United States Project

The Guardian’s Homan Square story was huge on the internet–but not in Chicago media

March 4, 2015

CHICAGO, IL — On Election Day just over a week ago, as this city’s reporters and editors focused on whether the incumbent mayor with ties to the White House would win big or be forced into a historic run-off, an out-of-town newspaper produced a startling account of alleged abuse at a police facility called Homan Square.

The blockbuster story, published in The Guardian and written by Brooklyn-based journalist Spencer Ackerman, described the warehouse as the “domestic equivalent of a CIA black site,” where secretive police units operate and detainees are “disappeared,” with no access to lawyers or relatives and no immediate record of their whereabouts.

With its comparisons to war-on-terror practices and allegations of police brutality, the story landed big on the internet, with well more than 100,000 social shares and write-ups across the Web. The one place it didn’t get much traction: Chicago media.

The city’s two main dailies, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, quickly reported that city police denied any wrongdoing in pieces that offered little original reporting. The CBS affiliate in Chicago also reported the police denial. The local papers and TV stations have since covered protests from groups demanding that the facility be shuttered.

But more than a week after the initial story, local enterprise reporting remains scant. The most notable examples are a few oddly framed stories, from the Tribune and public radio station WBEZ, suggesting that the focus on Homan Square is misplaced and that, according to local defense attorneys, abusive detentions and interrogations may actually be routine and widespread. If true, that would seem to be worth digging into—but the local coverage, especially in the Tribune, put as much emphasis on possible overreach by The Guardian as it did on police abuse.

For some local media observers, it has been a discouraging week, if not entirely unexpected.

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“I’ve seen it before,” said Susy Schultz, president of Chicago’s Community Media Workshop. “Instead of jumping on a big story, the Chicago press corps will rally to take it down because missing it is embarrassing to the hometown reporters… [E]go gets in the way of good issue reporting.”

Steve Rhodes, publisher of the The Beachwood Reporter, a local media and politics site that devoted a lengthy podcast to the story, offered an even harsher critique. The past week has been one of the “most disheartening episodes in local media malfeasance that I can recall in my 23 years in Chicago,” he said. In a column today, he again pressed his colleagues in the media to take a harder look.

At the same time, not everyone was wowed by the initial Guardian report, which hung big claims on a relatively small circle of sources. Timothy J. McNulty, a former Chicago Tribune reporter who is now the co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University, said the story’s bluster might have raised questions about its credibility. “It was overblown to call it a black site,” he said.

“But,” he added, “the local media certainly have a responsibility to check it out as they would any story that came along this way.”

That has not yet happened in any sustained or serious way, even as The Guardian has continued to report on the story.

Meanwhile, one of the first publications to pick up and advance the Guardian coverage was The Intercept, a New York-based investigative news site. Juan Thompson, a former WBEZ producer who also wrote for DNAInfo in Chicago before moving to New York, wrote up the Guardian story when it broke. Two days later, after spotting a tip on Twitter, he delivered his own exclusive, an interview with a computer analyst who recounted his time at Homan Square after being picked up in a drug-related case that was later thrown out. (The Intercept is backed by Pierre Omidyar, who also supports a foundation that is a major supporter of CJR’s United States Project.)

In an interview, Thompson noted that there has been some pushback from Chicago media to The Guardian’s depiction of Homan Square—a building that is familiar to local police reporters—as a secretive site. “That’s not the point—[the point is] what’s going on in the site,” he said.

“It’s Chicago,” Thompson added. “The PD there has a notorious and nasty history of terrorizing and brutalizing people. I think it’s important.”

In fairness to the local media, the troubled history of Chicago law enforcement is known in large part due to coverage here. The Tribune and Sun-Times, with other local news organizations, including the alt-weekly Chicago Reader, relentlessly covered the torture and abuse under former Lt. Commander Jon Burge. The Tribune has done significant work on wrongful convictions, with the fallout—in terms of litigation and freed prisoners—prompting scores of follow-up stories. And in 2012, the Tribune even reported allegations that police had “disappeared” a group of NATO protestors and misled the public about it—a case that was at the center of the Guardian’s first Homan Square story. (Craig Newman, managing editor of the Sun-Times, declined to comment for this story. So did reporters I reached out to at both local papers. An editor at the Tribune did not respond to requests for comment.)

And the initial slow response may be about timing: Election Day, when the Guardian article landed, turned out to be a huge story itself. In a surprise outcome, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced into a run-off next month against Jesus G. Garcia, the first time in the city’s history an incumbent has faced that prospect.

But that doesn’t explain the limited coverage in the week that followed, or the odd way in which the Guardian’s coverage is treated in local accounts. Some Chicago news accounts have taken pains to note the Homan Square story came from a British publication, though the author, Ackerman, is an American. That would seem to be a way for local outlets to signal that they aren’t impressed–but whatever the difference in emphasis or dispute over certain facts, the local coverage hasn’t debunked the idea that there may be serious problems in police practices. And there is clearly an audience eager to learn more about what’s happening here.

“Even if there are flaws in the reporting of this story, which is the current theme, all of the Chicago media should be jumping on this aggressively to find out what is and isn’t true,” said Schultz, of the Community Media Workshop.

In other words, there is plenty of reporting left to do. Much of the coverage so far, in both local and national media, has focused on the accounts of defense lawyers and people under arrest. Even reading closely, it can be hard to get a handle on how pervasive the alleged police abuse was, or is. There are questions to pin down about how official policy has changed and how it is enforced, about how arrestee records are generated and what the logs show, and about how or whether we can vet the city’s assurances that everything is being done properly. Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project–who was one of The Guardian’s sources, and is a vocal critic of local media–outlined some of these questions in an op-ed for Crain’s Chicago Business on Tuesday.

Reached by telephone in New York, The Guardian’s Ackerman didn’t especially want to engage in a meta-media debate.

“I really like the reporting to speak for me,” he said. “I hope it will inspire aggressive local reporting on this really important subject, that it doesn’t just become The Guardian versus the Chicago media. This really is about a story critical to Chicago citizenry.”

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.