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Media Tue Jul 19 2011

The Incredible Editorial of James Warren

Chicago News Cooperative's James Warren's editorial, "Warren: Rahm Exercising Art of Media Control" is not what you'd expect it to be. Or rather, was not what I expected it to be. When I see a headline like that in my reader, attributed to a well respected journalist, I expect it to be a critique. It's not; it's praise. Why would a member of the media praise a politician for controlling (really he means manipulating) the media? I'm not certain. From what I can glean, it is because Mayor Emanuel's use of this "art" will help him slay the "monsters," i.e., city workers' retirement money, et al.

Mr. Warren in his own words:

Chicago's Jardine Water Purification Plant, the world's largest filtration facility, helped make something crystal clear last week about the heat-seeking missile known as Mayor Rahm Emanuel: The Missile is playing a confidence game, all puns intended.

Every day brings an effort to capture a news cycle or three. Monday he eliminated most city credit cards. Tuesday was an energy efficiency program. Wednesday saw A-list business types enlisted to reinvigorate the local economy. Friday came word of mailing layoff notices to 625 union members.


This day it was a typically well-choreographed status report on early initiatives to improve services and save money. It came with word of a $6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies (Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York) for efficiency experts and included summaries from department heads and questions to them from the mayor who, like a good trial attorney, already seemed to have a good handle on the answers.


But Mr. Emanuel can't win the big, important battles with unions and on pensions unless he's convinced us he's implemented and exhausted almost every smart idea to improve things and cut costs -- and that we're still in a hole.

So his confidence game is about building trust in him and the city, including trust in his image as the tough little guy getting things done. It seems to play from the scripts of Mr. Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, the latter of whom actually increased public confidence by attacking neighborhood noise and squeegee men.

Mr. Emanuel has got to get a handle on myriad little messes before attacking the monsters, even if it initially looks as unsexy as cleaning Lake Michigan's water.

So, James Warren is impressed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's media savvy. That's cool--it isn't the job of a journalist to be cynical. Skeptical, yes. Cynical, not necessarily. Although writing a column seemingly praising the mayor for his ability to "control" the media is a little odd, no? That's not even skepticism. That's... fandom. Warren himself is a member of the media. The relationship should at least be a little adversarial, no?

In this column, Warren identifies the "monsters"--city workers and their pensions. And the hero trying to slay the monsters? The most powerful man in the city. He's the underdog, in other words. Mayor Emanuel has a very sophisticated media operation that is "capturing" news cycles and impressing hard-bitten journalists like James Warren, so that he can win enough public support to kill monsters (the retirement money of men and women who have worked for the city most of their lives and thus didn't pay into social security).

The odd thing to me isn't that Warren is in awe of Mayor Emanuel in general, it's that he's aware that the mayor is manipulating the media, and he's satisfied with that.

The appearance of toughness and efficacy is more important than the reality of democracy and collaboration and justice. You know what? Hundreds of families are going to face economic annihilation, and many thousands more suddenly lose their retirement nest egg. But it's gotta happen. They're monsters--the "bad guys"--standing in the way of the main character in the media dramedy "Chicago City Government."

After all, there's a new sheriff town, guys. And it's our duty as citizens to obey. Right?

Just a quick thought though, before I go--and I don't want to ruin the party, really. I get that the mayor is releasing a lot of spreadsheets, and that's totally awesome. But these contracts were freely signed by Mayor Daley, Mayor Emanuel's BFF. And the Mayor's energy is a breath of fresh air. But these contracts--they were agreed to at a time of relative plenty. That time of plenty? Funded to a great degree by real estate transaction taxes, which cratered when the bubble burst, to the tune of $130 million between 2007 and 2010--in other words by a housing bubble recklessly inflated by, you guessed it, city workers raising families and providing public services. No, sorry, "A-List Business Types," who profited from that bubble. Maybe they don't have all the answers? As evidence for that proposition I would submit for example, "The Greatest Economic Downturn Since the Great Depression."

Maybe there's more to the story than monsters and sheriffs and clever media control.

Meh, the city workers make easy villains. And it's blockbuster season. Pass the popcorn and just enjoy the "art" of media control.

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