Journalists are notoriously competitive, and they rarely get the praise they crave. So few events are more charged than the yearly awards dinner of the Chicago Headline Club, the local reporters’ fraternity, at which the club gives out its Peter Lisagor awards for exemplary journalism.
Last year’s dinner, held May 16 at the Chicago Athletic Association on South Michigan Avenue, promised excitement. One speaker, Sun-Times alumna Deborah Nelson, had just won a Pulitzer Prize for her new employer, the Seattle Times. Carol Marin, who’d just resigned from Channel Five in a dustup over the addition of talk-show host Jerry Springer to the news team, would be making an appearance (and would be awarded a special prize for her gumption).
Amid the sellout crowd of 450 people were Isaac Jones, publisher of the small, biweekly Austin Voice, and Brad Cummings, the paper’s associate editor. The Austin Voice was a nominee for an ethics-in-journalism award, bestowed on members of the Chicago-area fourth estate who “have struggled for balance in fairness and accuracy, with a concern for community or individual well-being while covering the news.”
As Jones and Cummings had drinks and then sat down to supper, they realized they knew few of the other attendees. “Isaac and I felt like a couple of sightseers,” says Cummings. So they were surprised when Casey Bukro, a Chicago Tribune environmental writer and chair of the ethics-in-journalism committee, announced that the Voice had won, largely for its coverage of corruption in the Austin police district. Jones and Cummings were overjoyed as strangers patted them on the back and as they posed for photos with Marin, an ethics winner the year before. “This was a high point for the newspaper,” says Cummings. “We had finally broken through and gotten recognition from official Chicago journalism.” Jones says, “They said we had ethics, and no one could dispute that.”
Actually, many people familiar with the paper’s role in Austin do dispute that. Dan Haley, publisher of the rival Austin Weekly News, says, “That the Headline Club would give an ethics award to the Austin Voice is appalling. I’m all for muckraking and for hanging tough, but the Voice is all about sensationalizing and rumor. There are times when the liberal media give a pass to papers that serve the African-American community, and here was such a situation. Somebody was clearly asleep at the switch.”
Haley and other observers, including some the Voice has hit with brickbats, cite the paper for numerous sins against accepted news practice. If these critics are to be believed, the paper regularly indulges in inaccurate reporting, including in the stories for which it won the ethics award. At the very least, the Voice doesn’t seem to follow some basic journalistic principles, such as listing sources for its allegations and giving the subject of a negative story a chance to respond to accusations. The Voice has also enlisted politicians it covers to help solicit ads, and it participates in events it writes about.
Cummings brushes off such concerns. “I’m not [Channel Two investigative reporter] Pam Zekman, trained in the fine points of journalism. I’m both a reporter and a citizen. Look, when you read about the west side in the downtown press you come away with this ‘American millstone’ idea [a reference to a downbeat 1985 Chicago Tribune series on North Lawndale]–which isn’t the way of life out here really. Oh sure, there is pain and suffering, but that isn’t the usual. The Austin Voice is as popular as it is because we approach stories not as victims but as neighbors. We hear a lot of good sense, and we repeat it. We do things on intuition. If a story smells right, we’ll go with it–whatever the outcome. Our goal is to give people back confidence in themselves.”
The Voice, which Cummings describes as a drumbeat for the greater west side, appears every other week in Austin, North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, and west Humboldt Park. The free paper, which, like the Reader, lives strictly off advertising, claims a circulation of 36,000; the competing Windy City Word and Austin Weekly News claim 10,000 apiece.
The Voice’s modest headquarters are tucked behind a realty office at the corner of North Avenue and Latrobe. The editorial room contains computers, desks, piles of paper, the statuette that came with the Chicago Headline Club award, and invariably Cummings. The 49-year-old Roger Ebert look-alike–a bachelor who never takes vacations–favors jeans, sweatshirts, and outsize glasses and is exceedingly gabby. Though he’s the only editor, he prefers the title associate editor “because it’s more sociable.”
Cummings writes, edits, and helps to produce and deliver the paper; he also sells ads. Yet he minimizes his role. When talking about the paper, he often uses “we” instead of “I,” and he takes pains to pay homage to the rest of his staff–circulation managers Zack and Carol Burton, ad sales rep and receptionist Julie Edwards, her computer-specialist son Daryl, the ten or more delivery staff, and the 39-year-old Isaac Jones, who doubles as publisher and “photography director.” Cummings praises Jones, a native west-sider, for having a better grasp of the local mind-set. “Isaac possesses great knowledge of the lifestyle out here, and he gives me a frame of reference.”
Much of the paper consists of announcements, warmed-over press releases, and photographs of community and school events shot by Cummings or Jones or sent in by PR people. Says Jones, “West-siders see their faces, thoughts, and ideas in our paper, and because the focus is on them, they feel good about themselves.” Regular columnists include Tiberius Mays, a former Austinite doing 65 years in Stateville for attempted robbery and attempted murder who writes about life in prison. “Tiberius beat up a tow-truck operator with a steel pipe,” says Cummings. Stories that the Voice originates are often innocuous (The Bare Facts About the West Side’s Top Male Exotic Dancers!), but sometimes they pack a deadly punch (Cops Smash Vice Lords!).
Cummings likes delivering papers in his small Hyundai. “I like being visible,” he explains. “People rush up to tell me things, so I get to grab the gossip.” He doesn’t cover standard events, such as the jammed monthly meeting of the West Side Ministers’ Coalition, which he dismisses as “just show-and-tell.” Instead, he tends to stage his own meetings or participate visibly in gatherings that welcome him. “I go from being objective to being objectionable,” he says. “I have a role to play.”
Voice stories rarely carry a byline, which Cummings defends by saying that most articles have multiple contributors–the stories tend to be stitched together out of tips from Austin residents and Cummings’s contacts. These sources often aren’t named, even when they’re making controversial charges. “People aren’t happy about having their ox gored,” he says. “And we won’t put [sources] in a position where they are vulnerable.”
Since its founding 12 years ago, the Voice has become known for its gutsy stories. In an effort to end trafficking, it has published photographs of houses, corners, and businesses where drugs were being dealt. One front-page piece alleged that a bungalow on North Luna had been torn down because of incompetence at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For another story the Voice cooperated with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and ran pictures of Vice Lord gang members arrested in a sweep as well as of those still at large. The bureau phone number was listed in case readers had any tips. They did, so the ATF asked Cummings to publish photos of more Vice Lords. “I’m told one guy called up the ATF and said, ‘Come get me.’ He was upstairs when the agents arrived, and he kept them waiting while he found his other shoe.”
Stories on drug dealer Rufus “the Weasel” Sims detailed his offenses and elaborate lifestyle–he drove a Rolls-Royce, wore diamond-studded sunglasses, and kept two luxury houses in the suburbs in addition to his Austin home. When Sims was indicted on federal drug and racketeering charges in 1992, he went on the lam. “Rufus was a very dashing young man,” says Cummings, who headlined the story Rufus on the Run…Or Pop Goes the Weasel. “But we didn’t want to add to his legend, so we parodied what he was doing.” In 1995 a federal judge sent Sims to prison for 27 years for drug-money laundering.
But over time the Voice seemed to become quick to accuse. A March 1994 story on Austin High School alleged that an unnamed algebra teacher was a drug addict and that her students “were taught nothing.” The headline announced, Dope Fiend Teaches Algebra at Austin High. Beneath the headline was a photo of local ministers and community leaders massed to protect the high school against gang violence, and standing in the left corner was Cummings. The story didn’t list its sources, though it stated that they included “algebra students we spoke with.” Principal DeCalvin Hughes denied the accusations.
“Austin High School has been a mess for years, with a string of bad principals,” says Cummings. “We’ve tried to make the community understand that they don’t have to accept only the best they can get, that they should demand excellence.” Arthur Slater, the current principal, says, “I’m not willing to say if what they write is good, bad, or indifferent.”
In September 1994 the Voice lambasted the Austin YMCA, claiming that it had refused to evict an unnamed “armed drug kingpin” who had mounted a “dangerous reign of terror that includes armed assaults and death threats against Y residents who won’t submit to his control.” The man’s continuing presence, the paper predicted, was likely to spark a murder. “We urge parents to exercise extreme caution in allowing their children to use the Austin YMCA,” warned a front-page box topped by a skull and crossbones.
Tino Mantella, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, says the police and Y security were dealing with the resident and that Cummings had overstated the potential threat. “We told Brad Cummings he had his facts wrong,” says Mantella, without being specific, “but he went ahead with the story anyway.” (While working on the story, Cummings pursued Y board member John Molden so hard that Molden swore out a complaint charging Cummings with harassment, a complaint a judge subsequently dismissed.) Mantella says that the Y did evict the resident, and if it was slow to do so “it was because every person has the right to a legal process.” He adds that the Voice attack hurt the Y when it was just beginning to refurbish its image with family nights, a swimming program, and a new playground.
Cummings contends that he was driving by the Y one night shortly after the story appeared when his rear window was shot out. He assumes the culprit was the alleged drug kingpin, though Cummings never brought charges. The man was subsequently indicted for threatening to shoot another man.
But the Voice has tussled with more than west-side toughs. It has dismissed two community groups, the South Austin Coalition Community Council and the Northwest Austin Council, as “poverty pimps” because they accept government grants. “Brad says we’re only about money, money, money,” complains Leola Spann, president of the Northwest Austin Council. “But it takes money to build organizations, and Brad knows that as well as anybody.” Bob Vondrasek, executive director of the South Austin Coalition, says he can shrug off the “poverty pimp” label, but he resents being pilloried in the Voice for working in Austin while living in the suburbs. “To rely on suburban missionaries plays the people for cheap,” says Cummings. Vondrasek counters, “Now there’s a narrow view of the world for you. We live in a western suburb so my wife and I can be near our two elderly mothers.”
Joe English, a longtime Austin-area real estate agent, wasn’t happy when the Voice stated that he was the son of Charles “Chuckie” English, a reputed Chicago mobster. “I was told that by a reliable source, and we were wrong,” concedes Cummings. “But we do try to get our facts right, spell people’s names correctly, and be clear about everyone’s gang affiliations.” Cummings printed a correction–but in it he repeated another allegation he’d made in the original story, that English was being investigated in connection with drug dealing in a building he owned. “This is the kind of pissing match you get into with this guy,” says English, who denies he had anything to do with the dealing.
From the time the Voice began to be published, 29th Ward alderman Danny Davis had supported the paper. Eight or nine years ago he and state representatives Anthony Young (now a judge) and Robert LeFlore (now dead) even accompanied Cummings when he solicited advertising from officials at Jewel. That kind of cooperation between newsman and newsmakers bothered neither Cummings nor Davis. “This was about ad sales, not journalism,” says Cummings. “And besides Danny asked to join us.” Davis says, “I always support community ventures.” Cummings admits that having Davis help drum up ads might have the appearance of impropriety, “but not if you think of us as a community-improvement association.”
Anyway, Cummings points out, the mission to Jewel failed. He says Jewel wanted the Voice to give it audited circulation figures (“We didn’t have the money for that,” he says) and to accept a Jewel-written food column. “I’ve never heard of such demands being related to a vendor,” says Jewel spokesman Karen Ramos. “We do have limited ad dollars, and we don’t advertise in many community newspapers.”
Davis continued his cozy relationship with the Voice as he advanced from alderman to county commissioner to candidate for Congress. Isaac Jones moonlighted as Davis’s official photographer. Davis was frequently seen toting around copies of the Voice, and he once told Jones, “Brad is my biggest supporter.”
The era of good feelings ended when the edition of March 5 and 12, 1996, hit the streets. The issue contended that Davis, who was running to replace U.S. representative Cardiss Collins, had accepted money from Libyan leader Moammar# Gadhafi in return for his silence concerning allegedly exploitative Arab-American store owners. Cummings says his only source was a conversation he’d overheard between 24th Ward alderman William Henry and 17th Ward alderman Allan Streeter. The Voice article also accused Davis of being in cahoots with west-side drug dealers, including Mario Lettieri, once owner of Mario’s Butcher Shop on West Madison. Convicted in federal court for supplying drugs to a drug ring led by Nedrick Miller, a former Austin District patrolman, Lettieri had been sentenced to 16 years in the federal penitentiary. The Voice stated that Davis “has consistently proclaimed Mario’s innocence” and that he continued to let the butcher shop enter its float, a big bull, in his annual back-to-school parade.
“Danny is a politician in the public eye,” says Isaac Jones. “After Mario was indicted, he didn’t sever his ties. We didn’t think it was too kosher for Danny to have Mario’s bull riding in his parade. What message does that send to kids?”
Davis, who won the seat in Congress, calls the charge that he accepted a bribe from Gadhafi “an out-and-out blatant lie. It’s like something a novelist would write.” He acknowledges that he knew Lettieri and that he resisted Cummings’s cries to denounce the butcher immediately after his indictment. He says he told Cummings, “I’m not a judge or a prosecuting attorney.” He adds, “I’m not in anybody’s pocket. Over 20 years Mario gave me perhaps $1,000 in campaign contributions and some hot dogs and stuff.” Davis also points out that Lettieri isn’t the sole proprietor of the family butcher shop (his brother Tino oversees the place today), “and no one else has been convicted of a crime.” It’s fine by Davis that the bull float is still in his parade.
Davis immediately sued the Voice for libel, asking for $10 million in damages; his suit called the story’s headline–Danny Takes Arab Hush Money, Embraces Gang Support–“false, defamatory, and libelous,” and added, “Defendants knew or ought to have known that this statement was false.” Davis now says, “I don’t have a problem with Brad or his paper, and I’m not interested in bashing him. But I don’t like being lied about.” The suit has not yet been settled, though Davis’s lawyer says the congressman knows he’d never get much. Davis doesn’t seem to bear Cummings much ill will. “I speak to Brad, and he may speak back,” Davis says.
Sam Burrell, Davis’s successor as alderman, was portrayed in the same March ’96 issue as having “personal drug problems.” He slapped the Voice with his own libel action; that suit states, “Neither defendant…nor any other agent of defendant newspaper… attempted to determine the truth or falsity of the defamatory statements.” They just settled, and a retraction will be published in the next issue of the Voice.
Cummings now says, “Initially we thought it was important to court the politicians, but we found out that when you criticize them–and you don’t play by their rules–they don’t like it.”
Leroy O’Shield arrived to head up the Austin police district in August 1988 with a hero’s reputation. As the security chief at O’Hare, he’d once persuaded a hijacker armed with a knife to give up, and he’d helped foil a bribery attempt. “We did a lot of work with O’Shield at first,” says Cummings. “Isaac and I would meet with him on a weekly basis with sheets of reports we were getting from neighbors. O’Shield said, ‘Great–you are my eyes and ears.'” O’Shield describes the relationship as “very positive in the beginning, but after four or five years Brad began to exaggerate, and his writing style became extremely accusatory.”
Cummings says he would regularly drop by O’Shield’s office and inform him that he suspected that there was corruption and malfeasance in the 15th District, including collusion among some officers, drug dealers, and gang members. An annoyed O’Shield would hand Cummings the phone and suggest he call the FBI or the Internal Affairs Division (IAD), which investigates corruption. Eventually O’Shield refused to talk to Cummings in his office anymore and demanded that Cummings submit any questions he had in writing. Cummings says he responded testily, “I live in the 15th District. Are you telling me that as a citizen I can’t come in and see my commander?”
Cummings says neighbors continued to gripe to him about goings-on at the Austin station#. Then in February 1993 the Voice charged that an unnamed Austin District desk officer had been “passing along to criminals the names and addresses of citizens making reports against them.” In one instance, said the Voice, a “major druglord” had told a nameless Kentucky Fried Chicken regional manager that a desk officer alerted him whenever area business owners called the police about drug dealers.
The desk officer in question was Gerald Waxmonsky, who back then worked the 1 to 9:30 PM shift. Waxmonsky denies that he tipped off any dealer. “It was all bullshit–so far from the truth it’s pathetic,” he says. “I learned a long time ago that anybody who gets involved in drugs is garbage. You’re better off being a child abuser.” Waxmonsky says that Cummings never asked him about the tip-off charges. Cummings explains, “We wanted to catch him by surprise.”
Cummings didn’t name Waxmonsky in the paper, but he did accuse the officer at a community meeting. “All I said was that Gerald Waxmonsky was under investigation.”
The Voice article resulted in Waxmonsky being taken off the desk for a year and investigated by IAD–and cleared of all charges. He too sued for libel; his suit states, “Despite a full investigation…no evidence was uncovered to provide any support for Defendants’ statements or wrongdoing on the part of the Plaintiff.” But when Waxmonsky and his lawyer discovered that the Voice had no assets to speak of, they settled for a retraction, which appeared in March ’96. Cummings now maintains it wasn’t really a retraction. “We simply accepted his [Waxmonsky’s] terms. We didn’t settle with him.” The paragraph that ran noted that IAD had determined that citizen reports about Waxmonsky were “unfounded.”
Waxmonsky, who retired last June after 33 years as a police officer, says, “Brad Cummings is a sick man who conjures things up so he can keep his name in lights. He doesn’t have any scruples. His paper is no better than those tabloids that say Liz Taylor has three tits.”
“The fact is that there was a lot of corruption at the 15th District,” says Cummings. His view of the situation appeared to be vindicated in December 1996, when seven Austin tactical officers were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to commit robbery and extortion, allegedly shaking down undercover agents posing as drug dealers–charges that were the result of an IAD-FBI probe. In the wake of the indictments the Voice pounded its chest. “Police corruption is the worst-kept secret on Chicago’s West Side,” said the paper early last January. “The Austin Voice has been reporting it for 8 years and demanding action without success. All we did was listen to our neighbors, answer our phones, and then go out and verify what you told us.”
Cummings insists that IAD assistant deputy superintendent Michael Hoke credited the Voice with getting the “Broken Star” investigation going, but Police Department spokesman Kevin Morison takes a more qualified view. “The Austin Voice provided complaints of a general nature to the department, but the paper contributed no specific information that was useful in that investigation. A lot of useful information did, in fact, come from community members who may have read the Voice.”
O’Shield left Austin just before the Broken Star scandal surfaced to head up the Chicago Housing Authority police. “He’s the Teflon cop,” harrumphs Cummings. O’Shield counters that he supplied information that helped the Broken Star investigation, and although the indictments tarnished his tenure, he insists he did a good job in Austin. He points out that he launched a community policing program in the district and that crime went down on his watch, though according to police reports, in his last year on the west side crime rose in such categories as murder, theft, and burglary. O’Shield is reportedly now being questioned as part of an IAD investigation of unauthorized overtime in Austin, and he drew more unflattering publicity in June, when his son was sentenced to prison for selling high-tech equipment used to clone cellular phones.
“The press must never be contained,” says O’Shield. “It must always be allowed to flourish, because it’s so very, very important. Satire is important too, especially with people who are stuffed shirts. God knows Austin needs a paper. But Brad Cummings writes gossip and yellow journalism. That’s his forte. He wallows in the muck.”
The possibility that there might be another side to these stories didn’t seem to be an issue when the Voice was considered for the ethics-in-journalism award. Two community groups–the citywide crime watchdog Citizens Alert and the Northeast Austin Organization–nominated the Voice for the award. “I live in this neighborhood, and I get calls at two in the morning about problems on the street,” says Mary Volpe, longtime executive director of the Northeast Austin Organization##. “Nobody was writing about the problems out here before Brad.”
And a three-judge committee–Casey Bukro, WNUA radio news director Charles Meyerson, and Sherry Goodman, a board vice president of Business and Professional People in the Public Interest–picked the paper for the award. At the Lisagor dinner Bukro lauded the paper for printing “the first stories on west-side police involvement with drug dealers and armed street gangs before it became a story in major media. The Austin Voice warned readers that reporting drug dealers to police could lead to retaliation, and associate editor Brad Cummings said he was shot at while driving his car.”
“The Austin Voice was pushing the envelope with the material that was submitted to us,” says Meyerson. “Here was a voice in the wilderness calling attention to a problem before it was headline material in Chicago. It struck us that that takes courage.” Bukro compares the Voice to Chicago Lawyer during the reign of editor Rob Warden. “That was a personal publication and an advocating, crusading one. Papers like that have been around Chicago for years. Journalists have a soft spot for somebody who’s willing to stand their ground even while they’re beating beaten over the head.”
Brad Cummings, who was adopted as an infant, spent his first years of life in Chicago, where his father worked as a research chemist for Libby, McNeill & Libby (“I have an everlasting hatred of fish sticks,” he cracks). When Cummings was ten his father took a post with Milwaukee’s health department, and the family moved to Wisconsin. Cummings says that he had a sister who was eight years older, and so he felt like an only child; he says his strongest bonds were with adults.
Cummings became state chairman of the high school Young Republicans (he says, “I never did realize how much of a rebel I really am”), and he went on to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in black history and culture. He envisioned a political career and after graduation hired on as an aide to Republican congressman Glenn Davis, who served the west Milwaukee suburbs and was an ally of President Nixon. During the 1968 McGovern campaign, says Cummings, “my job was to stand at the west gate of the White House and hand over material we’d obtained to John Ehrlichman.”
Cummings found such activities unsavory, so he took a job as regional marketing director for Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was a grand title for a grunt job. “I came into town many weeks ahead of the show, and I arranged the advertising, did the PR, and ordered the food for the animals. I’d call up and say, ‘I need 1,000 pounds of week-old meat,’ and when they hung up on me I’d call back. The lions and tigers needed fresh meat, and the elephants had to have bread.”
The circus was owned by Irvin Feld, a former 50s-era rock ‘n’ roll promoter who pushed his marketing men hard. Cummings says Feld told him, “I don’t care if it rains, sleets, or hails–you’re going to have to live with the attendance figures on page 47 of Variety, and I want asses in the seats.”
Cummings says, “I had an amazing three years with the circus.” But he says he got tired of traveling and didn’t think he had enough autonomy. He next joined a professional fund-raising firm in Milwaukee, which sent him to Chicago in 1975 to do development work for the Little Company of Mary Hospital. He briefly did marketing for Edgewater hospital and then for Saint Anne’s Hospital in Austin. “Brad was a good PR man, with a sense of humor,” recollects Anthony Mastrangelo, then the hospital president. But Cummings contends Mastrangelo’s administration let Austin down by expecting white patients to fill the beds at Saint Anne’s. Mastrangelo responds curtly, “We served the population there, and that’s it.” Saint Anne’s would close several years later, a casualty of inadequate medicaid reimbursement from Springfield.
Cummings left Saint Anne’s in 1983 for Pat Marcy Jr. & Associates, a flashy downtown PR firm led by the son of Pat Marcy Sr., a reputed First Ward mobster. Then in 1985 Cummings was urged by Danny Davis and Percy Giles, a businessman and activist who would soon be elected 37th Ward alderman, to set up a reputable paper in Austin, which hadn’t had one since the Austinite disintegrated into a wraparound for some northwest-side weeklies.
Cummings liked the idea. “I’d been president of the local chamber of commerce, and I had watched as slumlords used Austin to line their pockets. The business strips were run-down, and because the area was black, the city services weren’t what they should have been. There was a hopelessness to the area that I thought a newspaper could address.” Cummings also saw an untapped financial opportunity, since the latest census put the number of local residents at 114,000.
The paper was launched Labor Day weekend of 1985 from the living room floor of Cummings’s apartment on North Central Avenue. His initial partners backed out early, so he linked up with Liliana Drechney, a former Leader newspapers associate editor. But that relationship quickly soured, and the scrappy Drechney soon founded the Austin Weekly News, which she managed to keep on a weekly schedule, thereby qualifying for government legal listings. “Those ads kept Liliana afloat,” Cummings says. As a biweekly, the Voice can’t get these ads.
In 1987 Cummings became partners with Jones, a onetime factory worker at Quasar who still has a day job, managing a self-storage warehouse with his wife. Cummings and Jones now own most of Megamedia Enterprises, Inc., the umbrella company Cummings once dreamed would also embrace an ad agency and an entertainment firm. Megamedia has ten stockholders in all–“people who wanted a piece of the community,” says Cummings. “But some of them we can’t locate anymore.”
Jones and Cummings built the paper by distributing it to schools, libraries, currency exchanges, liquor stores, and churches. (Cummings drops by 19 churches on a distribution Sunday. “More than Danny Davis does,” he jokes.) But the Voice has always struggled to survive. “I thought that if you built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your door,” says Cummings. “It’s been a battle for us to get potential clients to listen to sound numbers. We’ve found there is very little respect for the black dollar. The discrimination we’ve experienced has been eye-opening.”
Cummings found some of the ads that businesses did place patronizing. “We had this one bank that ran an ad showing a picture of an alligator. That’s it–one alligator. I suppose they were trying to fulfill their obligation under the Community Reinvestment Act [which requires banks to give depositors in the areas the banks serve fair access to their services], but I called up and said, ‘Hey, people out in Austin can understand percentages, you know!’ Sure enough, the next ad they placed contained figures on mortgages or CDs.”
Lately the Voice has been facing more competition for advertising, from the Windy City Word, which was founded in 1991 to be a more uplifting paper than the Voice, and from the Austin Weekly News, which was bought two years ago by Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal following Drechney’s death. Cummings dismisses the Windy City Word as sheer puffery and the Weekly News as “that white-owned paper from the suburbs.” The Weekly News’s publisher, Dan Haley, responds, “Brad Cummings owns his paper, and he’s a white man.” (Cummings is quite conscious of being a white man in a predominantly black province. He says passersby sometimes shout to him, “Get out of our neighborhood.” But he says, “That only reinforces how ugly racism can be. I’ve lived in Austin for nearly 20 years. The color of my skin isn’t a big issue except for those who have nothing else bad to say about me.”)
The Voice does have loyal advertisers. Tire Town, a local Goodyear dealer, trumpets its “pothole specials” in the pages of the Voice and keeps the paper’s three delivery vans (all unmarked, says Cummings, so they don’t get shot at) in working order. “Brad steps on a lot of toes, that’s for sure,” says Larry Williams, a State Farm insurance agent and advertiser. “But I think you’re supposed to take the paper like the kind of chat you’d hear at the grocery corner. Some of the stuff you can believe, and some’s a stretch. But people sure do read the thing.” The Voice recently began running business cards for $25 an issue, grabbing the patronage of such businesses as movers, beeper services, Sir Sidney Realty, and the Nu-Breed Barber Shop.
The paper’s annual budget is $100,000, which barely covers expenses. Some staff members get commissions or straight pay for their labor,# but Cummings survives on his savings. “My family was kind enough to die in the appropriate order and to leave me some money,” he says. “I also have a cushion from money I earned at Saint Anne’s and in advertising.” He occupies the same old apartment on Central and has no health insurance. “I worked out a deal with a clinic up on Madison Street, that if they find nothing serious wrong with me, I’d let them cure me.”
The Voice seems to have had its clearest impact in the west-side public schools. The schools are distribution points, and Cummings gives them heavy coverage, which is focused on positive developments such as Local School Council doings, teacher awards, and test-score gains. “Brad’s here all the time,” says Gloria Archbold, principal of Leland Elementary in South Austin. “He’s the writer, photographer, and delivery boy, and he’s usually on the run. He was here last year for Kwanza and again in September for a celebration over our IGAP scores going up. When the paper comes out, we hand it out to the staff and leave it on the parent table. You pick it up, and you can get a feel for the schools in the area.”
Last year Cummings and Steve Sewall, a community activist who’s best known for his campaign to get more media coverage of education issues, tried to start student newspapers at six west-side high schools with Board of Education backing. But only Marshall High School, which has no regular student paper, was interested. With six weeks left in the school year, Cummings and Sewall helped a group of students hammer out a pub#lication. “These kids weren’t ones with the best grades necessarily,” says Cummings. “Did they have problems? Yeah. But they still had their heads screwed on straight, and they threw themselves into this project because they saw the relevance of the paper.” The 16-page Keepin’ It Real was crammed with articles, poetry, and photos, and it delighted both the Marshall administration and its student writers and editors. “It gave us a chance to express what we know and put it in the paper,” says student editor Vanchel Thomas.
Cummings has also tried to establish bonds with Chicago TV stations and daily papers. “They can get a story out and get action better than we can,” he insists, so he forks over tips and referrals to reporters who call him up. He doesn’t see why the larger outlets won’t work with the Voice on stories, arguing that the dailies and the TV stations pay increasing lip service to public journalism with their community forums and ombudsmen who are supposed to make them more responsive to their audiences. But that kind of cooperation strikes the big players as odd. “Neighborhood newspapers are out to eat us for lunch, and they do a good job of just that,” says George Langford, the Chicago Tribune’s ombudsman. “From our standpoint, they are major competition.”
After the Broken Star story began being reported, Cummings went into overdrive encouraging TV reporters, among them Carol Marin and Pam Zekman, to focus on Austin. Then early last February Cummings staged his own press conference at the Voice to introduce yet another scandal. What you are about to hear, he told the assembled big-time TV and print reporters, “is certainly an unusual situation, as this entire police scandal has been.” Then he gave the platform to Chuck Miceli, a small-time businessman whose mother had set up the Voice classifieds department.
Miceli, who admitted he’d done time in prison, said he had videotapes showing police officers buying drugs and prostitutes from a stripper-service owner. He rambled on, his accusations against the stripper-service owner growing more and more outlandish. The reporters were stunned. Channel Five’s Phil Walters finally remarked that his station’s attorney would never let him air any of what Miceli had said.
Channel Seven reporter Paul Meincke says that because he’d seen the Voice capture the Lisagor ethics award, “I tended to place a little bit more credence in what [Cummings] said.” Meincke says he sent a Channel Seven producer to the press conference, and afterward Miceli kept promising to come forward with the videotapes and other incriminating documents. “Eventually I bailed out,” says Meincke. “I wanted him to put up or shut up, but there were no tapes–no nothing.” The incident poisoned Cummings’s relationship with many other reporters too. “I’d double-check everything Brad Cummings tells you,” says one prominent reporter.
The stripper-service owner also denied Miceli’s charges, but Cummings still defends the press conference. “Miceli is a soap-opera actor, but there was a kernel of truth to what he was saying.”
Cummings still describes himself as on a roll. This fall he published the story of Eric Holder, the black police officer allegedly roughed up by white officers from the Austin District, before the Tribune had it. “Holder’s fiancee’s mother tipped me off,” Cummings says. He also says he has a productive relationship with John Richardson, the 15th District commander who succeeded O’Shield. “Richardson is faced with an impossible task,” Cummings told a recent morning meeting of the City Club. “He’s hardworking, and he’s doing the best he can.” Cummings later said, “I went in and gave Richardson a list of goldbricks we wanted gone from the district, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry. Those officers are already gone.'” Richardson says he has no recollection of the “goldbrick” conversation, and he adds, “All officers out here are not crooked. Seven were charged, but the officers out here now are doing their jobs.” He also says that the Voice performs a vital community service and that he and Cummings have a good rapport. “We’re off and on. We respect each other, but we don’t always agree.”
In August, dissatisfied with Austin’s CAPS program, Cummings helped organize a “ReCAPS” (for “Real Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy”) convention. The 200 Austinites who showed up set as a goal closing down ten drug-dealing locations by Thanksgiving. Two months later two Austin police officers met with some ReCAPS leaders, including Cummings, at the Mount Olive Baptist# Church on West Chicago. They brought along a letter from Richardson stating that he planned to close down the drug sites.
Cummings wasn’t there as just a journalist. “I was walking down the 5000 block of Huron,” he told the gathering. “I couldn’t even get down the street, and then I got trapped because of all the dealing taking place. What’s the situation over there?” Later he claimed that a section of West Washington had been cleaned up for a visit by Mayor Daley. “Why, that street looked like it had been cleaned up with a toothbrush. The police asked the dealers to stay inside. If they can do that when Mayor Daley comes, why can’t they do it at other times?”
He also offered advice on how senior citizens could affect drug trading on a block. “Here’s what you do. It’s six or seven in the evening, and you go out for a walk. Walk real slow and make a pest of yourself. Get wound up in your dog leash. And don’t forget to let the 15th District know you’re out there.” Later he added, “Another great tool is the video camera. We certainly learned that in the Rodney King affair.”
But by the end of the evening he’d reverted to his role as editor, promising to publish photographs of the drug sites in the upcoming Voice. The next edition showed the ten targeted corners and buildings.
Does all this qualify as grassroots journalism? “No,” says Dan Haley, publisher of the Austin Weekly News. “To build a community through journalism you present intelligent people with accurate information by which they can make judgments. Editorial opinions on schools, crime, and housing development are properly left to the editorial page, and here we do that–and we do it hard. The Austin Voice isn’t community building or journalism. It’s scandal mongering.”
“Journalism has changed,” says Cummings. “I was reading about papers from George Washington’s time the other day. Good Lord, they were vicious. They tore the father of our country to shreds. The Austinite used to be filled with church news. What I’m saying is that a paper is a function of its time and place. We’re what the people want us to be, and the people who read the Voice are younger and socially active–a gutsy group. We’re their voice.”
But is being the voice of the people journalism? Cummings says, “It’s reporting, but maybe it’s not journalism. Maybe it’s social action. Maybe it is.”
Cummings isn’t one to contemplate the definition for long. He says stings and sweeps undertaken by the Austin police seemed to have paid off; Richardson says that in the two weeks before Thanksgiving his officers made 102 arrests at the drug sites the Voice and the ReCAPS coalition (now the Austin Shut-down Coalition) had pinpointed. “We’re getting all kind of calls,” Cummings says. “What we need to do now is reiterate to people how they can get into action.”
Cummings doesn’t seem to care that he’s crossing a line. “I’m constantly carping,” he says, “and I’ll keep on doing it until I’m no longer shocked at what I see.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Kathey Richland: Brad Cummings-cover; Brad Cummings, Isaac Jones; Cummings with Reverend W.A. Tradwell.