In the 40 years I’ve lived in Chicago, the city has asserted itself in a number of areas, some of them surprising. Its theater is now world class, and so is its fine dining. People flock from across the country to attend its music festivals. It claims important dance companies. In architecture, higher education, medicine, and finance, it’s more than held its ground. A lot of midwestern American cities have been told so often that they’re losers they believe it. Chicago thinks of itself as a winner. It can lose the Olympics and not give a damn; Cleveland loses LeBron James and its heart breaks.
But I’ve seen one piece of essential old Chicago crumble and fall, and it’s the piece closest to my heart. Chicago’s literary salons were the bars reporters drank in. Those reporters never thought they could actually clean up the city, but was any Sisyphean labor more intoxicating? If you wanted to be a Chicago journalist and you had a sense of outrage and a sense of humor, you were on your way. Everything else could be learned.
From 1970, the year I arrived here, through 1976, the Chicago press took ten Pulitzers. Half went to writers and photographers at the Sun-Times, which has won a single Pulitzer (for Jack Higgins’s cartoons in 1989) since Rupert Murdoch took over the paper in 1984. The Trib has won four Pulitzers in this century, but only one since 2003. Papers that don’t win Pulitzers say they’re no way to keep score, but the disdain of Pulitzer judges for papers controlled by Murdoch (and his successors, notably Conrad Black) and Sam Zell is shared by a lot of the Tribune‘s and Sun-Times‘s former readers. So many people I know buy only the New York Times that I feel like a bit of a damned fool when I say I subscribe to all three. I know what they’re thinking: Well, you have to, it’s your job.
Back in the day, the essential Chicago newspaper project was the hard-hitting investigation, naming names and kicking butt. Journalism is never more fun than when the facts are lined up and the presses are about to roll. Unfortunately, in desperate times publishers have awakened to the reality that serious investigations are not only very expensive but of no interest to lots of readers—which means too often we get them quick and cheesy or not at all. Jack Fuller, a former Tribune editor, has just published a meditation on journalism and its discontents in the Internet era, and his book, What Is Happening to News, spends so little time on investigative journalism he must think it’s hopeless. He cites a 2009 article in Britain’s Guardian that, as Fuller writes, proposed “democracies around the world create national endowments for journalism to give financial support for investigative reporting.” The authors recognized some of the problems with this idea—in particular, governments having any sway over what gets investigated. But Fuller says there’s one crucial problem they missed: “how very difficult it is to get people to read investigative reports about complex subjects, especially the kind that a news organization has to unravel over time.” In the old days, department store ads and classifieds paid for the investigations, even though that’s not why the ads were in the paper. If the endowments paid only for investigations people actually read, Fuller fears the important ones wouldn’t get funded.
I share his fear, but Fuller and I don’t see eye to eye on the hazards of readability. Like so many of the deeper consciences of the news world, Fuller had problems I didn’t with the Sun-Times‘s Mirage investigation of 1978. Joined by investigators from the Better Government Association, the Sun-Times opened a bar, hid its ownership, and wrote stories about the various payrollers who came in offering terms: you grease me, I license you. The series was such a yeasty slice of Chicago life it went on for days telling bar stories even after the Sun-Times had run out of boodlers to expose. But the undercover premise cost it a Pulitzer, and the loss was a watershed. Investigative journalism, even in Chicago, would become more decorous and less fun. And less readable.
Andy Shaw, the new executive director of the Better Government Association, says that in recent years investigative journalism has changed even more. “It’s shrinking and it’s spreading out,” he says. “There are probably as many investigations as ever, but they’re not talking to each other. A lot of people are looking at a lot of things but they’re doing it in new ways. Connecting them is the hard part. In the old days the investigative product was out there for us to see, but now a lot of it goes on by bloggers and on websites. A lot of it is invisible to people who don’t know how to cull the landscape thoroughly.”
Then: it topped the front page or led the ten o’clock news. Now: maybe it does, or maybe it runs below the radar on Greg Hinz’s blog for Crain’s, or Jamie Kalven’s “Invisible Institute” site, or Geoff Dougherty’s Chicago Current, or the Progress Illinois site—to name some of the places where Shaw does his culling. “I visualize us—as soon as our website gets finished and becomes a good government town hall—as an aggregator,” said Shaw. “We’ll find this stuff and put it out there for people to see and talk about.”
I called Shaw because the future of investigative journalism in Chicago could turn out to be whatever he makes it. The 87-year-old BGA was a key player in the biggest investigations of the old heyday, but when Shaw got there 13 months ago it was a shell of its old self—two employees and an annual budget of $300,000. Shaw, whom I knew at the Sun-Times in the late 70s before he went on to a career as a political reporter on TV (mostly at Channel Seven), was hired out of retirement to rejuvenate the BGA, and he has. In his first year he raised $1 million; within a month, he says, he’ll have a staff of ten, plus ten interns. Mikes and cameras are catnip to Shaw; he’s let Chicago know the BGA’s back in business by sounding off on each passing civic outrage, and more quietly he’s putting the arm on every fortune in town.
But did he say the BGA would be aggregating? God almighty!
That’s a just a piece of it, said Shaw, but Chicago does need a clearinghouse.
What about the old-fashioned two-fisted collaborations? “We’ve done 30 or 40 in the time I’ve been here,” Shaw assured me—three times as many as the year before. “My only disappointment in the first year is that there have been no blockbusters. There hasn’t been a game changer. We’ve had a lot of singles and a few doubles and a couple of triples, but I don’t think we’ve had any home runs. I think our judges story with Fox was the closest to a home run so far.”
Fox and the BGA reported this spring that a lot of Cook County judges were working half a day for a full day’s pay, leaving their courtrooms empty and bailiffs and clerks twiddling their thumbs. “That sparked some immediate action,” said Shaw. (Chief Judge Timothy Evans cracked down.)
Then there was the project with ABC TV that ripped townships as a “useless form of government.” Shaw mused, “We didn’t follow up with enough pressure to get rid of the townships.” But even so . . .
Thinking it over, Shaw decided some upgrading was in order. “We had a couple of home runs,” he said. “They were bases-empty home runs.”
Then he said something heretical. “At the risk of providing John Kass with material to call me a naive fool, I would suggest the level of corruption with a big C is not nearly as extensive as it once was. I think the drumbeat of prosecutions, the number of people who have gone to jail, the notoriety of Patrick Fitzgerald, has actually had an effect on the political culture from the standpoint of overt criminality. I don’t think you’ll see another Greylord, or another Mirage, or another assessor’s office scandal where 10 or 20 people go down. We have rogues and freelancers who cut their own deals, and that’s always going to be the case, but Blagojevich might be the last of these racketeering conspiracies. His trial is about systemic corruption, if you believe the federal indictment. It’s that five guys sat down in a room before the inauguration in 2003 and figured out how to make a lot of money and split it once Rod left office. I’d be shocked if anybody is sitting out there carving it up [today] in quite the same way.”
I told Shaw his view of corruption as at an ebb would do him no good with funders who want to wage war with a big W on corruption. “Oh, God, so we’d better strike all that,” said Shaw. But he’d meant what he said.
Journalism has changed, he thinks. “The media was complicit for years—talking about corruption like a quaint Chicago affectation or part of our swashbuckling Front Page tradition. [But today] everyone’s had enough—editorial writers, civic groups, reform pols, and millions of citizens.”
And the BGA has changed. “We’ll continue to hold government accountable on a day-to-day basis, but we’re redefining the BGA; we’re going to become major policy advocates along with investigating. We’re going to research and push changes in policy and changes in the law in the short and long term. Everywhere I went a lot of very deep-pocketed funders said, ‘You need systemic change. It’s not enough to disclose. We have to be part of the longer-term solution if we’re going to be relevant. Greylord [the 1980s federal probe of the local courts] and Mirage—they didn’t clean up the system. They put a lot of people in jail but systemic corruption continued.
“We’ll research everything we investigate,” Shaw went on. “We’ll have solutions for everything we find. That’s the only way to be effective. We won’t just propose—we’ll use our website to encourage everybody who cares about this stuff to advocate, to put the heat on public officials. That’s the whole civic engagement concept.”
Shaw said the BGA is now spending $90,000 from the McCormick Foundation to build an “agile and versatile” site that will gather, focus, and amplify public anger. “The bottom line,” he told me, “is that if Mayor Daley or President Stroger or Governor Quinn or whomever gets bombarded with several thousand calls, e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages a couple times a day for a week or so, and all of this is tracked on our site by seasoned professionals, those officials will have a hard time ignoring us.”
Would you do another Mirage? I asked.
“We decided that we were not going to use any subterfuge,” Shaw said. “We’d do everything aboveboard. That’s how we’ve conducted business for 13 months. That is not to say I wouldn’t consider other methods if the greater good could be accomplished this way. Would we send somebody undercover to change the system that threatened peoples’ lives? I think so. I’d have to discuss it with the director of investigation. I think by and large, undercover investigations have been discredited as an investigative tool. Having said that, they’re extraordinarily effective.”