More Poster Problems at CTA

Straphangers furious at the CTA for allowing gay and interracial kissy-face to sully their pristine transit system must surely have wondered where, if anywhere, the agency would draw the line.

Well now a line’s been drawn. And the CTA is catching hell again.

The same review committee that approved Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” poster has turned its thumbs down on a photograph of soldiers standing over corpses sprawled on the ground like jackstraws.

Here’s the CTA’s position, spelled out in a letter written late last month by deputy executive director Ernest Sawyer, chairman of the Advertising Review Committee: “In our judgement, the graphic depiction of violence, i.e., one person with a face blown off, another with a mutilated chest, a third whose missing leg is draped across another body would be offensive to the sensibilities of the people of Chicago, and could be considered obscene.”

Nothing else about the poster, which screams YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK IN EL SALVADOR! and DEMAND SENATOR DIXON STOP U.S. TAX $ FOR MURDER IN EL SALVADOR, overly bothered the CTA, and Sawyer suggested that the advertiser, the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, simply substitute another illustration.

But CISPES was in no mood to compromise. It was July 12 when the organization first approached Transportation Displays, Inc., the firm that brokers the CTA’s advertising spaces, about renting CTA bulletin boards from September 15 to October 15. CISPES wanted its ad campaign to coincide with debate in the U.S. Senate on ending aid to El Salvador. CISPES believes that if American aid is cut off, the Salvadoran government will be forced to negotiate an end to that country’s decade-long civil war.

TDI did not even ask to see the CISPES poster until August 31 (this is according to CISPES’s chronology; a TDI official did not return our phone call). And September 15, the day CISPES wanted its poster put on display, was two weeks past before the CTA made its mind up. Smarting from both the rejection and the runaround, CISPES last week fired off an indignant, self-righteous letter to the CTA’s executive director, Alfred Savage, urging him to overturn the review committee’s decision.

“We find it hard to understand your highly subjective definition of obscenity. The photo is not pleasing to the eye, but neither is it pleasing to be a Salvadoran for whom such atrocities are a matter of daily existence. This is not obscenity. It is reality.

“Furthermore, if you are in the business of making judgements about what offends the sensibilities of CTA riders,” the CISPES letter went on self-indulgently, “would you consider the many sexist ads that offend the sensibilities of riders who consider women to be more than sexual objects (for example the recent ad promoting the movie Pretty Woman)? If we are to talk about offended sensibilities, we could talk about a whole realm of objectionable ads, particularly if you are sensitive to the injustices of a system which preys on people’s desires to be wealthy and attractive, perhaps by drinking Johnny Walker or smoking Camel cigarettes.”

CISPES let Savage know that American society is dominated “by a media which ignores the plight of people seemingly removed from the world of Johnny Walker and Pretty Woman.” Thus ignored, CISPES must buy advertising space in order to get its message across. Yet now the CTA will not sell the space at its disposal.

“Your denial is a form of censorship of an unpopular reality.”

CISPES has found an ally in the ACLU, which wrote the CTA last Friday and raised the possibility of CISPES suing for damages. “The Seventh Circuit [Court of Appeals] has held the CTA’s advertising system is a public forum,” ACLU attorney Jane Whicher explained to us, “and in public forums the government is prohibited from making arbitrary and irrational decisions about what speech is allowed to take place.”

The CTA’s decisions on the advertising it will and won’t accept can’t help but be arbitrary, Whicher argues. The agency’s guidelines insist on ads that “reflect a high level of good taste and decency,” language that to Whicher is so “incredibly vague” that it makes the selection process “completely subjective.” This is an argument the ACLU has already taken to court; it filed suit a year ago when the CTA rejected an AIDS awareness poster, explicitly targeted at blacks, that contained a drawing of a naked couple and another of a man plunging a needle into his arm. Both sides expect the settlement of that suit to lead to the rewriting of the CTA’s regulations.

CISPES has toiled doggedly for years against the crude American policy of spending billions of dollars on the enemies of our enemies, even if–especially if, it often seems–our enemies pose no real threat to the United States and their enemies are vicious thugs. We admire CISPES for its perseverance, and are pleased to report that the CTA’s rebuff is probably not a serious defeat. That’s true even though this past Tuesday Savage upheld his review committee.

CISPES can still hope that the CTA board’s Transit Services Committee will approve the poster when it meets next Monday. In that case, CISPES would probably have time to mount its posters before the Senate vote, which the budget crisis has delayed. The important thing, however, is that the poster may no longer even be needed. Senator Dixon, heretofore a reliable vote for military aid to El Salvador, was CISPES’s target, but Dixon declared himself the other day “one senator who is unwilling to take even one more step down the path we have been following before.”

Two additional observations: In its choice of the stands it took on the Gran Fury and CISPES posters, the CTA has paid an unpredictable homage to the 60s watchword “Make love, not war.” It has ruled that kissing is acceptable fare for its patrons but the carnage of war is not. As abridgments of free speech go, this one isn’t the ugliest.

And CISPES sounds silly when it insists that its poster of that carnage conveys reality, not obscenity. For 30 years the language of American antiwar sentiment has held that war–and imperialist war above all other–is obscene. We were long ago convinced. Now CISPES says it isn’t. But if a pile of mutilated corpses underwritten by the American taxpayer isn’t obscene as well as real, why bother to show it to us?

Young Blood

Because the Reader is almost 20 years old and there are similar newspapers in many other large cities, some good and some bad but all of them local fixtures, we got tired a long time ago of journalism marveling at this “alternative” press as a publishing phenomenon. To most young readers, the alternative press isn’t an alternative and it certainly isn’t something new under the sun. It’s simply what is.

So we were glad to talk to Brian Hieggelke, who discusses papers like the Reader with none of the usual fatuity. The 28-year-old editor-publisher of New City, Hieggelke takes the Reader in stride and thinks that Chicago’s big enough for a second paper that’s a lot like it. After four and a half years as a biweekly, New City has just converted to weekly publication–a good occasion, we thought, to give Hieggelke a call and find out what he’s up to.

“I have a lot of respect for the Reader and what it does. It shares the esteem we hold the writer’s craft in,” Hieggelke told us.


“I think in some ways the Reader’s been so successful and has been around so long it’s moved more to the mainstream and become a prisoner of its own success and lost some of its freshness,” he said. “Everything it does tends to be done with top quality.”

Wincing at that blow, we told Hieggelke that New City reminded us a little of the Reader 10 or 15 years ago, the writing uneven but full of enthusiasm.

“I sometimes wonder if the nature of what we are requires sort of a renewal process every generation or so,” he told us. “The founders of the Reader are closer to the age of my parents than to me.” Hieggelke was chatting amiably, but it was easy for us to imagine him trying to peddle his “renewal process” theory to a prospective advertiser with an awful lot of gusto.

We’ve seen some nifty writing and reporting in New City and we said so. Much smaller than the Reader, it’s focused more narrowly on the arts than this paper, and it’s more editor-driven. “The perception I have of the Reader is that it’s much more shaped by what writers have coming in,” Hieggelke said, accurately enough. “I spend a lot of time coming up with story ideas and finding the writers to do them. Our stories tend to be shorter and a little less esoteric at times.”

When Hieggelke and his wife Jan founded New City, he was an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and the paper was a nondescript freebie that circulated in the area around Printers Row. A couple years into it, Hieggelke got tired of how he was making his living and unhappy with what he was publishing on the side; so he left high finance–“a life change I won’t forget”–and set out to turn New City into a serious newspaper. New City now claims an (unaudited) circulation of 40,000, about a third of the Reader’s, and its distribution area, from Hyde Park to Evanston, is roughly the same.

Other key players at New City are senior editor Nate Lee, who writes a column and does the copy editing, and Brent Hieggelke, Brian’s brother, who just left Morgan Stanley, mergers and acquisitions, to work at New City full-time. “He’ll work in advertising and circulation,” said Brian Hieggelke, “and he plays in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”