On the two-year anniversary of her inauguration, as her record of accomplishments and failures comes under heightened scrutiny, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot took newsrooms to task for their lack of diversity, her latest complaint about the city’s media coverage.
In tweets and in a letter to City Hall reporters, Lightfoot said she would be “exclusively providing one-on-one interviews with journalists of color” to mark the end of two years as mayor. She said she was doing so to highlight long-standing disparity in the racial representation of newsrooms.
“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” she wrote.
The two-page letter came after NBC5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern tweeted late in the day Tuesday about the mayor’s decision to grant exclusive interviews.
Ahern’s tweet now has thousands of retweets, shares and replies, ranging from outrage to applause.
Taylor Moore, a freelance journalist and board member of the local chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, noted on Twitter the range of responses.
The response to this is so fascinating. White journalists are aggrieved and journalists of color are like “lmaooooooo ok??” https://t.co/qGZcuPHzk4— Taylor Moore (@taylormooresays) May 19, 2021
“My initial response was, ‘What is the big deal?’” said Maudlyne Ihejirika, a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and president of the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. She said Lightfoot hit “a sore spot” with the media.
“This comes a year, almost to the day, of George Floyd’s murder when America must confront that reparative measures must be undertaken to address the systemic racism that plagues our society,” Ihejirika said. “If a mayor of the third-largest city wants to step up at this time in history and say, ‘Here is my effort. Here was my reparative measure to address the media sector.’ What is the big deal? I say kudos.”
Gregory Pratt, a city politics reporter for the Chicago Tribune and one of few journalists of color in the City Hall press corps, said he had reached out to the mayor’s office a couple weeks ago to set up a one-on-one interview with Lightfoot to mark two years in office.
Pratt, the son of an immigrant from Mexico, said on Wednesday he didn’t know about the mayor’s decision to exclusively offer interviews to journalists of color until he saw Ahern’s tweet late Tuesday. He requested the mayor reconsider and grant interviews to all beat reporters and said when her spokesperson declined, Pratt canceled his own interview.
“I can understand the sentiment, and I really can, that the press corps needs diversification, but I also don’t think it’s right to abruptly do that to the beat reporters,” Pratt said. “It’s not the right way to make change in the institutions by insisting that again very abruptly, that only certain people get to do these interviews.”
Of course, politicians routinely pick and choose who they grant interviews to. In fact, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel did this too. He cut off access to NBC5 after they reported on the details of his inauguration and later, he famously walked out of an interview with Ahern when she asked where he would send his children to school.
“It is true that they don’t have to agree to talk to anybody at any time,” Pratt acknowledged. “There are politicians that refuse to give interviews at all. [Former House Speaker] Michael Madigan was famous for his silence. But that doesn’t serve the public.”
Lightfoot’s relationship with local journalists has been tenuous throughout the last year or so. She slammed WBEZ for accurately reporting on her hand-picked Police Superintendent David Brown’s plan to sweep drug corners before the Fourth of July weekend. And more recently, leaked emails showed she canceled her subscription to the Chicago Tribune over what she saw as negative coverage.
But it’s not just journalists. As WBEZ reported in March, Lightfoot has gone toe-to-toe with others, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and both veteran and rookie aldermen.
The past two years have come with significant challenges for the mayor, including a global pandemic. Lightfoot’s progress on many of her campaign goals have been stymied or delayed by the realities of governing through such a tumultuous time. Anniversary stories written by reporters who cover her day-in and day-out tend to highlight these kinds of successes and failures.
But at the end of her letter, Lightfoot wrote that she often hears from Black and Latino community leaders about implicit bias in local news coverage.
“It is too heavy a burden to bear, on top of all the other massive challenges our city faces in this moment, to also have to take on the labor of educating white, mostly male members of the news media about the perils and complexities of implicit bias,” she wrote. “So here I am, like so many other black women before me, having to call your attention to this problem.”
There are smaller news outlets who cover Lightfoot but don’t often get one-on-one access to her, such as The Chicago Defender, a long-standing newspaper based in Bronzeville that recently switched to a digital-only publication, and The Triibe, an online publication focused on Black communities and experience in Chicago.
“These outlets, typically, let’s be honest, are at the end of the line in being granted access at other times of the year,” Ihejirika said. “It’s just the way it’s always been, because politicians want the huge media hits.”
Ihejirika said more journalists of color should be granted access all year round.
“Mayor Lightfoot has many deficiencies that she is going to have to answer for in her administration in her first two years, including many that impact the communities of color, who had been filled with such hope when she was elected the first African American woman to run this town,” Ihejirika said. “She will have to answer for those, whether we spend the next month debating her giving POC journalists access, or whether we don’t.”
Lightfoot goes on to issue a challenge to local media outlets: Hire reporters of color — and especially women of color — to cover Chicago politics. She claimed in the email that zero female journalists of color were covering city hall.
Two of the three WBEZ reporters covering City Hall are Hispanic and South Asian women respectively.
Becky Vevea covers city hall for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.