United States Project

Chicago TV journalists finally get their first—and last—interviews with Obama

January 13, 2017
Photo by Jackie Spinner

For the eight years he was in office, President Barack Obama snubbed the Chicago press corps, ignoring repeated interview requests from local reporters in his adopted hometown.

Then—days before he returned this week to deliver a farewell address to 18,000 people at the McCormick Place Convention Center on Tuesday—the White House invited five Chicago TV journalists to Washington and offered each one a four-minute interview. (Obama declined multiple requests from the Chicago Tribune, according to the city’s largest daily newspaper, which published a front-page story Sunday on his “mixed record” in championing the city and its concerns. The White House also declined multiple interview requests from the Chicago Sun-Times.)

“Once he left town, I kind of feel he left our beat,” says Mary Field, executive producer for Chicago Tonight, a TV news program on public station WTTW.

The eight-year wait left a lot of ground to cover. NBC 5 political editor Carol Marin finally got a chance to ask Obama about Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Illinois governor who was sentenced to prison in 2011 for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat. Obama declined to comment on whether he would commute Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence before leaving office, and instead spoke more generally about the presidential pardon process.

“Any Chicago reporter who expected special access to the White House because of working here was disappointed,” says Peter Slevin, an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, whose biography of Michelle Obama was published in 2015. “It was very hard for so many Chicago journalists to get access. He left here and set out to be the president of the country.” (Slevin told CJR in a 2015 interview that Michelle Obama declined to be interviewed for his book.)

Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, says access to Obama was limited for a lot of journalists and not just the local press.

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“I think one of the hallmarks from a press standpoint from his tenure in the White House is that he’s done very few news conferences,” Kirk says. “Access to him in general has been difficult outside of the prepared, scripted things he’s done throughout his presidency. From a local standpoint, we’re fairly disappointed.”

When Obama came home to Chicago on Tuesday night, local reporters disappeared into the pack of hundreds of journalists with press credentials—and were shooed away from the four large coffee urns that CNN had set up for its employees. Before the speech, the president’s motorcade stopped at Valois, a restaurant on the South Side, according to the White House pool report. He sat for an interview there, not with a Chicago reporter but instead with Lester Holt, the weekday anchor for NBC Nightly News.

In his nearly hour-long address, Obama talked about his roots in community organizing in Chicago. He gave a nod to the South Side, where Michelle Obama grew up and where the couple first settled down after they were married. Otherwise, he declined to talk about the city now led by his former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Throughout his speech, Obama sounded more like the community organizer that he once was in Chicago than a politician. He called on people to believe in their own ability to change, to get out and make a difference, to talk to a stranger in person instead of on social media. And his crowd—many of those same steadfast supporters who embraced him years ago—embraced the message.

“Obama has not changed, and that’s why so much of his speech was not about politics,” says Slevin, who attended the address. “It was about values. This is who he has always been in Chicago.”

His relationship with the press also has gone relatively unchanged. Local journalists who covered him during his early political career in Illinois say he didn’t become more elusive when he moved to DC. Rather, he was always carefully managed and hard to pin down for an interview.

Marin, a former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and reporter, recalls that 18 months passed during Obama’s first presidential campaign before he agreed to talk to the newspaper about his relationship with fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on corruption charges related to his private business dealings. “Even before he was elected, we had trouble,” she says.

In addition to Marin, the other local TV reporters invited to interview Obama before his farewell speech included Jay Levine, who stepped down as chief correspondent for CBS 2 earlier this year; Judy Hsu from ABC 7; Muriel Clair from WGN; and Dawn Hasbrouck from Fox 32. For each reporter, the interview was the first—and almost certainly the last—during Obama’s presidency. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg was not granted an interview but instead was tapped to provide the local pool reports from Obama’s visit.

“They picked,” Marin said. “Each of us was directly contacted by the White House. Somehow we were selected.”

Although these kinds of interviews are typically called “sit-downs,” meaning the reporter and the subject sit for their conversation, the White House required the Chicago journalists to stand. The president did the same. Each of the stations promoted the interviews with their reporters as an exclusive. Nonetheless, Hsu—the last of the local five to interview Obama—called her interview “an extraordinary” opportunity.

Because the brevity of the interviews limited the reporters’ ability to ask follow-up questions, Hsu said the news team at ABC decided it was better to ask the president to look ahead to how he might help Chicago after leaving office, “rather than looking back at what could’ve been done differently.”

Her first question to Obama was about gun violence. “Mr. President,” she asked, “our city, your city, is being torn apart by gun violence. How will you use the considerable power that you have after leaving office to help Chicago reclaim its streets?”

Obama told Hsu that he had already assigned the Justice Department to investigate the Chicago Police Department. (The Justice Department’s report is expected to be released today, after a year-long investigation into the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, an event that was captured on video.) He called Chicago a “strange exception” to falling crime rates in other cities. “What I intend to do is to build off of some of the work that has been done in other cities to intervene in violence, provide better support for youth that are at risk.”

All five TV reporters asked Obama about the gun violence in Chicago, and Obama made passing references to the Justice Department investigation. Levine, of CBS 2, even told the president that “it’s got to be frustrating that the most powerful man in the free world cannot stop the violence in his hometown.”

But in his farewell address, Obama didn’t talk about the violence, even though it has scarred many of the communities whose members have been most passionate in their support for him. Chicago had more than 700 murders in 2016, up from 495 the year before. Eight more people were killed the week before Obama returned to Chicago to give his speech. “Chicago has been in the national spotlight, the poster child for policing issues, gun violence,” says Kirk, the top editor at the Sun-Times. “We would have liked to hear from him on those very issues.”

Marin also was surprised the president didn’t use a portion of his speech to talk about the killings.

“For as long as it went, there wasn’t a discussion of the blood in Chicago’s streets,” she says. “I was waiting for some reference to what one does about this intractable, tragic problem.” It’s a problem that has shaped Chicagoans’ lives in profound ways, but the reference never came.

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.