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I was just looking over the responses to my column a couple weeks ago on Scott Lee Cohen. If there was a larger point to it — always iffy in my case — it wasn't that blame for Cohen's primary victory should be pinned to negligent journalists or to blundering opponents. It was that reporters treat elections as food fights they don't deign to join.
John Kass made a point of having lunch with every candidate for governor and then writing about the conversation. That was good. If those columns affected the elections, if one candidate sounded a little brighter or more quotable to Kass than another, so be it. But by and large the media don't initiate coverage — they describe what the candidates are throwing at each other. To a degree, they referee.
Forget about Cohen. Lieutenant governor is a stupid position it's hard to crank up any interest in. Pat Quinn was the sitting governor running for the Democratic nomination for governor. But he hadn't been governor long and he hadn't been elected to the job. He and his campaign and the race he was in all deserved close scrutiny.
When Dan Hynes rolled out the TV ad that had Harold Washington trashing Quinn's brief performance as Chicago's revenue director, Alton Miller got a couple of calls from reporters. Miller had been Washington's press secretary. The reporters wanted to know if Washington had actually felt that way. Yes, said Miller. And that's what he told me when I talked to him after the primary for my column on Cohen.
The question I was turning over in my head when Miller and I talked was whether it would have been proper for a newspaper or TV station — rather than Quinn's opponent — to have revealed the existence of the old Washington tape. Maybe not: that story would have placed a big, fat, and arguably inappropriate thumb on the electoral scales.
On the other hand, Quinn had been Washington's revenue director. Any profile of Quinn worth its salt could have explored how Quinn had worked out in City Hall. I have since asked Miller what I should have asked him then: Before the Hynes ad surfaced, did any curious reporter ever happen to ask you what Washington thought of Quinn's performance?
The answer is no. It doesn't flatter Chicago journalism.