Friday, August 15, 2008

Herald's Chicken: How to Write a Slanted Account of the DH Meeting

posted by Peter Rossi

The NIMBYs who oppose a hotel on the Doctor's Hospital site were hopping mad after the August 5th "community" meeting. There were a number of people who had the temerity to question the knee jerk "preservation" and "congestion" arguments trotted out by various Harper Ave regulars. Even the 5th ward alderman was showing signs of a backbone on this issue.

I can only imagine the panic in the air during the weekly "editorial" meetings with Herald staff. Aren't we going to be forced to reveal some of the truth about Doctor's Hospital? Not to worry, our trusty Herald reporters and editors will figure a way to downplay the bad news and distort the account of the meeting.

Once again, the Herald came thru with a doozy ("Drs. Hospital, take 2"). All of the tricks of the trade are present in this minor masterpiece of distortion:
1. reversing the order of importance of the events at the meeting
2. selective omission of important facts
3. paint the Harper boys as heroes and the White Lodging executive as evil and slippery
4. Misquote where possible
5. Don't actually do any reporting (such as interviewing people and questioning them on the logical and factual basis for their assertions).
6. Don't report rude behavior and rather insane or inane remarks from opponents.

For the facts, read Richard Gill's post below this one. DO NOT read the Herald story as it might be hazardous to your judgment!

The article starts out with a couple of paragraphs on how the community and Leslie Hairston shoed away evil White Lodging and they came crawling back in the person of Scott Travis.

I don't really know what happened to tip the Alderman but I suspect that what this is all about is that White Lodging didn't put in time in Alderman Hairston's throne room. This has nothing to do with community protests as it is clear that nothing really has changed in the year or so since the original community farce. The Herald claims that White Lodging "clashed" with community "denizens" (are these small animals found at the bottom of ponds?). This sounds like White Lodging running roughshod over residents. What happened is a few cranks shouted down reasonable discourse with nonsense about the "historic" value of this eyesore and concerns that they wouldn't be able to put those chairs out in Harper Ave to reserve their personal parking spaces.

The real news from the August 5th meeting is twofold: 1. Alderman Hairston sees the writing on the wall - it's White Lodging or nothing (where is the long line of folks willing to pony up $70 million?) and 2. there are large number of responsible people in the community who would love to see White Lodging build a hotel. A subplot is that preservation of DH is dead. Preservation advocates have consistently refused to explain why this mediocre relic of institutional architecture is worth saving. If this wasn't obvious before the meeting, it sure is now!

To get the real news from the Herald story you have to turn to the continuation on page 3 and wade thru several attempts to disguise this important fact. In paragraph 10 of 19, Ms. Hawley asserts that the "majority favored development." Of course, our NIMBYs claim they favor "development," you see, just not development as White Lodging proposes it. The fact is that a very substantial group of people (I think about 1/2 of the attendees once you subtract the outside labor organizers in the red t-shirts) want a modern hotel and would like to see DH torn down.

The "preservationists" have tried to spread the impression that "preservation" is possible and might even be cheaper by virtue of tax credits. The Herald fell for this tact, hook, line and sinker. In fact, the paper was so eager to advance this point of view that words were put into Landmarks Illinois president Jim Peter's mouth. The story incorrectly asserts that Peters claimed "federal tax credits ... would make a hotel conversion cost-effective." Mr. Peters did not say this. As he is well aware, this would be irresponsible to say as there are no cost estimates for "conversion" or "reuse" plans. Mr. Peters did bring up the tax credits but was careful not to make the leap of faith. As we all know, tax credits for building gold mountains don't mean that gold mountains are cost-effective.

The Herald also choose to omit one of the most persuasive speakers, a spokesman for the Museum of Science and Industry. She told the group that visitors to the museum are constantly asking about nearby hotel accommodations and that MSI staff have to refer them downtown. In addition, the museum offered its 1500 space underground parking garage as overflow for valet parking.

The selective omission continues as the Herald reports that residents of Vista Homes asked for environmental and traffic studies. This is correct but the Herald fails to report that there was a traffic study done by White Lodging that showed minimal impact and that an environmental study was done prior to the U of Chicago purchase.

Sometimes, the Herald just gets plain frustrated that people are not towing the NIMBY line and quotes are fabricated. One of the most ridiculous suggestions made by opponents of a hotel is that there should be a "masterplan" for development of Stony Island Avenue between 56th and 59th Streets. U of C Vice President Susan Campbell pointed out the absurdity of a "masterplan" for the west side (the east side is a park) of only three blocks and then patiently explained that the U doesn't own all of this property. Somehow all this was forgotten and Ms. Campbell is quoted as saying that a masterplan is "a good idea."

Just as the Herald saw fit to omit details of some of the most persuasive arguments for the hotel, the paper saw fit to omit the rude behavior and demagoguery of some of the opponents. The labor organizers attempted to disrupt the meeting by forcing a vote on whether the hotels would be a union shop. One particularly addled NIMBY cautioned that out of control Bar Mitzvahs might corrupt the Bret Harte kiddies. Longtime demagogue, Greg Lane, delivered a scripted speech about how we should demand "good" development not just "any" development. Mr. Lane was a little short on how he would raise $70 million for "good" development if we are not able to take the "dirty money" of White Lodging.

When NIMBYs don't like being confronted with the truth, they parody those who speak the truth. The preservationists were dealt a severe blow when it was pointed out to them by both Mr. Travis and Leon Finney that the DH is sort of a monument to racism. Built as a hospital for Illinois Central employees, the hospital had a policy of not admitting black patients. Of course, the Herald doesn't explain this fact as it might be verified by the reader. Instead, Mr. Travis is blamed -- "he tossed out another, previously unheard argument into the mix: the hospital has an ugly history of discrimination..." This way it is not clear whether or not assertion is true or just an invective from Mr. Travis.

The next paragraph detailing Leon Finney's support for the hotel and corroboration of the discrimination against blacks is cleverly written so that you have to dissect it carefully to see that Mr. Finney agreed with Mr. Travis. From "Finney" to "agreed" there are no less than 11 words. This remind me of Mark Twain's essay on how to read a German sentence -- go to the end and get the verb!

The NIMBYs didn't like Marcy Schlessinger's remarks about why the hotel is not reusable. We can't refute the fact that the SECC did study this, so let's paint her as biased by reminding folks that the SECC receives its funding from the U. Never mind that Ms. Schlessinger was there of her own volition and has no particular reason to be beholden to the U.

But the real problem with this article is that there is no actual reporting in it! A reporter should interview the various key players and do some homework. Ok, Mr. Preservationist why is this building historically significant? How much would your re-use proposal cost and why did White Lodging claim that it is not feasible? Ok, Mr. Travis, give me copies of your analysis of the re-use proposal and your traffic study. Ok, Ms. MSI give me an estimate of the number of rooms you could refer each year. Ok, Mr. Labor Organizer in the red t-shirt, what is your name and where do you live and are you being paid to attend this meeting? Give me documentation of the "shoddy labor practices" not rumors. Our own Chicago Pop did a little bit of reporting in just a few minutes and found out that there is no substantiation of these claims.

Is the Herald a newspaper or a NIMBY newsletter?


edj said...

I wonder where these reporters go after they leave the Herald. Doing this type of work can't help them get new jobs after they leave the Herald, especially when there are fewer reporting jobs out there and more competition for those jobs. The Herald editors and publisher are not doing these reporters any favors with their lack of emphasis on basic reporting skills.

chicago pop said...

Alderman Hairston's throne room


Hell hath no fury like an Alder(woman) scorned.

chicago pop said...

So the Herald reporter on this article misquoted Landmarks Illinois president Jim Peters, and U of C Vice President Susan Campbell; and she ignored the viewpoint of one of Hyde Park's (and Chicago's) major cultural draws, the MSI, all in ways that manage to support the preservationist viewpoint.

At a real newspaper, reporters could be fired for this kind of thing.

Famac said...

edj - there's always the New York Times.

Richard Gill said...

We won't know whether misquotes and omissions in the Herald's Doctors Hospital story were results of the reporting or the work of the editors. We do know that the story was published a week after the public meeting, so the editors and publisher would have had plenty of time (probably too much time) in which to edit and/or rewrite.

Someone in Hyde Park Progress noted that the Herald has more or less stopped writing editorials, and instead puts heavy slants on its news stories. In the August 13 Herald, there actually was an editorial on the editorial page. It was exactly seven and one-half lines long; it said absolutely nothing, other than to speculate and grease rumors regarding U of C land purchases west of Washington Park. Grade-school journalism, anyone?

edj said...

I was surprised that the HPH did not break in its new "breaking news" feature in its website with a story about this meeting because it came right before publicatin the week before. Instead they used the story about the U buying up land in Bronzeville at the same time they put up the Wednesday edition featuring the same story. What's breaking about that?

Greg said...

The Herald is a real newspaper in 2008 like Pravda was a real newspaper in 1962.

Longtime demagogue, Greg Lane

I was wondering where my favorite NIMBY bullhorn/sockpuppet had been lately. Spicer and company are bringing in the big guns for this one!

A bit off topic, but has anyone ever considered advertising HPP around the area? Flyers on campus, on bulletin boards around the neighborhood, etc. Someone needs to balance out the distortions and plain old B.S. lies the Herald keeps spewing.