Black Panthers mourn the death of Fred Hampton, shot and killed by Chicago police in 1969. Credit: Sun-Times

The cover article of last week’s Reader, “Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Propaganda,” tells a story Chicago’s heard before—how the police version of a police encounter in which officers shot someone dead turns out to bear little or no resemblance to the truth. Most famously, there was the night in 1969 when Fred Hampton, leader of Chicago’s Black Panthers, supposedly died in a gun battle with police. In reality, the police broke in and shot him dead in bed.

The Reader and its collaborators at the City Bureau look at two recent encounters in depth—the Laquan McDonald case is one. The focus is on the media’s use of inaccurate information provided by a biased source: Pat Camden, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police—the police union. Though there’s no reason to expect anything Camden says to be unskewed by the FOP’s reason for being—serving and defending its members—the media tend to lap up what he says and run with it for a simple reason: they’re in a hurry and there’s no other convenient source of information. 

At least Camden’s bias is out in the open, and every reporter should know to beware. The danger is that the first version of a police shooting—the version that might be true but might also be a delusional rationalization and might even be a lie—will turn out to be the only version, as the media take a glance, cadge a quote, and move on. What’s required are reporters who notice something doesn’t smell right and dig in their heels.

In the late 1960s there were a lot of young reporters at Chicago’s dailies who knew there was something rancid in the air, but couldn’t get their bosses to take a deep breath. In 1968 several of these reporters were so appalled by their papers’ timid coverage of the mayhem surrounding the Democratic National Convention that they launched the Chicago Journalism Review to critique the failure and set the record straight. CJR came fully into its own in December of 1969; that’s when Chicago police, commanded by state’s attorney Ed Hanrahan, raided the Black Panther headquarters and killed Hampton. The police said they’d come under withering fire and had no choice but to return it; CJR took a closer look.

This short history from AREA Chicago recalls the moment:

Initially, all of the city’s newspapers accepted without question Hanrahan’s account of what had happened. Yet, as the Panthers and reporters associated with CJR probed the official story about the raid, it began to unravel: eyewitnesses said police fired on the Panthers first, the bullet holes in the walls indicated that virtually all of the shots fired had come from outside the apartment, and an independent autopsy showed Hampton had been shot from above, in his bed, while lying down—consistent with the theory that he was still asleep when he was killed.

Within days of the shooting, core members of CJR set to work on a special report about the incident and about the major media’s role in the cover up. . . . The special issue included a profile of Hampton, a historical sketch of Hanrahan’s efforts to target the Panthers over the years and a table showing the conflicting claims made by the various officers and witnesses present at the raid. Rounding out the issue was Bill Maudlin’s powerful cover illustration of bullets carving a swastika through an apartment door.

The special issue on the Fred Hampton murder was typical of CJR’s incisive criticism of the Chicago media’s hostility toward radical activist groups and social movements. 

CJR led the profession of mainstream journalism into the activism of the late 60s, and I was already in awe of it when I came here in 1970 to write for the Sun-Times. A few years later, I coedited CJR for a year before it folded. I was the second generation—not as angry as CJR‘s founders, not as idealistic, and probably not as smart. The founders had gone into journalism to get the goods on machine bosses and bullies with badges, and getting those stories told mattered more than hanging on to comfortable jobs in the mainstream media. Some of them had quit those jobs in disgust.

Now we jump forward almost half a century. The Reader story on misreported police shootings was written by City Bureau’s Yana Kunichoff and Sam Stecklow, with important help from Darryl Holliday. I’m already on record calling Holliday “one of the most interesting journalists in Chicago,” and I wrote that months before City Bureau was launched last October. Holiday is editorial director and a founder of City Bureau, a kind of J-school of the streets. City Bureau’s website says it “aims to restore civic media coverage of the south and west sides of Chicago by training a new generation of young reporters in the practice of urban journalism.” 

It’s the kind of urban journalism aspired to by the reporters of the CJR generation when they set out to tell the truth about Chicago, calling out racism, corruption, and autocracy for what they were, and shaming media that wouldn’t say so into doing better. 

Last month City Bureau introduced itself to Chicago by holding an open house at its headquarters in Hyde Park. Curious, I drove down. When the Reader moved into the Sun-Times office in the Apparel Center in 2012, the staff was greeted by a game room, a fruit and cereal bar, and various other amenities befitting the cutting-edge digital company our new owners wanted to think they ran. Unfortunately, what they actually ran was a small string of struggling newspapers that soon shrank to two—the Sun-Times and the Reader. The game room disappeared, as did most of the cereal and fruit. I expected none of that pretension at City Bureau, but as it’s located in the Experimental Station, which I’d always imagined to be a thriving incubator of cultural and community programs, I counted on some sort of spectacle. To be honest, as this was an open house what I counted on were some grapes and cheese to munch on. But reached at night in the dead of winter, the Experimental Station loomed over me like a desolate old warehouse. Inside it was no different. Posters and projectors had been set up around a stark, empty room, and Holliday and his young reporters circulated answering questions.  There was nothing to eat or drink. I had an immediate impression.

“Insurgent poverty,” I told Holliday. Whatever that means, he didn’t object to the ring of it. 

One poster was a kind of flow chart. Labeled, “How does it work?” it explained that City Bureau recruits young journalists at various skill levels to mentor each other, “with community input every step of the way.” Tier One is composed of kids of high school or college age with an “interest in storytelling and civic engagement.” In Tier Two are journalists who a little bit older and have some training and now “thirst for professional experience.” Tier Three consists of “young professionals.”

The time commitment’s about six to 12 hours a week, which can be squeezed in around an outside job, and there’s a stipend of $10 to $18 an hour. In addition, the young reporters are paid for their stories whenever City Bureau succeeds in placing them in partner publications like the Reader. So they can scrape by. A scraper himself, Holliday worked for DNAinfo until last August; City Bureau’s editor, Bettina Chang, still does.

Holliday studied journalism at Columbia College and Chang’s a graduate of Medill. But most of her trainees take a grittier path into journalism, she said in an e-mail: 

Of all of Tier 2 and 3, only one has a Medill connection (a Tier 3 journalist currently in grad school). For us, an applicant’s school is of passing concern. We focus on finding people who have demonstrated interest and/or expertise in the West and South Sides of Chicago and the issues that affect people living there. For Tier 3 especially, we look for journalists who have a passion for mentoring youth.

“The program hopes to reach aspiring journalists who don’t necessarily have the resources to attend a big-name journalism school . . . for instance, those who are not going to college at all, or going to a community college or trade school.

Aside from music, does anything separate generations like austerity? Journalism—the newspaper end of it, certainly—has become an ascetic commitment, promising nothing in the way of coin and comfort, but a chance to light candles against the night. It’s no country for middle-aged men, and a lot of seasoned journalists I know just hope they can survive long enough to gracefully retire. But its terms appeal to young idealists who aren’t afraid to starve. Mixing with the City Bureau reporters at the open house, I felt I’d met them all before. And I had. They differed by sex (more women), ethnicity (more minorities), class, and education (fewer fancy eastern schools). But they were this year’s edition of the anguished reporters who started CJR because nobody was telling the truth and someone had to.

Though I think that bunch would have sprung for some grapes.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the City Bureau does not pay its reporters salaries. It does, however, pay its reporters what it deems a stipend of between $10 and $18 per hour. The story has been updated accordingly.