What Rahm Emanuel’s decision means for Chicago media

The Rahmfather calls it a career as local stations could reap another political windfall from upcoming mayor’s race

It was eight years ago last week when longtime Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley announced he would not seek reelection for a seventh term.

Now, Chicago is at the same crossroads with the announcement last Wednesday of current mayor Rahm Emanuel deciding not seeking a third term in office. His departure means there will be a new hizzoner in early 2019 – and local media outlets could see a huge political downfall given the large number of candidates running.

The same scenarios I outlined in 2010 when Daley departed apply today: stations already receiving revenue from mid-term election advertising would continue to do so with a smooth transition to the Mayor’s race; ratings for local news outlets are likely to increase as with local news/talk radio stations, though some are in worst shape than they were in 2010; and the crush of political advertising in the Chicago market could force other advertisers to reduce their presence or go on the sidelines altogether until April, when the run-off mayoral election could take place. It’s great news for Chicago media, who would welcome the increased revenue (and bad news for viewers.)

While Emanuel has helped attract new businesses to town and championed the arts, numerous negatives outweighed the positives. For one, public school teachers went on strike in 2012 for the first time in 25 years and had a awful relationship with educators.  His approach to race relations was banal at best. And Emanuel was accused of a cover-up when Chicago Police released the tape of LaQuan McDonald’s murder a year after it took place – and after he was re-elected to a second term in 2015. The release lead to weeks of protests as the trial for the officer accused of killing him began last week.

But the biggest Emanuel failure was getting a handle on the city’s murder rate, which thrust Chicago into an unflattering international spotlight. Critics ranging from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart to President Trump made a regular habit of trashing him.

Thanks to Trump and other conservatives, Chicago has become a code word for “blacks”, referencing the city when it comes to criticizing urban neighborhoods as the Chicago area’s African-American population continues to decline with the market falling to fourth place among cities with the largest African-American TV homes. Under Emanuel, the black population decline only accelerated as among the ten largest African-American markets, Chicago lost more homes than any other metro area.

Emmanuel often sparred with the press, like any politician does. But unlike the President, who often refers to the press as “enemy of the people”, the mayor respected their profession – even defending it at one point after a Barney Fife-channeling police officer threatened to “terminate the press’ right to free speech” outside Mt. Sinai Hospital after a young shooting victim was admitted.

While Emanuel had a testy relationship with the media, he sure didn’t mind using them to shamelessly promote himself, as the eight-hour CNN docuseries Chicagoland illustrated. Many critics said the program was nothing more than an infomercial for the mayor, who was also accused of manipulating some scenes. As I detailed here, the series was a critical and ratings flop and ranked as the third-worst show of 2014 on T Dog Media. I couldn’t tell you how much I hated this show.

Another example came in November 2016, Emanuel convinced his buddies at the Illinois Broadcasting Association and the Radio Broadcasters Of Chicago – consisting of several big radio conglomerates – to air a “roadblock interview” over 40 radio stations at 6 p.m. with Bill Kurtis to discuss his vision for the city. The stunt was panned by many listeners, but was praised by radio insiders and drew a larger audience than many anticipated.

As the local media prepares to cover The Race To Replace Rahm, no doubt we will be in for a wild ride. The next mayor is going to face daunting challenges, including pension costs, a stubbornly high murder rate, racial segregation issues, a declining population base, and repairing the city’s damaged reputation globally. As I said before, declining population + declining audience = declining ad revenue. If Chicago wants to stop being the butt-monkey of the country, the city better hope the new mayor better be damned ready to handle the job.

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