A month ago, as opponents of this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago and the civic authorities hosting it each laid plans against the other's order of battle, the Chicago chapter of the National Writers Union spoke up for the First Amendment rights of the protesters. "In 1968," an NWU statement began, "the Democratic Party came to the City to nominate a president. What happened then became a part of Chicago's history: a massive public uprising of protest against an unjust war and a corrupt political system that created a massive local reaction within the City's police department. Violence and chaos resulted."
And what have we today? NATO—which is to say the "military powers" serving the West's "international governmental and business elites"—is coming to Chicago, where it will be opposed by "the protesters, the marchers, the occupiers, the 99-percenters" gathered here "to speak out against NATO's violence and the corporate interests the G-8 leaders serve."
Make no mistake, declared the NWU, "Our constitutional rights are vastly more essential—more critical—than any efforts to secure the comforts and the privilege for the elites gathering for the NATO meetings."
Half-hidden by the bristling language is a kind of balmy nostalgia. In 1968 Democratic party bosses came to Chicago to ratify a nominee protesters felt was being rammed down the nation's throat even though he was implicated up to his eyeballs in an endless war. It wasn't simply the presence of the bosses that triggered resistance—it was what the bosses were in Chicago to do. This year? Who knows or cares what business NATO will take up inside McCormick Place? It's enough to know the warmongers will be in town—though some demonstrators of a certain age might recall that when NATO was created in 1949 to see America through the cold war, our "free speech rights" were central to the way of life we asked it to protect.
The Tribune has identified the NATO summit as one of the year's biggest local stories and thrown all its resources into the coverage. Last Friday's page-one story was a report on measures the FBI is taking to prevent terrorism. Sunday's front page focused on the gathering protesters: "Confronting the logistics of travel, shelter, food and legal aid is activists' first task." Topping Monday's page one was a story on decisions Loop businesses have made to keep employees home "to avoid potential headaches caused by NATO protesters."
But to fully appreciate the creativity of the Tribune assignment desk, it's necessary to survey the stories on display on inside pages dedicated to the summit. For instance, Friday: "Local clergy use NATO protests as springboard to larger spiritual issues"; Sunday: "Rick Kogan explores the rich history of art in Chicago protests"; Monday: "Chicago's parade of protests"—a survey through time that links the NATO protest to the local origins of May Day.
Another of the stories in the Sunday Tribune was labeled, "Mapping the protests, plus a primer on the groups." What there was none of in that day's Tribune, and not much of on any day in any Chicago paper as the NATO summit approached, was a primer on NATO itself. The local professional society, the Chicago Headline Club, offers further evidence of where journalism's head is at. "Get Ready for NATO," the list of tips and resources posted on its website, has one focus—and it isn't global politics. It's telling Chicago reporters covering the summit how to survive it in one piece.
*Wear comfortable boots that you can run in . . .
*Don't go alone. Get someone to watch your back . . .
*As soon as you arrive, spot escape routes . . .
*Avoid horses. They bite and kick.
*Stand upwind from tear gas . . .
There's nothing wrong with safety tips. But this isn't 1968, and NATO's coming here to make changes in the world we live in 44 years later. One matter certain to be discussed inside McCormick Place this weekend is the new radar system NATO wants to deploy in Poland and Russia threatens to destroy. The public won't be getting the best imaginable journalism from reporters who know everything about avoiding tear gas and nothing about avoiding thermonuclear war. And a point of view any reporter with his ears open will hear championed on the streets of Chicago holds that NATO has served its purpose and is now stumbling into reckless wars (Libya) and provocations (the radar system) for want of a useful role. Can journalists bring any depth to such a charge if their tutoring is limited to avoiding flying glass and billy clubs?