CNN scrambled Friday to explain why producers of its documentary series, “Chicagoland” worked hand-in-glove with City Hall to help portray Mayor Rahm Emanuel as what an executive producer called, “the star that he really is.”
“The mayor’s office was never granted editorial control over the content or the press communications for Chicagoland,” a CNN spokesperson said.
“And no agency was ever granted authority to offer the mayor’s office editorial approval for the content or the promotional materials for the series.”
More than 700 e-mails exchanged between “Chicagoland” producers and the mayor’s staff — and reviewed by the Chicago Tribune — appear to contradict that statement.
They show producers working closely with the mayor’s staff to identify “DocuSeries characters,” storylines and situations that portray Emanuel as what an executive producer called, “the star that he really is.”
And during the bitter battle over Emanuel’s decision to close 50 Chicago Public Schools, the e-mails show producers pleading for access by offering to “highlight the mayor’s leadership—his ability to balance the need for reform and fiscal reality with compassion for affected communities and concern for the safety” of displaced students.
The CNN spokesperson acknowledged that the e-mails “paint a picture that could be perceived as unflattering,” but added, “How can you make a judgment without having the full context?”
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who squared off with Emanuel over the school closings, said she was interviewed twice by “Chicagoland” producers, but refused to do what they asked.
“They wanted to film some of our strategy sessions and meetings, which I said ‘No’ to. And they wanted me to stage a scene with one of our field reps they followed around, telling him what to do to make their series look better,” Lewis said.
“I have a masters of fine arts specifically in documentaries.You spend a lot of time with your subjects and you make your story from whatever footage you get. Staging scenes is unethical.”
The fact that Emanuel’s staff helped to orchestrate a series that softened the mayor’s image comes as no surprise to Lewis. She expected it, which is why she didn’t watch even one of the eight episodes.
“From the beginning, he has governed by press release. Everything is marketed and spun. That’s who he is. That’s why I didn’t want to participate in it,” Lewis said.
“Clearly, this was done to elevate Rahm Emanuel nationally and to clean up his image. Why are we pretending we didn’t know what this was from the beginning? It’s not about, ‘Shame on you.’ It’s, ‘You got caught.’ “
In an interview Friday with WBEZ-FM, executive producer Marc Levin branded “ridiculous” the suggestion that the e-mails unmask the show as “staged” and a sop for Emanuel.
Both Levin and co-executive producer Mark Benjamin were represented by the Hollywood talent agency owned by Emanuel’s brother, Ari, but not on this project.
“The idea that the producers coordinated with City Hall — that’s what producing is. You coordinate. You don’t just walk into the mayor’s office or into his SUV or into anyplace he is and just start filming. You have to negotiate all of the protocols of doing that. That’s standard operating procedure,” Levin said.
“City Hall and the mayor had absolutely no editorial control over ‘Chicagoland.’ None. They didn’t see it until it [was] shown at the Sundance Film Festival. And when we were shooting outside of City Hall and not with the mayor and … any of his officials, they had no idea what we were doing, where we were and what we were up to. So, this idea that this was staged, that this is some campaign commercial, that it was engineered out of City Hall and Hollywood — it’s just not the truth. In fact, it’s far from the truth.”
Co-writer and narrator Mark Konkol said the e-mail controversy does not diminish the value of the series.
“Last summer, Chicago was in the national spotlight for its violence, for its schools. We took people into those situations with real Chicagoans either dealing with it, fighting against it or being victimized by the trouble. That’s what this show has always been about. Whether there’s controversy about it or not, I don’t want that to get over-shadowed because that’s my heart,” he said.
Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the e-mails reflect poorly on CNN — not on the mayor’s office.
“The problem for CNN was, they had to get access to the mayor to do the film they wanted and the price of that access was at least some degree of spin or supervision of what they would get to see. It undermines the credibility. Documentaries are supposed to give us a true look. Instead, the part that has to do with Rahm is orchestrated. It makes CNN or this production look less worthy,” Simpson said.
“Rahm grew up in the atmosphere of the White House and campaigns, where the whole effort is to control what the media covers. It’s been in all of his training. The end result is trying to manipulate popular support to get re-elected. If people don’t like Rahm, this just confirms why they don’t like him. And if they do like him, they expect it of him.”