Michael Madigan Credit: Seth Perlman/AP Photo
Michael Madigan
Michael MadiganCredit: Seth Perlman/AP Photo

To get the right people to your party, sometimes you need to personalize the invitations.

The party, in this case, is a documentary film on Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan that’s being financed by the Illinois Policy Institute. No friend of Madigan’s, IPI is devoted to “free market principles,” is the sworn enemy of public employee unions, and was, when new, enriched by Bruce Rauner’s family foundation. Later Rauner became governor, and in the eyes of IPI he does little wrong.

Screenings of the hour-long documentary, Madigan: Power Privilege Politics, will begin in October, and it’s already being heavily touted on the IPI website, where the trailer can be watched. IPI calls Madigan “one of the state’s most powerful political figures of all time,” and boasts that the documentary’s “impressive lineup of interviews” includes Tribune columnist John Kass, UIC professor Dick Simpson, and Capitol Fax blogger Rich Miller, among others.

Kass has already apologized publicly for his talking-head services. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Miller and Simpson shared with me the e-mails asking them to take part. Miller’s came from a producer with Emergent Order, the production house in Austin, Texas, that’s creating the documentary. It read:

I’m reaching out because I’m producing a documentary about the current state of Illinois politics and we’re trying to get a few more interviews with well-known politicians and political journalists. With your highly respected blog, we indeed figured you could be a perfect candidate to contribute.

We’re looking for your extensive knowledge of Illinois’ political climate and unique perspective on what’s happening with the state, particularly as it relates to Michael Madigan’s 31 years as speaker of the house. What is working? What is not working? What should be changed? Learning your insights into the current state of the state, state of political tensions and perhaps some historical anecdotes would help us paint an accurate picture of this great state and how it can move forward into the future with success.

Observe that this flattering and high-minded appeal makes no mention of the Illinois Policy Institute, even though IPI was footing the bill, and that it situates Madigan merely as a focus of the film—not its target. Miller accepted.

Simpson was approached by Austin Berg, an IPI staff writer who writes a weekly column syndicated for free by IPI’s Illinois News Network to the newspapers of Illinois. Making no attempt to conceal his affiliation (his return e-mail address ends in “illinoispolicy.org”), Berg wrote:

Prof. Simpson, hope your summer continues to go well. It was a pleasure meeting you in June. I sincerely thank you for your time.

I’m emailing you as part of an effort to source outstanding interview subjects for a feature-length documentary on Speaker Madigan. The project is being produced by a shop called Emergent Order, which does great work. They requested that Illinois Policy assist them in this process.

If you’d be interested in participating, please let me know and I will have them reach out to you directly. I believe the budget contains per diem payments for the interviewees. 

The hint that IPI was simply helping out as a favor to Emergent Order is laughable, but at least Berg made it clear to Simpson whom he’d be dealing with. As the gray eminence of Chicago’s good-government forces, Simpson tells me he gets a lot of these talking-head requests and routinely accepts them. He said yes to Berg.

Emergent Order’s website makes it pretty clear that it’s a gun for hire. “We are geeks with heart . . . ” it babbles. “We love what we do. It’s why we jump out of bed in the morning, it’s why we pull all-nighters, and it’s why we won’t settle for anything less than awesome. Ever. Period. We provide integrated strategy, production, and marketing because we believe that the right story well told to the right audience is the best way to deliver impact.”

Rich Miller felt the impact of the Madigan documentary when he found out who was behind it. He wrote an item for Capitol Fax on September 15 under the  headline “Duped.” He went on, “I had no idea that the Illinois Policy Institute was behind this thing, but I did get a couple of hints during Tuesday’s interview when some of the group’s stories were used as a basis for a few of their questions. So, I have no clue what they’re gonna do with my interview. Sigh.”

The next day Miller heard from Scott Stantis, the Tribune‘s editorial cartoonist. Stantis, who shows up for a second in the Madigan trailer, had the same tale of woe. “When I asked who was doing the documentary they said they were,” Stantis said in his e-mail. “That Madigan was an interesting subject unknown to the rest of the country. I didn’t press them. Live and learn, I guess.”

Writing a couple days later for Crain’s Chicago Business, Miller used blunter language. “I was duped by a right-wing organization into appearing in what will probably be a propaganda movie,” he wrote. “It’s my own fault.” Diana Rickert, IPI’s vice president of communications, got her back up. “Rich’s comments are strange,” she told Politico’s Natasha Korecki, who writes the “Illinois Playbook” blog. “The film crew is top-notch, and was very forthcoming about the scope of the documentary and our involvement when asked who was funding the project. We’ve been critical of Speaker Madigan and his political machine for many years, so we’re certainly not shy about our work on this issue. It’s not like Rich was stopped on the sidewalk in Springfield and caught off-guard with a random guy filming with his iPhone; the interview was scheduled in advance, he signed a release form and he even went out for drinks with the film crew after they were done.”

The situation required some sorting out. Political writer Bernard Schoenburg took on this task in the State Journal-Register and reported a surprising revelation: the producer handling Miller’s interview couldn’t possibly have told him IPI was behind the movie because he didn’t know that himself. “I sent out a producer who was one of our contractors.” Emergent Order’s production head told Schoenburg. “The contractor didn’t know who was funding it except that they were hired through me.” 

The producer in the field, in other words, had no idea whom the person he was reporting to was reporting to. This shrewd use of cutouts is the kind of precaution that keeps spy rings up and running in wartime.

I’ve written skeptically of IPI in the past—here, for example, and here—which is why I was surprised when Rickert and Austin Berg approached me at last spring’s Lisagor Awards dinner to engage in badinage and take pictures. They seemed like nice kids. But apparently our relationship’s new footing didn’t survive the first rainstorm. Rickert and Berg have ignored my repeated requests—by phone and e-mail—to speak to them about Madigan. And it appears, given the equal silence in Austin, that someone advised Emergent Order to do the same. 

It’s a shame. I had other questions, but the one I most wanted to ask was how they decided to approach each person they wanted to interview. Who got disclosure and who got concealment—and why? Was it happenstance? Or did a lot of thought go into the invitations?

At any rate, John Kass made it clear in his apology that no one was keeping secrets from him. “I have no complaints with the institute, and understood from the start that the group was behind the documentary,” Kass wrote in a note to readers that ran with his column September 21. Furthermore, his “critical remarks” about Madigan in the interview were ones he’d made “many times” in his column. 

Nevertheless, “I should have declined the group’s request, since the Tribune is an independent newspaper, and my participation is inconsistent with that mission. For this I apologize to my readers and to my newspaper.”

And so the first wave of reaction to Madigan, the documentary, consisted of an apology by a prominent columnist and an admission by a prominent political blogger that he’d been “duped.” Rickert wasn’t the only one from IPI to give it right back to Miller. Editorial cartoonist Eric Allie (his freebie cartoons are distributed to state papers by the Illinois News Network) drew a cartoon that must have been incomprehensible to many of the editors receiving it. Illinois is a sinking ship, Madigan’s the captain, and one survivor clinging to driftwood says to another, “They’re making a documentary about this disaster.” The other guy’s got a press card in the brim of his hat—a fresh new metaphor Allie stumbled on to indicate a journalist. This guy’s unnamed but he’s bearded, so if you’re in the know that’s Miller. “Sounds like propaganda,” he says. (Allie, whom a lot of journalists think shouldn’t even be eligible, was a finalist for a Lisagor last spring. He lost to Stantis.)

I’d asked the Tribune‘s editor, Bruce Dold, what he thought about his page-two columnist and editorial cartoonist showing up in Madigan‘s partisan arena. He sent me a prepared statement, and in it he didn’t sound happy. 

Tribune journalists should not be involved in activities of outside organizations that could give the appearance of partisanship,” Dold wrote. “John and Scott understand that they should not have agreed to be interviewed for this film, even if they were expressing views they have published in the course of their work for the Tribune.”

An interesting wrinkle is that Rickert writes occasional op-ed columns for the Tribune; she’s a smart, pugnacious writer, and Dold began publishing her years ago when he was the Tribune‘s editorial editor. Like Rickert, Stantis didn’t want me to interview him, but unlike Rickert he replied and said so. I wanted him to tell me whether he’d have any problem sharing his paper’s editorial pages with the spokesperson and chief defender of the outfit he accused of deceiving him. 

Then again, will he go on sharing those pages? Will the Tribune have any problem with continuing to publish Rickert? That relationship is now under review.