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Media Tue Sep 18 2012

Karen Lewis Visits Wyoming

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.

Sort of.

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.

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Keli Wildermuth / September 18, 2012 10:06 AM

This is a very accurate depiction of Karen Lewis. Two days ago she was quoted in the Trib & other media outlets stating, "Our members are not happy. They want to know if there is anything more they can get." How can teachers stand behind that kind of leadership & NOT expect to be thought of as greedy? I do have a stake in this battle. I'm a mom with 2 kids in CPS & 2 younger ones at home who will attend in the future. I love our teachers & school, but this strike needs to end! It's time for Karen Lewis to stop using our children as her political pawns!!!

Katie Roenigk / September 18, 2012 2:42 PM

It was fun to read this post, as I also moved to Wyoming from Chicago. I do not, however, see the connection between the political ad and the relevance of newspapers. I'm sure the political ad is available online somewhere. I was disappointed to hear someone in the industry speaking this way about daily newspapers.

Cowboy Joe / September 18, 2012 4:15 PM

So, Paolo, just to recap, you're saying that Wyoming is populated by:

1) Luddites who don't even understand Twitter.

2) People who are "old as hell."

3) Sucky print papers and nothing good online.

Presumably, based on your screed, all the old, technically inept people of Wyoming are too stupid to go online and read a Chicago news outlet, because the Internet doesn't cross state lines.

Did the cartoon run in the Sheridan Press? Did you mention it to your boss. Probably not. You want a paycheck, not an open discussion you claim to support.

What local issues have you actually focused on in Sheridan? Your stuff seems pretty thin.

People in Wyoming (and Sheridan) go online, use Twitter and read the news. So we know what kind of patronizing nonsense you're posting in Chicago blogs rather than getting off your lazy butt and doing some real reporting in your coverage area.

You should go back to waiting tables or reporting on taxi cabs.

Paolo Cisneros / September 18, 2012 5:24 PM

Cowboy Joe, I apologize if this came off as condescending in any way. That certainly wasn't my intention. Wyoming is an incredible state, which is why I moved out here in the first place. This is a piece on media trends that apply to every market in the country, including Chicago. I never meant to belittle Wyoming, and I'm very sorry if it came off that way.

Andrew Huff / September 19, 2012 9:50 AM

Keli, that quote from Karen Lewis isn't about money. From the very beginning of the strike, both CPS and CTU have *both* said that pay was not the issue; teachers were happy with the raise -- which is 2% a year over the course of the contract, not 16% all at once, BTW. Her quote was about getting "more" for the teachers on issues like evaluations and classroom size.

Stanley R / September 19, 2012 9:06 PM

Oddly enough, being a person from a state very much like Wyoming, I find it amazing that we are characterized as old, somewhat backwards people who don't have any idea what Twitter is about. Paolo, it's comments like that that lead city folk to think they've got a place like Wyoming figured out. Like I think you were trying to convey in your piece, we could all do with a little more understanding of each other.

Paolo Cisneros / September 20, 2012 9:58 AM

Thanks for the comment, Stanley. I realize now that I probably should have chosen my words more carefully when it came to my description of the media culture in Wyoming. I certainly never meant to imply that Wyomingites are in any way backwards or technologically inept. In fact, there’s some really forward-thinking online reporting being done in this state. I suppose was I was getting at was that many legacy media outlets in Wyoming and everywhere else in the country are still struggling to figure out how best to utilize new platforms.

You’re right when you say that some city dwellers erroneously think they have places like Wyoming figured out. The truth of the matter is that there’s a lot about Wyoming that Chicagoans (and residents of every big city) should envy. This is an incredible state, and while I’ll always be a Chicagoan at heart, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be right now. To any Wyomingites who might happen across this story, I apologize if it came off as aloof.

Dan Marino / July 28, 2015 10:39 AM

Keli, you are a stay at home Mom. What do you care? If your kids are at home you'll have to miss having coffee with your friends.

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