How Chicago’s press corps is dealing with ‘Washington Rahm’

For four years now, Mary Ann Ahern has been chasing Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel, a three-term Illinois congressman and former White House chief of staff who became Chicago’s mayor in 2011, has ducked out back doors while Ahern, a veteran TV reporter, has been waiting to talk to him, she said. He has retaliated for coverage he hasn’t liked by restricting access, and shaken his finger in her face before walking out of an interview because he didn’t like a question. Here’s Ahern chasing after Emanuel down a hallway, trying to ask him a few questions, a month before the mayor was even sworn in:

“Most people like to come in and out of a front door,” said Ahern, the top political reporter for NBC TV’s Channel 5. “Not the mayor. He likes back doors. Side doors. How could the mayor of Chicago not walk out the front door of a place? It’s ridiculous.”

Ahern’s relationship with Emanuel may be more complicated than most. But as the mayor heads into an April 7 runoff election, the personal, accessible image he is now intermittently trying to cultivate stands in sharp contrast with the reputation he has built among Chicago journalists over the past four years.

With millions to spend on TV ads, Emanuel doesn’t necessarily need the press to deliver his message, and even as he has touted a transparent and open administration, the mayor has maintained a steely distance from much of the hometown press corps. He routinely refuses to take questions at press events, changes his schedule at the last minute, and shows up early before the cameras arrive, reporters who have covered him say. Several of the journalists who have followed him during his first term described the relationship as “contentious”—if it can be called a relationship at all.

“It’s all one-way,” said Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “He treats us as pests. He’s trying to run a press operation and carve out an image based on Washington standards.”

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For many reporters here, that’s just it: Some friction between politicians and the press is normal, even healthy. Richard M. Daley, the mayor for more than two decades before Emanuel, could be gruff, and after a record 22 years in office, reporters were used to him. But there are expectations for how the sparring and the daily back-and-forth is conducted in Chicago, and in the view of local journalists, the mayor acts like he’s still in DC—except he has shifted from profane operative to controlling executive.

He treats us as pests. He’s trying to run a press operation and carve out an image based on Washington standards.

Brian Slodysko is a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter. Over the July 4 weekend last summer, one of the city’s deadliest, Slodysko was sent to a South Side playground to cover the mayor. “It was one of those made-for-TV events,” Slodysko recalled. “He bends down and ties a little girl’s shoes, cuts ribbon.” Slodysko asked Emanuel about several reported shootings by police officers. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is for the children’ and walked away and refused to answer the question.”

The next day, Slodysko again approached the mayor, this time at a press event at a gymnasium in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. “I asked him the same question, and he ignored me like I didn’t even exist,” Slodysko said. “That’s some of what we deal with.” He paused before adding, “It’s very not Chicago.”

Alex Garcia, a former photographer for the Chicago Tribune, has a similar story about the first time he was assigned to cover Emanuel, during an event at a local high school. Normally, photographers follow the mayor out, ready to capture a chance meeting or other moment. But this time, the mayor’s staff blocked him “like a football line,” Garcia said. “All of us were stunned. We had no idea what was going on.”

A relatively minor restriction—but it was a harbinger of how things would play out, said Garcia, who left the Tribune in August. “His people would shut you down for no reason,” he said. “There was no reason except to cultivate this aura of power around him, which I think was the goal.”

I spoke briefly by telephone last week with Kelley Quinn, Emanuel’s communications director. After I described the story I was working on, she emailed a list of reporters she wanted me to make sure I had interviewed. When I pressed her for a comment, she directed me to Adam Collins, the mayor’s deputy communications director, who said in an email that Emanuel regularly has private meetings with reporters and columnists in his office or over coffee.

“The mayor has deep respect for the important role the media plays in our democracy, and throughout his career he has developed strong professional relationships with reporters and members of the news media,” Collins said in a statement. “He participates in open forums with the Chicago editorial boards, on local public affairs shows, and with government reform groups.”

Ben Joravsky, a political reporter for the Chicago Reader, the city’s alt-weekly, was not on the list of reporters Quinn wanted me to contact. He describes himself as “persona non grata with the mayor’s press people.”

Joravsky has had his calls returned often enough to describe what it’s like to deal with Emanuel, however. “If it’s on the record, he’s going to give you nothing but talking points,” he said. “There won’t be anything resembling a give-and-take unless it’s him making fun of you. If you come back at him, he gets mad, and that’s it. You’re never going to talk to him again. You’re off the list.”

So just how “Washington” is this approach? I asked my former Washington Post colleague Michael Shear, who is now a White House correspondent for The New York Times. Shear covered the White House when Emanuel was chief of staff for President Barack Obama.

“Like all Washington officials at a high level, and the White House was very much like this, if he didn’t want to engage or answer your question he was very good about not calling you back,” Shear said. “I wouldn’t say that puts him in a special league. Every White House official is hard to get to and hard to get on the phone.”

While in DC, Emanuel was known for his foul language and his screaming rants at the press. But he also could be extremely engaging.

“The Chicago press is obviously getting a taste of the Washington Rahm,” Shear said. “But it also sounds like Barack Obama, very controlled. It sort of fits. The yin and yang of Rahm. He’s this authentic, very raw, very profane, behind-the-scenes kind of guy who actually builds relationships with the press. But the flip side is that he’s also learned some of the lessons of message discipline, the cool-professor thing Obama has done.”

In many ways, Emanuel’s relationship with the press mirrors his broader style of governing—which may have something to do with why he has ended up in a runoff in the first place. Beyond that, does it really matter if the media and the mayor don’t get along?

Beth Konrad, a past president for the Chicago Headline Club, the city’s chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, says it does.

“This attitude has a chilling effect after a while,” said Konrad, who directs the journalism program at Loyola University.

Emanuel’s administration has made a point of making more city data available, Konrad said. But the material is difficult for ordinary citizens or even most journalists to navigate and hasn’t resulted in a more transparent government, she argues. “You can’t have any kind of open government if you don’t have some openness with the local press,” Konrad said.

With Emanuel’s political future on the line, there have been some signs of more openness recently. Carol Marin, a political columnist for the Sun-Times and contributor to WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, said she’s seen a different version of the mayor during the runoff campaign—“to some extent,” she was quick to add.

“One of the things I’ve said to previous communications directors from the very beginning is that we don’t have to talk to the mayor to cover him because it’s only meaningful to talk to the mayor if there can be a conversation and not regurgitation of a press release,” she said. “This was also true and remains true of the president.”

The city’s reporters are used to pushback from politicians, Marin said.

“Mayor Daley was no walk in the park,” she said. “So it isn’t personal. But it is professional, and the professional consequence of this kind of combat is you fight harder for each piece of information. I don’t think that’s a healthy two-way street for anyone, and [it’s] not healthy for the public.”

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