Stopped by the village hall a couple weeks ago, and there on the center table lay two stacks of the November “Neighbors” magazine. “Caution,” read the cover caption, “Madison Street Is Now Officially HOT. See story inside this issue.” Great, I thought, publicity for the ongoing success story that is Madison Street in Forest Park. That’s a subject of which villagers new and old can be justifiably proud. “I’ve done enough castigation of village officials lately,” I thought. Time to be a bit more positive, I can write about that. Nice product placement for Starbucks, I also thought idlely as I turned the page to look for the article, ready and willing to be, well, positive.
No such luck. It turns out, the photo of the Starbuck’s signage wasn’t the only product placement. The article wasn’t about Madison Street at all, but about Starbuck’s itself. In short, a puff piece.
Just in case you missed it, an “On the cover” box notes that the store is the 9,909 store to open, and is “already serving 3,000 people a week.” (Actually, I assume some of those are repeat customers, so they’re actually serving far less individuals weekly, but 3,000 looks so much better.)
Too bad Valentino doesn’t bother to comment on, say, life in Melrose Park, where her publication is headquartered. Then again, doing pieces on Melrose Park village hall or on the rancid political culture in that village would take a far more hard-nosed attitude. I guess we’ll just have to leave it to Carol Marin and the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois to provide the gripping prose on that issue.
The cover piece started out with a rather silly lead sentence, “There’s a good chance that a few of Forest Park’s municipal neighbors are green with envy over the newest shingle to be hung on flourishing Madison Street.” That, however, was about it as far as Forest Park went, except for a few comments from village official, and three photos of said smiling officials. The article had to be easy to write, culled as it obviously was from a Starbuck’s press packet.
This isn’t a column about those local officials, though. Appearing at business openings is legitimately part of what they do. This is about the difference between self-serving ad rags and actual newspapers, about feel good fluff that’s the journalistic equivalent of cotton candy that too often substitutes for serious news and views.
Forest Park got a feel good publication of its own last winter- the bi-monthly Post. Launched last January, the Post soon will celebrate its first anniversary.
The Post begins each issue with the Mayor waxing warm and cozy over some issue, usually a fond remembrance of family and friends. The Post also did a nice job in the recent issue of spotlighting the work of local fire fighters down in New Orleans, with several particularly evocative photos. But much of the publication is no more than, “remember the old days, ain’t this town special, and why are people so critical.”
It may be a publication, or even a good read, but it ain’t no newspaper, folks.
Much of the remainder of the Post’s content is easily digestable pablum. Nice enough, but also absolutely meaningless. News release journalism that, while it tells you what, and even when and where, gives no why, no how, no underlying story. And certainly no information that might- heaven forbid- make those in power worried or annoyed. In other words, no news. The status quo glorified and left undisturbed.
Mayor Calderone, who likes the status quo more than most folks here- I’m about to be negative again, darn it- is obviously quite pleased with the Post’s Editor, Amy Rita, who also happens to be Calderone’s appointed chairperson on the village’s Fire and Police Commission.
Now, the Post is superior to, say, the sort of blatantly biased, sloppily written dreck Steve Iaccino littered Berwyn with just before he got indicted and spent several months in Cook County Jail on five felony counts. It’s also superior to anything published in Cicero. But like Neighbors, it only tells part of the story.
There are several characteristics that are crucial in a newspaper, I believe. One is to be fully, not selectively informative. Another is to look into issues and explain the underlying facts and motives that many people in the news would just as soon you not see and discuss. And if that makes elected and appointed officials, business men or even tough aggressive and abusive cops figgity or annoyed, too bad.
While it’s great to celebrate developments in your village, it’s also good to know what they cost. While it’s good to praise elected officials for their hard work, it’s also good to know what they’re doing with our tax money, and who’s getting it. It’s important to know when local political hacks intent only on building a self-serving political organization are happily tapping the money spigots supplied primarily by our tax dollars. Cicero voters could have benefited from knowing all the details of what opportunistic vermin like Fast Eddie Vrdolyak were doing to their town before the fact, not after they got the continuing stream of bills for damages.
It’s great to celebrate your police department too- when they deserve it. But it also helps to know if the officers on your department, whose salaries you pay, and whose sometimes juvenile misdeeds you pay for, are acting appropriately or in a manner likely to get the village sued for big bucks. Sexual harassment will do that. So will certain rogue cops who get their ya yas out smacking around prisoners who are already handcuffed. Besides getting the village sued, thugs masquerading as law enforcement professionals, who can’t refrain from “tuning up” prisoners under their control, also risk jeopardizing the legal case against those individuals, regardless of how sleazy and unsympathetic those suspects might be.
Let’s honor the full disclosure principle. A piece written by Valentino in Neighbors was named Winner of a Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. Judges called Valentino’s piece “Etched in Stone,” “a great essay… She turns a cemetery tour into a commentary on life in Chicago.”
Fair enough. But, as if to underscore the fact that she’s no serious journalist, she gets her dates wrong. The award was actually a 2004 Lisagor award, not a 2005, as the mast head announces.
I have no problem with people reading publications like Neighbors. I flip through them myself. But I insist on calling such journalistic cotton candy what it is- spun sugar loaded with empty calories. More substantial newspapers, with all their troubling facts, are the meat and potatoes of public discourse.
So eat the candy if you want, folks. But try not to let it spoil your appetite for a healthy dinner.