Panelists debate how local media covers race as mayoral runoff heats up

By Damian Lopez and Suzanne McBride

A crucial factor in next month’s mayoral runoff is the racial divide in the city of Chicago, which was clear Monday, March 2nd at a panel discussion on the subject.

The runoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was one of many topics the panelists discussed during a passionate, sometimes heated 90-minute forum held at Columbia College Chicago. The panel was co-sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club and Positive Vision Communications.

Garcia, a Cook County commissioner who came in second with 34 percent of the vote in the Feb. 24th election, is trying to “put the band back together,” ABC7 political reporter Charles Thomas said, referring to the coalition Harold Washington formed to win the 1983 mayoral race.

If Garcia is able to successfully build a coalition between Hispanics and African-Americans, then he may be able to beat Emanuel April 7, the panelists said. About two-thirds of the city’s 2.7 million residents are Hispanic or African American.

Emanuel has already started making moves to stop Garcia, the panelists pointed out.

Delmarie Cobb, a longtime media and political consultant, said Emanuel has turned some black ministers against Garcia, a former alderman and state lawmaker who got into the race after Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

This could have a negative effect on the sometimes strained relationship between Hispanics and African Americans, the panelists said.

But Hermene Hartman, CEO of Hartman Publishing Group and N’DIGO, warned that “gimmicks don’t work.”

She said this in response to comments U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk made recently about the mayoral runoff, suggesting that if someone besides Emanuel wins, Chicago could turn into financially troubled Detroit.

“When people make these little subtle, subdued, subliminal racist remarks, we understand what they’re saying,” Hartman said, referring to Black voters. “It backfires on them all the time.”

ABC7 reporter Charles Thomas agreed, saying “that’s a scare tactic.”

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown noted that a similar comment about Detroit was made in the 1980s during the Washington campaign, with his opponents suggesting if Chicago elected its first Black mayor, then the city would become another Detroit.

Cobb said given the major financial challenges facing the Chicago today, “we are a step away from being Detroit, but it won’t be because of Jesus Garcia” getting elected. It will be because of 30 years of neglect of the city’s neighborhoods, she said.

President Obama coming to Chicago to honor the Pullman district didn’t seem to help the the mayor, said Hartman. “The hug didn’t work,” she said.

The panel also discussed the lack of diversity in local newsrooms and whether white journalists can cover minority communities and issues.

“White folks aren’t qualified to report about Blacks and Hispanics,” Hartman said.

White reporters can get the story wrong because they don’t talk to enough people and draw conclusions from too few voices, she said.

“If the newsrooms were balanced, if they were equal, this wouldn’t be a problem,” Hartman said, adding that the white mainstream media tends to stereotype.

“Talking to one, two people of color doesn’t give you the view. It is a view.”

Thomas agreed that journalists must thoroughly report a story. “The danger is that we talk only to the civil rights activists or the elected officials.”

So does that mean that white journalists can’t cover minority issues and candidates, asked Mick Dumke, a reporter for The Chicago Reader and the panel’s moderator.

Cobb responded: “Mick, you’re an exception. There’s a handful, and you’re one of them.” In many cases the white media isn’t doing their job.

“But there are also black people who are selling us out on a daily basis,” Cobb said. “We know who they are. . . . The cabal of black people running Chicago right now – I’m not talking to them, and they’re not talking to me. They’re not speaking for the black community, they’re speaking for themselves.”

White journalists are qualified to do these stories if they talk to a diversity of people, not just the executive director of an organization, said Esther Cepeda, who writes a nationally syndicated column for the The Washington Post Writers Group.

The panel also touched on how the media has covered other black politicians and their white counterparts

Hartman said the media did not cover former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger fairly and that journalists mistreated Roland Burris when he briefly served as a U.S. senator.

Thomas agreed, saying the handling of Stroger was in stark contrast to how journalists covered to the early years of former Mayor Richard Daley’s tenure. “It was kid-glove treatment for Richard M. Daley the first six years of his administration.”

The headlines and images that accompanied many of the stories about Stroger portrayed him in a negative way, Cepeda said.

Has the media been too easy on current Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle? Yes, Hartman said. “It’s the white darling effect. The white media doesn’t like black political men.”

The panel was recorded by CAN-TV and can be seen here.