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Media: Biting the Hand

Did candidate Roland Burris deliberately dodge coverage just so he could complain he wasn't getting any?

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By now it's traditional for politicians to knock around the press like Mike Tyson's sparring partners. Yet even Nixon waited to be kicked around before he complained about it. As a mayoral candidate, Roland Burris may have begun a new trend when he started attacking his media coverage before it was possible for him to have any media coverage--namely, at his very first press conference.

Or should we say first press conferences. With no time to waste in a 30-day race, Burris's campaign immediately shot itself in the foot by announcing two different times for its first press conference, then starting even earlier than either time. More on that later.

Burris was at least consistent--he spent his entire campaign bashing the press. "It got more good-natured as the campaign went on," allows the Sun-Times's Scott Fornek. But it never stopped, and at one point Burris supporters picketed Channel Two and Channel Seven over coverage of a Burris march and rally in Roseland. Now that it's over, fair play demands an accounting.

An analysis of the major print coverage--the Sun-Times and Tribune--shows a total of 41 articles for Burris and 46 articles for Daley during the short Burris campaign. That's counting every single story that included the name "Daley" in a headline for whatever reason. And 14 of Daley's 46 articles depicted a squirming mayor dealing with the police lieutenant's exam, hardly the kind of story Daley's press team would have planted. Clearly, Burris wasn't stiffed on the amount of coverage he received.

He didn't suffer from antagonistic reporting, either. In classifying the articles as positive, negative, or neutral, we've given Burris every benefit of the doubt. Anything slightly questionable for Burris became neutral or negative; anything slightly questionable for Daley became neutral or positive. Under this Burris-friendly system, Burris finished with 27 positive stories to Daley's 15. Burris received only 7 negative stories to Daley's 23, and of the remaining neutral stories, Burris had 7 and Daley had 8.

If anyone should have been squawking, it was Republican Ray Wardingley and Harold Washington Party candidate Lawrence Redmond. Wardingley garnered a paltry ten stories, many of them noting his former life as a clown. The last few articles only appeared due to the brief controversy over whether the Republicans had tried to dump him for Ed Vrdolyak. Redmond saw his name in the Tribune and Sun-Times a total of four times.

Television coverage is more difficult to evaluate after the fact. Let's consider, however, the Roseland march and rally that precipitated the picketing at Channel Two and Channel Seven. Channel Seven's Andy Shaw says he wasn't working that night, yet Channel Seven shot the march but through some oversight it didn't make the newscast. At Channel Two, Mike Flannery was also off that night. The march didn't make Channel Two's ten o'clock news, but Flannery says it aired in two broadcasts the next day.

"It would've been nice if we'd also had time to use it at ten the night it happened, but there was a problem--it happened late, the tape came in late, and the people back at the station were in a crunch. I understand their decision," says Flannery. "Something worth remembering too is that the Burris campaign was perennially, chronically, 'catching fire.' If you'll think back. We were constantly being told the wildfire of political support was about to explode. Every day. It was only just around the corner, it was a few hours away. Like the weekend before the election in Daley Plaza, a car caravan which they hoped was going to be the largest rally of the campaign. They wanted thousands of people at Daley Plaza. Guess what? There were not 200. There may not have been 120. There were a number of times I could cite you that we were given a big buildup, and nothing was there. So I understand why our producers reacted on a deadline crunch--they'd heard it all before."

Still, Flannery says he also understands why the Burris campaign was unhappy with the Roseland march coverage. "I don't think everything I've done is perfect," he says. "Journalism is a work in progress. It's the first draft of history. In our case, the next day we were able to go back and write a second draft of what happened the night before, and we did a better job of it, I think." Nonetheless, Flannery insists Burris "was treated as a serious candidate early on, even when he was still denying he was a candidate."

Political consultant Don Rose wasn't impressed with the coverage of Burris, but sees no organized effort to squeeze him out. "Almost every opposition campaign since Harold Washington has complained of press coverage," says Rose. "I think it's happened pretty consistently because the press coverage is generally pretty poor, as far as covering issues and really getting into the campaign....[Burris] was not particularly singled out for inadequate coverage, but as a candidate for major office he probably feels it more."

Burris's coverage was, in fact, downright kind. Only one negative story cropped up on Burris's past, and it didn't originate with reporters. On March 16 the Chicago Council of Lawyers released a report blasting the Illinois attorney general's office for, among other sins, a payroll so bloated with political hires that there isn't enough money left to attract and retain top-notch attorneys. Far from exploiting the report, the Tribune and Sun-Times each ran only one article on it. The Sun-Times account was on the bottom of page 18, and didn't use Burris's name in the headline. The Tribune story was in the middle of page 8 of the Chicagoland section. Both articles noted the possible political intentions in the timing of the report's release, and both concentrated heavily on the fact that the report's findings applied to every attorney general going back to Republican Tyrone Fahner in 1983.

Is Burris's past so unblemished that a malicious press, try as it might, just couldn't root out any dirt on him? Hardly.

"There were any number of controversies that you could've brought up from his period in state government, like you can with any politician," says Rob Karwath, the Tribune's assistant metropolitan editor in charge of local political coverage. "The thing with Carol Moseley-Braun and the medicaid reimbursements for her mother that she made to the state, the decision not to open a criminal investigation into that, that was an issue."

Burris also got a pass on his involvement with the Rolando Cruz case. Cruz has been on death row for the last decade but is widely believed to be innocent of the 1983 sexual assault and murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. He is currently awaiting a third trial after his second conviction was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a string of 15 columns examining the questionable evidence used to convict Cruz and the suppression of the fact that child rapist and murderer Brian Dugan had confessed to the Nicarico murder after Cruz's first conviction. In 1992 Assistant Attorney General Mary Brigid Kenney resigned from Burris's office rather than write a brief supporting Cruz's conviction for his second hearing before the Illinois Supreme Court. "I was being asked to help execute an innocent man," Zorn quoted her letter to Burris. "Unfortunately, you have seen fit to ignore evidence in this case." Burris refused to reconsider, telling reporters, "It's not for me to place my judgment over a jury, regardless of what I think."

Rehashing the Cruz case would not have made Burris happy. "You know what that would've done for him with the Hispanics?" says Sun-Times reporter Jorge Oclander. "We knew about it all along. And in the interest of being fair to the man and not making a political point about something that hadn't [been brought up by another candidate or interest group], it stayed out there."

Don't forget that all-new black militant image Burris adopted for the mayoral campaign. "We let him get away with that," says Andy Shaw.

Reporters also agree they were extremely lenient with Burris when pressing him for details on his policy positions, which is apparent from reviewing his clippings. "Remember he never put out a platform," says Shaw. "He laid out a few specifics on plans without financial components of how to pay for them. We didn't press him on that because we didn't think he was viable enough to do the kind of vetting we do of serious candidates."

To a person, reporters who covered Burris believe he got fair coverage, if not more coverage than his campaign actually deserved. The Tribune's Rob Karwath says he even worried about criticism for doing profiles of Burris and Wardingley, and an article on Harold Washington Party candidates featuring Lawrence Redmond, while not running a Daley profile because that had already been done during the primary.

According to Flannery, "He got more coverage and was taken more seriously by the news media than any other politician I can recall--and I've been in this for 22 years--who raised as little money as he did, whatever the final number is, and who in the end made as poor a showing as he did."

Burris's campaign handled its press relations so badly it almost looks like a cunning plot to dodge coverage in order to complain about it. Let's begin with the opening press conference.

Everyone agrees that some overeager Burris aide started the first first press conference early because Burris was surrounded by a crowd of supporters who made a good picture. Unfortunately, at least half the press contingent wasn't there yet. "Luckily I got to see it because the WGN guy showed it to me," says the Tribune's Joseph Kirby.

At that first first press conference, Burris claimed reporters were "covering up" for Mayor Daley. "We demand fair reporting. You all have been praising [Daley]. You all anointed him the King Richard," said Burris, quoted by Scott Fornek in the Sun-Times.

"He launched into a big thing, 'We're going to hold your feet to the fire,' singled out Andy Shaw, said Andy Shaw had been painting Mayor Daley as invincible, and so on," says Fornek. Burris supporters actually booed Shaw, says Kirby.

Burris held a second first press conference for the missing reporters sometime later, now seated at a table in a different room. He wouldn't repeat his opening speech, and Fornek wrote that Burris was "visibly irritated" when reporters dared to ask questions. In one exchange, Burris said he wanted to get out his message, not the message the press wanted to put out. Bernie Tafoya of WBBM Newsradio asked what message Burris thought the press wanted to put out.

"Don't be smart," Burris shot back, as quoted by Fornek. "I am trying to be serious. And I hope you all will respect me."

"I wasn't being nasty," Tafoya explains now. "Nobody was out to get Roland Burris. We were just covering a mayoral campaign."

Later Burris went after Jim Allen, Chicago bureau chief of the Daily Herald. "I had leaned my head on my arm at one point in the news conference," says Allen, "and [Burris] turned to me and said, 'Are you tired or are you just disgusted with the way I answered your question?' And I said, 'No, neither, I'm resting my head on my hand.'"

Most reporters agree that Burris's press bashing was a campaign strategy and, as such, typical. But is it typical for a politician to come out bashing on the first day? "It was extremely atypical," says Allen, who spoke for everyone. "That goes for anybody. That's the news conference where you say, there's nothing but love in this room, and I love you, and this is why you should love me."

Burris's press secretary, Don Rashid, is described by reporters as a one-man media team, which may explain the myriad snafus that cost Burris more coverage. Chinta Strausberg of the Chicago Defender, for instance, was approved for an interview but never got it. "I really wish I'd had my interview," she says wistfully, "because many times my stuff is picked up by radio. People would have gotten to know a different side of this man. A lot of people think he's a downstater. I wanted to bring him on home and let people know the real Burris."

Reader staff writer Neal Pollack wanted to attend Burris rallies and report on Burris's "transformation into William Jennings Bryan," he says. "I tried for a couple of weeks to get in touch with the Burris camp, and I just didn't get any of my calls returned." Pollack never made it to any Burris rallies. "I never could find out where they were."

"I gave him a lot of coverage, and I would have given him a lot more had the campaign been more organized," says Andy Shaw. "Many, many days he did nothing until the afternoon, which meant Daley set the agenda that day with a morning event, Burris playing catch-up. And other days he didn't do anything....There were several times where he laid out specific agenda items on crime or something where I had no idea what was covered because they didn't reach me. They knew who to call, they knew who to page."

Everyone had a problem getting Burris's campaign schedules. "Normally a candidate will give you schedules ahead of time, at least the day before," says Fornek. "They never were able to do that. It was a day-by-day thing. Sometimes you would get it that morning. So you'd get it when you got into work and find out he was way out south. Sometimes you wouldn't even get it that day, you'd just have to catch up with his campaign staff on the road, find out where the first event was and find out what was on tap for the rest of the day. That was unusual. I mean Ray Wardingley's campaign gave me schedules for like a week in advance, and Roland Burris's couldn't."

The nature of Burris's campaign also made it difficult for reporters to build stories around the daily campaign events. "There was a difference between his campaign and Joe Gardner's," says the Tribune's Joseph Kirby. "Joe Gardner had what we would call a media hit every day, in which he took an issue and kind of hammered away at Daley....He did a hit on the 911 center and he did a hit on affordable housing, countless things I don't remember." Burris didn't hit. "It was a little harder to go out and say Roland Burris shook hands today. Period next paragraph."

Reporters generally take issues raised by candidates and "get to the bottom of it," says Fornek. The Sun-Times tried to do that with education after Burris's criticism of the public schools, he says. "But [Burris] never really spelled out enough what he was gonna do....He talked about this five-point plan for how he was gonna improve funding for schools, and never really laid it out. And when you would ask him for platform papers, he said at one point, 'Well if you mean am I gonna write this stuff down for you, no!' You just kind of had to follow him around and get what he said. When he finally issued a press release on education, it talked about the five-point plan but there was no detail on what the five-point plan was.

"You don't expect a candidate to spoon-feed you everything, but they're the one running the campaign," says Fornek. "If they're not gonna give you a platform or position papers or tell you ahead of time where they're gonna be, it limits what you can do."

If Burris was truly in search of more coverage, he skipped the most obvious stop: the City Hall press office. "I don't recall ever seeing him in the vicinity of the City Hall press office," muses the Tribune's Robert Davis, who just moved from the City Hall beat into management. "Gardner was here once a week, and even Wardingley was here five or six times. Not that this is the center of the universe, but it's the one place you can go to find reporters. Even some of the amateurish aldermanic candidates knew to come here. He never sought news coverage here. Matter of fact, I don't think I've seen Roland Burris in well over a year."

Besides attacking the press, the Burris campaign displayed one other consistent strategy: bringing up charges against Daley, offering no evidence, and challenging reporters to investigate. "I'm sure you've heard his slogan could've been 'You check it out,'" says Fornek wryly. "With this kind of antimedia pose, he'd challenge us all to check it out. He'd say, 'I don't know if it's true, I'm just wondering here, it's up to you all to check it out, I want you to please, please check it out.' Obviously, who has time to make a full court press on every charge that he let loose?"

At the first first press conference, Burris charged that Daley had only 10,000 police officers on city streets rather than the budgeted 13,000 officers. Next, Burris charged that a Daley associate had offered him two jobs with a salary totaling $250,000 a year to drop out of the race. He charged that another Daley associate had told him, "It will be very difficult for you to make a living in this city after you lose this election." He charged that past campaign contributors had been told they would never get another city contract if they contributed to Burris again. He accused Daley of harassing a restaurant where a Burris fund-raiser was held by having a city inspector demand that the restaurant obtain a banquet license.

Burris also accused Daley of having a police academy graduation date changed to provide Daley with an election photo opportunity. "Now please check it out," Burris asked reporters at a press conference. "So don't attribute it to me if it doesn't check out." It didn't.

Of all these charges, Burris offered a source for only one--the restaurant that needed a banquet license.

Finally, the day before the election, Burris picked up on an earlier Channel Five investigation by Dave Savini that reported O'Hare Airport director of vehicle services Dominic Longo, a Daley campaign worker, was forcing employees to do political work for Daley. "Burris held a news conference and said, 'I've got more workers, and they say Longo is hiring inexperienced workers, and they're causing safety hazards at O'Hare,'" recalls Channel Five's Dick Kay. "Well, it's the day before the election at three in the afternoon. I mean, nobody's gonna go do that story that night. You're not gonna do it that way because it's a major investigative piece and you've gotta make sure you can substantiate these charges."

The Sun-Times's Fornek did put a full court press on Burris's first charge that only 10,000 police officers are on Chicago streets. Fornek obtained statistics from city budget director Paul Vallas showing 13,187 employed police officers. The only Burris charge regarding the officers that couldn't be entirely disproved was his contention that the city deploys fewer police in high-crime areas. Revealing such deployment information, police officials told Fornek, would also reveal the best time and place to commit crimes.

"We found a lot of his facts to be of questionable use or purpose, so what do you do?" asks Don Hayner, Sun-Times assistant metropolitan editor and political coordinator.

"'You guys do it.' Do what? We tried to do it in some cases, but we're not at the beck and call of candidates, either."

Some reporters still cut Burris some slack on his unsubstantiated charges. "I guess that's our job," says Kirby. "I think what bothered some people was the type of allegations he was making."

The Sun-Times's Jorge Oclander is less charitable. While covering Burris's endorsement by the IVI-IPO, Oclander asked Burris how he kept going while the polls showed him trailing Daley three to one. "And he says, 'Well, I don't believe the polls,' and starts complaining again about not getting coverage in the press," Oclander recalls. "And I said to him, 'Well, perhaps if you say you don't believe these polls, you must have some other polls that show you differently,' and he says, 'I do,' and I said, 'Great, why don't you share those numbers with us,' and he said, 'Well, I'm not going to share the numbers,' and breaks into this politician's smile that says, hehehe, I've got a secret you don't know.

"What are we supposed to report?" asks Oclander. "Their fantasies? I'm not interested in his fantasies. I am interested in some hard data that will make a good news story....We do not have an obligation to lie to our readers."

Burris's allegation about the $250,000 job offer rankles Oclander. "I don't have an obligation to be your research staff," he says. "I have an obligation to be the researcher for my readers, but there's gotta be a basis for something. I mean, so he's gonna say he has definite proof that Mayor Daley has fixed it so that the sun rotates around the earth? I'm not going to investigate that. I mean there's gotta be something there other than Roland Burris saying it."

The Daily Herald's Allen also found the job accusation frustrating. "[Burris's] suggestion was, you should be able to find these people," he says. "And who these people were we had no idea. We were supposed to ask around and find them among 2.8 million people."

Do major politicians like Burris often make unsubstantiated charges?

"Sometimes they do that," Allen acknowledges. "But usually they do it when they're running for dogcatcher in Marengo. Normally, when someone wants to announce some major charge, especially in a high-profile contest, they provide documents, they show they've done their homework. And even if they're misleading documents, at least they're documents."

Channel Five's Dick Kay agrees. "Campaigns that have information on scandal or sources who believe that there's some wrongdoing or some story that needs investigation go to great pains to give you all the information you need to begin the investigation. They don't do it for you, but if they're going to make the charge, they have something to back it up. They point you in the right direction or to the right people."

Burris's press bashing, most reporters agree, was an ill-conceived campaign strategy. After the first and second first press conferences, says Allen, "he apologized and made chummy remarks and put his arm around me saying, 'See, it's a new Roland. I'm not gonna be easy on you guys.'... He definitely made it clear afterward that was his intent."

Fornek says, "I was questioning him on the [alleged $250,000 job offer] again a couple of weeks ago on John Madigan's show, and I was saying, 'Why don't you name this person who you say offered you this job, because if you really want to root out this kind of corruption shouldn't you name names? Are you shielding this guy?' He kind of cut me off on my question and said, 'Are you saying I'm lying? Are you calling me a liar?'...But this'll give you some insight.The first words he says after it's over, he looks at me and he laughs and he points and he says, 'Scott, I really got you there, huh?' And we walked out, and he's slapping me on the back, we're kidding as we walk out. So this is why I say it was a strategy.

"And he routinely would even tell me that he liked the stories I did," says Fornek. "You know, he liked the profile I did of him."

Soon Burris switched his strategy from simply haranguing reporters to telling them that their lousy coverage was due to a conspiracy among their bosses to keep him out of the papers.

"Boy, I think he gives us way too much credit," says Karwath. "It's just so far beyond the realm of what's reasonable, and what actually happens in a newsroom, to think we sit around plotting conspiracies. Sometimes we don't have time to think through things as much as we'd like to, and to think we have time to get into that elaborate plot-making is just really farfetched."

For the record, the Sun-Times's Don Hayner also denies a conspiracy.

"Is his camp still saying the media coverage was bad?" asks Karwath. "I'd be frankly kind of surprised if they were still saying that."

If Burris's press secretary Don Rashid has changed his mind, he isn't letting on. "Well, it seems like it's not so much the reporters that come out and cover it," Rashid says. "It seems more a case of the gatekeepers, the editors, who decide ultimately what is news and not news. The cameras are there, the reporters are there, they're writing down the story, but does that story get aired on the six o'clock news, or the next day's coverage?"

Does he blame the media for Burris's loss?

"I'll just say it didn't help," says Rashid. "I think the media bears a great responsibility, particularly in voter turnout across the board, in that the priority of the media could be better served if they really got into the race, and it seemed like they do the minimum."

We should note that a frequent refrain from these reporters was that they actually like Burris. Most still sound bewildered.

"Just to give you some perspective, Roland is one of the first statewide officials I covered in college," says Allen. "I have a lot of respect for this guy. What happened this time out, I don't know. I don't know if he was in over his head or just lacked money or organization. Whatever it was, it wasn't a pretty sight."

"I think the press was very kind to Mr. Burris," says Jorge Oclander. "Mr. Burris wasn't very kind to Mr. Burris."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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