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Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union that represents most of the city's approximately 12,000-officer police force, is under new leadership as of last week. The new president, Kevin Graham, has vowed to take a more aggressive stance in representing rank-and-file cops than did his predecessor, Dean Angelo Sr. Presenting themselves as part of a union faction called Blue Voice, Graham and his team have vowed to fight the city's police reform efforts, pursue a hard line in upcoming contract negotiations, and take on the media.
While campaigning, Graham characterized media in Trump-flavored terms: "We will no longer be victimized by a biased anti-Police media," Graham promised in a March post on the Blue Voice's blog. "Our Lodge 7 will quickly and articulately respond to media attacks."
So far, details about how the new administration plans to do this have been scant. On Friday, Graham hosted a one-minute press conference at Lodge 7 and didn't take any questions. Asked by the Reader what his new media strategy might entail, Graham responded in an e-mailed statement through vice president Martin Preib, also newly elected on the Blue Voice slate:
"In the past, the media has often not portrayed the Chicago Police in a good light. We want to make certain that our members and the citizens of Chicago realize that we are the good guys."
It's already becoming apparent that Preib, who is emerging as the spokesman and media liaison for the union, will be a leader in this effort. But will he forge a new strategy or return to some of the FOP's old PR tactics?
Lodge 7's troubling relationship with the media was documented in a Reader and City Bureau investigation last year. In 2011, under the presidency of Mike Shields, the FOP hired former CPD spokesman Pat Camden to be its media representative. In his time on the job, Camden had developed a reputation for being both readily available and willing to speak with reporters—and, as our investigation found, for dispensing inaccurate or outright false information, particularly about police-involved shootings. Between 2012 and 2016, Camden provided initial information to the media on 35 of the 48 police shootings that occurred during that time, and in nearly half of those cases, "crucial aspects of Camden's statements were later proved to be false or misleading," as Yana Kunichoff and Sam Stecklow wrote.
Camden has largely disappeared from public view since the scandal surrounding the release of the video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald, taken off duty as the FOP's media liaison by Angelo. In the void left by Camden, the former FOP president handled the media on his own, and has been far less visible than Camden had been.
But the Reader's investigation didn't just point a finger at the FOP. It also made clear that many Chicago journalists had long been guilty of taking the cops (or their union reps) at their word, whether out of convenience or necessity. The McDonald shooting, the subsequent revelations about how police sources had spun stories in favor of the CPD, and the nation's increasing awareness of the prevalence of police misconduct in African-American communities served as a wake-up call to Chicago media. In the roughly 16 months since the McDonald video was released, Chicago media of every stripe have been reporting on police shootings and more systemic corruption using more than just police sources, and have been increasingly willing to undertake serious investigations of the Chicago Police Department. This includes data-driven projects such as the Invisible Institute's Citizens Police Data Project and the Chicago Reporter's Settling for Misconduct database, ABC7's reporting on domestic violence complaints against cops, and in-depth investigations focused on officers with alarming histories, such as WBEZ's reporting on Commander James Sanchez and the Tribune's recent story on Patrick Kelly.
For many cops, though, this shift has been interpreted not as journalists doing their due diligence, but as an act of war, aimed at vilifying the police for ratings and Web traffic and access to the city's politicians.
"Just more bullshit made-up crap by fake news networks to try to make themselves appear relevant," one Second City Cop blog commenter replied on a thread about ABC7's domestic violence story. "All local media has been directed by the twerp murder mayor to feature a CPD hit piece daily or they will be cut off from the 5th floor," another opined.
The results of this "war on police," they argue, have been bigger than just a change in public perception. Police sources frequently—and without empirical evidence—claim that Chicago's rising homicide rate has been caused by cops being less willing to be "proactive" on the streets due to constraints imposed by civil rights litigation, and for fear of being captured on video and shamed in the media. (In reality, it's not clear what's causing the rising murder rate, for media and public scrutiny of police has ramped up in cities around the country without accompanying spikes in gun violence.)
In Chicago, many rank-and-file cops seemed to feel that Angelo wasn't aggressive enough in his pushback on media coverage of police wrongdoing. In anonymous comments on Second City Cop, for example, Angelo was frequently derided as a passive leader. "He only gets on tv at 2am for 15 min on the channel nobody watches," one commenter complained. Many others cheered on Graham's victory because it assured them that Preib would likely be an influential voice in union business, particularly, they hoped, in rectifying officers' image in the press.
Preib's background isn't that of a typical cop. A 15-year veteran of the force, Preib is also the author of two short-story collections, including one published by the University of Chicago Press, and essays that have appeared in literary magazines such as Tin House and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
In addition, Preib has written a blog, Crooked City, with posts often offering a melange of conspiracy theories and "whataboutism," including lengthy screeds on alleged media bias and corruption among local reporters. (The blog, as well as Preib's Twitter page, where he frequently criticized the media, have now been deleted, but posts are still archived through caching.) He frequently accused reporters of colluding with what he refers to as the "wrongful conviction movement," led by Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project, formerly the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project, founded by former professor David Protess, worked to overturn wrongful convictions. Protess left Northwestern embroiled in controversy in 2011. In 2015, a man who said they had pressured him into confessing to a crime he didn't commit in order to help overturn the conviction of a death row inmate sued Protess, Northwestern, and private investigator who'd worked on the case. The man, Alstory Simon, later had his conviction thrown out. His $40 million civil suit against Protess and Northwestern hasn't yet been resolved.
Reasonable people can disagree about Protess and his methods. But Preib seems to think anyone who so much as spoke to Protess or reported on the Innocence Project's exoneration cases was tainted with antipolice bias. That includes local journalists ranging from the Tribune's Steve Mills and Eric Zorn to WTTW's Carol Marin, the Sun-Times's Mick Dumke, and CBS Chicago's Dave Savini. For example, Preib claims that Savini's "ties" to the "wrongful conviction movement" can be traced to his reporting on the exoneration of the "Ford Heights Four," which was championed by Protess.
Preib also appears to be a Jon Burge apologist, having written numerous blog posts arguing that the torture claims about the former Chicago police commander and his "midnight crew" first uncovered by the Reader in 1990 were red herrings that turned public attention away from the crimes of their victims.
In a 2015 tweet, for example, he shared a picture of the three witches from MacBeth seemingly gathered around a cauldron with what appears to be Burge's head inside—a nod to Preib's claim that reporters conjure the "bogeyman" of Burge whenever it suits their needs to vilify the police—while the Northwestern Wildcats mascot looms ominously in the misty background.
Also part of this supposed Northwestern conspiracy? Former law school adjunct and 60s radical Bernardine Dohrn.
In his response to the Reader's story on Camden and the FOP, Preib offered an exegesis of what he referred to as certain "tropes" in the article—for example, referring to the 1968 Democratic National Convention police beatings as a "police riot"—to bolster his claim that the paper is an instrument of dangerous leftist propaganda.
"The Reader's desperate and incoherent tying of left's mythology about the 1968 riots to their article about the FOP reveals as much their desperation as any police corruption, their willingness to claim historical interpretation as historical fact in their effort to vilify the police and deflect from their own grievous misconduct," Preib writes. "The big bad police were out of control, as far back as 1968, they argue. But, they ignore, wasn't [Bernardine] Dohrn's Weather Underground even more out of control?"
Misconduct allegations should be evaluated by the courts, not the press, Preib adds. "But that's not good enough for the writers at the Reader, many of whom graduated from universities like Northwestern where radical, anti-democratic activists like Bernardine Dohrn have imposed their ideologies upon the journalists."
Basically, Preib's argument pulls together conservative talking points about the continuous shadowy influence of 1960s leftists radicals on American universities and the media: the Reader and other local media outlets are under the influence of a radical antipolice agenda because some of its reporters graduated from Northwestern, which is an institution dedicated to propagating an antipolice agenda because it hired Dohrn.
Reached by phone at Lodge 7, Preib was friendly but declined to discuss the media or his blog, offering only the statement from Graham. But in a Crooked City post on February 7, 2016, Preib wrote that the FOP represents "the last institution that can defend the police in Chicago," and he seems to see critical reporting about it after years of cozy relations between journalists and its spokesman as an existential threat. "Destroy the union, and the Reader can continue its anti-police crusade forever, never being held accountable for its own abuses in the wrongful conviction movement," Preib writes.
It seems possible that Preib's newfound role as an official representative of a prominent organization will temper his bluster toward the media. It may be difficult, after all, to advance a pro-police narrative to local reporters about whom he once wrote "It is Chicago journalists who truly hate free speech, who despise the fact that some people, like a police union, have the right to an opinion."
Whatever his tone, it's unlikely that Chicago's journalists will return to their old ways of uncritically reporting that opinion—and not because the press as a whole has suddenly turned anticop. Since the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the press, arguably, has finally started doing its job, by not taking the FOP's statements at face value and recognizing that the union isn't a neutral party to police misconduct cases. No matter how much Preib and Graham may want to return to the days of a less than skeptical press, more aggressive and organized spin doctoring isn't likely to make cops out to be "the good guys." These days, the surest way for the FOP to influence the media narrative may be to simply build up a reputation for telling the truth.Correction: This story has been updated to correct the sequence of events surrounding David Protess's departure from Northwestern. He left the school in 2011 and was sued by Alstory Simon in 2015.