Emails pull back the veil on 'unscripted' documentaryBy John Kass
April 25, 2014
Looking at how CNN blew its own toes off by foolishly playing with a loaded Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, I was reminded about what really drives me crazy about national TV news.
The "talent" — that's what TV calls its reporters — is driven over to City Hall, where, in a "candid" interview, the political boss dismisses the worst cliches about Chicago.
Then the boss promises to go green by adding more bike lanes. Or he vows to "end the culture of corruption." Or he plans to "fight the cycle of violence with the help of the people in the neighborhoods."
This allows the boss to come off like a gleaming demigod of virtue. And the talent gets something too: a patina of Chicago political authenticity.
Later, on some political talk show, the talent can say, "Well, I was in Chicago and what Rahm told me was …"
The mayor looks heroic, and the talent gets political Chicago bona fides on national TV. And the rest of us? We just pull our hair out.
But now the nationals have taken things to the next level of excruciating pain:
The Tribune report late last week made it clear that CNN coordinated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall to shape the news for the mayoral propaganda festivus called "Chicagoland."
"Chicagoland" — which was produced in part by the formerly craggy-faced Robert Redford, now starring in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" — depicted a city awash in violence.
But through it all Mayor Rahmfather was the man to handle all the problems. And when he wasn't handling problems, he was hugging or giving fist bumps to African-Americans to show them how much he cared.
"Chicagoland" was billed as a tough, no-nonsense look at a tough city and a tough mayor facing tough times, a mayor who never backed down from a challenge.
And by an amazing coincidence, "Chicagoland" was also produced by two filmmakers who usually work closely with Rahm's brother, Ari, the Hollywood superagent.
Unfortunately for CNN, Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart obtained some 700 emails between Emanuel's staff and the series' producers showing that "Chicagoland" was shaped to offer up Rahm as a dynamic figure on that ridiculous little flip phone of his.
The producers and Emanuel aides shared ideas for "characters and story lines," and when producers asked Rahm to show up at Fenger High School to interact with Principal Elizabeth Dozier on camera, the mayor complied. It was all done with the aim of showing the Rahmfather "as the star that he really is," as one producer wrote.
CNN's news releases were even shown to City Hall ahead of time, with an Emanuel aide emailing: "Thanks! I'll have edits for you shortly!" (CNN later denied granting City Hall "editorial control" of the series or the news releases.)
So if I worked for CNN, would I have to run my column over to City Hall so the mayor could take a blue pencil to it and take out the parts that offend him?
Maybe. But happily, Mayor Rahmfather doesn't edit my column.
The Tribune's Ruthhart talked to producer Marc Levin, who explained how TV documentaries about politicians are arranged.
"Everything the mayor does is stage-managed. Everything. That is the way he operates, so I'm not going to dispute that," Levin said. "I would be the first to acknowledge that you don't get into Chicago … and get access without having to do a certain dance."
As self-serving and unctuous spins go, not bad, Mr. Levin. But not good enough.
Politicians love managing the news. But they can only do so when news operations allow it. The story here is that CNN rolled over to make Rahm a "star," and now the producers will go back with Ari Emanuel, and CNN will stump around on toeless feet.
Just don't make the mistake of thinking this is merely a Chicago story. It isn't. It is an American story, played out from the White House to your local village hall.
Political gatekeepers control access to government officials. Reporters fear losing that access, and that's how people like Rahm can shape the news. Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff to Obama, knows this to be true.
But Rahm isn't the first Chicago pol to be petted and stroked by news networks. His predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was treated like a prince by all the networks, even though Daley's administration oozed corruption and brutal arrogance.
Years ago, in a Daley profile, CNN even compared Daley to the benevolent fictional sheriff Andy Taylor on the old "Andy Griffith Show."
A Daley as Andy Griffith? What kind of cynical reporter could make such a craven comparison?
Why, none other than Jay Carney, now the press secretary to President Obama.
In Chicago, Obama was also given repeated smooches by the national TV as he began to rise.
His history was rewritten, ignored or barely acknowledged, such as his friendship with now-imprisoned influence peddler Tony Rezko, a classic Chicago bagman. And Obama was offered up to America by the national media as a young Moses.
A Chicago media blog called the Beachwood Reporter noted that before Redford began doing publicity for "Chicagoland," he played press critic in a 2012 BBC interview.
Redford's breakout role came as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. But Redford told BBC that newspaper standards were in "steep decline."
"That's why documentaries have become so important," Redford told BBC. "They are probably a better form of truth."
But if it wasn't for a newspaper, we wouldn't know how you let your "better form of truth" be shaped by Mayor Rahmfather, the master manipulator of Chicago's City Hall.