Shining a Light in all the Wrong Places

Notes from the 6/19/19 issue

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made some headlines in the last couple of weeks for exchanging words with the FOP, the city’s largest police union: first with one of its vice presidents at a City Council meeting in which she accused the union of not being true partners in her effort for police reform, and later circulating a rumor that the union had instructed officers to “do nothing” over Memorial Day weekend (over which Lightfoot organized a heavily-promoted and ultimately unsuccessful anti-violence initiative). The spats are fun to watch for a certain kind of city politics-watcher, but coverage of actual, substantive issues around the CPD has been overshadowed.

Lightfoot, for instance, has reneged on her campaign promise to release the Inspector General’s report into the Laquan McDonald shooting—despite the fact that Inspector General Joe Ferguson, her friend and former colleague at the local U.S. Attorney’s office, has encouraged its release since Invisible Institute journalist Jamie Kalven made its secrecy a mayoral campaign issue. WBEZ was the only outlet to report that news. At a protest, civil rights attorneys representing community groups party to the consent decree over the city threatened to bring a motion to have the city held in contempt of court over the repeated police shootings and killings that continue apace; WBBM Radio and ABC 7 ran only brief stories about the protest.

Most concerningly, her chief CPD spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi spread misinformation about the county’s bond reforms that have resulted in the lowest Cook County Jail population in decades, improperly tying the release of nonviolent offenders with an uptick in gun violence over a given weekend. Not only were these claims not corrected in the media, but CBS 2 even based an entire story around it, while WGN 9 spread CPD’s incorrect inferences in other coverage; the Tribune let Superintendent Eddie Johnson, known for excusing police brutality, trot out similar claims unchallenged in an op-ed earlier this month. The only media outlet to catch these falsehoods was, embarrassingly for the local media, The Appeal, a nonprofit national website that focuses on criminal justice.

And yet coverage of the issues around policing in the first few weeks of Lightfoot’s tenure has been particularly wanting. Her public annoyance at a high-ranking cop taking a pre-approved vacation this month received far more coverage than her (admittedly slow-walked) comment that she may entirely remove police officers from CPS schools, an issue Ferguson and federal monitor Maggie Hickey have been pushing her on for weeks.

Her lack of movement on pressing police reform issues wasn’t brought up, however, in an “analysis” of her early missteps as mayor from Sun-Times horse-race aficionado Fran Spielman; rather, the vacation, the spats with the FOP, and her decision to have a retired U.S. Marshal head her security team were apparently far worse. And of her capitulation on other campaign promises, like the one that the city’s first casino would be publicly owned? Not a word from Fran; we had to go to the Reader for a proper analysis.

We’d chalk these media missteps up to giving the new mayor a grace period, but eight years of toothless Rahm coverage doesn’t leave us too optimistic. If Lightfoot is to make true on even half of her campaign promises, we’ll need local media that is willing to light a fire under her reform agenda.

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