A star is born. If Rahm Emanuel always seemed uncomfortable in the public eye—a backroom operator barely able to control his temper or hide his sneer when dragged into the spotlight—then perhaps he has found the other half of what could become a lasting double act. A natural performer; the Bush to his Cheney, if you will.
For can there be any doubt that if Chicago Police Department Chief Superintendent Garry McCarthy threw his hat into the ring as a contender for the highest office in the land, he would receive the backing of the Sun-Times, the 1% Chicago Tribune, and the majority of Chicago’s mainstream media?
That media has fallen in love hard, and standards of journalism have fallen just as helplessly. Like many public acts of submission, the collective media blowjob that’s been bestowed upon their new crush during and after the NATO summit and accompanying protests has been embarrassing to watch.
Leading the way in this new religion of McCarthyism (it has a certain ring to it!) has been the Chicago Sun-Times, whose writers have been queuing up to strew garlands at Garry McCarthy’s feet. “The city has a new hero,” swooned Michael Sneed. “Where did he get such poise?”
“McCarthy, without a stitch of armor, stood behind that first line of cops, barking commands,” gushed Mark Konkol. Wow, that sounds brave. Is the Chief perhaps impervious to harm? “A few of the things thrown by protesters hit McCarthy, but he wasn’t hurt.” Guess so! But I shouldn’t call him Chief, because Konkol had a better title in mind for McCarthy: the man is “almost like a general.”
That sounds like a nickname worth running with, and off we go. “Perched atop the conflict’s apex, like a general, Supt. McCarthy directed officers,” fawned WBEZ blogger Katie O’Brien in a post entitled “‘General’ McCarthy prepares for his next battle.” On air, Steve Edwards bowed and scraped so hard he tripped over himself —”I’m happy to adapt my terminology!”—and his guest let slip the psychologically revealing “It’s good to be seen.”
The WBEZ interview quite possibly has to be heard to be believed, since it includes Edwards bemoaning alleged verbal abuse from protesters and McCarthy concluding, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, yes. That’s why focusing on verbal insults rather than the injuries protesters sustained is—oh, never mind.
Chicago’s mainstream journalists appear to desire Garry McCarthy possibly as an ideal dad, possibly an ideal boyfriend, possibly both. He will be your father figure, put your tiny hand in his! He will love you as much as he loves every single one of the “guys and gals” who serve under him. (McCarthy always says “gals,” according to his stenographers and indeed as heard on WBEZ—so old-fashioned, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, etc., etc.) When he cries, it is either with pride (He loves you, you are validated!) or for protesters, it is the tears of the abusive husband or parent (Why are you making me hurt you? I love you).
And have you noticed how he looks a little like Mike Ditka?
There seems to be something more to this relationship. The behavior of many in the media suggests the presence of sexual issues, probably rooted in childhood trauma, that should be explored in a safe, sane and consensual environment with a loving partner, or a well-paid professional, or someone you’ve met in a “casual encounter” (albeit not in Garry McCarthy’s definition of that term, which is a CPD traffic stop and car search coupled with threats of violence). Instead, they are being worked out in the pages of major newspapers and on websites and TV news coverage.
A Taste for the Theatrical
To be fair to the media, McCarthy has displayed a few impressive talents in the last week. Either he or his PR handlers are truly blessed with a talent for crafting narrative and photo opportunities. The decision to put him out in the public eye was a stroke of genius: There he was, walking alongside police and protesters, giving orders directly, talking to the press regularly, stopping by Mayor Emanuel’s house on Saturday morning in a big black SUV to chat to his officers and the increasingly adoring media.
And McCarthy knows to hit the right talking points: Don’t blame all protesters, just a few bad apples. Emphasize that most of these bad apples were out-of-towners (coming here for a local shindig like the NATO summit, how dare they!). Remind everyone how brutally the police have treated Occupy protesters in Oakland and New York City.
He did all this in the WBEZ interview, and even had the chutzpah to take umbrage with the media’s standard language—”police and protesters clashed”—by pointing out this was not an accurate description of a one-sided confrontation. I know what you’re thinking: That’s what activists have been saying for years! But the joke’s on you, and me, because the Chief was referring to how protesters allegedly assaulted his brave officers, who were then forced with reluctance and restraint to “escalate.” (I keep running out of words for astonishing, but McCarthy then goes on to admonish some in the media for giving protesters a pass. To what anarchist zines and militant pamphlets is the General referring?)
As you’ll be gathering from this if you were at Cermak and Michigan on Sunday after 4pm, McCarthy also has an impressive capacity for breathtaking dishonesty. That’s what I assume he was also engaged in when asked about agents provocateurs and “kettling” protesters, two tried and tested, well-known tactics for policing political dissidence and protests. In both cases, McCarthy acted as if to him, these were entirely new concepts.
A Narrative of Restraint
The hand of Rahm Emanuel is also visible in the policing of the NATO summit, to the extent to which it fits into a pattern the mayor has displayed in other areas of policy in the last six months. You make people fear the worst, then dial your proposals or threats back and ask that everybody laud your restraint, while actually moving the lines of what is considered acceptable. (It helps if there are other people in your position doing worse things elsewhere, so that even your critics will have to say, yes, you’re not quite as bad as them.)
Emanuel did this with the 2012 budget, with Chicago’s public libraries in particular; with the “sit down shut up” ordinance; with the proposal for increased school hours; and with the permits for the two city-sanctioned marches that took place during NATO. Not all of those instances are likely to have been deliberate (it seems likely that in at least a couple of cases, Emanuel wanted what he originally demanded and was annoyed to make concessions), but the PR spin is the same in each case: “Aren’t I reasonable? It could have been so much worse!”
In every instance the media has reproduced this narrative faithfully, with our woefully obsequious City Council providing soundbites about how much more conciliatory and open to dialogue Emanuel is compared to Daley. When it came to the school day, the other Chicago Tribune even went so far as to chide the mayor for making a tiny, tiny concession to those evil, lazy teachers.
So it’s not a great surprise that this same structure of narrative was again regurgitated. Emanuel and McCarthy are smarter than Mike Bloomberg: They didn’t tell reporters they ought to say, “Thank you, sir” to the police, they just implied it heavily and let a natural instinct for acquiescence do the rest.
A Show of Force
Perhaps the most egregious element of the local media’s coverage has been taking what ought to be the most damning criticism about the policing of the NATO summit, and championing it as a strength. Namely, the extent to which the heavily armored massed ranks of Chicago, State, Department of Homeland Security and [insert unaccountable private security hired under Emanuel's protest and parade ordinance here!] forces resembled an army.
Surely it didn’t seem that long ago that the idea of American police forces resembling armies, and moving in on civilians as if they were an enemy force, was agreed by everyone in the mainstream to be a Bad Idea. No longer, it would seem.
Writing for the other, less reputable Tribune, John Kass (in a piece that made some valid points about upcoming labor struggles the CPD will face) even taunted those on the receiving end of police-as-paramilitary force:
Yes, a few heads were cracked. They belonged to a few dozen young men who wanted confrontation, and who must have thought that wearing black masks, drinking Red Bull and playing “Call of Duty” online would prepare them for combat. It didn’t.
How hilarious, let’s all laugh at the civilians who were easily beaten up because they didn’t have proper militarized police training or equipment! No wonder McCarthy feels happy to admit that the CPD are essentially a para-miltary organization. Apparently this is no longer an alarming concept, now that the media has internalized the McCarthy Doctrine: Speak softly, and have your men carry big sticks. And guns. Oh, and maybe a sound cannon.
A Foregone Conclusion
Writing for the Occupied Chicago Tribune, there have been times when the local mainstream media coverage has been remarkably and surprisingly fair to Occupy Chicago. The reasons for that could fill a whole other article (possibly a profile of the OC Press Committee’s highly active and competent member Rachael Perrotta).
Moreover, despite the 1% Chicago Tribune‘s instinctive anti-worker tendencies, that paper’s reporters have occasionally succeeded in some version of what journalism is supposed to do, i.e. speak truth to power, when it comes to Rahm Emanuel—although the extent to which mainstream coverage has bothered him may merely reflect how subservient a role Rahm would like the press to take.
But during and after the NATO summit, the corporate media has fallen back into its natural role: Colluding with police to craft narratives that protect the powerful and vilify those who oppose them. Who cares if the plot has holes when everybody sticks to the script?
And what else should we have expected? For decades, the mainstream media has read to its audience a list of talking points provided by government, police and corporate interests. When it comes to protests, they’re almost all either low-turnout damp squibs or scary riots, unless they’re rallies entirely sanctioned by officials that don’t really make anyone in power uncomfortable.
So what’s the solution? Well, for me, one of the most inspiring aspects of the last two weeks has been the work of independent media who covered the NATO protests without hewing to the CPD line, often risking arrest and enduring blows from police batons and even the hostility of some protesters.
These are the people to go to for the real story of how the NATO summit was policed. Kevin Gosztola’s exemplary, highly detailed account of “The Climate of Repression During the NATO Summit” is just one.
With critically minded, independent journalists like Gosztola, it has been—if you’ll permit me a military phrase—a pleasure to serve.
By Joe Macaré