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Chicago '96: Avoiding the Conventional

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By Michael Miner

Sure as the next new moon, when reporters flock to town this August their first big story will be the long look back. "Chicago since '68: Today a different city?" the press corps will ask as one on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Many a famous correspondent must already be wondering: Who the hell knows? Does anyone really care? Where to begin this thumb-sucker?

Perhaps with Michael James, on videotape as a lanky young insurrectionist rocking a paddy wagon, but now a restaurateur under contract to the Chicago Park District. Perhaps with onetime SDS members Mike Klonsky, who runs the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Marilyn Katz, a publicist who describes herself as "this little bomb thrower who defeated Daley the first time he ran for mayor." That was in 1983, when she made commercials for Harold Washington. Now she does business for the city. Until it folded, the downtown circulator project was her client.

These are all chatty emblems of reconciliation, or co-optation, or whatever, that a correspondent floundering in unfamiliar waters will thank God for. And the Community News Project intends to make each of them available.

The Community News Project originated a year ago as a set of self-evident truths perceived by Thom Clark, president of the Community Media Workshop (and cowriter of the Reader's Snap Judgments). First of all, Clark told me, "it was my presumption that party conventions are an anachronism. The primary system has taken the place of that decision-making party, and yet news outlets still assign people to cover it."

The failure of any Democrat to challenge President Clinton's renomination makes it all the more certain that the news corps descending on Chicago will be desperate for material. "The mantra we're working on," said Clark, "is that everyone will be assigned a scene-setter piece. And it will all start with '68. Let the tape roll."

The tape will be the easy part. But once reporters have trotted out the familiar old images of slashing billy clubs, chanting demonstrators, and teetering paddy wagons, they'll run head-on into their own ignorance trying to illuminate today's Chicago. Here's where Clark sees his opportunity.

"Our main objective," he said, "is to get them to move beyond the stereotypes this city is usually cast in--whether that's Al Capone, '68, the Daley machine, and so on--and in so doing hopefully move the urban agenda beyond stereotypes. If this big strapping town, Chicago, in the middle of the rust belt, can change so much since the world last checked in, maybe not all is lost for other cities."

Do you want to set the media agenda in Chicago? I asked him. "Yes," he said. "I'm not uncomfortable with that characterization."

The Community News Project and the quasi-official Chicago '96 convention office see eye to eye on the press corps that will wash ashore this summer. "They'll have covered the Olympics, and the Republicans in San Diego two weeks before," said Julie Thompson, communications director of Chicago '96. "So people will be stretched very thin. They'll be tired, overbudget. They're going to have skeleton crews."

Chicago '96 intends to bury these journalists in press materials and stock TV footage of Chicago architecture, neighborhood sights and sounds, even glimpses of the suburbs. But the Community News Project's approach is more immediate--it's sending out its materials already-- and more tactical. The parent Community Media Workshop champions Chicago's grass roots, and it wants the media to spread the message that those roots are what make the city strong.

Clark has found some impressive allies who share this ambition. A third of the project's $300,000 budget has already been raised from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Woods Fund. The Community Media Workshop's landlord, Columbia College, has given Clark extra space. And a high-profile executive director was enlisted: Dennis Britton, former editor of the Sun-Times and a recent fellow at the MacArthur Foundation. "The urban agenda was not on any candidate's sound-bite list in '92," said Clark, "and, indeed, that was one of the things that attracted Britton to the project. He thought that was unconscionable."

Although Britton was recently hired away from Chicago to become editor of the Denver Post, he intends to return here frequently to oversee the news project. In his absence Mark Miller, formerly deputy managing editor of the Sun-Times and editor of Crain's Chicago Business, will step in day-to-day as "senior consultant."

Last week the City News Project produced, over Britton's signature, a letter to the nation's journalists that begins "Dear colleague" and goes on to tout the project's services. "In a nutshell we match out-of-town journalists with local sources," Britton's letter explained. "You might want a paragraph or two on what happened in Chicago during the 1968 convention. We can give you names and telephone numbers of people who participated or observed those events from all perspectives....You also may want to look at the Daley Legacy and, again, we have a group of sources who are experts on Richard the Father and Richard the Son, two very different men."

Attached to the letter was a list of 21 briefing papers the news project has begun turning out. To judge from the two already completed--on education and the Illinois economy--these are highly cursory overviews. But they're larded with names and phone numbers of local authorities ready to say more to any reporter who asks. "And they're sitting in computers in such a way," said Clark, "that we can update them to deal with trends, source lists, or as campaign themes develop."

One of the proposed briefing papers tackles another subject sure to be pondered early and often. The paper's described as "Chicago's West Side: Around United Center, renewal begins after decades of decay and population loss." Inasmuch as Alex Kotlowitz has already planted this neighborhood in the national consciousness, pundits pondering the fate of the rust belt's inner cities can with clear consciences simply look across Madison Street for their answers.

Which is fine with Clark, because the far side of Madison is the basis of an inspiring story of neighborhood empowerment. "The mayor and the president undoubtedly will be touting their plan for redevelopment of the Henry Horner Homes area around the convention site," he said. "Tenants were at the table when that final plan was negotiated, in part because of a campaign we had a hand in four years ago, when the Henry Horner Mothers Guild filed a lawsuit against the CHA for building-code violations--accompanied, by the way, by good media that hit the networks. That gave them such power that, indeed, they had a federal judge in their corner as the redevelopment plan was being negotiated between the CHA and the tenants. That's dramatically different from the way public housing was dealt with 30 years ago, when it was generally imposed both on the users and the neighborhoods that got it."

Clark said he's already worked up a mailing list of about 200 political editors and reporters who've indicated they'll be covering the convention, and by June he expects to have a thousand names. "By then I hope word of mouth will take care of the rest. Once a few scene-setter pieces start appearing, other outlets will begin contacting us. Then we'll shift from outreach to dealing with incoming, if you will."

Freelance writer Patrick Barry is overseeing a team of about ten writers who are working up the briefing papers. In addition Barry's putting together a list of books that visiting journalists can bone up with. "There are some obvious ones, like Boss," Barry told me. "I would put in Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, by Harold Mayer and Richard Wade." He named a few others, Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land and Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems being two.

What about Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here? I asked.

"That's a good idea," said Barry. "That will be one of the areas we pitch to reporters. They're coming in and asking about it already."

News Bites

When the Sun-Times weighed in on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf versus the NBA, the conclusion it reached was less appalling than the hard line it took to get there. Most Americans "are happy--and even proud" to stand for the national anthem, reasoned an editorial last week. And since Abdul-Rauf broke an NBA rule by remaining seated, he was "rightfully suspended." The editorial stated, "His beliefs should not be the overriding issue here. He either follows the rules, or he pays the penalty."

If anyone ought to be attentive to the legal and constitutional nuances of any dispute over personal expression, it's a newspaper. The ham-fisted logic of the Sun-Times belongs on a bumper sticker, not an editorial page: "My First Amendment rights are alive. Sorry about yours."

The Sun-Times sold $125 tickets for a benefit performance of Steppenwolf's The Libertine last week largely on the promise that guests could hobnob with John Malkovich at a reception after the show. They couldn't. The rest of the cast stayed around, but Malkovich showed up just long enough to find his mother; then the two of them went out to dinner together.

"It's a pity he didn't stay, but most people were quite happy with their evening," said David Dodd, an executive vice president at the paper and a Steppenwolf board member. "There were half a dozen people who were quite upset."

According to another member of the cast, the benefit audience Malkovich ditched had sat silent and unresponsive through the performance. Each night Malkovich opens The Libertine by speaking directly to the house. "I do not want you to like me," he says. I couldn't reach Malkovich to ask him, but perhaps that night he simply decided to stay in character.

WGN TV news reported last Friday on a federal bill "designed to auction off the nation's airwaves." After anchor Roseanne Tellez served notice that if the bill passed "your favorite free TV programs and sporting events might end up costing you money," the partisans weighed in. A senator supporting the legislation was followed by a Tribune Company lobbyist who cautioned, "This could kill our system of free television." Then WGN showed a clip from a corporate "editorial" the station has been running in which the executive vice president of Tribune Broadcasting warns, "If the airwaves are sold to the highest bidder, free television will become a thing of the past."

A colleague who brought this story to my attention commented, "I haven't seen anything quite so shameless in quite some time." Shameless would certainly be the right word if the veep and lobbyist hadn't been identified as representatives of the company that owns WGN. But they were. "Superficial" and "self-serving" will suffice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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