Until he called I'd never heard of him, but Bart Goldberg sounded like a nice guy on the phone and we have his word for it that across the table he's a powerhouse. Goldberg was calling because he felt stiffed by the Sun-Times. He was a candidate for alderman in the 38th Ward, and the Sun-Times had endorsed one of his seven opponents, Tom Caravette. What burned Goldberg was that the Sun-Times no longer brings the candidates in to meet the editorial board.
"Had they met me," said Goldberg, "I am so much more substantial than Tom Caravette."
His only conversation with the Sun-Times, Goldberg remembered, was in January. Someone from the paper called and asked a few questions, and Goldberg told him the other candidates weren't nearly as qualified as he was. It was a strangely weak field, he went on—for instance, next door in the 45th Ward there were plenty of qualified candidates. Really? said his caller—tell me about them. A nimble but understaffed paper takes its information where it finds it, and the Sun-Times had to make a call in the 45th too.
So Goldberg wound up discussing the 45th Ward with the Sun-Times, which then endorsed Caravette in the 38th. Goldberg couldn't figure it out. He'd filled out the questionnaire the Sun-Times had sent to all the candidates, and he'd answered every question. Caravette had skipped five questions—biggies like "What services and departments would you scale back or cut?" as well as softballs like "What's the best book ever written about Chicago? Why?" Goldberg knew this because the Sun-Times posted all the questionnaires on its website. When I printed out the two responses, Goldberg's was 12 pages long, Caravette's six.
Then a flyer showed up in the 38th Ward claiming that incumbent Tim Cullerton had received the Sun-Times endorsement. The paper wasn't going to stand for that! The original Caravette endorsement was so lukewarm it honestly could be misread—it simply said that in a ward dominated by the Cullerton family for decades Tim Cullerton was the "apparent front-runner," but "of the many non-Cullertons in the race, we endorse Tom Caravette, who owns a real estate business, grew up in the ward and has been campaigning for the job longer than anyone else." You could take that to mean the paper was telling readers who didn't want to vote for yet another Cullterton that Caravette was best of the also-rans.
To clear the air, the Sun-Times endorsed Caravette again and with emphasis. This time it said he "has potential to be a needed voice of independence in the City Council and has ideas for how to make a good ward better."
"I was so upset," Goldberg told me. "I'm the only candidate who walks the ward. Every night I'm out. I felt months of work had been undone by the free press Caravette was getting."
He called the Sun-Times, asked for the fellow he'd talked to originally and found out he'd left the newspaper. But Tom McNamee, the editorial page editor, called him back. Says Goldberg: "I said, if you guys had met with us you'd see I'm the stronger candidate. And he said, 'I'm sorry, we have 400 candidates. We couldn't possibly interview everybody.'"
Readers take these endorsements seriously, Goldberg told me. "They think newspapers still have these big staffs, and think long and hard about their positions. If the Sun-Times is so understaffed, they shouldn't be in the [endorsement] business."
Not endorse? That would be like asking a pastor to stop preaching virtue. It's what they do—it's beside the point how well they do it. I asked McNamee, who heads a four-person board, to comment on Goldberg's beef and the endorsement process. "It was mostly a matter of using our diminished resources as best we could," he allowed. "That meant sending out questionnaires to all the aldermanic candidates, then taking their responses seriously to identify those candidates who merited greater consideration. Then we conducted phone interviews with dozens of those remaining candidates, although I can't say all. But we also called plenty of people closer to the ground in various wards who could give us insights on background. We were reporters. Frankly, it was an incredibly intense undertaking that required that we work a lot of weekends and nights, but we were determined not to let our smaller staffing keep us from doing a good job, one we could fully defend. Making the endorsements an even bigger challenge was the fact that no news operation in town drills down into the ward races the way they once did. Not us. Not the Trib. Not the TV stations (which never did). And certainly not Early and Often, though I think they admirably set out to do just that. So newspaper editorial pages can't lean as much on the reporting of others; they have to figure it out for themselves."
Early and Often is the pay website overseen by the Chicago News Cooperative that boasts of its "unmatched coverage" of the Chicago elections. But, said Goldberg, "They've never done an article about our ward." I looked and didn't find one.
There was more to come from the Sun-Times. Last Sunday, Goldberg was out in the rain ringing doorbells. Monday morning the paper greeted him with the editorial "Six who would make City Council better." Yes, Caravette —"a good grasp of the issues"—was one of the six. There was a separate article on the 38th Ward race, and Goldberg got a mention in the third-to-last paragraph.
Not that the Tribune endorsed him either. Its choice was Cullerton, the incumbent, who was appointed when his brother-in-law, Tom Allen, became a judge, and in the Trib's view is likely to serve in Allen's "diligent mold." But the Tribune said it was "impressed" with Goldberg, the only other candidate mentioned in its endorsement.
Besides, the Tribune had invited Goldberg down to the paper. "I love the city elections," editorial page editor Bruce Dold e-mailed me when I asked him about the process. Dold heads a 12-person board. "You learn a lot about neighborhood issues that don't always get news coverage. We held 45 endorsement debates—one for each contested ward, for city clerk and for mayor. They were one-hour sessions. (The mayoral session went nearly two hours and was live-streamed, first time we've done that.) Every candidate who responded to our request for information was invited to the debate for his or her ward. All told, we interviewed nearly 200 candidates in person. Oscar Avila and Pat Widder worked on this full-time, starting before the first day of candidate filing. They ran the debate sessions except the one for mayor, which I ran. Everyone on the editorial board participated in at least a few of the debate sessions and in the meetings to decide the endorsements."
The most interesting thing about Goldberg's telephone call was that it showed him willing to get crossways with the Sun-Times. But then, if he lost he'd remain what the Sun-Times described him as Monday—a "University of Chicago-educated attorney." Professional politicians—like Miguel del Valle, the city clerk—are more circumspect about the fights they pick with the media. An unsigned broadside that circulated during the closing days of the campaign assailed the Defender on del Valle's behalf. It reproduced the front page of the Defender's January 9-15 issue, which under the banner headline "The best mayor?" offered pictures of Carol Moseley Braun, Gery Chico, Patricia Watkins, William "Dock" Walls, and Rahm Emanuel.
The flyer asked, "Why has the Chicago Defender distorted the mayoral race by leaving out a major candidate . . . ? The Defender censored Miguel del Valle from their front page, where they had photos of all the other candidates, and refused to publish his candidate profile along with the others inside the paper. Is the Defender afraid of a viable, progressive candidate in the footsteps of Harold Washington . . . ?"
A week later the Defender endorsed Braun. It said she had "an incredible set of qualifications that are head and shoulders above all others."
How could a newspaper publish a roundup of the mayoral race and ignore one candidate? "We invited all of the candidates to come in and sit down and talk with our editorial board," executive editor Lou Ransom e-mailed me. "I extended the invitation personally to Mr. del Valle, and subsequently to at least one of his spokespersons. The meeting never took place. . . . When we put together the profile issue, we did not have a profile of Mr. del Valle. I could have cobbled something together from press reports, but that would have been unfair to the people who actually came in.
"Since the front page story was about candidate profiles, and we did not have a candidate profile from Mr. del Valle, we opted to not put his photo on the front page."
Del Valle's media rep, Joanna Klonsky, told me there was another factor. At publication time, the Defender believed del Valle was going to skip the paper's candidates forum. The forum had been postponed because of the blizzard, and del Valle already had an engagement on the night it was rescheduled for, so he'd told the Defender not to count on him. If the Defender stiffed him—well, from its perspective he was about to stiff the Defender.
"It wasn't that we didn't respect the Defender," Klonsky told me. "We just didn't schedule the visit [to the paper] in time. [And] when they heard we weren't going to make the forum, they dropped him completely."
Ransom says attendance at the forum had nothing to do with the front page. At any rate, del Valle adjusted his schedule and made the forum after all.
I can understand why noses might have been out of joint at the Defender; but a more professional newspaper would have run the picture and explained why there was no profile, putting the onus on del Valle. The Defender made itself look foolish—as if it had calculated that since Braun needed to peel off del Valle votes to make the runoff, the way to help make that happen was to pretend del Valle didn't exist.
When I called the del Valle camp the phone was answered by a young, unpaid volunteer so angry at the Defender she could spit. But Klonsky was cool. "I don't want to blow this out of proportion," she said. "The flyer didn't come from us. It doesn't reflect my sentiments about what happened." The Defender's a good paper, she said, taking the long view. And life goes on.