DOUBEK: How solid local journalism delivered in Chicago in 2017

SHARE DOUBEK: How solid local journalism delivered in Chicago in 2017
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Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool at a news conference at CPS headquarters announcing his resignation earlier this month. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

It’s that time of year when we’re thinking about gifts: what we gave, what we got, what we wished we had. Allow me a few minutes to tell you about some truly incredible gifts you got this year that you might not have realized you were given.

Some nuclear reactors in Illinois are leaking radioactive water, warnings are being ignored, and there are threats of flooding and backup power problems at nuclear power plants that are being ignored by government safety regulators.

City Colleges of Chicago officials are baking their graduation rates and awarding diplomas through watered-down curriculum or by retroactively awarding them to people who didn’t know they got the degrees or who didn’t want them.

Those are just some of the gifts we got this year from the investigative journalists at the Better Government Association where I work.

OPINION

There’s so much more.

♦ Persistent work by Chicago Sun-Times reporters this year helped show Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool shopped around for an attorney who would claim that the CPS lawyer did not have a conflict of interest in supervising work for CPS conducted by his old law firm that still was paying him severance.

Claypool tried to do an end run around CPS’ inspector general Nicholas Schuler, but, in the end, the cover-up did him in.

♦ Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust, we learned, hasn’t raised any private funding for any public works projects, but it has cost taxpayers more than $5.1 million to pay for employees, offices, consulting fees and more.

♦ A disturbing gift came in the form of some storytelling by WBEZ that showed Illinois officials have responded slowly to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy. Thirteen veterans who fought in our nation’s wars and survived have died in the past three years because of the water-borne disease at the home. Eleven families now are suing the state.

♦ In the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, we continue to learn about problems with discipline in the Chicago Police Department. ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune showed us that 85 percent of the disciplinary cases handled in the past seven years have led to officers getting either shorter suspensions or their punishments tossed altogether.

♦ Those same organizations have shown us that Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ office has overvalued residential properties and undervalued higher-priced ones, thereby hurting low-income residents while giving breaks to the wealthy.

♦ The Tribune also showed us how our water bills are surging and, most significantly that residents in predominantly black and poor suburbs pay far more.

♦ The Daily Herald spent this year examining the stigma of dealing with mental health problems that persist today, along with the challenges military veterans have in getting mental health help when they return from service.

♦ The #MeToo movement shed light on the fact that Illinois has not had a legislative inspector general for three years, while some 27 complaints went uninvestigated and unanswered.

Those are just some of the gifts we all received this year from journalists who frequently are under fire. They persist in an industry shrinking, in part, because too few of us appreciate the dogged work they do daily. They fight the powers that be in our communities. They dig for the information that give us the facts that empower us to demand reforms; that allow us to evaluate our bureaucracies, judge our elected officials and hold them accountable if we choose.

Does it do any good? Claypool is gone, Berrios is feeling the heat. Officials at utilities, schools police buildings, city halls and county buildings have scrambled to respond. State officials scrambled to find a legislative inspector general we should be hearing more from soon. We’ve just begun to hear about the failures at the Quincy veterans’ home.

It’s a safe bet that a great deal of this work came to light through the use of the Freedom of Information Act that requires public officials to share documents about the work they do on our behalf. It’s a law that ought to be as prized and protected as the First Amendment. And it’s one we at the Better Government Association intend to defend and protect in the years to come.

In this year that’s about to expire, too many fine journalists in Illinois lost their jobs. If that continues, at some point, it will hurt each of us and damage our democracy. Perhaps it already has. At our state Capitol, the number of reporters has plummeted from 36 in the late 1970s to only four full-timers today.

As you’re assessing the giving and receiving and returning, might I suggest you consider buying a subscription or donating to a journalism non-profit of your choice to support this important and difficult vocation? The work is a treasure, but it isn’t free.

The reporting kept coming and it will keep coming. The reporting kept teaching us about things we absolutely need to know and should know. In the grand tradition, Illinois journalists continued and will continue to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

The journalism and the journalists are a gift. May we try to value them more.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director at the Better Government Association.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com


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