A front-page story in Friday’s Tribune about Rahm Emanuel’s fall from political grace makes a small, serious mistake.
Tracing the way in which “Emanuel’s profile has sunk nationally,” the article describes the blowback after a judge ordered the mayor to release the Laquan McDonald video last November. Says the Tribune:
The New York Times followed with an editorial titled ‘Cover-up in Chicago’ that noted releasing the video [sooner] would have buried the mayor’s re-election chances. The news organization called for him to resign.
This isn’t true. The “editorial” was actually a guest op-ed by Bernard Harcourt, a Columbia University professor who used to teach at the University of Chicago. By publishing his argument that Emanuel (and others) should resign, the Times was signaling its belief Harcourt had something to say worth reading, not that the paper agreed with it.
Harcourt didn’t speak for the Times. The distinction between author and forum often gets blurred when journalism is critiqued. For instance, I say here that the Tribune made a mistake, although there’s a byline on its story, Bill Ruthhart. But Ruthhart is on staff, and his copy presumably went through other hands—someone editing it and someone else overseeing the process. (In bygone days this would certainly have been true.) I’m comfortable laying the mistake at the feet of the paper.
Staff columnists, on the other hand, are paid to speak for themselves and should be held personally accountable for what they say. When they aren’t it’s usually because their own names carry less weight than their papers’. As for guest writers, the views of a Columbia professor would carry almost no weight at all in a Chicago story on our mayor’s tribulations. If only the Times had said that.