Chicago media criticized for looting, vandalism coverage

A woman screams at a officer after a police-involved shooting in Englewood August 9. (WGN-TV)

Chicago’s news media under fire for coverage of African-American communities

Even though a Tribune article published Friday fell short in describing the tense relationship between the local news media and the Black community, it did bring up valid points needing to be addressed. 

In a sub-headline titled “Black Chicagoans, white media at odds”, writer Christen Johnson reported on the frail relationship after looters vandalized and destroyed stores in the mostly white neighborhoods north of the Loop early Monday morning, including the Mag Mile, Gold Coast, Streeterville, and River North areas – not to mention the South Loop and Near North Side community areas.

This came after police shot an offender last Sunday in Englewood as misinformation spread about who was involved and what circumstances occurred – although news reports Friday evening revealed there may be no connection to the looting downtown. 

This is the second time looting has hit the Mag Mile and the Loop in a little over two months: unrest also occurred in the area last spring in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder – one the local news media failed miserably to cover, ignoring the mayhem much of the day on May 30. 

Several social media posts spurred looting and vandalism downtown, as footage of the mayhem was caught on live TV and shown worldwide, already hurting an already image-scarred city as politicians and television commentators were hurling around the usual “we’re on our way to becoming Detroit” hot-takes. 

Johnson interviewed community organizers and journalism professors, and all came to one conclusion – Monday’s news coverage of the mayhem gave the shaft to Chicago’s African-American community. Here’s what Travis Dixon, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told the Tribune: 

“My research has found consistently that traditional media and traditional media sites, for instance like newspapers, television, often tend to depict African Americans in unfavorable ways, usually as criminals, or as poor, or what have you. Local news, particularly television news, has a pretty bad track record when it comes to this, mostly in terms of the portrayals. They tend to just further stereotype the community, with few exceptions.”

Eva Maria Lewis, a college student who works for a non-profit agency to combat gun violence, put it more bluntly: “Distrust would be an understatement. They don’t work for us; they actually work against us. Distrust means that trust can be found or created. Anti-Blackness is violent. It’s not distrust; it’s you are also the problem. You are the cops.”

Aftermath of looting: Chicago cops stand guard outside looted Best Buy store.

It’s odd to see this criticism in a publication known for being part of the problem (which they stuck in the “lifestyle” section) – and this is perhaps the reason why the piece didn’t go far enough in detailing why the relationship between the “white” media and the Black community isn’t good. And if you’ve read this blog for years, you already know why.

For one, media has never really covered racial issues fairly or accurately, going back to the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, many local stations – particularly in the South, were not happy with the “biased” way CBS and NBC covered the movement. For example, NBC affiliate WLBT in Jackson, Miss. with a pro-segregationist past, would routinely black out civil rights news stories, pretending it was largely “cable trouble” as then-station GM Fred Beard called the coverage “Negro Propaganda“. Then-ABC affiliate WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C. went even further and gave future Senator and known pro-segregationist Jesse Helms a commentary slot every night. 

In 1985, CBS-owned WBBM-TV was the subject of a boycott by Operation PUSH and the Rev. Jesse Jackson after African-American anchor Harry Porterfield lost his main anchor spot to a returning Bill Kurtis. Ratings plummeted and never recovered as viewership remains low to this day. And of course, the station did not learn its lesson: In 2011, the same station aired maliciously edited footage of a 4-year old stating he wanted to be a “gang member” when he really wanted to fight the bad guys. The move was criticized by Rep. Bobby Rush and the NAACP, among others (a similar instance took place at Sinclair-owned Baltimore Fox affiliate WBFF in 2014, resulting in the dismissal of a few staffers.)

Over the years, local news stations in the top six media markets became part of bigger media conglomerates. Network-owned stations in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dallas (excluding ABC affiliate WFAA), are now part of  either Disney, NBCUniversal, or ViacomCBS, whose stations aren’t exactly a priority as their parent companies chase streaming dollars.

Outside of the network-owned stations, media consolidation has drastically reduced the number of broadcast companies as the FCC has deregulated the industry, removing caps on how many radio or TV stations one can buy and relieving them of numerous public-service requirements, such as axing the local studio rule

Sinclair (who nearly bought WGN-TV and WGN Radio owner Tribune) took advantage of deregulation to foster their right-wing ideology to local news viewers. As Vulture columnist Josef Adalian notes, local stations across the country (including here) are becoming an arm of the Trump White House, carrying his daily news conferences of which contain very little substance. 

Scenes like this were repeated on local TV stations ad nauseam on August 10 and 11. (Network Video Productions)

Chicago’s two main newspapers have made cutbacks over the last decade due to inconsistent ownership (Michael Ferro, Sam Zell, etc.) and management, leading to a loss of subscribers and focusing more on crime-blotter stories with a lack of depth. 

Then, there’s the Fox News angle I pointed out in a recent article about the cable news network’s prime-time coverage of Chicago mayhem. The focus on dysfunction in the city’s African-American community and non-stop bashing of Chicago leaders such as Mayor Lightfoot has become a prime-time ratings hit, as Johnson missed this point in her article completely. 

And perhaps more tragically, there’s the elimination of legacy Black media, from the demise of Johnson Publishing (home of Ebony and Jet) to the print edition of the Chicago Defender.

Back in September 2019, I wrote about how the local news media generally does a poor job of covering crime and issues involving African-Americans in general. Thus, the reaction from the Black community regarding coverage of Monday’s mayhem wasn’t surprising. Back in May, local community news website The Triibe documented on how there is a disconnect between the news media and young people in the African-American community, after a party was thrown at a Belmont Craigin residence with hundreds of people in attendance at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The disconnect is perhaps even greater than it is with conservatives. While news generates nearly half a station’s revenues, it generally skews older – but it hasn’t stopped news expansion as it attracts tons of advertising – especially political, retail, and automotive. 

As I pointed out for years in this space, there is little racial diversity in local newsrooms nationwide and in the media business in general from Hollywood writers’ rooms to the executive suites as I discussed these issues in a deep-dive on diversity in the media business – or the lack thereof back in June. For example, Chicago television stations have had only two African-American general managers in its entire history – Jonathan Rodgers of WBBM and Lyle Banks of NBC-owned WMAQ, who left twenty years ago.

The relationship between minority communities and the media have never been great, and it has only gotten worse in these highly politicized times. With the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, stations need to reach out more to minority communities. And I mean smart, intelligent people who have a stake in the community, not ratings-grabbing, click-baiting nonsense from crackpots, which I saw a LOT of this past week (including some who endorsed the looting as a form of “reparations”.) 

But steps are being made in the right direction. ABC 7 announced an open position looking for a journalist devoted to race and culture issues, while WTTW’s Chicago Tonight devotes significant time to issues involving the African-American community, including producing an entire web series devoted to gun violence and the coronavirus pandemic, but more needs to be done – including more in-depth reporting on these issues, which I hardly see on the network-owned stations. 

And as I also noted in June, capitalizing a letter doesn’t solve the long-standing problems between communities of color and the media. 

An interesting side note to this, on Monday morning – minutes before I learned of what was going on downtown, I read and contributed to a thread from Adalian (who lives in Las Vegas) discussing how local news has failed our communities as Las Vegas stations whiffed on informing viewers on coronavirus. 

No doubt Chicago’s African-American community would agree.  

 

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