A League of Her Own

Why ChicagoNow Screwed Up In Censoring Joe The Cop

Man Hiding his Mouth

When I was originally approached by ChicagoNow, way back in February of 2009, my biggest concern about moving my blog to the Chicago Tribune's blog network was censorship. After all, the Cubs were still owned by the Tribune Company, and I was often. . .  less than polite in some of my critique of their baseball operations.

To my relief, I was reassured that my blog would remain MY BLOG, that ChicagoNow had no interest in influencing my posts, and that, short of porn or threatening the President, there was little I could do that would cause the powers that be to remove any of my posts from public view.

Though handing over the administrative reins to my blog was intimidating, ChicagoNow has been true to their word. Not a single one of my posts has been altered or influenced in any way, even when readers have complained about my sometimes-less-than-ladylike-language. I do blog about the Cubs, after all.

Unfortunately, not all ChicagoNow bloggers have been so lucky. Earlier this week, ChicagoNow removed two posts written by my friend and fellow blogger Joe the Cop. As former Public Defender, my official policy is to be wary of cops, whom I usually trust no further than I can throw.  Sadlly, Joe won me over right away. With his boyish sense of right and wrong and his willingness to listen to every side of a story, I came to admire and respect Joe as one of the most fair-minded people I've ever met. 

ChicagoNow's explanation for removing Joe's posts is as follows:

To all our bloggers, and to everyone:

We don't take the removal of posts lightly. Since we launched last year we've removed less than 10 posts on ChicagoNow, and that's out of nearly 70,000 written by our bloggers.

So why did we ultimately decide to pull Joe's post? We felt some of the language in it didn't live up to the part of our blogger guidelines that requires good judgment.

That part reads: "Use good judgment. Even though you are an independent contractor, our readers may think of you as a representative of the Website and your fellow community members."

Specifically, there were two portions of the post that led to its removal: Using phrases such as "urban kabuki theater" and "a ghetto shooting template", as well as this phrase: "The harsh reality is, George Lash will be a better provider for his family as the subject of a civil lawsuit than he was ever going to be in his adult life."

After reviewing the post, we felt some of the language was not acceptable in light of the tragic event. This isn't to say any one word or phrase is unacceptable on its face.

Any post we review is looked at on its own merits. We respect the public's response but that played no role in our decision. In fact, many, if not most comments, on Joe's post and other blog posts supported what he wrote.

I understand that this may raise a question in the minds of our bloggers about what's acceptable. What we have told you from the start still stands: You are in complete control of your content, we will never edit your posts and we trust you to use good judgment.

Given that a tiny fraction of our posts have been removed our faith has been constantly rewarded.

Cheers,
Jimmy Greenfield


There are so many things that bother me about the removal of Joe's posts that I don't know where to start. But I'll try.

1) Before they were removed, Joe's posts were actively promoted on ChicagoNow's Facebook page.  It was only after Time Out Chicago Editor-In-Chief Frank Sennett posted this one-sided attack article about Joe's posts that they were removed:

A lot has happened since I helped lead a rather robust charge against racist Tribune Company blogger Joe the Cop yesterday. The Trib for some reason allows Joe to blog anonymously for its ChicagoNow product. From his cloak of anonymity, Joe beats up on the families of police shooting victims with impunity. (Get up to speed here.) On the positive side, after dozens of readers rose up on Twitter to decry Joe's horribly insensitive posts, ChicagoNow removed them.

On the negative side, Joe's still a paid blogger for Tribune Company. Also, Trib digital veep Bill Adee has so far refused to answer any questions on the matter. So much for the social-media guru who understands the two-way nature of the live web. 

First of all, I couldn't possibly care less what the Editor of Time Out Chicago thinks about Joe's posts. And the fact that Sennett goes out of his way to point out that he "led the charge" tells me a lot about him.

Second of all, none of ChicagoNow's bloggers are "paid bloggers for the Tribune.' We are all independent contractors with the Tribune, and it has been made VERY clear to us that we are not considered part of the Tribune. Furthermore, the amount we get "paid" is laughable. I would think an Editor in Chief of a major publication would make sure his post was fact-checked, but apparently, that's asking too much.

Finally, if "insensitive" is the standard we're using to call for the removal of blog postings, 90% of the internet is going to have be taken down. I'm not sure if Mr. Sennett has been reading newspapers or watching the news lo these last 10 years, but very little is commented on in the media that ISN'T insensitive.  For crying out loud, Glenn Beck has his own TV show.

But Sennett, clearly enjoying his moment in the sun, wasn't done yet:

As you can see, Jimmy fails to offer an apology or take any responsibility for the fiasco, just as his boss Adee has failed. What's even more important in terms of future implications is that Jimmy takes great care not to promise any improvement in editorial oversight that could actually make its guidelines into anything more than window dressing. Adee's clammed up completely. Which means it's pretty much inevitable that something similar to this will happen at ChicagoNow again. And again.

It gets better. The Chicago Reporter, long known for its sharp, sensitive reporting on issues of race, has a blog hosted on ChicagoNow. That blog today called me a censor. (I'm not with the government, so by definition I can't be a censor, and hey, ChicagoNow removed the posts and stated they violated the network's guidelines. But don't let the facts get you down.) The best thing about the blog post: It's headlined, "Is Joe the Cop an intolerable racist?"

In my career, I never thought I'd see the day when the Chicago Reporter would implicitly float the notion that there's such a thing as a tolerable racist. Are they the funny ones who make you laugh at parties? Has the editor of the Chicago Reporter smelled what her blogger is cooking? And is ChicagoNow copacetic with that blogger reposting a big chunk of Joe's post-supposedly banned from the network-as art? Also, everyone and her dog over there seems to know Joe's full name. Why is it a secret to readers? Would he face community outrage in his suburb if he had the guts to use his full name?

What else have we learned? Oh, yeah: ChicagoNow actively promoted Joe's racist posts on Facebook yesterday morning hours before deleting them after a spotlight was shone on them. Yet no one at the Chicago Tribune will take any responsibility for this; in fact, Bill Adee had nothing but positive things to say about Joe in his post about taking down Joe's rants.

An image comes to mind of Mr. Sennett, hunched over his parchment before a roaring fire, his quill gripped tightly in his hand. Clearly, the distinction between blogging and reporting is lost on him.

Blogs do not have or require oversight. That's what makes a blog different from a newspaper article. They are not fact-checked, edited, or approved by the powers that be. Many, many bloggers write under pseudonyms, much as our Founding Fathers did. Blogs are the last vestiges of true freedom of speech, more akin to the Federalist Papers or Common Sense than a newspaper. Bloggers are "hired" by media outlets to share their take on the news, not to report news itself. It is shocking to me that someone who has risen as high in "journalism" as Mr. Sennett  can take such pride in forcing a media outlet to suppress the opinion of one of its columnists. 

In his zest to take a shot at ChicagoNow, Mr. Sennett impugns the name of a good and decent public servant. I, for one, think that ,by putting himself on the line every day to keep Chicagoans safe Joe has earned the right to tell it like it is. Do ChicagoNow readers want to the sanitzed, edited version of what it's like to be a cop? Or do they want to know what many cops really think, feel, and believe? Because if we don't know what it going on in the minds of those who are called upon to enforce the law, how can we ever have an honest conversation about it? 

Are there racist cops in Chicago? Of course. Is Joe the Cop one of them? Abosolutely not. Again, this is coming from a former Public Defender who generally thinks ALL cops are racist.

2.   I fail to see where anything Joe wrote can be conceived as violating ChicagoNow's blogger guidelines. All of us here at ChicagoNow were invited to blog because of our unique takes on the areas we cover. Joe, as a police office, has not only a view of violence on Chicago streets that is relevant to our community, but one that is no doubt shared by many other police officers. That, in and of itself, is a reason for his voice to be heard. 

From the beginning, ChicagoNow has put itself forth as a place for the community to come together to discuss a myriad of issues. The fact that some do not like or are offended by Joe's opinion does not make it ripe for censorship. I am offended by something John Kass writes on a weekly, if not daily, basis. My choices are to a) email John and call him any manner of names; b) engage John in a debate about his ignorance, or 3) not read his column. It has never once occurred to me to demand that the Tribune remove Kass'  column from the Tribune, and I wonder at the hubris of those who have. I certainly don't think those who advocate for the removal of speech they disagreee with have any place in journalism.

Joe did not use profanity, did not mock the death of yet another slain Chicago teenager. He did not advocate for more violence or suggest that the lives of certain Chicagoans are worth less than others. He simply did exactly what he was contracted to do: He expressed his opinion in a thoughtful and conscientious manner.  The idea that ChicagoNow can stand yet another "Top Ten Chicago Celebrities" post while removing Joe's thoughtful commentary is beyond disappointing.

3.  The answer to "bad" or "offensive" speech is not censorship, it's discussion, debate, and education.

While I did not agree with Joe's post, I believe whole-heartedly in his right to post it. The idea taking hold in America that speech that "disagreeable speech" must be removed from the public consciousness is disturbing and downright unAmerican. Much of the most important. speech in this nation's history, from the Federalist Papers to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech has been thought "offensive" at one time or another. In the age of the internet, it is far too easy to make speech "disappear." All of us have a duty to safeguard speech in all it's forms.

For those who were offended by Joe's posts, you have two choices: join in the debate or stop reading.

I, for one, am extremely disappointed in ChicagoNow's decision to bend to public pressure instead of standing by one of its most important and engaging bloggers. I call on ChicagoNow to put Joe's posts back up and to let the chips fall where they may.

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19 Comments

Johnny said:

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Well written. You may want to consider linking to Second City Cop...

Doc said:

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Honestly...having watched CN since its birth less than 2 years ago, I'm surprised this hasn't happened earlier. I understand the guarantees that you (Julie) and the other bloggers were probably given, but I really didn't expect them to honored as you had hoped.

Unfortunately, this is the price of gaining the other benefits that CN's affiliation with Trib Co offers.

JulieDiCaro said:

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It really bothers me not to see CN stand up for one of its bloggers against another publication.

Bex said:

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Someone posted this on bill80's "Why We Removed" post earlier. What's your take?

"While you're an independent contractor, you are still posting on Chicago Tribune property, and by contract you don't have full freedom of speech on someone else's property necessarily."

JulieDiCaro said:

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I don't understand what 'you don't have full freedom of speech' means. I guess this goes back to the fact that I don't think speech that makes people uncomfortable is the same thing is violating the blogger guidelines. There was no profanity. There was nothign prurient or obscene about what Joe said. People thought it was heartless and insensitive--that's not the same thing.

Ed Nickow said:

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This is all about freedom of speech ... freedom of the press ... the First Amendment and all that, right?

So here we have the EIC of a magazine apparently bullying employees of a newspaper (Jimmy and Bill work for the Trib even if we, as bloggers, do not, right?) into censoring a couple of items on the newspaper's blog network.

It just doesn't seem right, does it?

But at least it gave us something to do this afternoon besides listen to the Cubs.

JulieDiCaro said:

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well, Sennett is right in that "freedom of speech" technically applied only to speech censored by the government. but i completely agree that the head of one media publication trying to silence someome from another is hardly caring about free speeech.

Awesome Barb said:

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Well said, Julie. Well said.

JulieDiCaro said:

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Thanks, Barb.

Nash Nova said:

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Oh this is exactly the point. Well stated. I've only just found out about the "big deal" with the posts that were removed. I hadn't actually read the blog posts themselves, but this whole thing is getting blown out of proportion.

As a bloggers (and Americans) we have a right to our own opinions, and everyone isn't going to agree with them. Some of the lines from Joe's post seemed a bit harsh, but I didn't think they were racist. It's unfortunate that he's getting all this negative attention for ranting his opinion on a public forum. Calling someone racist is a VERY bold statement in itself.

JulieDiCaro said:

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I couldn't agree more. Well said.

Dmband said:

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I imagine more and more instances of this occuring. The internet is still largely, the wild wild west. Its only a matter of time before information is censored. It will, ultimately be done "for the children". And we will be talking to our kids about when we were younger and the internet was uncensored.

I will say this: Ive seen on a few occasions bloggers want the same benefit of the doubt as journalists however, they think ethically they are held to a different standard.

These days, whats really the difference betweeen bloggers and journalists? To the general public, there is really no difference.

sloan peterson said:

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Let me get this straight-Mr. Sennett did not like the blog posts, so he elisted Twitter to bully,push, charge or whatever word you like to get CN to cave in and pull the posts. Has the dude ever read the Internet section of any large city newspaper like the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Cnn.com, USA Today? There is is lot of name-calling,obnoxious,racist,sexist, you name it posts out there. 99% are not removed, despite the moderator notes on these sites. Guess what? You don't like it-you answer it,ignore it,create your own post. You don't have a Twitter hissy fit,and have the posts pulled. In my dream world there would be classes for different people to take before they go out in the world: How to stand in line, How to sit on a bus, How to use a supermarket check-out line. I guess how to live in the Internet world would be next...

Doc said:

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how long until one of our rants against Phil Rogers or Paul Sullivan is removed?

tmSparty said:

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Nice article and your perspective on Frank Sennett seems accurate too. His almost obsessive attempt to bring down this particular blogger seemed more a self-promotion or something personal with the ChicagoNow and Tribune folks, at least to this outside the media observer. I was really troubled by his personal attacks on "Joe the Cop" as well..the reference to Joe's Klan sheet was over the top, but that's Sennett's take so be it. I also noticed on a number of online media outlets Sennett is prominent in the comment sections defending his actions. In fact, he's back on Twitter this morning defending himself again.
Hey, some of what Joe said made me squirm and probably was insensitive but what about freedom of thought and speech? Joe's rights seemed to get trampled on big time by Sennett's "rather robust charge" and even more so by the Chicago Now's lack of a back-bone.

JulieDiCaro said:

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couldn't agree more. thanks for commenting!

suburban strider said:

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I am a new blogger here at CN, and though I am not a Cub fan (I gave up in '68 when Fergie Jenkins flipped me the bird for asking for his autograph), I like your evaluation of this situation. I too am concerned about how we are allowed to express ourselves. I plan to bring up a couple of controversial issues about breast cancer in the near future, and I hope that I will be able to without fear because I do not think pink.
So thanks for sticking up for fellow bloggers Julie.
Go Cubs (or whoever).

Wendy C said:

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I am a follower of Joe's blog for over a year and I have never known him to be racist or shy in expressing his spot-on observations. If people are offended, let them repond in his blog, he will politely get back to you. To delete his posts due to outside pressure is the sorriest response CN could have possibly made. Thank you for defending him.

JulieDiCaro said:

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My most recent response over at the Staff Blog:

At this point, telling us all that "freedom of speech" does not apply to non-governmental entities is like telling us that the civil war was about more than slavery. We get it.

If the shield your hiding behind is "this isn't censorship because the Trib isn't the government," you're missing the entire point.

This isn't about freedom of speech in the Pentagon Papers sense of the phrase. It's about supressing speech simply because it's unpopular or because it makes people uncomfortable. That isn't what newspapers, blogs, or the internet are supposed to be about.

We don't have to fight to defend popular speech. It's the unpopular speech that needs our protection.

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