells us.

And we ask Kim Foxx about Dan Mihalopoulos’ column yesterday in the Sun-Times, in which he claims that Toni Preckwinkle’s expenditure of $25,000 for a round of pre-campaign polling was actually a political contribution.

“I think it’s a more complicated or complex question in terms of how do you report when you’re not yet a candidate,” she responded, (and) “we put our team to work. And so they’re working on it, and certainly if there is an issue that we need to resolve it will be resolved. ”

Kim Foxx has a dramatic back-story as a girl born in Cabrini-Green with some deeply difficult early family issues. But she survived and prospered, attending solid schools and ultimately getting the law degree that propelled her to these positions of significant responsibility. Carol Felsenthal conducted an extensive interview with Foxx for Chicago Magazine, and you can read it here.

And here’s the full transcript of today’s show.   transcript nov 5 2015

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CN Oct. 29, 2015


By now, we all know the numbers. $543 million in new property taxes to make the firefighters and police pensions whole. $45 million for “modernizing” public school buildings. $9.50 a month for garbage collection.  Millions and millions more in cloud taxes, permit fees, boot taxes – all for a grand total, the Tribune says – of about $755 million in new taxes – all at one time.

But other numbers were surprising, too. Fifteen aldermen voted against the Mayor’s tax plan, but that meant 35 voted Aye.

WBEZ City Hall reporter Lauren Chooljian is our guest this week. It wasn’t easy for the Mayor to round up those votes, she tells us, but he made it happen by presenting a different, more approachable face to the City Council members.

“People have also been putting it in the context of, “well you saw that sweater ad,'” she tells us. “I mean that thing will not die… Well, he promised us that he needed to listen more. And I’m telling you, Aldermen will come up to you on the street or while they’re waiting for a cab or whatever and they will say ‘you know actually he will hold the elevator for me and let me come in and say what do you think about the budget? Has it been going well for you? What are your issues with it?”

There were actual concession made to key aldermen, as far as reporters can determine. For example, Aldermen got the Mayor to agree to a reporting mechanism for the pubic schools indicating how and why they spend the money from the $45 million schools modernization fund. They want to be sure, for example, that the money is used in the desperately underfunded neighborhood schools and not in charters or contract schools.

“I will say that aldermen who usually go right up against him will say, ‘Yes, he’s invited me into his office.’ I mean a couple of aldermen stood up yesterday, mind you aldermen who were close to him like Danny Solis and said, ‘Thank you for texting me and calling me and being there this whole budget process.’ Other aldermen who are usually Mayoral allies have said to me, ‘If I have a question I call Alex Holt, the Budget Director.’ I mean that’s a great line of communication to have if you’re trying to wade through the thousands of pages of this budget. Pat O’Connor, the same thing, said, ‘I’ve never seen a budget process go this way.’

But there were no celebrations when the budget passed.

Despite the massive tax increases, they still don’t make budgets whole for pensions or at CPS, the CTA and a number of other agencies. That’s because the State still hasn’t formulated a budget, and doesn’t seem likely to in the immediate future. The CTA, for example, needs the 20% of its budget it normally gets from the state, without which it will run out of money well before the end of the fiscal year. So some aldermen were advocating an even bigger tax bite to cover what the state’s not sending.

“I remember Aldermen Leslie Hairston this week was saying there’s no way that I could come back to these people,” Chooljian tells us. “Might as well just deal it all in one. Even Ed Burke said that last week.”

Ultimately, they decided to wait.

But what’s Plan B?

“It’s so interesting to watch them kind of walk this tightrope,” she says, “of aldermen saying – ‘Well we need to come up with a plan B.’ But then at the same time the Mayor’s office and those same aldermen are like ‘Well now wait a minute. We can’t come up with a plan B that’s solid enough that Springfield is going to say, well we have a lot of other things to worry about, so why are we going to worry about you?’

At the center of this swirling uncertainty is Governor Rauner.  Chooljian tells us that the Mayor has said he has regular conversations with his friend the Governor. So what do they talk about?

“Mayor Emanuel always says, and I think the governor would say this too, that those are private conversations and to preserve that trust they’re not allowed to tell us what they talk about,’ she says. “But he does say relatively frequently that they do speak on weekends. So it’s not that they’re not talking, and the Mayor always says directionally Rauner moves in the same direction that Emanuel does on these things. I am not quite clear on the meaning of that, but that’s his argument.”

The pressure on some Aldermen was intense. Black Caucus member David Moore said the negative comments from his constituents against the garbage tax were so powerful that he voted against the tax package. Most of his colleagues, however, voted in favor.

The constituent concerns varied by geography.

“Some of these North side aldermen like Michelle Smith are really worried about the long-time homeowners who are 70 and 80 years old and they live in Lincoln Park and their property values have skyrocketed,” she explains. “They got their triannual assessments; they’re crazy. So now they’re worried about an additional property tax hike. And so behind the scenes, which was passed yesterday, they are working on a resolution that would rebate or protect, give some sort of relief to homeowners like that.”

The Mother of All Tax Increases wasn’t all that happened yesterday.

“We had 80 high schools in 2004 and now we have 140. And in one of those high schools there are just thirteen 9th graders,’ Chooljian asserts. But despite declining enrollment, climbing numbers of largely under-enrolled high schools, the CPS Board yesterday authorized the construction of two additional charter schools.

And while critics may say that the Chicago Bears don’t always play their football games all that well, their owners know how to play politics nicely. By waiting until the last minute and opposing the Lucas Museum, the team was able, in a very short time, to get major concessions from the City and Park District about naming rights, commercial signage and lots of other things it had wanted for years, in exchange for letting Lucas take one of its parking lots. There was no public debate about the matter before it passed.

And finally, there’s one thing that didn’t get put into the budget. That would be the privatization of the 311 center. Chooljian says it was a suspicious proposal right from the start.

“I mean Aldermen were coming up to me from the minute that got proposed and most of them were saying ‘I cannot stand for that,’ and then the rest of them were saying, ‘Well don’t worry, you’re not going to have to because this is something that’s just been tossed out there.” it was one of “Rahm’s throwaways,” an Alderman told her.

“And basically what they were saying is this is something that the Mayor is putting out there so that when people are upset about it he can take it back and say, “You know what, I’ve listened to you.” And it’s funny because Alderman would come up to me in confidence and say, “Well maybe the trash thing will be (too)…”

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CN Oct. 22, 2015


In 1995, the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis. In 1975, the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis. Also in 2005, and probably in 1955 and 1935.

So it’s useful to sit down with a journalist who’s been covering the schools for more than 30 years to ask – are Chicago’s schools actually better today than they used to be?

Linda Lenz was the Sun-Times’ education reporter for  years before leaving in 1990 to found Catalyst-Chicago, a news-magazine devoted exclusively to coverage of the Chicago education scene.

Her answer? It depends.

CPS schools, she says, “serve some kids well. Other kids aren’t served well for a whole variety of reasons. They tend to be the most disadvantaged. And if you look at what Chicago Public Schools have done it’s been an awful lot of two steps forward and one step back. So one thing that’s been frustrating for me in covering this has just seeing how decisions have been made without regard to research, solid research or how schools work…”

During Lenz’s tenure there have been two major sweeps of reform. The first, initiated by Harold Washington, was his effort to decentralize the system and create Local School  Councils.

“The definition of reform is what you don’t have right now,” she explains. “And what you had back then was a calcified school system where outsiders couldn’t get in, you know non-profit organizations, parents. And so yeah, it pushed forward the decentralization of the school system and there’s some evidence, hard research to show that that it served to improve a lot of schools.”

But  decade later, Richard M. Daley was frustrated with the schools, and asked the Legislature for complete control over the system.

“The ’95 legislation returning unfettered control to the Mayor made a lot of changes that enabled the school board to put its hands on more money,” says Lenz.

But as we now know, that money they put their hands on was money that was supposed to be used for  pensions and other important matters.

“Things that the accountants had put in the don’t-touch category – some of the pension money and stuff like that. So Gary Chico and Paul Vallas – they were able to start the recentralization which you would expect a lot of people to protest about,” she explains. Nevertheless, what protest there was didn’t have much effect. “With getting rid of red ink in the budget, a 4-year teachers’ contract, new programs, they came up with that at the beginning and it just sort of shut everybody up because there’s something there for everyone…also the economy was different. But there was no new money that came. They just kind of freed stuff up and the economy has made the difference.”

Lenz says there was little protest from the unions, either.

“Everybody was at the party. You know if they opposed it they did it behind closed doors and very quietly. Now, that makes no sense. I mean in theory they objected to that, but at that time actually I think it was like $65-million that was shifted over from pension taxes to general operating. And the system could sort of afford it at that time because the pension fund was much more well funded…but you know then with the economy going south it couldn’t afford that. It’s sort of a fie on all of us for not having caught that, you know. We journalists should have been paying closer attention…”

Our conversation turns to charters, which are claiming great success for their educational model, but Lenz says the charters have a huge advantage right from the start. “The kids who go into the charter schools and the Noble Streets tend to be better prepared than the kids who go into the neighborhood schools – which have become schools of last resort,” she explains.

“You can argue that they have been successful. But the idea of charter schools is that you are supposed to – one of several things, save money, well you haven’t saved money, come up with innovations and spread them – haven’t seen that much. Then sort of prompt competition that would make the other schools better. Well none of those things have happened, and so I am frustrated that there is no plan and what do you do about the kids who are left to the schools of last resort, in these huge buildings?”

But it’s not just charters the are straining the CPS budgets.

“And then you know they’ve started these schools for kids who have dropped out and come back in, and it’s online and they basically put in very little time. There’s very little teacher interaction. I mean that’s verging on being a sham.”


In the past week, Noble Network has announced plans to add many more charter schools in Chicago, despite the chronic under-enrollment in the city’s traditional schools. Noble is currently educating 10% of Chicago’s high schoolers, and with new federal money it just received it plans to advance to 15% in the next few years.

We ask Linda Lenz : are we on the path to the total privatization of Chicago’s high schools?

“I don’t think so,” she responds. “This City is so politically well organized, grassroots organizations who oppose the charter schools and they now have gotten to the aldermen who oppose the charter schools. Certainly the Chicago Teachers Union which has shown its organizing power opposes them, so I just think the politics run against it becoming a total privatization. Now there are very wealthy people who our Mayor plays around with and they are coming in to support these schools, but you know while they have money for a campaign ultimately they don’t have that many votes, you know.”

Lenz says Mayor Emanuel’s accomplishments in the education realm so far have been mixed. But there have been serious mis-steps.

“I think folks like mayors, they want to move quickly,” she tells us. “They don’t want to deal with the messy, sometimes drawn-out process of moving the schools forward. And certainly Mayor Emanuel found that out when he first got into office and just rushed in to do these reforms that everybody wanted, and I presume he thought everybody would applaud them, but he didn’t pay attention to how it gets done.”


Read the full CN Oct 22 transcript

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CN Oct. 15, 2015


Ben Joravsky’s our guest this week, And when Ben’s at the table the discussion has to include criticism of the TIF program. As it happens, Budget Director Alex Holt was our guest last week, and Ben had some reactions to several points Holt made on the show about, yes, the TIF program.

The reason mayors like TIF, the Reader columnist asserts, is that you can raise lots of money without having to ask all the taxpayers for their approval.

“It’s a surcharge on the amount they tell you you’re going to pay,” he claims. “And it’s not a frivolous trivial amount as she was sort of suggesting on your show. But last year when it was low it was $360-million (that was raised through the various TIF districts). If the City Council were to raise property taxes by $360-million with a direct vote there would be hand-wringing, there would be discussions.”

But the TIF program, he asserts, removes this significant amount of money each year from the total taxes collected, diverting the money to mayoral-controlled projects. And the shortfall, after these funds are deducted from the overall tax collection, must be made up by all of us. It’s a way, he says, “that you can raise the money without anybody…without a hearing, without public debate, without hand-wringing. You could pretend as though it’s not a tax hike at all.”

Alex Holt told us last week that the TIF program has directed hundreds of millions into desperately-needed capital programs, and has allowed the schools, parks and other agencies to repair buildings and facilities for which no other funding would exist.

“The honest discussion,” Joravsky insists, “is the government costs more money than we pretend it costs, and as a result we’re going to have to raise your property taxes to pay for expenses that in the old days were covered by the federal government…So if you want to have the honest discussion that you’re raising, which is that we desperately need this $360-million, this $400-million, this $500-million, whatever it is to pay the bills that the federal government is no longer paying, if you want to make that case to the property tax payers, don’t hide behind the program; don’t hide behind a hidden tax and pretend it doesn’t exist…”

The entire Alex Holt interview can be seen here.

We ask Joravsky for his reaction to the Barbara Byrd-Bennet guilty plea, and her admission that she sought to skim almost $2 million from the no-bid principal-training program awarded to her old associates at SUPES. Joravsky says he’s dismayed that so many people are taken aback more by her foolhardiness in putting the affair into emails than by her corruption.

“So yeah,  that’s the typical Chicago reaction,” he says. “It is, so how could she be so stupid? I mean – the idea, how could she be so corrupt? Everybody assumes there’s a certain amount of corruptness.”

But Joravsky says the question today isn’t really about Byrd-Bennett. It’s about Mayor Emanuel. Was he told about the no-bid contract, the size of which was unprecedented at least for this Board? Did he authorize the CPS Board to sign off on it? Did he know that the action would be hidden in the Omnibus bill, which is a clearing-house action for all of the less significant actions of the board, thereby hiding it from public discussion?

“Somehow or other somebody in a position of power had to decide between, do I go with the advisors who are saying this looks bad, or do I go with Barbara Byrd Bennett who is insisting that ‘my credibility is on the line,'” he explains. “There’s only one person in Chicago who has the authority to tell all those advisors, “No, you’re going with Barbara Byrd Bennett,” and that’s the Mayor. So I don’t know if it will ever come out exactly how he said it, or if he put it in an e-mail or if he put it in a text, but it’s pretty obvious to any Chicagoan all the people who say how dumb she is for putting it in writing are the same people who are saying right now – of course the Mayor knew, and of course the Mayor signed on to it – because probably from a political calculation that $20-million contract was the money he had to spend; he had to commit to keep her aboard so that she could be the public face on his school closings.”

During the show we make reference to Sarah Karp’s reporting on the SUPES contract that led to the investigations that brought Byrd-Bennett down. You can watch her here explaining the whole process in one of her many appearances on Chicago Newsroom.

Read a transcript of the show here: CNOct.15 2015 transcript

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CN October 8, 2015

(In case you’re not in the mood for 40-minutes of conversation about Tax Increment Financing, we’ve provided times so that you can jump to that particular topic.)

Chicago’s budget director Alex Holt drops in to talk TIFs.

Holt argues that TIFs have funded a large number of capital improvements throughout the city – improvements that couldn’t have been made without the extra dollars the program brings in. This is especially true, she says, for CPS, which has caps on its property tax levy and is therefore unable to raise the funds it so desperately needs to replace roofs, windows, boilers and bathrooms – as well as build annexes and, in some cases, new schools.

We address the criticism that TIFs are actually hidden taxes. She argues they are not, but agrees, when gazing into our bathtub analogy, that we do all pay a little extra money each year in taxes to replace the funds drawn away by TIFs. But it’s a very, very small amount, she argues, asserting that the TIFs multiply the effect of that small contribution to build and remodel el stops, encourage companies to build factories and stores, and improve conditions in myriad public buildings. (about 10:30)

Alex Holt gives a clear-throated justification for the LaSalle Central TIF, which was created years before she went to work for the budget office. LaSalle  wasn’t blighted 20 years ago, she argues, but it was slipping. Lots of second-rate office space was going unrepaired. The streetscape was sub-par. And the street was in danger of losing its appeal as a first-class Midwest destination for big capital. That’s not true today, she argues, and she stresses that TIFs played a role in the revival. (22:16)

We ask Holt to address the persistent criticism that Chicago’s schools have been robbed of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 20 years as money was siphoned into TIFs. It wasn’t, she says, and you can see her response at about 24:50.

Finally, we talk about the 1.4 billion dollars that is currently parked in banks, money the critics have argued shouldn’t have been collected in the first place and should be “returned” to the agencies from which it was taken. It wasn’t “taken”, she argues, since CPS gets every penny it requests in taxes each year, by law. (31:30)

And she says that 1.3b of the 1.4 is encumbered for existing projects, many of which stretch over 4 or 5 years. Reminded that her office has been excoriated by Tom Tresser and the TIF Illumination Project for not responding to their requests (and FOIAs) for detailed lists of the projects, she responded that all the data is now publicly available.

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CN Oct. 1, 2015

The Chicago Sun-Times made an astounding announcement a few weeks ago – that they were laying off their Managing Editor, and would put out the paper and manage their digital presence without one.  That editor was Craig Newman, and he’s our guest on this week’s Chicago Newsroom. The staff will carry on, he predicts. “They adapt so well to chaos and divisiveness,” he tells us.

But Newman points out that day-to-day editors  are slowly being eliminated at news organizations, and it’s probably a sign of things to come. We talk about what the definition of a “news organization” even is today, because readers of the Sun-Times and any other publication can get their news almost anywhere.  “…this is going to be a poor example because the current iteration of the Sun-Times Web site is a mess, but you can find the things you care about easily on the internet. You can find the things you care about by a curated twitter feed. You have your Facebook friends that are telling you things that they think are important or sharing back information,” he explains.

It’s imposible to have one of these conversations without discussing the economic model, if one even exists, for newspapering. He admits that he himself finds the printed paper less valuable, since he’s already read so much of it 6, 8 or 12 hours earlier. So are we finally at a point where we can accurately predict the end of the printed product? For some papers, it’ll be soon, he asserts. “It is hugely expensive to produce and it’s hugely expensive to maintain, but that’s still where the revenue structure is at, so you’re stuck with that for a bit. That said, 5 years from now it’s hard to make an argument that we’ll still be picking up any of these.”

There are still advertisers in the printed product, and that’s what’s keeping print alive, he explains.  “I think fundamentally the advertising structure is completely invalid now but we’re still holding on to it because there’s a couple of pennies to rub together. If you look through the Sun-Times, Trib or whatever you’re going to find a couple of high end ads upfront and then it’s just a steep drop-off after that.”

We talk at length about the value of a newsroom. A place where smart people gather in a classic, chaotic scene to hash out what they collectively believe to be the important news of the day. That’s still valuable, he says, but much of that process has been democratized now. Each individual can make an assessment of the day’s news and make an independent judgement about what’s newsworthy. And as the country becomes more polarized the idea of a theoretically impartial newsroom has been severely challenged.

“It has to have a place of value within peoples’ minds,” he asserts. “and I think over the last five, maybe ten years the value of a backed news organization has lost a lot of value. People don’t want to believe that there’s accuracy. They want to believe conspiracy theories. They want to believe that there’s some sort of an agenda, the left or the right wing media. And there are some examples of that, to be clear.”

Newman has a new position with Techweek, but he tells us that, while this is a journalism-related job, it’s the first time in 25 years that he hasn’t worked in a daily news environment. Does he feel remorse?

“… so this position being gone I think hurts. I would like to tell myself just for my own ego that me being gone probably hurts them a little bit. I did know a lot about the inner workings, as you might imagine, and was something of a digital architect there.”

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