Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of NATO and not yet a household name in Chicago
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of NATO and not yet a household name in Chicago Credit: Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson

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?

Two months ago the Economist wrote that NATO “is facing a perfect storm of problems” and spelled them out: as economically battered European governments shrink defense budgets, “for the first time in modern history, Asian defence spending is about to overtake that of Europe”; the U.S. is pulling troops out of Germany and shifting its strategic focus to Asia, obliging Europe to become “a producer of security, rather than a consumer,” a role it may lack the arsenal to play; and “national vetoes over the use of military assets can disrupt missions.”

“When the cold war ended,” the Economist reported, “European countries accounted for 34% of NATO’s military spending. Today that has fallen to 21%. . . . Realistically, then, NATO will have to content itself with doing less with less. That need not be disastrous. The dream of a ‘global NATO,’ that recruits partners from all over the world and intervenes wherever trouble rears its head, flowered a few years ago, but has since wilted. Once its troops are out of Afghanistan, the alliance should revert to its regional roots. However, given America’s new semi-detachment and Europe’s economic austerity, there is a clear danger that ‘doing less’ rapidly becomes ‘doing nothing’. That would be a catastrophe.”

The strategy of doing whatever with less is a doctrine NATO is calling “Smart Defence,” and it will shape every issue the NATO nations’ defense chiefs take up in Chicago. A couple of ironies are all but dropping trou in their insistence that we notice them: protesters will hit the bricks to rail against an international military machine already in retreat, and the economic crisis foisted on the West’s 99 percent by those G8 elitists who rule this military machine is largely responsible for cutting the machine down to size.

“It’s not possible to cover this story without understanding how Chicago fits into this new globalizing world. Our city has moved far beyond the ability of our reporters to cover it.”— Richard Longworth, senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Tribune still fitfully exercises its atrophied global muscles, and Tuesday’s front-page NATO story considered the change France’s new Socialist president could bring to the alliance. But the day when readers could count on a series of pieces by a staff of focused internationalists in Chicago, Washington, and overseas has passed. Former diplomatic correspondent Richard Longworth is now a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; when I asked him to comment on local coverage of NATO he referred me to the packet of features the council has posted on its website anticipating the NATO and G8 summits.

“What we did as foreign correspondents,” he e-mailed me, recalling his Tribune years, “was to chronicle the news of the world and then link this to the lives of the people reading the Tribune. Sometimes this was a stretch, sometimes not. But it was the justification for a paper like the Trib having a substantial foreign staff. I can’t think of any global story that linked to Chicago the way the NATO summit story does. But there’s nobody out there to tell the story.

“Let’s face it,” he went on, “Chicagoans are properly most interested in how the NATO summit will affect their lives. But beyond that, this NATO summit is a big deal. The heads of governments of some 40 nations will be coming here to debate our pullout from Afghanistan, what happens in Afghanistan after this pullout, whether we intervene in Syria, whether we attack Iran, our future relations with our closest allies in Europe, America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia, etc. For the first time in history, a NATO summit at which these issues will be debated is taking place outside Washington, and it’s taking place here. In a sense, the world is coming to Chicago to debate its future.”

Occasional articles in the Chicago press have regarded the summit in a wider context. In the Sun-Times Monday the context was Washington: Lynn Sweet, the one-woman Washington bureau, considered the political risks to President Obama if the summit goes badly and concluded there were few. “As political time goes, the presidential election is light-years away,” wrote Sweet. “Mayor Rahm Emanuel has much more at stake in the summit.”

And in Monday’s Tribune the context was New York. Urban affairs writer John McCarron (no longer on the Tribune‘s staff) snickered at Chicago—media included—for “acting like a bunch of bumpkins and nervous Nellies.” If this were New York, McCarron wrote, “this two-day NATO summit would be just another day at the office.”

As it would be in Chicago—if Chicago knew how to act its age and carry its weight. “Chicago has become a global city,” Longworth told me. “The decision to hold the NATO summit here is part of Chicago becoming a global city. It’s not possible to cover this story without understanding how Chicago fits into this new globalizing world. Our city has moved far beyond the ability of our reporters to cover it.”

But not only the city has been on the move. While Chicago advanced, journalism retreated.