Media Watch: Fish and FaceBook are more important to Sun-Times and Tribune editors than the Board's budget hearings, so don't blame the reporters

Media Watch:

A couple of times in the past week, bloggers around Chicago have singled out the reporters at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times for criticism because their coverage of the Chicago public schools has been either shallow, inaccurate, or non-existent.

Earlier today, I jumped in at Catalyst's District 299 blog for a minute to defend Rosalind Rossi, even though I find the general tone of the Sun-Times schools coverage dishonest and we have already noted at Substance that Mary Mitchell told one of our people years ago that she was not allowed to write negative stuff about CPS. Obviously, from the record.

Here is what I blogged:

Above, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi (left foreground in green outfit) and Tribune report Azziz Ahmed (right foreground) covered the June 24, 2009 Chicago Board of Education meeting. During the tumultuous 24 months since Sam Zell purchased the Tribune (and drove it into bankruptcy) and a group of East Coast investors took over the Sun-Times Board of Directors (and took it into bankruptcy), Chicago's two mass circulation daily newspapers have cut back reporting on the city's massive school system to the point where months have gone by without a reporter from either paper at the monthly meetings of the Chicago Board of Education. As the editor of Substance argues in this Media Watch, reporters at major newspapers are assigned to cover stories, and in 2009, editors at both the Sun-Times and Tribune prefer to recycle the propaganda materials furnished to them by the Chicago Board of Education's massive Office of Communication rather than pay reporters to dig around for the facts behind the Power Point presentations CPS does for the editorial boards. Four years ago, the Tribune had four experienced full-time reporters on education. All but one of those has left, and Azzis is new to the job. Rossi is constrained by editors who believe the possibility of a carp invasion of Lake Michigan (Sun-Times, August 20, 2009) is more important than the $6.8 billion budget of Chicago's Board of Education. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.But let's look at today's paper. Last night, despite the storm, more than two dozen people spoke on the budget at Robert A. Black Magnet. There were more than 40 non-CPS people in the audience at the height of the hearing, which lasted beyond the 9:00 p.m. deadline because the budget people had decided (and told the public) that they would be respected during the hearing. Like the CPS Board meetings, the hearings told a vast number of stories about the problems facing schools, teachers, parents and students (all these groups have been testifying at the hearings, which began Monday at Amundsen HS, continued to Tuesday at Marshall HS, and ended last night at at Black).

Neither the Sun-Times nor the Tribune covered any of those hearings. Only WBEZ, Chi-Town Daily News, and Catalyst covered the first night. Only is covering all three nights.

Today, Page One of the Tribune gives us the earth shattering story that college roommates are now being matched with a good match using FaceBook and other revolutionary notions. Oh, and a teaser off Page One of the Tribune gives the heart-rending story (this is Chicago, remember) of a billionaire heiress who is no longer a billionaire heiress because her trust fund was allegedly mismanaged by her lawyers (so she's hired other lawyers to sue). The main photo on page one is of two very nice looking young ladies unpacking in their dorm room, having found compatibility thanks to social networking on the Web.

The Sun-Times uses Page One to warn us that a fish that hasn't reached Lake Michigan might some day reach Lake Michigan and if that fish does reach Lake Michigan it might be really bad for Lake Michigan. The main photo on Page One is of the fish.

Reporters at the Sun-Times and Tribune are certainly free to forage around for stories, and I'm sure any of the education reporters (that's still a plural) from either could have showed up at the hearings any of those three nights. But let's face it. When your editors are busy chasing fish stories about the ONE THAT MIGHT NEVER GET HERE or fluff and puff stories about the privileged, maybe there is no room in Chicago's dailies for news reporting any more.

Usually, though, Rossi and the others are told what stories to cover. It's called an "assignment." So, obviously, the budget (except for the dog and pony shows hosted by Ron Huberman) were not "news" in the eyes of the editors. That's not to say that Rosalind Rossi, Stephanie Banchero, and the others who know the schools beat a little (or a lot) would have done an extensive and insightful story, but only that they weren't even told to do so. Since January, their job, according to their editors, was to repeat Ron Huberman's lies about that $475 million "deficit" (which I'll be reporting today and tomorrow and which I debunked Tuesday and last night at the hearings). And if a reporter is ordered to recycle official lies, whether here in Chicago's schools in 2009 or in Bucharest or Budapest in 1988, that's likely to be what becomes "news."

After all, what could be more important?

The 60 or so people who testified -- virtually all of them with facts and critically -- about Mr. Huberman's proposed $6.8 billion Chicago's Board of Education budget the board will be spending this fiscal year on the education or more than 400,000 children -- of the fish that might bite us on the rear end in a few years, maybe? The editors at the Sun-Times knows what's important to Chicago.


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