Notes for 10/17/18

Stumbling Block

Last Wednesday, an article from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) finally stated what many of us Chicagoans had been thinking for awhile: for a scrappy organization ostensibly dedicated to “relevant, impactful neighborhood news,” Block Club Chicago sure publishes a lot of “crime reporting” that consists of little more than barely restated press releases from the Chicago Police Department. FAIR is a progressive organization whose media criticism is less corny than its name suggests. Its analysis found that, over a two-week period, Block Club sourced sixty-one percent of claims in its crime articles directly from the police—and, in several cases, published mugshots of young people of color not yet convicted of crimes. Thus the nonprofit website joins the mainstream media tradition of providing PR for the state, rather than staying independent and critical of the police’s claims about crime. In February, when Block Club solicited donations via Kickstarter to create a local news site like the now-dead DNAinfo (which nearly all of Block Club’s staff and founders worked for before it was closed by right-wing billionaire Joe Ricketts), it promised important small-scale stories about affordable housing, public schools, and even raccoons-gone-wild—but didn’t mention crime. And indeed, Block Club has produced some valuable neighborhood-level news coverage that benefits the city. Yet, as FAIR noted, “these stories are a trickle compared to the nonstop deluge of ‘crime’ headlines that often take up half or three-quarters of the front page.”

It was a further disappointment, then, when one of Block Club’s co-founders dismissed FAIR’s criticism on Twitter, calling it a “hit piece” and insinuating that reporters should just do their jobs and not criticize others. After receiving push-back for this attitude, Block Club finally published a mealy-mouthed response on Medium, defending its attempts to use mugshots “judiciously” and claiming that its crime coverage is fulfilling its readers’ desires. Of course Block Club is by no means the only offender—traditional media has parroted police talking points for decades. But as a young and innovative media organization, hitched to a subscription-model and emancipated from the traffic-volume game DNAinfo was forced to play, Block Club has a real opportunity to rethink how to best allocate resources, and whether crime reporting straight from the police is a worthy use of its platform. And criticism—whether from FAIR or from any curious reader—only helps us news organizations grow.

Bumper-to-Bumper Traffic to 2050

In 1973, French journalist-philosopher André Gorz published an essay titled “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar,” which explained how, despite its original function as a luxury good for only the very rich, the car had become popular—so popular that, along urban thoroughfares, “the speed of city traffic [plummeted]—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London [or Chicago!]— below that of the horsecar.” Expansion of automotive infrastructure, Gorz argues, would hardly help: “No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16-lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them.”

Thirty-five years later, Illinois policymakers still don’t seem to have learned that—well—what’s good for the Gorz is good for the planner. Last week, the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning approved “On to 2050,” the organization’s long-term plan for the Chicago region’s transportation infrastructure. It’s an exhaustively crafted document: the drafting process took three years, and involved hundreds of meetings with bureaucrats, politicians, and— occasionally—the public. It also makes a point of promoting “inclusive growth” for communities of various sizes and wealth levels. But as Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, pointed out, the plan can’t get away from a car-centric model: its implicit centerpiece is a recommended $7.4 billion expansion of Chicago’s expressways. Burke noted that “On to 2050” continues a long tradition of plans that “make cars the only viable choice for most travel.” (Case in point: this editor’s commute from Bridgeport to Woodlawn, a firm half-hour faster behind the wheel than on the bus-Red Line-bus relay.) In his 1973 essay, Gorz proposes rebuilding cities from the ground up so as to be structured around “federations of communities,” neighborhoods where people are content to do most of their working, socializing, and living. That might be slightly ambitious for a city where we still lose eighty-two hours a year to rush hour congestion, according to a 2015 study — but more money for bike lanes would be a nice start.

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