Did you watch Chicagoland on CNN, which just concluded its eighth and final episode last week? Well, if the ratings are to be believed, not too many people did. But the panel of journalists and bloggers we assembled this week certainly did watch it, and they had plenty to say.
Bill Rutthart wrote an important story in this week’s Tribune derived from more than 700 emails he obtained through an open records request. The emails seem to demonstrate a high level of coordination between the series’ producers and the Mayor’s staff.
“When they’re asking for these things, they’re saying things like – want to present the Mayor as the star that he really is – and – we think the school closings is a great opportunity to display his leadership,” Rutthart explains. “So certainly when you read the emails there seems to be a clear intent to make the Mayor look good.”
This wasn’t particularly surprising to our panel.
“When he agreed to do this,” says WBEZ’s Richard Steele, “Does anybody sitting here think that Rahm Emanuel would give them access like that without knowing the outcome at the end of the day? This is a guy who’s as politically astute as anybody you can think of. And he’s not gonna take a chance on some image thing that’s gonna come out not in his favor”.
“It pulled the curtain back about how much of media is manipulative,” adds the Tribune’s Rick Kogan, who wrote reviews for all eight episodes. “This is Hollywood, oh, we love you. You’re the hero of the show.”
But teacher and author of the White Rhino blog Ray Salazar, was concerned about the story it told of Chicago’s demographics.
“They took on a superficial look at our neighborhoods. If people living outside of Chicago watched this show they would think that our city is made up of a white neighborhood, and a black neighborhood, and there’s some Latinos kind of in the middle, who apparently have a pretty good life in Little Village.”
“Any native Chicagoan knew that something was just not right with the show from the beginning,” Salazar continues. “I remember the first time I saw the posters, they started putting up the posters and you saw the three heads, McCarthy and (Fenger principal) Liz Dozier and Emanuel, and they looked like some type of superheroes, and you thought, OK, something is not going to be natural about this.”
Kogan says the time the producers spent following the three “heroes” robbed time from other stories. They might have visited some other school or some other interesting place, he says. But “They glommed onto those story lines and they stuck with them, and frankly, I’d had enough of them by about the fifth episode.”
When Ruthhart asked the Mayor later in the week for a comment, Emanuel told him he hadn’t watched the show.
“I find that either disingenuous or ridiculous,” says Kogan. “If he didn’t see the show, I would ask, where is your sense of curiosity? This crew was here, this is a national show. Focusing on the town of which you are the Mayor? And you didn’t find the time to see the show (or be debriefed by your people?) I think he did it so he didn’t have to address anything.”
Will the series have legs? Will it have impact in ten or twenty years? Probably not, the panel agrees. But it may not have been a good PR vehicle for the Mayor. “I don’t know what someone in Omaha is thinking, but it shows a guy who doesn’t have a clue about what Chicago is,” says Kogan. “It shows him, peeking in the classroom door and laughing with the children.”
Is “Chicagoland” journalism? Well, it might be, but it’s a newer kind of “journalism”, according to Salazar. “When I explain it to young people we have to think about it in old-school terms, here’s both sides, let the reader make up his or her mind,” he explains. “We have editorials, and now we have this mesh of, it can be a little bit of everything. It can be editorial, it can be both sides, it can be a little bid made-up, apparently. So I think Chicagoland is a representation of what 21st century journalism can be, and it shows us why we need to be careful about the information we get in this century.”
But Ruthhart is clear. “To me it’s not journalism. When you’re writing emails o the major subject of your show and you’re telling them how great you’re gonna make them look, and we need you here at this time and we need you to do this and that, that’s not journalism. Flat out.”