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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Email exchanges suggest CNN’s “Chicagoland” producers collaborated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had an instrumental hand in shaping certain scenes of CNN’s supposedly unscripted documentary “Chicagoland.”

The Tribune reviewed more than 700 emails, which reveal that the producers worked closely with staff from the mayor’s office while filming the weekly episodes. In the emails, the mayor’s office expressed desire to pitch story ideas and even implied that their office had some editing power. In one such exchange between an Emanuel public relations representative and a mayoral aide, the aide wrote back that they would “have edits shortly.”

Still, other email messages were redacted, with the mayor’s office citing an exemption in Illinois open records law that says opinions or exchanges related to policy formulation do not have to be shared, the Tribune wrote. 

Also according to the newspaper, an Emanuel spokeswoman said that the mayor had worked with CNN as it would with any news outlet. The mayor had not provided information different from what he would usually give to reporters, including the Chicago Tribune, the spokeswoman said.

Before making a public records request for the emails, the Tribune ran a story in March questioning the motives behind the Chicagoland series. The story calls Chicagoland a “re-election campaign vehicle” and a way for Emanuel to sell “his heroic narrative.” Emanuel is portrayed as the hero above all the chaos of Chicago, and as the man who never backs down, the Tribune wrote. Although critics of Emanuel are allowed screen time, such criticism is juxtaposed against a “calm, reasonable and above the fray Rahm.”

Media critic Robert Feder, who had written an earlier blog post in favor of the series, later wrote that his “confidence was misplaced.” Feder said he reached out to Konkol, the Pulitzer-Prize winning narrator of the series, and Konkol remains proud of his role, which was to tell the story of real struggles facing Chicago.

It’s ironic that a documentary intended to reveal the political and social problems of Chicago partnered with political leaders. Even if the exchanges between the filmmakers and the mayor’s office wasn’t as collusive as the Tribune says, there are still other ethical warning signs such as the fact that filmmakers with connections to Emanuel’s brother, Ari, directed the series. Implying impropriety in Chicago while possibly exercising impropriety in documentary filmmaking calls into questions the judgment of  how a news network like CNN represented the series to viewers.

Update (5.1.2014)

As the series’ producers point out, this conversation is much bigger than one series.

“It’s about the evolution of journalism and the way authentic stories are told in the 21st century,” said Sarah Sherman of Brick City TV, the company that produced Chicagoland.

Sherman points to some of the several other conversations the series, and the way it came together, have sparked in local Chicago media, including a segment on pubic television station WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program featuring Craig Duff of Northwestern University and Jeffery Spitz of Columbia College.

Mark Levin, executive producer of Chicagoland, speaking on WBEZ-FM, responded to a question as to whether the program was “staged,” responded, “That’s ridiculous.”  Levin went on to explain that the very nature of producing a requires coordination, in this case with city hall.  “That’s… what we do. You don’t just walk into the mayor’s office … and start filming.”

Chicagoland aired eight weekly broadcasts, which premiered in late January and ended in April. Videos from the series can be viewed here.

[Image: CNN]

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