Interview Issue 2017 | Interviews | Media

An Alternative Voice

Ben Joravsky on journalism’s history and future

Sage Coffey

I feel that one of the great miracles in recent journalism, if I may, is that that swagger and freedom that the Reader represented when it was flush with cash has somehow survived to one degree or another through all these difficult financial times. It’s easy to be on top of the world, cocky and cool, when you’re rolling in the dough, but when you’re struggling…if you still maintain that sense of mission, it is really impressive.

Ben Joravsky has been writing for the Chicago Reader for most of its forty-six-year history, freelancing on a regular basis since the early eighties and becoming a staff writer in 1990. Focusing on local politics, Joravsky has written about everything from Chicago’s school board to flawed marijuana laws. His politics column has notably kept a critical eye on tax increment financing (TIF), a program in which certain property taxes are diverted from their normal uses; theoretically the funds are used to promote development in blighted areas, but in practice the mayor has significant discretion over their use.

In 1990, Joravsky wrote a piece about a first-term alderman, Edwin Eisendrath, running for Congress against a revered incumbent. Eisendrath lost that fight, but this July he led a group of investors that bought the Sun-Times and the Reader, prevailing over the seemingly all-but-certain success of a bid by tronc, the publisher of the Tribune. I spoke with Joravsky about the Eisendrath deal, his trajectory in Chicago journalism, the Reader’s history and voice, and journalism’s survival.

I lived briefly in Chicago in the late seventies, and then I left for a couple of years. That first time I was living in Chicago, I was well aware of the Reader; I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I came back to Chicago in ’81…and I started really systematically pursuing my career as a journalist.

At some point I knew I wanted to break into the Reader, and so—I forget, the years just go by, I think it was like ’83 or ’84—I started small, go to a meeting and write something up, and they liked it, they bought it. And then they bought another one, and then another one. I did a profile of a guy named James Bevel as the first feature I ever did for the Reader. It was on the cover—I was so thrilled! That was in 1984, and I still have it—I saved it and I framed it, it’s on my wall.

They had this attitude of, we’ll read anything, so show us what you got. We’ll read it, and if we like it, we’ll run it. We make no promises. They just kept liking ’em, and pretty soon they were asking me to write stuff, and that’s how it began.

They’ve always given me so much freedom: freedom to pursue the story I wanted to pursue, no matter how quirky or off the trail. I got to write every conceivable kind of story for the Reader, everything you might imagine…

I did something throughout the nineties called Neighborhood News that doesn’t exist anymore. And it was exactly what it said. Oh my goodness, I did so many. Every neighborhood in the city I’ve written about. It could be a zoning spat, or some lady would complain the city wasn’t recycling Christmas trees like they promised—I wrote about it. The city had this street repaving machine that was killing trees—I wrote about it. It was like a slice of life of Chicago, and they gave me the freedom to write about it. And I would try to do it in a way that would explain to readers how the city worked. Why did they decide to use this street cleaning device, and what does that say about the city?

So what was the Reader like back in the eighties? I don’t want to sound like one of those guys that’s like, “Aw man, you shoulda seen the city in the old days,” but the Reader was such a special place. It had such a strong identity and such a very clear sense of purpose and mission. And it was so fabulously successful…. They had a sense of what cool was, they understood their audience so well, and the community was growing, and the Reader was growing with that community.

I’ve been writing about politics for the Reader on a regular basis since about ’85. But to a certain degree I inherited a perspective, and that perspective is independent. The Reader was born in the aftermath of the antiwar movement…of the 1968 Democratic Convention…of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the eruption of rioting on the West Side—these are like insurrections, I could go on and on, there were so many of them…. And the Reader was sort of the voice of that, politically speaking, to a degree. It was that notion that we’re going to have an alternative voice to the mainstream voice that you read in the daily newspapers, and we’re going to be independent of sort of the established world of Chicago, and they were.

The Reader in 1983 waved the flag, without any ambiguity, without any doubt, without any hesitation, with pride for Harold Washington. It’s the only white thing in Chicago that was just unambiguously for Harold. The Sun-Times and the Tribune were dithering, “Oh, oh, we’re so scared, on the one hand this, on the one hand that.” And the Reader was like, “Yeah! We’re proud, we wear our buttons.” That kind of sums up the Reader, you know? The movement that led to Harold is part of the same movement that led to the Reader, it’s just the white side of town. So to me that’s what the Reader is: the voice of independence of the establishment.

I’m obsessed with politics, I always have been. I grew up in Evanston…My family was a voracious reader of newspapers, we got three newspapers a day, and I was just obsessed with Chicago. Daley was this giant mythical figure—I was fascinated with his political machine. I didn’t like it, I would never join it, but fascinated with it. When I moved back to Chicago in ’81, I just jumped right in as happy as can be.

And then all of a sudden here’s Harold Washington, man, like, wow! The greatest ever, that I’ve ever met, covered, written about. No one can even come close to him in terms of his intelligence, and his charisma, and his sense of humor, and his knowledge…The resistance he got from white people, it’s embarrassing really. I was a white kid, middle-class kid, I was sheltered from all the kind of prejudice that Black people had to face on a regular basis. But I got a sense of it when I saw the utter spasm of hysteria that erupted over Harold’s victory in the Democratic primary in 1983; I’m like, are you kidding me?

On one level, Harold Washington’s years in office and the resistance being faced from white people, white politicians, corporate Chicago, was frightening. [On another,] his response was exhilarating. So I’ve been hooked ever since. And then when Daley took over—I gotta admit, in so many ways I had the blues when Harold died, I didn’t get over it for years. So many people in Chicago were rejoicing because Daley was the mayor—that motivated me, you know what I’m saying? “He’s not as great as you think, people.” So that’s how I got hooked.

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There’s a level of skepticism and disbelief in Chicago about what our leaders say, and that’s the direct result of journalists pointing out the inconsistencies, the hypocrisies, the double standards, the deceit.

In terms of what I do, I feel I’ve made a contribution on at least three levels to people’s attitudes about government. One is my coverage of the schools; one is my coverage of TIF and municipal financing; and the third is my general coverage about mayors. And I’m really proud of the work I did on the Olympics. The Reader was the only publication that was consistently [criticizing Mayor Daley’s effort to bring the Olympics to Chicago that ended in 2009]— well, I was the only guy writing about it, so it’s really [that] they gave me freedom to just hammer away at that—and everybody [else] was on the bandwagon.

I started writing about [TIFs]—such an obscure topic, such an esoteric, arcane thing. It’s the perfect device for Chicago politicians who are looking to set up a source of money, because it’s a hidden tax that has a very convoluted explanation. And so it’s really easy to bore people with your explanation of how it works. When they lose interest, you can just let the money flow in. And then it was largely used to redevelop the downtown, and all of corporate Chicago, including the newspapers at the time, were aboard that effort to transform the downtown and surrounding areas. And TIF was devised to do it. So they weren’t gonna criticize it. So once again, it’s the independence of the Reader.

I first stumbled upon [TIFs] in the nineties—remember I told you I was doing these Neighborhood News stories, so I’d write about a new shopping mall, and they’d go, “Yeah, it’s being paid for with TIF financing.” The first TIF story I ever wrote was 1987, the very first TIF deal, and I’m very proud of that story because most of the criticism of the TIF program is in that story, quoting municipal finance geeks who were citing some of the potential problems with the program.

I had written an article here, a column there over the years, but I began to connect the dots in [the early 2000s]. I discovered all this stuff about [TIFs]; I’d write a column and nobody would do anything, [so I’d think], “I know, I’d better write another column,” and then one column led to another and another.

That’s when I made the great realization about journalism that if you want to have an impact with journalism, man, you’ve got to be stubborn. One time’s not gonna do it—two times, three times, four times, you’ve got to keep coming back. You can’t be afraid of making a nuisance of yourself or people making fun of you. “Oh, you’re writing another TIF story man, why do you write about them all the time?” “Why aren’t you writing about them?” That would be my comeback.

And then I became really into it. Like, wow, what a scam! It got almost fun to write about because it is such a scam, and I think it says so much about Chicago.

I think my great success and great triumph with TIF stories, is that after all these years of writing them, the public knows that those three letters T-I-F equals B-A-D. They may not know the details, but they know the city’s up to no good, they know it!

I’ll read the Tribune and they’ll say, “The mayor says it’s a great tool for economic development. Critics say it’s a slush fund.” Oh, I love it, I go, “Critics, who? You mean me? Not gonna show me any love, huh?” I have determined that if I was a journalism school teacher, I [would tell students to] never say “critics say.” Usually it means it’s the truth, but you’re afraid to come out and say it.

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I think that the acquisition of the Sun-Times and the Reader by Eisendrath and the labor unions and the collective of investors that they put together was the best thing that’s happened to the Reader and the Sun-Times in the last ten years. On many levels. But the basics: it saved both papers. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that the Tribune was going to swallow them both. When they said, “Oh no, we’re going to keep it going,” yeah right. Every journalist in Chicago knew that promise wasn’t going to be kept. Because journalists…they’re skeptical people. So the purchase of the Sun-Times and the Reader…keeps alive the notion of two independent voices [in Chicago news].

And please let me make this as clear as I can, I will never understand the editorial voice of the Chicago Tribune. Never. Ever. I don’t understand why they think it would be appropriate to have this whacked-out, free-market, libertarian drivel in a city that’s so liberal. Nobody in Chicago talks this way. All right, that’s not true, some people do. You might get a few eggheads from the University of Chicago, like libertarians or something—but nobody you would ever want to hang around with talks this way! You know what I’m saying? Eighty percent of the city year after year votes Democratic. They didn’t even endorse Hillary. They endorsed Gary Johnson. It’s a joke! And then when I thought about that owning the Sun-Times, I was so sad. And the Reader? The free newspaper? Free not just in cost, but free in spirit—they’re gonna own that? No, this is like a nightmare! And then there’s Eisendrath and the unions—I love it—they snatched it away! Right away from the Tribune. So I don’t know where it’s going; I have no crystal ball. But I’m really happy right now.

I think it’s amazing that the Reader still has so much of its swagger, and I see it in a lot of the younger writers; they kind of remind me of myself back in the day. Journalism is surviving. I mean, I don’t know how it’s surviving, but there’s this whole new generation of journalists. I can’t believe it sometimes. All the models don’t work, no one is making any money, nobody’s figured it out. They’re all struggling. And yet journalism survives! It’s a great thing…particularly now in the age of Trump. You’ve got millennials writing articles now, you know what I’m saying, and it’s like god bless every single one of them, I love it. God, I sound like, “A day will come!” But the good days will come, and I do believe they’ll eventually figure out a way to make money at these things, and they’ll start forcing people to pay for the content that they are just taking.

I look at the new era of journalists, and I think they’re great, a lot better than they were during the Daley years. I think there was a lot of complacency in Chicago in general in the nineties and [the 2000s], and it was reflected in the journalism. I don’t see that complacency now; I feel a sense of urgency. So I feel in some ways that journalism is getting better. I know that sounds weird, but I think that journalists are doing a great job. Oh my god, paid so little, so unstable, they get these owners that buy them up and don’t know what they’re doing. And yet people just keep plowing ahead. So in some ways it’s really just a beautiful thing.

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