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Media Tue Sep 18 2012
By Paolo Cisneros
Just one day into the strike last week, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis stepped away from the picket lines to make an impromptu appearance in a small town in rural Wyoming.
I happened to notice because I just moved to the Cowboy State from the corner of Damen and Wilson in Ravenswood. I'm trying my hand at a stint in the West, but Chicago will always be home.
I've been following coverage of the strike from afar because I care deeply about the state of affairs in my city. So I was infuriated to see last week that a Wyoming newspaper devoted space on its opinion page to running a political cartoon that grossly mischaracterized the nature of the movement.
It's a syndicated piece by a California-based cartoonist that depicts Karen Lewis standing on the back of an anguished Chicago taxpayer. He's lying facedown in the dirt, struggling for air with a tin cup in one hand and a sign in the other that reads, "BROKE. Please help!" On top of him, Lewis shouts into a megaphone; "What do we want? We want more!!"
Ordinarily I wouldn't have given it much thought, but here in Wyoming, newspapers are still a big deal. Hell, I work for one of them. And while political cartoons are meant to lampoon the absurd, most Chicagoans, regardless of whether they side with the teachers or the city, will readily acknowledge that pay increases were never the primary driving force behind what's happened these past few weeks.
So it annoyed the hell out of me that a cartoonist based in California (a place that isn't Chicago) helped distort the strike conversation in places like Wyoming (also not Chicago). That's not to say it isn't national news. The repercussions could be enormous for educational systems across the country. But every now and then, old-ass media outlets get something so incredibly wrong that it makes me excited we're finally moving in a new direction. And that's something I never thought I'd say.
Like many reporters of my generation, I went to journalism school in the hopes of one day becoming a hardened reporter for a large metropolitan daily. As a college student, I resented the shift to online media and shared the concerns of my parents' generation that news coverage was getting shallower by the hour.
But here in Wyoming, we don't have a host of online news outlets to which we can turn for information. We don't have anything close. No one's focused on covering local issues in a way that encourages conversations between journalists and citizens. No one's dedicating all their resources toward covering a single complex issue really, really well. And absolutely no one understands what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to something as fundamental as Twitter. In a state of only about half a million people (most of whom are old as hell), local newspapers still hold tremendous sway in shaping the way people think about the world. And because of that cartoon, some Wyomingites now likely think of Karen Lewis and the rest of the Chicago Teachers Union as delusional money-grubbing lefties without any concern for the poor defenseless city.
So in certain regards, maybe it's a good thing newspapers are finally going away. Despite what some people say, I don't believe for a second that the demise of newspapers means the demise of journalism. If it means anything at all, the demise of newspapers means the demise of a system in which editors scramble to fill space by any means necessary. It means the end of newspaper executives feeling so desperate to be everything to everyone that they're satisfied running content that distorts when it's supposed to illuminate. It means the end of reporters from different news organizations seeing each other as competitors rather than assets. It means the end of a definitive account of what is true and what is important.
While the cartoon that ran last week certainly brought my blood to a boil, it's unlikely to have any effect. Wyoming remains a staunchly conservative state, and most readers were probably going to believe the union was in the wrong regardless of what their newspaper told them to think. But why hammer the idea home? The rolling grasslands and jagged mountain peaks of Wyoming feel a million miles away from the realities facing teachers in neighborhood schools on the South Side of Chicago. Regardless of how much California cartoonists and Wyoming ranchers might resent organized labor, the issues that prompted the teachers strike are nuanced and affect the livelihood of tens of thousands of real people. And as long as big media--the kind that casts an enormous net and attempts to cover more than its resources will adequately allow--continues to shape the conversation, how can we ever encourage a truly productive debate about the issues facing public education? Or anything else for that matter.
If anyone happens to see Karen Lewis, please tell her she's wasting her time in Wyoming.
Paolo Cisneros is a nonfiction writer based in Sheridan, WY. He loves beer, the Chicago Fire Soccer Club and combining the two. Follow him @PaoloCisneros.