Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago media debate

Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago media debate
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, seen in 2011, is to start making appearances on WTTW's Chicago Tonight. (Photo: danxoneil/Flickr under CC)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is to make regular appearances on Chicago Tonight, the news program of public television station WTTW.

The discussions, which began on May 13 and are due to be held every 4-6 weeks, are to look at city issues with various reporters with the program. The topics decided are at the discretion of the program’s production team, according to a statement from WTTW.

“Our interviews with Mayor Emanuel will be of sufficient length to get beyond sound bites, to help our audiences better understand the difficult issues facing our city,” said Mary Field, Chicago Tonight’s Executive Producer, in that statement. “We think this is an important service we can offer our viewers, particularly in a critical time when the Mayor is being forced to make some painful choices that will affect the lives of many citizens.”

The news of Emanuel’s scheduled appearances came as he faced criticism on lack of transparency and communications leading up to the April by election, as well as his relationship with the Chicago media, the subject of a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review magazine, including a dispute with Mary Ann Ahern, the top political reporter for the NBC-owned WMAQ Channel 5. The magazine also mentioned a list of reporters that should be quoted in that piece, later revealed under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Chicago media columnist Robert Feder.

It is unclear if more opportunities will be given for media beyond these appearances. Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request from ChicagoNow seeking comment. Emanuel was sworn in as mayor for a second term Monday.

NBC 5 has not been the only outlet struggling to get availability with the Mayor. (Photo: BetacommandBot - Wikimedia Commons under CC)

NBC 5 has not been the only outlet struggling to get availability with the Mayor. (Photo: BetacommandBot – Wikimedia Commons under CC)

For Chicago’s media, it is hoped this signals a change in Emanuel’s relationship with them. Randi Belisomo, a reporter for WGN and a former board member of the Chicago Headline Club, the city’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, who has covered Emanuel, says WTTW’s move shows the need for Emanuel to be held accountable and accessible to a general audience.

“The Mayor’s events and availability events are scripted and tightly regulated affairs and events,” Belisomo said in a telephone interview. “The Chicago Tonight format is in-depth and more probing. I hope that allows for a lot of depth and questioning, and more comprehensive analysis.”

Belisomo says Emanuel is aware that accessibility and being approachable is key to his likability factor, which had been key especially for the elections. Belisomo said on one occasion during the campaign as reporters were shouting questions to Emanuel as he was departing, Emanuel heard one question and promptly turned back, saying he wanted to answer that question.

“He realized he had to get rid of the King Rahm image,” Belisomo said. “I don’t think there is time for the true little moments [with the press] to happen.”

Indeed, observations were made of Emanuel’s increase in accessibility, particularly during the runoff campaign, says Jackie Spinner, an associate professor at Columbia College and the writer of the article in the Review.

Spinner says however it is uncertain if this means a change in the relationship with Emanuel and the media.

“It could be a sign that the Mayor wants to have a better relationship,” Spinner said in a telephone interview. “He can’t hand pick the media he chooses to engage with. He simply has to engage.”

Overall, Spinner says, the move is positive.

“It’s a good thing if the Mayor is making himself more accessible,” Spinner said. “If he is transparent and willing to answer questions and if the questions are tough, we the public will be better served by more access to the Mayor.”

Indeed, Belisomo says Emanuel going on WTTW allows him to be held to account, and that platform would allow for an understanding of the immediate effect on his policies.

“It is a friendly forum for him,” Belisomo said. “The fact its on WTTW’s terms is a good thing.”

Editor’s note: WGN is owned by the Chicago Tribune Media Group, which owns and operates ChicagoNow, the platform for A Cuppa Social. Both A Cuppa Social and Chicago Now operate independent of WGN and Tribune editorial operations. Feder’s blog is operated independently under an agreement with the Tribune Media Group.

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