While waiting for information out of City Hall, please enjoy this video of the mayor | Bleader

While waiting for information out of City Hall, please enjoy this video of the mayor

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Howard Wolinsky is one of Chicago's most experienced medical writers. He worked that beat for about 15 years at the Sun-Times, cowrote a muckraking book on the American Medical Association, and now teaches at Medill and freelances. After the Boston marathon bombing, Chicago Medicine, a monthly magazine published by the Chicago Medical Society, assigned Wolinsky and another writer to examine emergency preparedness in Chicago. Eric Beck, medical director of the city's emergency medical services system, suggested some doctors he ought to talk to.

One was Elisabeth Weber, projects administrator of the hospital preparedness program of the Department of Public Health. Another was Will Wong, medical director of the department's Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response. Wolinsky e-mailed them both on April 20 and asked for an interview. The e-mail to Wong bounced back; but even though it was a Saturday morning, Weber replied within minutes. "How nice of Eric Beck to send you my way," Weber wrote. "I have time on Monday and Tuesday but I will need to loop in the PIO from the Health Department. I am not certain of his availability." However, Wong's office was next to hers, and she thought possibly he could join her when Wolinsky came over.

Monday was out for Wolinsky and Tuesday wasn’t great, but he thought 11 AM might work. "Would you be available?" he wrote back. She didn't answer, and Wolinsky wrote her again first thing Monday morning: "Can we confirm I will meet you at your office Tuesday at 11 am?"

Almost eight hours later he got his answer. It wasn't from Weber. "Hi Howard," began the e-mail from a Brian Richardson, someone Wolinsky had never heard of. "I manage public affairs at CPDH. I apologize but Elisabeth and Will are not going to be able to do this interview after all." Richardson proposed a Plan B. "If you haven't seen it already, please check out the Mayor's news from this morning where he ordered his public safety team to review the emergency medical plan just this morning." A video of the mayor's "presser" was online awaiting Wolinsky's perusal. Richardson gave him the link.

Reporters are highly predictable creatures. One thing you can count on is that if they request an interview because they want answers to specific questions from specific experts in the field and instead are offered the canned remarks of a mayor, they will be unhappy. Wolinsky's reply was tinged with incredulity. "I write for a publication, Chicago Medicine, which goes out to virtually all the physicians in the Chicago area," he began, in case Richardson thought he was deflecting someone's junior high school civics assignment. "Are you suggesting I run a link to a video rather than doing interviews? Or transcribe a video and quote from it? I hope you will reconsider this approach and make an expert available. . . . Brian, I hope you can do better than this."

"Hi Howard," Brian replied. "I’m quite familiar with the publication. Yes, I was suggesting you listen to the Mayor's comments and pull quotes . . . " He gave Wolinsky the name and address of a flack in the mayor's office, should Wolinsky want to go that route.

The flack is Caroline Weisser. Wolinsky e-mailed her last Friday. He explained what he wanted and what Richardson had offered and continued pleasantly, "I was hoping for more detail. Would the mayor or a knowledgeable advisor be available next week to comment in person or on the phone on what lessons have been learned from Boston and the impact of those events on disaster preparedness here? My deadline rapidly is approaching."

Weisser wrote back Monday morning. "Did Brian send you a video of the Mayor's April 22 press conference?" she wondered. "His comments then seem to directly apply to what you are looking into." She told Wolinsky that Mayor Emanuel had announced that he'd ordered a review of the city’s emergency medical plan. She offered Wolinsky some quotes from the mayor's announcement and promised Wolinsky that she would check on the review's progress.

"Does this work?" she asked.

"That's helpful," Wolinsky replied politely. "But would you as a spokesperson or someone else in the city government be available to provide an update? . . . We need a human to speak with."

As dusk descended on Chicago Monday, Wolinsky had received no further word from Weisser or anyone else in City Hall. However, he told me that despite this confounding lack of cooperation, he and his writing partner had found other sources and their story would be completed on schedule.

Days earlier, he'd decided to keep me posted on his quixotic quest for an interview. "Is this how journalism is done these days?" he asked rhetorically. "Maybe I've been away from the local reporting too long. Is everything 'managed' these days with statements to the media? I realize the news conference with the mayor could help my story. But how about an interview with the health commissioner and his lieutenants who develop and implement the policies? Maybe I'm being old-school."

I called Brian Richardson. "It's honestly just time and availability," he said. "We fill just about any request that we can. We can't do everything—I wish Howard would know that. It would have been better if Elisabeth had reached out to me before she even returned his e-mail originally. She should have said, 'I'd like to do it, but let me check with Brian.'"

I think she came pretty close to that. She said she was available but she had to check with Brian, who might not be. But she wasn't available, Richardson told me. "She thought she was, but she's not."

Richardson wanted me to think well of him—he said his department had just been helpful to a Reader intern looking for information. Which is true. So I asked our Mick Dumke what he made of Wolinsky's experience. "This administration has done some things right," Dumke said. "They've put a lot of data online you previously had to ask for. A lot of good stuff. But everything, through all the city departments, is filtered through the mayor's office. I don't want to beat up on the poor flacks out in departments [like Richardson]. The politics of this administration is such that they basically route everything through the Fifth Floor. Everything's about staying on message."

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