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A note arrived the other day from Paul O'Connor, former Royko legman, Channel 11 reporter, and executive director of World Business Chicago. The last time we'd talked, Chicago seemed to be on its way to becoming a one-newspaper city, which O'Connor said then would define the city to a foreign business executive as a small town "in a number of ways, none of which makes Chicago more attractive as a place to live . . . or as a place to invest corporate capital."
But the Sun-Times just got a new lease on life. And O'Connor, whose mind is always churning, seems less concerned these days about what foreigners think of the Chicago press than about what Chicagoans think of it. O'Connor had seen the video of Derrion Albert being beaten to death last month near Fenger High, where he was an honor student, and thinking hard about what happened. O'Connor wrote:
Now that it is looking like we'll have two newspapers, I am writing to tell them what to do: Cops.
It's time to get back to covering the city, and that means sending reporters onto the streets again. Onto the dangerous streets.
We've had years of honors students' head shots on the front page — stray bullets, random kills. It's a perennial story: Decent kids, second-day photo of the flowers on the stoop; sound bites from crushed and angry relatives.
But I do not think I have ever read in the Sun-Times or the Tribune a description of these routine fire fights that result in the front-page death of a young innocent.
The air must suddenly go out of these residential blocks of random terror, as the deafening punctuation of a blur of pistol reports thicken the air, eyes confused with fire flashes from the muzzles of the punks' handguns in crossfire. Ever read about that in your newspaper? That¹d be a helluva read, a must-read, as they said in the olden days.
Neighborhoods sparking into combat zones seem to be a daily occurrence.
What's it like to live out there? How often do the working stiffs in the fire-zone neighborhoods hear gun fire? How do they negotiate the sidewalks: what do they watch out for to stay alive? Do they keep a constant eye out for where they can duck to? Because it seems like it's the sweet naïve kids that don't duck fast enough — not the savvier grownups — who end up on the front page in headshots.
Now we have a Rodney King video moment, in which teenage Lord of the Flies savagery shows a kid beaten to death. Yeah, the newspapers say, another decent kid, the kind of grandchild you hope for. The president blows a whistle, and the nation's top cop comes to town with Arne Duncan — the only one of a dozen talking heads who tries to tell what it's like out there: Telling the press conference they can scarcely understand what it is like for the kids out there on our streets.
But that's what the newspapers are supposed to be telling us: What it's like out there on our city streets.
The videoed murder is a gang-turf thing. That's the explanation. Fine. What gangs? What turf?
Reporters don't have to leave the comfort of their desks to tell us the names of the gangs. No right-to-know newspaper man has to set foot onto the deadly streets of our town to get the information to draw a
map. Show us the map of gang turfs, with the gangs names on their turf. Show us the maps where the turfs are disputed. Put the high schools on the gang-turf map.
Give the aldermen a map so they have to get off their fat asses and scream at City Council. Give the neighborhoods a map so they can scream at their alderman. Give the editorial page editors a map so they can give the Muscleman Superintendent a spanking.
How many gang gun fights were there last night? What do you mean you don't know?
How many rounds of ammo do you think are illegally discharged in the City of Chicago in a week? What do you mean "you have no idea?"
Maybe the [management information services] folks at Police Headquarters should be required to GIS fire fights in real time, and maybe the Times' and Trib's websites would be willing to offer a neighborhood gun fire landing page. If not, maybe MacArthur or the Chicago Community Trust would pay for the people's right to know what is going on on the streets of this city.
Covering the story of gun-blasting gangs is the newspapers' job. Not anybody else's. They could use the cops' help to do it, it would be easier that way. . . . But the papers don't need the cops to give us the facts we need, the color of the heartbreak, the contours of the kill zones, the economics of the gangs, the personalities and lifestyles of their bosses, a taste of the lawless swagger and the stink of fear and gun powder, the heaviness of the silence after the tires screech away.
The papers and what passes for television news have been "cheaping out" the deaths of children killed because if enough punks fire enough bullets one is bound to hit someone, and little kids are easily killed with big bullets.
Either the newspapers' reporters are afraid to get hurt, which is a reasonable fear, or the story of Chicago's bleeding streets isn¹t news because it only affects the nobodies, the losers, those people.
If our two big dailies don't cover this story, there is no way this situation will change. This is a job for the people, not just City Hall. And the people have the right to take back their streets. But they cannot do that without a thorough grasp of the facts on the ground. The people have a right to know who is doing what where and why on the streets of their city.
Police reporting is the most basic of journalism's basics. And it is time for the business to go back to basics.
Ironically, if the papers take on Chicago's bleeding streets and the thugs who rule them, they will start selling newspapers again, and winning Pulitzer Prizes, maybe even the Heywood Broun Award.
But as of today, this town's biggest story remains untold. And the mournful drumbeat of sappy front-page weepers about sweet dead children being killed randomly is no way to report on what the hell is going on out
We've got two surviving big city dailies. It's time they started acting like it. It's time for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune to compete head-to-head on the streets of our city. To do their jobs, and give us the coverage we need to take back our streets. If they don't have the stomach for it — because what I am asking for takes precious few "resources" (only editorial management that gives a shit and a cityside crew with the guts to take it on) — then maybe whether they themselves live or die isn't that relevant to the life of the city after all.
"The Gantlet" was a September 16 Tribune feature "chronicling" the commutes of six Chicago students to and from their high schools. It was less than O'Connor is calling for, but it did get some reporters out into the streets, and some kids into our attention spans.