Council Coverage

Like any writers of consequence, reporters understand that the essence of their art is the leaving out.

What experienced reporters on the scene–and their editors back at headquarters–omit can confound the earnest amateur. Neophytes might not have seen that Alderman Joe Moore’s press conference minutes before the City Council meeting of October 7 could safely go unmentioned. Wasn’t Moore’s subject–the public’s right to vote–sacred? And wasn’t that a body of distinguished clergy gathered at Moore’s side? No matter. This dog and pony show had worn out its welcome–a political operative and a few allied ministers trotting out the same old moralistic arguments against casino gambling. Moore fielded a few hardball questions from John Kass about the political calculations of Moore’s sponsor, David Orr, and that was that. A black Lutheran minister had prepared some remarks, but the few reporters who showed up didn’t want to hear them.

This indifference did not surprise the minister, Thomas Clay. “The papers want to sell papers,” the Reverend Clay reflected. “Social issues aren’t as high on people’s interest level as what a person’s political stand might be or what gain they might be trying to work for themselves.”

And Moore took it in stride. He hadn’t really expected the papers to mention his press conference; he’d called it mainly to put reporters on the alert. He was about to ask the City Council to suspend its rules. He and the ministers wanted the council to dredge Moore’s proposal for a citywide referendum on casino gambling out of the muck of committee and vote on it at once.

Thus primed, Kass began his Tribune account the next morning with this: “A chance for Chicago residents to vote on Mayor Richard Daley’s plans for legalized gambling failed by one vote in Thursday’s City Council meeting, with Daley allies changing votes at the last minute to win.”

Moore’s maneuver wasn’t all that flopped on October 7. It was a day when the City Council accomplished nothing. Alderman Helen Shiller also asked the council to suspend the rules; she wanted a vote on her plan to intervene in the school funding crisis. Shiller’s idea was to offer the mayor $16 million the city had saved by refinancing general-obligation bonds, money the mayor could apply as needed to cut a deal with the teachers’ union. The council shipped Shiller’s ordinance to committee.

When the City Council gets nothing done, the press is especially free to suit itself. Shiller’s initiative, for example, was ignored by both dailies. The Sun-Times was so unmoved by the council’s 23-22 decision against Moore’s case for participatory democracy that the paper gave it six lines at the end of a sidebar. The Sun-Times’s need to seize the city’s lapels was far better served by a quixotic proposal to rename Lake Shore Drive in honor of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable.

This was an ordinance introduced at the end of the meeting by Alderman Toni Preckwinkle. As he often does, Kass sneered. “The idea was referred to a council committee for further debate, which promises to push all the angry rhetorical buttons Chicago has come to know by heart,” he wrote. “But some jealous colleagues noted the aldermen who proposed the notion . . . are expected to reap the local political benefits, even though the measure is not likely to pass.”

Kass wrote with the disdain of a foreign correspondent assuring his readers that the natives are up to their usual. The Sun-Times, the heartbeat of Chicago, throbbed with consequence.

“Du Sable Drive?” said the front page in big block letters, which were superimposed on a picture of the congested motorway at rush hour. Alongside Fran Spielman’s long discussion of the name change on page five was a profile of the French Haitian trader who built a cabin here in the late 1770s. And Morningline asked readers to call in and declare themselves.

The next day Spielman provided the obligatory interview with Mayor Daley. “If you start renaming streets officially, open your pocketbook,” said the troubled mayor. “It’s open season.”

Sunday’s paper brought the results of the Morningline poll: a trifling 9.1 percent in favor of a new name and 90.9 percent opposed. An editorial weighed in for the status quo. Endorsing the general principle that Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable merits honors, the paper fretted, “But altering the name of an internationally known street such as Lake Shore Drive could do more harm than good to Chicago’s world image.” (There is ample precedent. Consider New York’s steady decay after Sixth Avenue became Avenue of the Americas. And once the Gran Via became the Avenida de Jose Antonio, Madrid’s reputation for liberal values disappeared for almost 40 years.)

There was one more stake to hammer into the beast’s heart. Spare the drive, declared Mark Hornung, editor of the editorial pages, in a wry column the next day. But as Du Sable was a trader, mightn’t we give him the Board of Trade or McCormick Place?

With that the exhausted tabloid rested.

The Tribune did not abet Du Sable frenzy. But as the midwest’s foremost monitor of international affairs, it couldn’t resist comment on the council’s foreign policy.

The council, which refused to suspend its rules in the name of casinos and public education, almost did so on behalf of South Africa. Aldermen Edward Burke and Ed Smith asked the council for the immediate repeal of an ordinance that keeps Chicago from doing business with businesses that do business with South Africa. Repeal of such sanctions is what Nelson Mandela has asked of governments the world over.

So what? said Dorothy Tillman. “Mandela might not know what he wants. He needs to go talk to Winnie [his estranged wife] to find out what he needs.”

The council debated South Africa for an hour. This was the consuming issue of the day. But ultimately the Burke-Smith initiative, like Moore’s and like Shiller’s, was consigned to committee. It was less that Tillman’s arguments carried the day than that Shiller, who’d written the ordinance Burke and Smith wanted to overturn, hadn’t been consulted beforehand.

The Sun-Times settled for a sidebar on South Africa while the Tribune passed editorial judgment: “The council keeps adding to its reputation, following its own drummer in ways that often seem more bizarre than wise.”

In the minds of some aldermen the same language describes the press. To Joe Moore, Preckwinkle’s Du Sable Drive proposal was “a silly story which nobody [on the council] made a big deal of. But Fran picked it up and decided to run with it.” Even Preckwinkle naively expected the press to lay off until the Transportation Committee held hearings. “I was astounded that it got any coverage at all,” she told us. “Given that the school crisis was immediate and the question of casino gambling was something I think citizens should have a chance to comment on, I was sort of astounded that the drive should get the play. Not that I don’t think changing the drive’s name is important, but what gets covered is interesting.”

Shiller is blunter. “It’s bizarre,” she said. “But the filter of the media is remarkably shallow. You cannot read the newspapers and get a sense of anything of substance that’s raised” at council meetings.

We think some elected officials don’t know their own constituents as well as the papers do. When Fran Spielman heard gossip about Preckwinkle’s ordinance beforehand she smelled the bacon sizzling.

So did her managing editor, Julia Wallace. We said to Wallace, What about the casino vote? and she invoked the glazed-eye factor. “At some point I begin to feel like [gambling]’s a story where people’s eyes glaze over and they say, ‘Not again!’ And you wait for real movement.” One thing clear about Joe Moore’s defeat (and Helen Shiller’s) is that it represented no movement at all.

Du Sable Drive was a wonderful story. The Morningline poll went off the charts: it got the heaviest response since the one that asked if Mike Ditka should be fired. Even Moore concedes, “I got a lot more calls on the Lake Shore Drive thing, renaming it, than on the casino referendum.”

Of course there’s a special reason he got a lot of calls. Weren’t you one of Preckwinkle’s cosponsors? we asked him.

“Hah, hah, hah,” Moore laughed self-consciously. “Yes, I signed onto it.” When the Sun-Times stirred up the city he thought twice. He signed off.

‘In These Times’ Update

When In These Times set out last spring to raise $375,000, editor/founder James Weinstein told us he’d probably know in October if the leftist biweekly would survive past the end of the year.

After a daylong meeting last weekend with his board and staff, Weinstein still isn’t sure. The drive has brought in about $300,000 so far, and he figures that if he raises another $40,000 or so his journal will continue. But the last $40,000 will be enormously harder to find than the first $40,000. In fact, Weinstein’s going back to the original benefactors and asking them to dig a little deeper.

In These Times needs to erase about $285,000 in debts and finance a massive subscription drive. There hasn’t been a direct mailing since January and the circulation has slipped to 16,000; Weinstein wants it back up to 24,000 or so by 1995.

“The political situation has not been very good for us,” he said. “The direct mailing we did in January was really optimistic–a Democrat is back in the White House. And Clinton turned out to bomb on everything from our point of view. Almost everything. So some of the readers came in on one type of scenario, and by the time they got us we were already critical. So we get a lot of ‘Lay off the guy.’ ‘You’ll be responsible for putting a Republican back in the White House.’ ‘Sure it’s true, but why do you have to say it?’ The usual stuff.”

Weinstein thinks he can talk suppliers into knocking $75,000 off the debt. “They understand if we can’t negotiate the debt down we’re very likely to fold, and then they can’t get anything. So that gives us some leverage. It’s unpleasant, but that’s the reality.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.