The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago’s mayor limits interviews to reporters of color. Now they’re caught in the middle.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference on May 10. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

It was meant to be a gift of sorts, for the second anniversary of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration: The leader of the country’s third-largest city was offering sit-down interviews exclusively to reporters of color.

In a letter sent Wednesday to local media, Lightfoot argued that the overwhelming maleness and Whiteness of Chicago’s press corps — in a city where roughly two-thirds of the residents are people of color — did not adequately reflect the population and was a detriment to local media coverage.

“As a person of color, I have throughout my adult life done everything I can to fight for diversity and inclusion in every institution that I have been part of and being Mayor makes me uniquely situated to shine a spotlight on this most important issue,” Lightfoot wrote.

The announcement quickly became a Rorschach test for Chicago reporters and residents, while snap judgments of Lightfoot’s decision caused some in conservative media to decry her as racist. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson called the mayor a “monster” and compared her to a Nazi.

But the reporters affected by Lightfoot’s announcement relied on their two-plus years of insight into the mayor to decipher what she was trying to accomplish and — perhaps with more difficulty — how they felt about it.

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In interviews and conversations with more than a dozen members of Chicago media, including Asian, Black, Latino and White journalists spanning print, radio, TV and online outlets, there was no clear consensus on Lightfoot’s announcement.

In response to questions about the announcement, including what prompted it, how broadly it applied and how long it would remain in place, Lightfoot’s office provided The Washington Post a copy of the letter it sent to reporters but did not respond to follow-up questions.

The complexity reflects a struggle in newsrooms that extends well beyond Chicago. Since the murder of George Floyd last year sparked new conversations about systemic racism, power and privilege, many news organizations, including The Washington Post, have turned a lens on how their own power structures and history affect their coverage decisions.

Craig Dellimore, the political editor for CBS radio affiliate WBBM and one of the few Black reporters covering city hall, said there is no escaping the difficulty of the conversation. Lightfoot’s letter “raises an issue that needs to be raised,” Dellimore said.

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Other journalists who agreed with Lightfoot’s assessment were dubious that she was the best messenger for it. Multiple journalists of color who spoke to The Post said that when they have tried to question Lightfoot or her administration on issues such as police violence, public schools and housing, they have been met with silence or dismissal. An email hack in April also revealed messages between Lightfoot and her staff in which they derided outlets and individual reporters.

Manny Ramos, a neighborhoods and census reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, agreed with the premise of Lightfoot’s critique that Chicago’s news media is insufficiently representative, but he found the mayor’s timing suspicious.

“I just don’t understand why now,” Ramos told The Post. “I’m wanting to understand, why did it take two years for this? Did my questions not matter until now?”

Those who cover Lightfoot directly conceded that her interest in a more diverse local press corps are probably sincere. Still, they were unhappy that journalists of color were put in an awkward position — all for what they see as a public relations maneuver.

“I regret that the mayor has sort of divided us here, with some people getting access and others not,” said Tahman Bradley, who anchors WGN Chicago’s night news broadcast. Bradley struggled over whether to accept Lightfoot’s interview offer. He was “keenly aware” that Lightfoot was motivated by what he suspected was an effort to control the narrative around her second anniversary as mayor.

Opportunity or power play?

Much of the frustration with Lightfoot’s announcement had to do with how it came to light. Mary Ann Ahern, a political reporter for NBC Chicago, broke the news by sharing on Twitter a response she received from Lightfoot’s office saying she was granting second-anniversary interviews only to “Black and Brown journalists.” Ahern is White.

Reporters who were offered interviews told The Post the mayor’s office did not disclose to them that it was extending sit-downs only to reporters of color.

Paris Schutz, who co-anchors “Chicago Tonight” for PBS affiliate WTTW, said Lightfoot’s criteria for interviews were unclear. Schutz, who is White, requested an interview last week and was turned down. When he was told the policy, he noted to Lightfoot’s press team that his co-anchor, Brandis Friedman, is a Black woman and was not offered an interview.

Schutz said he did not feel slighted by Lightfoot’s policy and is already planning a future interview with the mayor. But he bristled at the prospect of turning over editorial control to a subject.

“We’re not going to let the mayor’s office pick who gets to interview [her],” he said.

That sentiment prompted Gregory Pratt, a Latino reporter covering City Hall for the Chicago Tribune, to cancel his interview offer from Lightfoot after learning it was not available to everyone. “Politicians don’t get to choose who covers them,” he said Wednesday on Twitter.

Several Black and Latino reporters saw Lightfoot’s announcement as a rare opening to question the mayor on topics of interest to their audiences. Yet three reporters who did not want to be named while in negotiations with the mayor’s office said they were not offered an interview or had not received a reply as of Thursday.

On Twitter, reporters joked about whether Lightfoot’s announcement meant her office would respond to their lapsed inquiries and overdue information requests.

Struggle over solidarity

The mayor’s letter has provoked what have so far remained unanswerable questions by the city’s press corps, which has not reached anything resembling an accord on what to make of a temporary policy that has been argued with equal force as uplifting, divisive or tokenizing.

Lightfoot’s effort falls short because it does not address systemic issues and doesn’t actually expand opportunities, argued Florence Chee, who directs the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University in Chicago.

“There’s lots of ways to be anti-racist, but this isn’t it,” she told The Post. “It goes back to tokenism and putting people of color in an awkward position by focusing the topic at hand on them rather than on the government.”

None of the Chicago journalists interviewed by The Post wanted to see Lightfoot’s offer become a wedge issue, but they said the mayor’s letter had forced hard conversations that hinged on what is often a third rail of Chicago journalism: privilege.

Ramos, the Sun-Times reporter, was among several who noted the uproar over a policy that briefly benefits reporters of color and contrasted it to what he said was a muted reaction to opportunities almost exclusively enjoyed by White reporters. Some cited Donald Trump’s refusal to grant interviews except to those friendly to him and his base — which was overwhelmingly White.

“White media doesn’t get the same scrutiny because they’re not seen as ‘White’ media,” Ramos said.

Journalists who noticed calls for reporters of color to show solidarity with the press corps and reject Lightfoot’s exclusivity agreement said solidarity also requires White journalists to use their power to ensure access and representation for reporters of color, according to Tiffany Walden, co-founder of the TRiiBE, a hyperlocal outlet focused on Black Chicagoans.

Walden said the TRiiBE had to fight for access to cover state and local coronavirus briefings or have their questions on police violence or economic development answered by city officials. When she received a call from Lightfoot’s spokesperson offering an interview, she was wary.

Still, some of Lightfoot’s letter rang true, and it prompted Walden to accept. She attempted to get access for additional reporters to observe the interview, but Walden said Lightfoot’s office declined anyone other than her, interviewer Bella Bahhs and a photographer.

Bahhs, who writes a column called “The Revolutionary,” conducted the sit-down with Lightfoot. The interview, which ran Thursday evening, ended with Bahhs seeming to issue a challenge to the mayor similar to one Lightfoot had just lobbed at reporters.

“I left City Hall thinking that having a mayor who isn’t afraid to have a pro-Black journalist day is nice,” wrote Bahhs, “but having one who implements pro-Black policies that we could benefit from every day would be better.”

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