Monday, November 21, 2011

Getting spun by newsmakers something we watch out for, but it happens anyway

I must confess to squirming just a bit too much Friday night when I saw the latest episode of “Boss,” the new drama created by the Starz cable television network that stars actor Kelsey Grammer as a character who just happens to be the mayor of Chicago.
Television too real for comfort?

Now like any other television program (or cinematic effort, for that matter), liberties are taken with facts. Things happen in the Chicago political world of Grammer’s “Tom Kane” character that don’t happen in the world of Rahm Emanuel or the Daleys – no matter how craven you believe politics to be.

YET THERE WAS one moment in the most recent episode that made me downright uncomfortable – because the Chicago newsman in me (it will be 25 years in the business come May of 2012) knows it is too true.

The underlying storyline of the episode was that a “scandal” had come out involving the Kane character approving the dumping of chemicals more than two decades ago at a site without regard to what pollution resulted.

The end result is that the water supply of suburban Bensenville is now poisoned.

We get to see how Kane’s staffers plot a strategy to get them through the next three days of news coverage while shifting the focus of the story away from the mayor.

IN SHORT, THE story should be how Bensenville is coping with tainted water, rather than on who caused the water to be tainted in the first place.

At one point, a mayoral aide calls up a television reporter and throws out hints that Bensenville residents are panicking by looking to sell their homes. That night, one station does a story about the panicking.

Another station is given a “tip” by the mayoral aides that bottled water is in short supply at area stores. THAT becomes the focus of another station’s report.

We get the sight during the episode of a mayoral aide literally erasing the call letters of individual Chicago television stations (fictional versions, of course) on a giant board as stations, one-by-one, shift the focus of the story from “Chicago” to “Bensenville.”

IT MADE ME squirm because it struck me as being too real. Because all too often, reporter-type people wind up “playing along” with the way news gets “staged” for public consumption.

There are times when we wind up feeling that calling the political people on such staging would somehow be the equivalent of letting our own personal opinions intervene in coverage – which is THE Cardinal Sin of the news reporting business.

Yet it makes us all too capable at times of being little more than stenographers for the political people whose actions we’re supposed to be holding up to public scrutiny.

A part of me couldn’t help but note the Cook County Board, which on Friday did something for-real far less sordid than the fictional Kane staff did. But spin-worthy in its own effort, nonetheless.

THAT WAS THE day the county board  approved its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. They managed to reduce the number of people who will have to be laid off in order to cut expenses enough to stay within the $2.9 billion the county expects to have for Fiscal ’12.

At the end of the day (they spent seven hours going through every agency to find areas where cuts, transfers and other financial dickering could be accomplished), some 280 people were saved from unemployment. Their layoff notices will be rescinded.

County officials spent the end of the day patting themselves on the back (likely before heading for a tavern for a belt or two) for their actions. Even though several hundred people are still going to lose their jobs. Which means the cantankerous county Commissioner William Beavers, D-Chicago, may well have been the most honest person in the room when he repeatedly complained about the budget in saying that many people would still get laid off.

It wasn’t even just that one moment.

THERE HAVE BEEN many instances where people gave me information whose public disclosure served them well. The spin they tried to put on those factual tidbits made them look good (or, more often, made someone else look absolutely ridiculous).

It is the “golden” rule I keep in mind to take into consideration whether or not the information getting out actually has some significant purpose for the general public. Or is it truly nothing more than self-serving?

Because I will be the first to admit that having people get information to me serves a professional benefit to myself. There are times when I feel like I use these people as much as they are using me.

It all becomes a balancing act, and I only hope that I haven’t completely screwed up on occasion in letting the scale go out of whack.

WHICH IS WHY I find it ridiculous to hear conservative ideologues rant and rage about “liberal” bias. We get used way too often by the government establishment to truly be thought of as “the opposition.”

“Unwitting accomplice” may be more accurate a phrase – which was something “Boss” hit upon too close for my comfort.


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